Pluto and the Underworld of Scientific Knowledge Production

A Slovakian visual artist, András Cséfalvay, recently invited me to submit a video for inclusion in his upcoming exhibition in Prague focused on the cultural significance of Pluto (my video is embedded below). Back in 2006, Pluto was demoted from its planetary status by the International Astronomical Union. Following the flyby of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015, the scientific and popular controversy over Pluto’s classification was reignited in part because Pluto proved to be more lively (i.e., geologically active) than astronomers had assumed.

Shortly after I accepted Cséfalvay’s invitation, a group of planetary scientists led by Philip Metzger (a physicist at my alma mater the University of Central Florida) published a paper that wades right into the center of the conflict. According to Metzger, “The IAU definition would say that the fundamental object of planetary science, the planet, is supposed to be defined on the basis of a concept that nobody [no planetary scientist] uses in their research.”

Pluto finds itself caught in the middle of a clash of paradigms: many (not all*) astronomers stand on one side arguing that the defining characteristic of a planet is that it clears its own orbit of other objects (Pluto does not), while on the other side planetologists like Metzger classify planets based on their spherical shape.

Metzger explains: “It turns out [sphericality] is an important milestone in the evolution of a planetary body, because apparently when it happens, it initiates active geology in the body.”

Metzger goes on to say that the IAU definition is too sloppy, since if taken literally, there would be no planets at all in our solar system (none of the bodies orbiting our Sun fully clears its own orbit).

So what is Pluto? Scientifically speaking, I think the planetary scientists have come up with a better classificatory scheme. As a process thinker, I agree with them that the best way to understand the essence of a planet is in terms of its evolutionary history. But my interest in this debate is more philosophical. I think about this controversy in the context of an interplay between the ontologies of multiple paradigms. For astronomers, Pluto is a mere “dwarf planet”; for planetologists, Pluto is a geologically active planet; and for astrologers, Pluto is Hades, Lord of the Underworld, the archetypal power of death and rebirth.

Inferno Giovanni da Modena
Giovanni da Modena’s 1409 fresco “The Inferno” depicting Dante’s vision of Hell.

Having been influenced by the work of Bruno Latour (in this case, see especially An Inquiry into Modes of Existence), I see the philosopher’s role as akin to that of a diplomat. I ask: is it possible to translate between a plurality of paradigms and to avoid the need to collapse our view of Pluto into Newton’s single vision? Can Pluto be a telescopically-enhanced point of light in the sky, a geologically active planetary body, and King of Hell all at once?

I also think about this debate as it relates the transcendental conditions of knowledge. For Kant, a table of twelve categories and our fixed intuitions of space and time delimits what we can know. The mind structures a priori everything we are capable of knowing about Nature. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union acted as a sort of institutionalized enforcer of transcendental limits, establishing the classificatory rules that the rest of the community of knowledge producing scientists is supposed to obey. Archetypal astrologers transmute the transcendental approach even more radically, replacing Kant’s twelve categories with the ten planetary archetypes (the Sun and Moon are included along with Mercury through Pluto). These cosmically incarnate archetypal powers condition each individual knower, stamping each of us with a unique planetary signature at the moment of our emergence from the womb. The participatory epistemology underlying the archetypal cosmological paradigm implies new conditions of experiential access to reality. Our knowing is mediated not just by mental categories, but by archetypal powers inhabiting Nature as much as mind.

Metzger’s et al.’s recent scientific paper is titled “The Reclassification of Asteroids from Planets to Non-Planets.” Here’s the abstract:

It is often claimed that asteroids’ sharing of orbits is the reason they were re-classified from planets to non-planets. A critical review of the literature from the 19th Century to the present shows this is factually incorrect. The literature shows the term asteroid was broadly recognized as a subset of planet for 150 years. On-going discovery of asteroids resulted in a de facto stretching of the concept of planet to include the ever-smaller bodies. Scientists found utility in this taxonomic identification as it provided categories needed to argue for the leading hypothesis of planet formation, Laplace’s nebular hypothesis. In the 1950s, developments in planet formation theory found it no longer useful to maintain taxonomic identification between asteroids and planets, Ceres being the primary exception. At approximately the same time, there was a flood of publications on the geophysical nature of asteroids showing them to be geophysically different than the large planets. This is when the terminology in asteroid publications calling them planets abruptly plunged from a high level of usage where it had hovered during the period 1801 – 1957 to a low level that held constant thereafter. This marks the point where the community effectively formed consensus that asteroids should be taxonomically distinct from planets. The evidence demonstrates this consensus formed on the basis of geophysical differences between asteroids and planets, not the sharing of orbits. We suggest attempts to build consensus around planetary taxonomy not rely on the non-scientific process of voting, but rather through precedent set in scientific literature and discourse, by which perspectives evolve with additional observations and information, just as they did in the case of asteroids.

