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The world is said to have been built on ideas, that which has so far
shaped our conception of it. The Western mode of thinking and doing
things has evolved through the ages bringing it to where it now stands.
The book ‘Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that
have Shaped our World’ by Richard Tarnas aims at producing a
chronological narratives of how ideas and thought have evolved in the
Western world through time especially in the history of philosophy
and how also these thought and ideas have changed the world and it’s
still undergoing some transformation. Tarnas approaches this history
from a chronological dimension beginning with the ancient Greek
period down to contemporary time. He believes it is the task of every
generation to examine the ideas that have helped shaped its
understanding of it.
The foundation of Greek philosophical thinking was the quest to
understand the nature of the cosmos up until the time of the Athenian,
the Greek tended to view the world through archetypal forms but a
more profound refection about this archetype transformed into an
intellectual dimension.
The Greeks believed that the universe was ordered by a plurality of
timeless essences which underlay concrete reality giving it form and
meaning. That is things were always in cosmic opposites (e.g. male
and female, good and evil e.t.c.) bringing us to the idea of constant
flux and that there could yet be distinguished specific immutable
structure or essences that could be enduring and believed to possess
an independent reality of their own. It was on this that Plato based his
metaphysics and theory of knowledge. Plato’s perspective now
happens to be the starting point and foundation for the evolution of
the western mind.
The Archetypal Forms
Platonism as it’s commonly understood revolves around the cardinal
doctrine of ideas or forms. Plato’s conception of form is not actually
conceptual abstract thoughts created by the mind but their derivates in
concrete reality. Reality possesses a quality and degree of being. For
example, to say something is beautiful means that thing possesses a
quality of beauty in it. In other words, the/that object of beauty
participates in the absolute form of beauty. Some critics of Plato have
said they can only see things as they exist not as they are (they can
perceive particulars and not ideas) but Plato says a person has to have
gotten the notion of idea/forms before actually knowing that which is
operandi of the Judeo-Christian deity ill fitted the real world
discovered by science as the process of salvation was now seen as a
matter of personal relationship between God and man. The “leap of
faith” not the self-evidence of the created world or the objective
authority of the scriptures, constituted the principal base for religious
Even though Christianity now assumed a new and far less
encompassing intellectual role, the Christian moral teaching and
ethical precepts was quite relevant and was closely been followed still
and upheld even by agnostics and atheist but the Christian revelation
as a whole could not be taken seriously as there was an increasing
doubt about her metaphysical and religious claims.
In the eyes of some scientist and philosophers, science contained
some religious meaning or was open to some religious interpretations
or could serve as an opening to a religious appreciation of the
universe while for some, the entire scenario of cosmic evolution
seemed explicable as a direct consequence of chance and necessity the
random interplay of natural laws. In the light of this, any apparent
religious implications had to be judged as poetic but scientifically
unjustifiable extrapolations from available evidence. God was an
“unnecessary hypothesis.”
Philosophy, Politics, Psychology
Philosophy underwent some development during these centuries and
gradually took on the cloak of secularization. Religion continued to
hold its own amongst philosophers but was already being transformed
by the character of the scientific mind. Voltaire argued in favor of
“rational religion” or a “natural religion” as against the traditional
biblical Christianity since what was been sought was the requirement
for a universal cause.
The need to affirm God’s existence now took a rational course as most
philosophers of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment believed
that the knowledge of God could be got through reason and not faith
as in the case of Descartes and Locke while Hume and Kant said
reason could not be definitely sustained. The inevitable and proper
outcome of both empiricism and critical philosophy was to eliminate
any theological substrate from modern philosophy since no justifiable
assertions about God, the soul’s immortality and freedom could
transcend concrete experience.
At the same time, the bolder thinkers of French Enlightenment
increasingly tended towards skepticism and atheistic materialism as
the most intellectually justifiable consequence of the scientific
discoveries. Such thinkers include Diderot, chief editor of the
encyclopedia; La Mattrie, the physician; Baron d’ Holbach, the
physicist. Atheism was necessary to destroy the chimeras of religious
fantasy that endangered the human race. Man needed to be brought
back to nature, experience and reason.
