The Passion of the Western Mind


The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View, by Richard Tarnas, New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

The present book review is less an evaluation than a testimony. I have nothing to evaluate in regard of the brilliance of this book and its author. It is one of the best and most fascinating books I have read in my entire life. It is a must-read for any intellectual around the world.

This being said, this current review is intended to provide the potential reader with quotes from the text that are going to show by themselves the quality of this book, the depth of the research the author did, and the brilliant diction in which it is written.

The author first explains how the book is grossly structured:

The following narrative is organized chronologically according to the three world views associated with the three major eras that have traditionally been distinguished in Western cultural history—the classical, the medieval, and the modern. /1

He then starts the narrative with ‘The Greek World View.’

To approach what was distinctive in a vision as complex and protean as that of the Greeks, let us begin by examining one of its most striking characteristics—a sustained, highly diversified tendency to interpret the world in terms of archetypal principles. /3

I was quite surprised reading this, and of course thought right away of Carl Jung, who is claimed to be the ‘inventor’ of the theory of ‘archetypes of the collective unconscious.’ Well, this would be highly misleading as a statement, but it would likewise be misleading to attribute the theory of archetypes solely to Plato. In Tarnas’ holistic view of history, it was the entire Greek culture that was the ‘inventor’ and more so, the promoter, of a world view based on archetypes.

More specifically regarding Plato, the author then explains:

Platonic Forms are not conceptual abstractions that the human mind creates by generalizing from a class of particulars. Rather, they possess a quality of being, a degree of reality, that is superior to that of the concrete world. Platonic archetypes form the world and also stand beyond it. They manifest themselves within time and yet are timeless. They constitute the veiled essence of things. /6

It is very important to understand that Plato based his idea of forms on an acute sense of the mathematical structure of the universe, an idea that we find especially promoted by Pythagoras. More generally put, Plato’s concept of ‘ideas’ or ‘ideal forms’ is based upon the  assumption that the universe is a perfect creation. The author writes:

Platonic Ideas are objective. They do not depend on human thought, but exist entirely in their own right. They are perfect patterns embedded in the very nature of things. The Platonic Idea is, as it were, not merely a human idea but the universe’s idea, an ideal entity that can express itself externally in concrete tangible form or internally as a concept in the human mind. It is a primordial image or formal essence that can manifest in various ways and on various levels, and is the foundation of reality itself. (…) The paradigmatic example of Ideas for Plato was mathematics. (…) /10

In Plato’s understanding, circles, triangles, and numbers are not merely formal or quantitative structures imposed by the human mind on natural phenomena, nor are they only mechanically present in phenomena as a brute fact of their concrete being. Rather, they are numinous and transcendent entities, existing independently of both the phenomena they order and the human mind that perceives them. While the concrete phenomena are transient and imperfect, the mathematical Ideas ordering those phenomena are perfect, eternal, and changeless. Hence the basic Platonic belief—that there exists a deeper, timeless order of absolutes behind the surface confusion and randomness of the temporal world—found in mathematics, it was thought, a particularly graphic demonstration. /11

The metaphysical expression of that mathematical universe was in Greek thought the world of the Gods. And regarding the human sphere and human motivations, Erós, the god of love, was thought to be the main motivating agent. The author writes:

Eros is discussed as the preeminent force in human motivations. In a fine succession of elegantly dialectical speeches, the several participants in Plato’s philosophical drinking party describe Eros as a complex and multidimensional archetype which at the physical level expresses itself in the sexual instinct, but at higher levels the philosopher’s passion for intellectual  beauty and wisdom, and culminates in the mystical vision of the eternal, the ultimate source of all beauty. /13-14

As I quote here only passages that I have marked when reading the book for the first time—while I have decided to read the book a second time, and will surely provide more quotes, after that—we are jumping now right away to ‘The Transformation of the Modern Era’ and specifically to the sub-chapter ‘Attempted Synthesis: From Goethe and Hegel to Jung. The author writes:

Drawing on classical Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism, and German Romanticism to construct his all-encompassing system, Hegel set forth a conception of reality that sought to relate and unify man and nature, spirit and matter, human and divine, time and eternity. At the foundation of Hegel’s thought was his understanding of dialectic, according to which all things unfold in a continuing evolutionary process whereby every state of being inevitably brings forth its opposite. The interaction between these opposites then generates a third stage in which  the opposites are integrated—they are at once overcome and fulfilled—in a richer and higher synthesis, which in turn becomes the basis for another dialectical process of opposition and synthesis. Through philosophy’s comprehension of this fundamental process, Hegel asserted, every aspect of reality—human thought, history, nature, the divine reality itself—could be made intelligible. (…) For Hegel, all opposites are logically necessary and mutually implicated elements in a larger truth. Truth is thus radically paradoxical. /379

—I have myself worked through the Hegelian scheme of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in order to explain all of human history from an eagle’s perspective, in my book ‘Natural Order: Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis in Human Evolution’ (Essays on Law Policy and Psychiatry, Vol. 6, 2018).

Thus the movement of knowledge evolves from consciousness of the object separate from the subject, to absolute knowledge in which the knower and the known became one.