It struck me that this line of inquiry may have profound implications for the future of astrological theory and practice, specifically the way we understand the difference between the ten planetary archetypes and the indefinite number of asteroidal archetypes. Does the unique geophysical history underlying planet formation correlate with a uniquely potent and living archetypal signature (that of a planetary god or goddess), such that astroids and dwarf planets (i.e., non-spherical bodies) must be treated more as underdeveloped demigods or shattered spirits? My limited exposure to astrologers who foreground asteroids suggests they would bristle at the idea of them being less archetypally significant than planets.

Or, if Pluto is a dwarf planet or an asteroid, perhaps that says something profound about the evolutionary power of these chaotically orbiting fragments of rock and ice. They are reminders of the violent history of our solar system, of the fact that tremendous destruction (i.e., an entire eon composed of nothing but mega-collisions between orbiting bodies, appropriately referred to by geologists as the Hadean) prepares the way for the miraculous emergence of more or less orderly living worlds.

In any event, this whole dispute between astronomers and planetary scientists about the status of Pluto has me wondering what experts in a third and for too long marginalized paradigm, astrology, can contribute to the conversation.

Here’s the video I submitted to Cséfalvay for his Prague exhibition:


*For example, Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, the Chair of the IAU committee that voted to demote Pluto, disagreed with his own committee on this issue.

The Spirit of Integral Poetry: “Waring” the Symbolism of Organism

The Spirit of Integral Poetry:

“Waring” the Symbolism of Organism


In the preface of his magisterial account of the evolution of consciousness, The Ever-Present Origin (1985), Jean Gebser warns of a crisis “of decisive finality for life on earth and for humanity,” a spiritual crisis heralding the end of the deficient mentality of the present age and the coming of an entirely transformed constellation of consciousness.1 Although his research points to manifestations of this new integral constellation of consciousness in a variety of disciplines–including mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, jurisprudence, sociology, economics, music, architecture, and painting–Gebser highlights poetry in particular as necessarily at the forefront of his inquiry. An inquiry into the nature of poetry, past and present, “is the most instructive means for disclosing the respective consciousness structure.”2 Gebser quotes Alfred North Whitehead in support of such an inquiry, who suggests that “the most concrete outlook of humanity receives its expression” in poetry, and that it is to poetry that we must look “if we hope to discover the inward thoughts of a generation.”3

Poetry is the linguistically shaped and structured statement, by the human spirit, of a power rooted in the “primal depths of the universe.”4 Poetic statement, according to Gebser, is today under a new obligation to render origin perceptible to human awareness. Integral poetry, unlike its mythic and mental forerunners, cannot merely order the soul by contemplating the Muses, it must now raise humanity to the “order of the spirit.”5 Spirit, according to Valéry (whose poetry is cited by Gebser as an inception of the integral constellation) is not a “metaphysical entity,” but a “power of transformation.”6 The creative power of spirit, which is humanity’s consciousness of origin, cannot be captured by the dead prose of reflective thought. Spirit is alive and effective only in the transparency of poetic statements.

Though Gebser draws on Ernst Cassirer’s research into mythic consciousness several times in The Ever-Present Origin, he ultimately finds his thinking one-sided, “indirectly [affording] more insight into rational…than into…mythical thinking.”7 Keeping Gebser’s criticism in mind, Cassirer’s perspective on the symbolic form of language is nonetheless instructive. Summarizing the Romantic philosophies of Herder, Schelling, and W. von Humboldt, Cassirer writes:

“…the essence of language never resides in those elements isolated by abstraction and analysis, but solely in the spirit’s eternally repeated endeavor to make the articulated sound an expression of thought.”8