The secular progression of the Enlightenment reached its logical
conclusion in the nineteenth century as Comte, Mill, Feuerbach,
Marx, Haeckel, Spencer, Huxley, and in somewhat different spirit,
Nietzsche all sounded the death knell of traditional religion. For them,
God was man’s own creation which in turn necessarily dwindled with
man’s modern maturation. By the late nineteenth century, the
philosophical relationship between Christian belief and human
rationality had grown ever more attenuated with few exceptions, that
relation was effectively absent.
The following non-epistemological factors – political, social,
economic, psychological – were also pressing towards the
secularization of the modern mind and its disintegration from
religious belief. In the area of politics, power was centered on the
Feudal Lords and the Church’s hierarchical structure and by the
eighteenth century, that association had become mutually
disadvantageous. The French philosophes – Voltaire, Diderot
Condorcet – and their successor among the French revolutionaries
viewed the Church as an obstacle to the process of civilization
because of its vast wealth and allegiance to the regime.
Yet the Swiss born Jean-Jacque Rousseau saw things differently. For
him, the celebration of reason also negates the actual nature of the
human person because embodied in a person is the ability to feel,
intuition and spiritual hunger which transcends all abstract formulae.
Though he does not believe in the organized churches and clergy
because even Christianity notoriously disagrees on what was the
exclusively correct form of worship. He therefore advocates ‘theism’
of the heart – reverent awe before the cosmos, the joy of meditative
solitude, the direct intuition of the moral conscience, and the natural
spontaneity of human compassion. Rousseau used the combination of
the religiosity of the orthodox Christians and the rationality of the
reformist to arrive at his conclusion but he inadvertently gave a new
impulse and dimension to how religion came to be viewed in the
Enlightenment era which initiated a spiritual current in Western
culture that would first lead to Romanticism and eventually to the
existentialism of later age.
Karl Marx in the nineteenth century subjected organized religion and
religious impulse to a socio-political critique. He believes religion
serves only the needs of the ruling class and does not aid the poor in
its plight. He then advocates that for the society to develop, the human
person must rid itself of religious delusions. Liberalist advocated that
organized religion’s influence on political and intellectual life be
reduced and argued for a pluralism accommodating the broadest
freedom of belief consonant in with social order. Religion became
tolerated but metamorphosed into religious indifference as it was no
longer mandatory in Western society to be a Christian, and
coincidentally with this new freedom, few persons found Christian
belief system intrinsically compelling or satisfying and the
contemporary age seemed to be offered more cogent programs and
activity than the traditional religions.
The Christian churches also contributed to their own decline; for the
Roman Catholic Church, its counter-reformation response to
protestant heresy and its unresponsiveness to any changes necessitated
by the evolution of the modern era. The protestant churches sole
reliability on the literal interpretation of the scriptures also left its
members susceptible to the scientific discoveries that were antithetical
to the sacred scriptures and the influence of the modern age.
Christianity now experienced itself not only as a divided church but as
a shrinking one, dwindling away before the ever-widening and ever-
deepening onslaught of secularism. All religions seemed to have one
thing in common, a fading precious truth than dispute. Nevertheless,
the Judeo-Christian tradition sustained itself as many families still
continued to nurture their children in the tenets and images of their
inherited faith. The Catholic Church began to open itself to modernity
and churches in general moved to embrace wider congregations by
making their structures and doctrines more relevant to the challenges
of modern existence.
Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced “the death of God” because for him,
the death of God signified not just the recognition of a religious
illusion but that of an entire civilization’s world view that for too long
had held man back from daring, liberating embrace of life’s totality.
With Freud, religion became evaluated by the psychological
disposition of the human person. In the light of this, Judeo-Christian
God came to be seen as a psychological pl forms which developed in
new directions by Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson,
and articulated within the past century by Rudolf Steiner. Each thinker
gave his own distinct emphasis to the developing perspective, but
common to all was a fundamental conviction that the relation of the
human mind to the world was ultimately no dualistic but participatory.
