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Alternative Culture Magazine

book review

by Renn Butler

The Passion of the Western Mind:
Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View
by Richard Tarnas, PhD (Harmony Books, 1991).


Patriarchy is the 5,000-Year Birth Canal of the Great Mother Goddess

There comes a point in every civilization when it must soften to the emergence of new values, and Richard Tarnas's The Passion of the Western Mind describes the influences leading to this transitional struggle in our contemporary world. He does this with the elegance of epic poetry and the high seriousness of philosophy, presented in an even, accessible style that will appeal to both the interested layperson and the professional scholar. There is a fascinating lucidity in this writing. It has been called a humanities education in one volume, a masterpiece, and the finest treatment ever written on the grand lines of Western culture. Tarnas matches a deep, sustaining vision with impeccable scholarship, balance, and the sheer effort required to create something of world-changing quality.

The Passion covers the long, bittersweet journey of the Western mind from the end of the goddess-worshipping era to the present global crisis. The ancient Greeks, Hellenism, Judao-Christianity, the medieval era, the development and then massive deconstruction of the modern world view, are all impartially approached on their own terms. Tarnas says that the history of a civilization is like a kind of great unconscious. Just as individuals must rediscover their roots, the shaping forces of their past, in order to become more fully free and conscious, so too must a civilization. Tarnas was deeply influenced by the depth psychology of C.G. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Stanislav Grof, and he complements a Harvard academic background with a very credible exploration of his own unconscious. Living for ten years at the Esalen Institute where he was director of programs, these insights were cross-fertilized by many of the most innovative currents of thought in the world.

The deconstruction of "patriarchal, Eurocentric, and anthropocentric assumptions and values," accompanied with the rise and return of feminist, ecological, multicultural, archaic, aboriginal, psychological, and Eastern perspectives have a prominent role in Tarnas' writing. But he seeks also to redeem the heroic-tragic Western history as not merely an "imperialist-chauvinist plot," but as a necessary part of larger evolutionary process. Tarnas is suggesting that the long Western trajectory--from an original "participation mystique" with nature and the Great Mother Goddess, through the rise of patriarchy and science, to the increasing and finally intolerable alienation of modern humanity--may reflect the ordered contractions of a universe struggling to give birth to a new consciousness on this planet. Like the loss of the womb paradise that the infant must suffer through in order to be born as a human and ecstatically reunited with the mother, the disintegration of old structures may be a necessary prelude to an enormous collective rebirth, coming home again to nature, psyche, and the feminine.

The Passion of the Western Mind is already widely used in graduate faculties across North America and has been met with almost universal admiration, as a major cultural watershed. The implications of this writing, and a second volume nearing completion, challenge the old modern and postmodern world views to their very cores, and offer a new and sustaining cosmology, consistent with the holistic vision emerging to us from all sides. Tarnas has bridged between the old world and the new. If you need to renew your faith in our human ability to evolve and overcome this most serious of historical crises, this book will encourage you.

Renn Butler reviews Richard Tarnas: Prometheus the Awakener | Cosmos and Psyche

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