This conception of language as a holistic activity or process, rather than an isolable sequence of elements amenable to reflective analysis, is essential to Romantic philosophy. In the context of Gebser’s structural scheme, “philosophy” may not be the best term to describe what the Romantics were up to. Friedrich Schlegel, for example, sought to transform philosophy into “transcendental poetry,” a form of thought that is no longer the expression of an individual artist or thinker, but becomes “the universe itself, the one work of art which is forever perfecting itself.”9 Novalis similarly suggested that poetry is the measure of a work’s truth and reality.10

The perspectival basis of philosophy, according to Gebser, ties it to the ego and its dualistic forms of ontological, phenomenological, or existential representation: “The age of systematic philosophy of an individual stamp is over.”11 What is needed are not more philosophemes, but eteologemes. Eteon is a Greek word meaning both “true” and “real.” Eteology is a form of statement that is more than magically evocative, mythically contemplative, or mentally explanatory; it is “being-in-truth,” allowing origin to shine through all the structures, making them transparent in the present by sustaining the verity of the whole.12 The Romantics, in seeking to transform philosophy into poetry, were after precisely such a systatic mode of thinking. “When lovers–and the poets–[are realized to be] far more learned than the scholars are,” writes Novalis, “and tales and poetry provide to real world-history the guide,” then “world to free life can return.”13 This, for Gebser, is a description of the aperspectival world.

In turning to the Romantics’ poetic eteology, I hope to build upon the irruptions of integral consciousness that their work exemplifies. Gebser does not dwell upon the Romantics as especially evident of the mutation into aperspectivity, but nor does he deny it. In what follows, I will draw upon Romantic eteology as it evolved through the 19th and into the 20th century. I will begin by briefly unpacking the founding principle of Romantic thought: organism. I will then end by pointing to Gebser and Rilke’s Christopoietic vision as perhaps the most effective means of spiritual transformation.

Organic Linguistics

Cassirer marks the linguistic philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder, an early Romantic and major influence on the development of Goethe, as

“the transition from the older rationalistic concept of ‘reflective form,’ which dominated the philosophy of the Enlightenment, to the Romantic concept of ‘organic form.’”14

Language, for the Romantics, is an organism. This is not a metaphor and is to be understood quite literally, as for Herder, “language is never made, but grows in a necessary process from within.”15 Organism is here to be understood not as a specific kind of phenomenon or singular fact of nature, but rather as a “universal speculative principle,” a “medius terminus” integrating the mental-rational dualisms of such seeming opposites as temporal process v. eternal idea, and “the unconscious growth of nature” v. “the conscious creation of spirit.”16 In Kant’s last critique, the dualism between nature and freedom running throughout his system similarly approaches resolution in the idea of organism.17 Unlike merely mechanical nature, which Kant argued could be understood according to efficient causes alone, living nature displays a form of organization that remains inscrutable without applying formal and final causation. A living organism is an incarnating idea working to maintain the rule of the whole over the parts. Kant, of course, was in the end unable to overcome the dualism implicit in his system, since he applied organism as a regulative principle of human judgment, unwilling to assert it as constitutive of nature itself. He felt this would require genius of a scientific sort, something he believed was only achievable by artists. An artist intuitively creates her object, while a scientist must empirically and deductively discover his. The reflective mind of the scientist, according to Kant, is cut off from the creative workings of the natural world and so can only uncover them piecemeal as dead mechanisms. Schelling followed the spirit, if not the letter, of Kant by arguing that the symbolically sensitive scientist could know organism to be constitutive of nature. According to Schelling, it was the creative imagination which, long ago, invented the symbolism

“that we need only interpret in order to discover that the less merely reflective thought we give nature, the more comprehensibly it speaks to us.”18

The scientist, like the artist, can imaginatively participate in the creative processes at the root of organic nature, there uncovering, in a flash of insight, the holistic patterns that, afterward, can be conceptually analyzed into mathematical laws. Schelling overcomes Kant’s dualism by integrating mind and nature systatically as organism.