This conception did not oppose the Kantian epistemology but rather
went beyond it and in a way acknowledged the validity of Kant’s
critical insight, but held the concept of participation are subjective
principles that are in fact an expression of the world’s own being, and
that the human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own
process of self-revelation. That is nature becomes intelligible to itself
through the human mind.
In this perspective, nature pervades everything and the human mind in
all its fullness is itself an expression of nature’s essential being. This
gives room to imagination as it also becomes an essential tool. The
human imagination is itself part of the world’s intrinsic truth; without
it the world is in some sense incomplete.
If we take the participatory epistemology, and if combined with
Grof’s discovery of the perinatal sequence, we would arrive at a
surprising conclusion: namely that the Cartesian-Kantian paradigm
reflects much deeper archetypal process impelled by forces beyond
the merely human. And if this is true, several long-standing
philosophical paradoxes may be cleared up.
The works of Popper, Kuhn and Feyeraband has left philosophers of
science with two notoriously fundamental dilemmas – one by Popper,
the other by Kuhn and Feyeraband. For Popper it was the question of
luck while Kuhn it was the question of the differing modes of
interpretation and Feyeraband own question was how and why do we
judge the superiority of a paradigm over another?
Tarnas answers the question by saying that a paradigm emerges in the
history of science. One paradigm is considered superior, precisely
when that paradigm resonates with the current archetypal state of the
collective psyche and when this paradigm begins to experience
limitations or gets into crisis, a genius puts forth another that becomes
relevant to that situation and time and also inadvertently becomes
superior to the previous one(s). This is the dynamics that marks the
progress in the pursuit of knowledge and is also the case with human
thought, and the emergence of new philosophical paradigms is never
simply the result of improved logical reasoning from the observed
data but a reflection of the emergence of a global experiential gestalt
that informs that philosophers vision taking into consideration every
context that surrounds the philosopher.
One could then say that every new worldview’s appearance rest on the
underlying archetypal dynamics of the larger culture. From the
foregoing, we can recognize a multiplicity of these archetypal
sequences, with each scientific revolution, each change of worldview
culminating in our eyes. In this light, we can better understand the
great epistemological journey of the western mind from the birth of
philosophy out of mythological consciousness in ancient Greece,
through the classical, medieval and modern eras, to our own post
modern age.
Bringing it all Back Home
The history of the Western mind rightly from the start to finish is
simply dominated by men. This does not mean that women were less
intelligible but the western intellectual traditions had been produced
and canonized almost entirely by men, and informed mainly by male
perspective. The western mind in its evolution had repressed its
feminine aspect thereby creating a denial of this aspect of nature and
thus, the Western mind has been pounded on this progressive denial.
This separation calls forth a longing for a reunion with that which has
been lost but now, there is the tremendous emergence of the feminine
in our culture: visible not only in the rise of feminism, growing
empowerment of women and other areas but in the increasing sense of
unity with the planet and all forms of nature on it and in deepening
recognition of the value of partnership, pluralism and the interplay of
perspectives. As Jung prophesied, an epochal shift is taking place in
the cotemporary psyche, reconciliation between the two great
polarities, a union of opposites: a sacred marriage between the long-
dominant but non alienated masculine and the long-suppressed but not
ascending feminine.
This dramatic development is not just compensation. The teleos of
inner direction and goal, of the Western mind has been to reconnect
with the cosmos in a mature participation mystique, to surrender itself
freely and unconsciously in the embrace of a larger unity that
preserves human autonomy while transcending human alienation. But
for re-integration of the repressed feminine to be achieved, the
Western mind must be willing to open itself to a reality the nature of
which could shatter its most established belief about itself and about
the world. The feminine side then becomes not that which must be
controlled, denied, exploited, but rather fully acknowledged,
respected, and responded to for itself. It is recognized: not the
objectified ‘other’ but rather source, goal and immanent presence.
For Tarnas, he believes that the western mind has been slowly
preparing itself to meet for its entire existence. He considers that
much of the conflict and confusion of our own era reflects the fact that
this evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climatic stages. For
our time is struggling to bring forth something fundamentally new in
human history. Perhaps the end of “man” himself is at hand. But man
is not a goal. Man is something that must be overcome – and fulfilled,
in the embrace of the feminine.