Finally, in the last chapter entitled ‘The Postmodern Mind,’ the author makes one of the book’s most important statements, evaluating the eagle’s flight the book has taken from a value perspective:

The Western mind’s overriding compulsion to impose some form of totalizing reason—theological, scientific, economic—on every aspect of life is accused of being not only self-deceptive but destructive. Spurred by these and other, related factors, postmodern critical thought has encouraged a vigorous rejection of the entire Western intellectual ‘canon’ as long defined and privileged by a more or less exclusively male, white, European elite. Received truths concerning ‘man,’ reason,’ civilization,’ and ‘progress’ are indicted as intellectually and morally corrupt. Under the cloak of Western values, too many sins have been committed. Disenchanted eyes are now cast onto the West’s long history of ruthless expansionism and exploitation—the rapacity of its elites from ancient times to modern, its systematic thriving at the expense of others, its colonialism and imperialism, its slavery and genocide, its anti-Semitism, its oppression of women, people of color, minorities, homosexuals, the working classes, the poor, its destruction of indigenous societies throughout the world, its arrogant insensitivity to other cultural traditions and values, its cruel abuse of other forms of life, its blind ravaging of virtually the entire planet. /400

In the Epilogue, then, the author writes about what he calls ‘The Post-Copernican Double Bind’ and evaluates Cartesian science and the Newtonian worldview, and how far we today have evolved in systemic and holistic science since then:

In the same way, Descartes’s schism between the personal and the conscious human subject and the impersonal and unconscious material universe was systematically ratified and augmented by the long procession of subsequent scientific developments, from Newtonian physics all the way to contemporary big-bang cosmology, black holes, quarks, W and Z particles, and grand unified superforce theories. The world revealed by modern science has been a world devoid of spiritual purpose, opaque, ruled by chance and necessity, without intrinsic meaning. The human soul has not felt at home in the modern cosmos: the soul can hold dear its poetry and its music, its private metaphysics and religion, but these find no certain foundation in the empirical universe. (…) Thus the cosmological estrangement of modern consciousness initiated by Copernicus and the ontological estrangement initiated by Descartes were completed by the epistemological estrangement initiated by Kant: a threefold mutually enforced prison of modern alienation. /418-419

In the following sub-chapter ‘Knowledge and the Unconscious,’ the author writes further on the subject of his critique of Cartesian science:

The human mind has abstracted from the whole all conscious intelligence and purpose and meaning, and claimed these exclusively for itself, and then projected onto the world a machine. As Rupert Sheldrake has pointed out, this is the ultimate anthropomorphic projection: a man-made machine, something not in fact ever found in nature. From this perspective, it is the modern mind’s own impersonal soullessness that has been projected from within onto the world—or, to be more precise, that has been projectively elicited from the world. /432

Finally, in the last sub-chapter of the Epilogue, entitled ‘The Evolution of World Views,’ the author draws some last and most synthetic summary conclusions that bravely, and competently, bring the book to its end:

All of this suggests that another, more sophisticated and comprehensive epistemological perspective is called for. Although the Cartesian-Kantian epistemological position has been the dominant paradigm of the modern mind, it has not been the only one, for at almost precisely the same time that the Enlightenment reached its philosophical climax in Kant, a radically different epistemological perspective began to emerge—first visible in Goethe with his study of natural forms, developed in new directions by Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson, and articulated within the past century by Rudolf Steiner. Each of these thinkers 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 not dualistic but participatory. /433

I will finalize this book review with three last quotes on the subject of the participatory epistemological perspective that is today accepted in all arts and sciences as the reigning paradigm of how we approach nature and how we see nature imbedded in a responsive and ever-unfolding universe. In molecular biology, in particular, this paradigm has found vivid expression through the ‘Santiago Theory of Cognition.’

—See, for example, Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, Part III: A New Conception of Life, Chapter 12: Mind and Consciousness.

Rather, nature’s unfolding truth emerges only with the active participation of the human mind. Nature’s reality is not merely phenomenal, nor is it independent and objective; rather, it is something that comes into being through the very act of human cognition. 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. And it is only when the human mind actively brings forth from within itself the full powers of a disciplined imagination and saturates its empirical observation with archetypal insight that the deeper reality of the world emerges. A developed inner life is therefore indispensable for cognition. /434

And further …

This participatory epistemology, developed in different ways by Goethe, Hegel, Steiner, and others, can be understood not as a regression to naive participation mystique, but as a dialectical synthesis of the long evolution from the primordial undifferentiated consciousness through the dualistic alienation. It incorporates the postmodern understanding of knowledge and yet goes beyond it. The interpretive and constructive character of human cognition is fully acknowledged, but the intimate, interpenetrating and all-permeating relationship of nature to the human being and human mind allows the Kantian consequence of epistemological alienation to be entirely overcome. /434-435

And finally …

Such a perspective suggests of course that the Cartesian-Kantian paradigm, and thus the epistemologically enforced double-bind of modern consciousness, is not absolute. But if we take this participatory epistemology, and if we combine it with Grof’s discovery of the perinatal sequence and its underlying archetypal dialectic, then a more surprising conclusion is suggested: namely, that the Cartesian-Kantian paradigm, and indeed the entire trajectory into alienation taken by the modern mind, has not been simply an error, an unfortunately human aberration, a mere manifestation of human blindness, but has rather reflected a much deeper archetypal process impelled by forces beyond the merely human. For in this view, the powerful contraction of vision experienced by the modern mind has itself been an authentic expression of nature’s unfolding, a process enacted through the growingly autonomous human intellect, and now reaching a highly critical stage of transfiguration. /435


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