“Here for the first time,” writes Schelling,

“there emerged from [the symbolic imagination’s] sacred obscurity that ideal being in which the mind supposes concept and deed, design and execution, to be one…So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”19

Schelling’s integration of concept/deed and design/execution is another way of expressing Gebser’s warning to avoid collapsing the integrated process/effect of systasis into something merely effected, “for if we do we reduce it to a causal system.”20 Further, Schelling’s eteology of organism, and his participatory approach to knowledge, are clear exemplifications of what Gebser refers to as synairetic thought-perception. Synairesis is a mode of thought-perception that integrates and makes systatically present the respective modes of each structure of consciousness: mental system, mythic symbol, and magic symbiosis all become transparent to one another.

These examples should make it clear that the integral structure of consciousness, along with its characteristic form of systatic statement, was attempting to break through in the Romantic’s organic philosophy, or rather eteology. Organism heals the conceptual dualism responsible for the fragmentation hampering the deficient mental structure of consciousness. Through the symbolism of a properly living–that is, poetic, rather than prosaic–language, origin can be brought to consciousness.

Symbolic Transcendence

Cassirer, belying the rationalistic bias attributed him by Gebser, argues that “we cannot conceive of any real thing except under the conditions of space and time.”21 If this were true, an awareness of origin would be impossible, as would true creativity, which for Gebser “is not bound to space and time.”22 From Cassirer’s mental-rational perspective, experience can only be measured, and so understood, within the bounds of space and time. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle for Kantian rationalists like Cassirer is accepting the arationality of genuine creativity. Creativity “reveals the limitations of understanding,” since its effects on the evolution of consciousness are largely “spontaneous, acausal, and discontinuous,” and cannot be grasped systematically.23

Despite Gebser’s criticism of Cassirer, he nonetheless goes a long way toward developing the mode of thought-perception characteristic of the integral structure of consciousness, as I will attempt to show below.

Gebser notes that creativity has a largely psychic emphasis, and warns that this makes all statements about it partial.24 Because of its basis in the psyche, exploring the mythic consciousness of the symbolic imagination is perhaps the best angle of approach available to us if we hope to better integrate its energies.

Symbolism is at the very center of Cassirer’s philosophy of culture. He argues that it is precisely symbolic imagination and intelligence that distinguish the human being from the rest of the animal kingdom.

“The principle of symbolism, with its universality, validity, and general applicability, is the magic word, the Open Sesame! giving access to the specifically human world, to the world of human culture.”25

In a way at least approaching the Romantic’s expansive application of organism beyond particular cases to encompass the whole of the universe, Cassirer employs symbolism to account for the entirety of the cultural world. He again draws upon Herder to claim that even the reflective mode of thinking characteristic of the mental-rational structure of consciousness is entirely dependent upon its symbolic roots.26 To the extent that Cassirer is open to the Romantic’s synairesis of language as a living organism (thereby overcoming the dualisms of deficient mentality) his thinking is on the way to aperspectivity.

“The true concept of reality,” he writes,

“cannot be squeezed into the form of mere abstract being; it opens out into the diversity of the forms of spiritual life…In this sense, each new ‘symbolic form’…constitutes, as Goethe said, a revelation sent outward from within, a ‘synthesis of world and spirit,’ which truly assures us that the two are originally one.”27

Cassirer’s use of the term “synthesis” is a red flag for Gebsarians, but his firm grasp of the original integrality of spirit and world suggests that, though he may have lacked the systatic terminology to express it, he did not lack an intuition of its meaning. In a discussion surrounding the Kantian dualism between mind and nature, Cassirer goes on to offer a startlingly integral formulation of the evolution of consciousness. I quote him at length due to the importance of this statement:

“From the standpoint of [Kant’s] antithesis it would seem to follow that the richer the symbolic content of [a] cultural form becomes, the more its essential content must diminish. All the many images do not designate, but cloak and conceal the imageless One, which stands behind them and towards which they strive in vain. Only the negation of all finite figuration, only a return to the ‘pure nothingness’ of the mystics can lead us back to the true primal source of being. Seen in a different light, this antithesis takes the form of a constant tension between ‘culture’ and ‘life.’ For it is the necessary destiny of culture that everything which it creates in its constant process of configuration and education removes us more and more from the originality of life. The more richly and energetically the human spirit engages in its formative activity, the farther this very activity seems to remove it from the primal source of its own being.”28

