Cosmos and Psyche: Ultimately, Neither Explanatory, Convincing, nor wholly Fascinating

The mission of Cosmos and Psyche is grand. A lot of people drop this book after the first section because they find out that it’s about the ancient discipline of astrology, even though it’s written by a respectable university professor. I am not one of those people. I think even those who are skeptical, or even antagonistic about astrology should be able to respect its historic importance as a tool of medieval doctors, ancient kings, and battlefield tacticians. This book had a different issue for me.

Dr. Richard Tarnas makes a gigantic mistake in couching a potential explanation for astrology in the theory of Carl Jung. Jung is not a respected source. He’s actually viewed with about as much skepticism as astrology, so referencing Jung actually makes his argument worse—especially since Tarnas didn’t justify his use of the controversial psychiatrist at all. Even more unfortunate, the theory that Tarnas cited was synchronicity; easily among the least provable, least evidence-based, and most mystical of Carl Jung’s ideas.

The development of the ideas of archetypes was fascinating though, and I will give credit where credit is due. I never made a connection between Plato’s theory of forms, Kantian categories, and Jungian archetypes. The psychological history was also interesting. The fact that ancient mankind saw the world as a sort of enchanted realm and modern man has relegated all the enchantment to the mind alone, is a fascinating development. His points on Copernicus and Galileo were…factual.

But about a 5th of the way through I realized that, unlike the introduction material, the rest of this book was not going to be well argued or argued at all. We are given Jung, Plato, Copernicus, the Anima Mundi, and that’s it. Somehow, Dr. Tarnas believed that that’s enough to convince the scholarly audience he’s attempted to pitch the book to. Even though I find astrology fascinating I was far from convinced by his approach. The rest of the book, then, has this underlying issue clawing at any other reader such as myself who was not yet convinced.

I am 3 hours from completing this 25 plus hour behemoth of a book and I’m getting a terrific history lesson, but at the end of the day, it really is just a glorified list of events that correlate with planetary alignments. This could have been interesting, we could have tracked the archetypes as they developed across history, almost like a narrative, but instead we get: This is what Neptune and Pluto mean together and here is a list of 50 events that happened during those alignments with some explanation. Then he moves on to the next pair.

Worst of all is that there is a long rich history of studying a certain pair of planets and how their conjunctions correlated with events here on Earth. That is the Saturn Jupiter pattern. Because a lot of scholars, and therefore ancients who wrote history, were aware of astrology enough to know about the 2 slowest visible planets and how they had been studied in relation to world events, this theme crops up quite often in both history and astrology. I would have loved to see Dr. Tarnas latch into this ancient tradition with details, such as how the conjunctions always happen between two signs of the same element, and how after a how after a few centuries it switches to new elements. How ancients used to try and see if this factored in to certain long term epochs. But as far as I can tell from chapter headers of the little of the book I have left, there doesn’t be any discussion of this historical set of alignments, and I’m a little disappointed.

While we’re here, I’ll note that Tarnas primarily focuses on the more newly discovered outer planets, the planets not visible by the naked eye. Curiously he doesn’t bother confirming the meaning of these planets especially not Pluto which he fixates on so heavily. Pluto’s definition, some actual astrologers agree, is incredibly wide and vague. In fact, so is Neptune’s. Tarnas doesn’t explore this issue and therefore there is sort of an issue with his tools. But, I’ll refrain from getting too deep into that discussion, I’ll let this alone suffice.

His critical method seems to be, as further outlined at the beginning of part VIII: To wait until confirmation bias kicks in and finds an answer for any anomalies. This method, he admits does not allow him to make predictions (as a scientific theory is often obligated to do) but rather only to look back and confirm (as a pseudoscientific theory, like my pro-MBTI professor said about that measure, is able to do). This method is essentially backfilling and, once again, it enables confirmation bias. And then, later in the same chapter, he goes on to criticize objective and statistical approaches to astrology, apparently wholly unaware that the Magi Astrology (and the work of David Cochrane M.A.) school is based around exactly that, even going as far as to remove the ascendant and in many cases the moon, since there’s not enough precise hour of birth data to draw substantial conclusions from those points.

So as somebody who’s fascinated by and knows a bit about the history of alignments namely Saturn and Jupiter I was disappointed on pretty much every single front. By the end of this we know that Tarnas is very educated in history, and incredibly good at writing ornately. Too ornately. Fancy prose doesn’t mean much when you’re making an argument. One final criticism is that Tarnas never tries to falsify his argument. he Is never talks about events that happens outside of his theory’s predicted alignment correspondence. What if there is a Saturn-Pluto plague that occurred when Saturn and Pluto weren’t in alignment? Dr. Tarnish never addresses this issue. We have no idea if the data is cherry picked or even to what degree.

I appreciate the effort. I’m not giving this a negative rating but more a neutral rating rating. At the end of the day it is just a huge (explained) list of events with a pretty fascinating introduction. I’m a little hesitant though because a lot of astrologers like that this book tries to frame astrology in a more respectable academic light. But I’m hesitant even to grant it that, because, doing my best to don the scholarly hat, as somebody with a university degree I can tell you it doesn’t really succeed on that front either.

If you want to sort of “trick” academia into entertaining the idea that there’s something worthy of study in this ancient discipline, the best way to do it would be to work with the already existing idea of historical cycles. Establish that different cycles have different flavours. Then, at the end of the book—in an appendix maybe—muse about how they just happened to potentially align with astrological correspondences. Leave the academic reader with this question that steps outside of provible fact only when they’re so invested that they’re about to close the book. Let it grow and linger in their mind. Then, academia would be forced to respond to the the far more substantiated portions of the book, and if you’re lucky some of them will consider the astrological question you planted at the end with some historical seriousness.

3/5. Decent, especially if it’s what you’re looking for. Maybe release the intro with the later “list” matter abridged to 1/20th the length and market it to astrologers.

Please check out the rest of my site, or if you’re interested, another review.

P.S., Here is the chart for when this post was scheduled.

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