Richard Tarnas is a Swiss-born, Harvard Educated, Esalen Alumni and professor of philosophy and psychology at the California Institute for Integral Studies, and is also the founding director of its graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness. He is also the author of the best-selling Passion of the Western Mind.
But for 30 years, Tarnas has kept a [sort of] secret. He dabbles in astrology. Now Tarnas has written a new book about astrology; Cosmos and Psyche, published earlier this year. Apparently, it took Tarnas over 10 years to write this enormous (569 pages inc. notes) book, following a fair amount of anticipation for it in the “astro-world” (where his secret wasn’t such a big secret) prior to its publication, which included a lengthy pre-publication interview in the Mountain Astrologer Magazine in late 2005.
So when I stumbled over it this past February on the Barnes and Noble new non-fiction display shelf, I immediately bought it, and began to read it with a great deal of excitement. Subtitled, Intimations of a New World View and based, Tarnas claims, upon 30 years* of research, it strives to address what he calls “the profound metaphysical disorientation and groundlessness that pervades contemporary human experience” by suggesting a “new metanarrative that transcends separate cultures and subcultures, an encompassing pattern of meaning that could give to collective human existence a nourishing coherence and intelligibility.”
That meta-narrative, as he calls it, is astrology. But it was a very strange thing to be reading through the first two chapters, knowing he was talking about astrology (as astrologers had been buzzing about Tarnas’ new “astrology” book for years!), and also knowing that he knew he was talking about astrology – and finding that, not once, does he actually write the word “astrology” until he reaches page 61, and then after that, it appears, it seems, as rarely as possible (preferring instead synonyms like “planetary correlations” and “archetypally significant.”) In fact, it is also worth noting that Tarnas appears to have taken great care to see that the word “astrology” is never mentioned on the book jacket or in the Table of Contents and as infrequently as possible in the Index.
The reviews posted on his web site and at Amazon.com have been, almost without exception, filled with ecstatic praise, particularly from astrologers with names: “a masterpiece,” “deserving of a constellation of stars,” “A Scientific Triumph,” “Revolutionary,” “Visionary” and so on. As Jeff Jawer of StarIQ enthuses:
This is the most important book about astrology in decades (maybe centuries). It’s no exaggeration to describe this as a breakthrough that will surely heighten awareness of humanity’s connection with the cosmos. Richard Tarnas’ protean intellect and lucid prose rewards the reader on every page. This is a shot across the bow of academics who have failed to include astrology in their understanding of our culture.
Most important? I gotta say, I just don’t get how he can say this. In fact, I don’t think I have ever been so profoundly disappointed in a book. Not only is it intellectually lazy and unoriginal, it is – at a deep level –profoundly dishonest. While, Tarnas is hailed in the Amazon.com reviews and on the book jacket as a rigrous scholar I was appalled to discover, early on, in the first two chapters, how phenomenally ignorant he is regarding the history of astrology itself –- and its practice — particularly considering that he is a actually a trained historian. Additionally, his astrology — that which demonstrates — is sloppy, rigid, and yes deterministic (more on that to follow).
Dave at astroamerica.com gets right at the heart of one the book’s central problems:
What this book is, or appears to be, is a rather flabby exposition of mundane astrology. The author has related seminal world events to outer planet conjunctions. Or, to be precise, his selection of world events. In this book, the Paris student uprising of 1968 – which in hindsight seems only to have led to the downfall of Charles de Gaulle – is vastly more important than the American war in Vietnam, which is hardly mentioned.
As mundane astrology, how is the book? Only fair. If I were his teacher & I was handing out grades, Tarnas would get a C. Like many books of its sort, the footnotes make better reading than the main text. Tarnas hangs all his big events on not-so-big, not so rare aspects, for the most part. Not for nothing mundane astrologers use signs, ingress charts & much else in their work. He claims that never before has anyone used “archetypes” in mundane work, which I suppose is true, but hardly something to brag about.
Exactly, with the exception on the last point on which Dave is wrong (but then again, Dave has an ax to grind with words like archetypal which he does not like or understand). Charles Harvey, one of the 20th century’s most prominent and well-respected mundane astrologers — and with whom Tarnas corresponded for many years — used the term frequently when speaking, teaching and writing about mundane astrology. Michael Baigent uses and defines “archetype” in Mundane Astrology (pub. 1984). There are many many other documented instances.
I am not going to spend too much time, here, critiquing his approach to planetary cycles, except to make two brief points:
1) Tarnas did not “invent” or “discover” (as he seems to imply) the concept of working with the cyclic relationship of planetary pairs to understand the “archetypal significance” of historical time periods. Astrologers have always understood time from both a linear and a cyclical perspective, as well as symbolic (more on this point later). In fact, cyclic time is an very old idea that is deeply rooted in the astrological tradition, going back (at least) to Islamic astrologer Abu Mashar and perhaps originally arising in the context of a now-lost Persian tradition (see Nick Campion, Holden, Baigent/Campion/Harvey, Whifield).
2) Tarnas mentions only once the work of his close friend, the late Charles Harvey — who worked extensively with a cyclic approach to astrology. Nor does he properly cite the work of Rob Hand, Andre Barbault (who had an enormous influence on both C.G. Jung and Charles Harvey), Dane Rudyar, Charles Carter, or Nick Campion, to name just a few of the many astrologers who have done extensive work with planetary cycles and mundane astrology. In fact, this gets to the heart of one of the book’s central faults, the constant and repeated use of phrases like, “I found,” “I discerned,” and “my research shows,” when in fact there is really little — if anything which is truly original in Tarnas’ this book (with one exception, which is the use of preposterously wide orbs).
*30 years of research: In the endnotes, Tarnas provides a list of books of which he claims to have made a careful study of. These include books by Alan Leo (who only wrote about natal astrology), Dane Rudyar (The Astrology of Personality – not one of Rudyar’s books on mundane astrology), C.E.O Carter (Principles of Astrology – again, not one of Carter’s books on mundane astrology), Reinhold Ebertin (COSI – a midpoint cookbook, Tarnas does not use midpoints as a technique in his analysis), and so forth. In fact he lists only one mundane work and that is Mundane Astrology by Baigent, Campion and Harvey and it was published in 1984, closer to 20 years ago than 30. So either he is lying about the amount of time he spent studying mundane astrology or he is trying to hide the influence of people like Dane Rudyar(who worked extensively with cycles). I will have more to say about the significance of books he did not either read or admit to reading.