In the early pages of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser repeatedly reminds his readers that the evolution of consciousness is not a continuous progression: “Progress is..a progression away, a distancing and withdrawal from something, namely, origin.”29 Clearly, Cassirer’s understanding of the evolution of symbolic forms is congruent with Gebser’s. However, by suggesting that only a “return” to the “pure nothingness” of the mystics allow us to break through veil of culture, Cassirer remains tied to the absolutist tendencies of the deficient mental structure of consciousness. Instead of avoiding regression into mysticism by overdetermining philosophy through eteology, thereby allowing origin to break through into consciousness, Cassirer restricts himself to the role of the rationalistic philosopher, forgoing the spiritual possibility because forgetting the physical actuality of his own “being-in-truth”/“a-waring/”verition” “of” origin.30 The longing of his soul to find perfection in the concretion of “his” spirit is tragically blocked, as he pretends to “[find] fulfillment only in the sharpness of the concept and in the clarity of ‘discursive’ thought.”31

Cassirer’s thought ultimately remains anthropocentric because it rests upon an unbridgeable ontological chasm between nature and culture. Such a chasm can, in the end, only produce a disintegrated cosmology and an alienating politics. His allegiance to scientific naturalism as the “clearest” and so most “useful” symbolic form prevents Cassirer not only from understanding, but from ethically “becoming-with” the organism/s of the world. “Becoming-with” is a term invented by contemporary Whiteheadian Donna Haraway to signal the need for a strong dose of “animal phenomenology” to correct for the anthropocentrism of deficient mental techno-science. Her work is a call to an intensified consciousness of the “lively knottings that tie together the world.”32 Though Cassier remained consistently fascinated by an intuition of organism as the symbol of symbols, he was met and blocked by the guardians of the physical sphere, namely space and time. He could not grasp and turn the magic key that poetically opens humanity to the presence of origin and the possibility of a truly integral civilization.

Cassirer’s understanding of symbolism leads him to posit an external “nature” as the material “given” to culture for spiritualization. His discussion of alchemy in the last chapter of An Essay on Man displays a lack of acquaintance with the transmutational modes of consciousness instigating the living words of the Romantic symphilosophers/sympoets.33

Cassirer admires the calculative power of mental-rational science as an advance over the “half-mythical language..full of obscure and ill-defined terms” he says makes up the alchemical-magical (and, we might add, astrological) corpus.34 Gebser warns about the eventual cosmopolitical cost of the quantifying mode of knowledge production, pointing to the distressing unconscious power of the deficient concepts of mass and measure over our conscious lives.35 The mytho-magical language of pre-Enlightenment consciousness is rejected by Cassirer in favor of the rationality and instrumental value of numerical systems. He writes of the gradual mathematization of chemistry that, by the time of the periodic table of elements, had “learned to speak a quantitative language.” The qualitative phenomenology of each element was thought to be entirely deducible from a knowledge of its atomic number.36 The work of Ilya Prigogine on the irreversibility of chemical organization has since made the spontaneous, non-deducible qualitative character of elemental processes more than apparent.37 Like alchemy, Prigogine’s is a chemistry sensitive to the creativity of time, while Cassirer’s 19th century conception is frozen in the spatial fixities of the deficient mental structure of consciousness.

Unlike Cassirer, Gebser recognizes the extreme danger of psychic atomization resulting from an obsession with quantity by drawing our attention again to the poetic statements of Novalis:

“When number and numeral cease to be

a power o’er the creaturely…

where light and shade conjoin once more

to the true clarity of lore…

then can one cryptic word commence

to drive the topsy-turvy hence.”38

The spiritual realization of the symbolism of organism (cryptically alluding to both the life and death-poles of the soul39) allows for participation in the becoming of the whole cosmos, in both its spatio-temporal and time-free aspects, beginning with the local planetary ecology of which we are a living member. In order to make transparent Cassirer’s categorically-bound philosophy, where the world is manufactured by the concepts and systems of our deficient industrial understanding, we must become conscious of the congruence between cosmogenesis and anthropoiesis. The new obligation of poetry is to raise the human soul above all 9 Muses40 by transfiguring their unconscious cosmogenic energies into consciousness of the spiritual history of the world.

“Poetry as history is the account of events…effected by creativity,”41 creativity as the common origin of the structure of both psyche and cosmos. Integral consciousness is imaginatively aware of the planetary bodies as the acategorial organs of the world-soul governing the life of the whole. This cosmic psyche is clothed as the sky witnessed from earth, and as such is intimately interwoven with the collective histories and personal stories of humanity. It is not only culture that is mutating with the integral constellation of consciousness, in other words, but the cosmos, as well:

“[The earth] is a star among stars, just as humans are only humans among other human beings. On its great journey across the millennia it hastens through the changing landscapes of ‘heaven,’ transforming its own countenance and man’s.”42

In the mythopoetic language of archetypal cosmology,43 Cassirer’s individual soul, though it has grasped the truth, beauty, and goodness of Mercury, Venus, and the Sun, has yet to integrate and so make transparent the psychic symbolism of the other planets, most significantly Jupiter (space) and Saturn (clock-time). Integral consciousness bursts the limits of space and time through the transformative power of the creative imagination, ruled by the trans-egoic planets Pluto, Uranus, and Neptune, respectively.

The transformative, orgiastic power of Pluto is anxiety-producing for the time- and space-bound ego of mental-rational consciousness, as yet uninitiated into death by the 7 planetary gates written of by Dante.44 Pluto is the Dionysian “original chaos of human nature”45 that Cassirer sought to restrain by the ordering influence of Apollo.46 Order is not to be given up in favor of chaos, nor intuition in favor of instinct, but to the extent that the psyche remains anxiously bound to the measure and mass of calculative thinking, it fails to pass through the death-rebirth mystery initiated by Pluto and so remains deficient in mentality. All organisms are born and die. The mental-rational human organism is conscious of its own mortality, but not yet conscious of its connection to origin. The anxiety ruling over the ever day life of contemporary humanity is a symptom of the ego’s unwillingness to transform.

“Anxiety is always the first sign that a mutation is coming to the end of its expressive and effective possibilities, causing new powers to accumulate which, because they are thwarted, create a ‘narrows’ or constriction. At the culmination point of anxiety these powers liberate themselves, and this liberation is synonymous with a new mutation. In this sense, anxiety is the great birth-giver.”47

In another work of magisterial scope, Religion in Human Evolution (2011),Robert N. Bellah sums up our present predicament by comparing the secular “world of daily life…based on a fundamental anxiety…arising from the knowledge and fear of death”48 to the world of “religious knowing” generated by “the feeling of an infinite Whole.”49 The former is rooted in “standard time and standard space,” while the later is made efficacious by “the capacity for symbolic transcendence,” for going beyond the “dreadful immanence” and “mechanical necessity” of ordinary space and time.50 Bellah, like Cassirer, recognizes the centrality of symbolism, but in recognizing the capacity for the symbolic imagination to transcend the finitude of measurable space-time to participate with spirit in cosmogenesis, Bellah spiritualizes and makes conscious what for Cassirer remains merely the psycho-cultural projection of the collective unconscious.

The Angel of Death and the Coming of Christ

The debilitating anxiety of the mental-rational ego in the face of death prevents it from becoming aware of the ever-presence of origin, effective in both the life- and death-poles of the soul. Catherine Keller, another contemporary Whiteheadian, evinces the psychic demand of the integral structure of consciousness by comparing the finite ego’s relationship to the universe with the book of Job. Job, the archetypal human of the post-fall phase of creation, is called by YHWH to intensify the symbolic “horizon of what our little body-brains can know”:

“The limits of our knowing, like the limits of our lives, trap us within an often tragic finality. Yet here shadows of ignorance begin to suggest the bottomless mystery not only of death but of life.”51

Keller attempts to draw our attention both to the mortal limits of rational knowledge and the immortal reaches of aperspectival faith. She suggests that YHWH “is challenging Job’s readiness to stir the destructive forces of chaos”52 in service of the ongoing transformation from a suffering organism into a living symbol of origin, from flesh into Word. Job’s is the story of the initial emergence of the unconscious spirit buried in the primal depths of the universe into concrete and personal presence.

Indeed, says Keller,

“Job already whirls toward an ecological theology of the Whiteheadian sort, in which human becoming looks cramped and cancerous–unless we collude more wisely with the elements, the plants, the beasts and each other.”

In learning to “become-with” the threads of life the bind the world into a whole, Job redeems his fallen state.

“Where were you,” asks YHWH of Job,

“before I laid the foundation of the world…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? [Did you] enclose the sea with doors when, bursting forth, water went out from the womb; When I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and placed boundaries on it and set a bolt and doors, and I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no further; and here shall your proud waves stop.’?”53

Gebser points to the symbol of Christ as the first answer to YWHW’s call, representing immunity to resubmergence in the tumultous and anxiety-ridden animality of the depths of the soul.54 In Christ, the Creator becomes conscious of the life of its own creation, the poet aware of his craft. YHWH enters into space and time, is crucified as Jesus, and reborn as the living symbol and original organism of creation.

Jesus said: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.”55

Gebser marks water as the symbol of the life-pole of the soul, while the “siren-like angels” of Rilke’s poetry are its death-pole.56 Christ integrates the creativity of the former with the “perpetual plenitude” of the later, allowing the poet to both drink the wisdom of the past and “ware” the wisdom of the present.57 Rilke writes of Christ, who for the ego appears indistinguishable from the siren-like angel “deep inside the doors of the dead,” that “he obeys, even as he oversteps the bounds” of space and time.58

I quote Rilke’s poem Sonnets to Orpheus at length, for these words mark a crucial event in the dateless history of spirit’s creativity:

“To praise, that’s it! Called to praise, he came like ore out of the silence of stone. Oh, his heart’s a perishable press of a wine that’s eternal for men…Only one who’s also raised the lyre among shades may return unending praise with warning…Look at the sky…Even the linking of stars is a lie. But for a while now let’s be happy to believe the symbol. That’s enough…Hail to the spirit who can link us: because we live in symbols, really. And with tiny steps the clocks walk beside our primal day…Dare to say what you call apple. This sweetness that condenses first so in the taste that’s so tenderly intense it may become awake, transparent, double meaning, clear, bright, earthly, ours–O knowledge, feeling, joy–immense!…Deep down, the oldest tangled root of all that’s grown, the secret source they’ve never seen…Branch pushing branch, not one of them free…One! oh, climb higher…higher…Yet they still break. But this top one finally bends into a lyre…Do you hear the New, Master, droning and throbbing? Its prophesying promoters are advancing. No hearing’s truly keen in all this noise; still, now each machine part wills its praise. See, the Machine: how it spins and wreaks revenge, deforms and demeans us. Since its power comes from us, let it do its work and serve, serene…Even if the world changes as fast as the shapes of clouds, all perfected things at last fall back to the very old. Over what’s passing and changing, freer and wider, your overture is lasting, god with the lyre. Pain’s beyond our grasp, love hasn’t been learned, and whatever eliminates us in death is still secret. Only the Song above the land blesses and celebrates…But you O divine one, resounder to the end, when the swarm of unrequited maenads fell upon you, o beautiful one, you over sung their cries with order, your edifying song rose from the destroyers. No one was present who could crush your head and lyre, no matter how they struggled and wrested. And all the sharp stones they threw at your heart, on touching you, became tender and gifted with hearing. Finally they tore you, impelled by vengeance, while your sound still lingered in rock and lions, in trees and birds. You still sing there now. O you lost god, you endless trace! Only because in the end hate divided you are we now nature’s mouth and listeners…Breath, you invisible poem! Steady sheer exchange between the cosmos and our being. Counterpoise in which I rhythmically become.”59


While mental philosophy demands explanation (literally, spatialization, or laying out on a plain so as to expose), poetic statement integrates the dimensionality of space and time by making the whole transparently present. Poetry awakens us to origin without the need of argumentation or systematic conception. It “[steadies the] sheer exchange between the cosmos and our being,” as Rilke says. In such verse, the ego-fixed soul find’s its way through the mystery of death and is born again into the eternal life, now not of the waters, but of the spirit. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” 60


1 p. xxvii, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

2 p. 317, ibid.

3 p. 94, Science and the Modern World (1932)

4 p. 316, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

5 p. 327, ibid.

6 p. 326, ibid.

7 p. 246, note 8, ibid.

8 p. 160, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. I: Language (1955)

9 p. 156, An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer (1944)

10 ibid.

11 p. 309, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

12 ibid.

13 quoted on p. 307, ibid.

14 p. 153, An Essay on Man (1944)

15 ibid.

16 p. 154, ibid.

17 See The Critique of Judgment (1790)

18 p. 35, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1988)

19 p. 36, ibid.

20 p. 310, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

21 p. 42, An Essay on Man (1944)

22 p. 313, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

23 ibid.

24 ibid.

25 p. 33, An Essay on Man (1944)

26 p. 39-41, ibid.

27 p. 111, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 1: Language (1955)

28 p. 113, ibid.

29 p. 41, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

30 See p. 352-356, ibid.

31 p. 113, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 1: Language (1955)

32 p.vii, When Species Meet (2007)

33 For example, Friedrich Schlegel, who sought “a whole new epoch of science and art” based in the alchemy of creative communion with others of similar nature. His historical scholarship “served as [a] newly fashioned key to unlock the secrets of man and nature.” -p. 20, The Romantic Conception of Life by Robert J. Richards

34 p. 215, An Essay on Man (1944)

35 See p. 129-143, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

36 p. 216, An Essay on Man (1944)

37 See The End of Certainty (1997)

38 quoted on p. 306, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

39 See Gebser’s discussion of the polarity of the poetic soul, given life by the Muses and death by the angels on p. 322 of The Ever-Present Origin (1985). This will be discussed more below in connection with Rilke’s poetry.

40 p. 318, ibid.

41 p. 320, ibid.

42 p. 541, ibid.

43 For an example of what poetic philosophy becomes when art, science, and myth are successfully integrated, see Cosmos and Psyche by Richard Tarnas. Gebser seems to hint at the need for a renewed astrological orientation on p. 135 of The Ever-Present Origin (1985).

44 p. 320, ibid.

45 Friedrich Schlegel, quoted on p. 161 of An Essay on Man (1944)

46 p. 163, ibid.

47 p. 134, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

48 p. 2, Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

49 p. 6, ibid.

50 p. 9, ibid.

51 p. 131, Face of the Deep: a theology of becoming (2003)

52 p. 134, ibid.

53 Job 38:4-8

54 p. 89, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

55 Revelation 21:6

56 p. 320, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

57 ibid.

58 verse 5, series 1, Sonnets to Orpheus (1955)

59 verses 7-26, series 1 and verse 1, series 2, ibid.

60 See John 3:6

The Copernican Odyssey: From Kantian Skepticism to Tarnasian Participation, or from the Dawn of Modern Science to the Wisdom of the Midnight Sun

The following is a rough draft of a presentation I will be giving next week as part of a panel discussion on the philosopher Richard Tarnas’   Archetypal Cosmology. Tarnas’ essay entitled Two Suitors: A Parable may aid the reader’s comprehension of what I articulate below.


The Copernican Odyssey: From Copernican Illumination through Kantian Skepticism to Tarnasian Participation, or the Dawn of Modern Science to the Wisdom of the Midnight Sun

The 20th Century philosopher, Samuel Alexander (a major influence on Whitehead) articulated what could be said to be the basic metaphysical formula underlying archetypal cosmology: “Time is the Mind of Space.”

Time, for Plato, is a “moving image of eternity,” a living copy of God. Like Alexander, Plato often related Time to the World-Soul, that intermediating matrix that allows invisible eternal forms, or archetypes, smooth passage into the visible motions of the animated physical world. When Plato looked to the heavens he perceived in their hidden harmony the very source and destiny of cosmic history. Time, he intuited, must be created and ordered by the movement of the spheres. Even two thousand years later, planetary motions and qualitative time were still seen to be intimately connected: Copernicus only began his reform of astronomy as a result of being asked by the Church to reform the calendar for liturgical purposes. Without an accurate calendrical sense of the rhythms of time, religious rituals could not tap into and participate in the life cycles of the cosmos and so could not keep humanity synced up with the sky.

By the death of Newton(about 200 years later in 1727), cosmic time was well on its way to being reduced to a uniform mathematical magnitude devoid of all texture and qualitative meaning. Newton himself went to a lot of trouble attempting to calculate the exact date of the crucifixion and of end of days, which suggests that the calendar had already lost its deeper cosmic significance by becoming over-literalized (though to be fair, he did still think it had something to do with lunar cycles). When it came down to it, time, for Newton, was just a constant background rate of change against which the rate of all motion could be measured. Time was t, an algebraic function in a differential equation.

Less than a century later, Kant, who today remains so influential that we might simply refer to him as The Philosopher (as the ancients referred to Aristotle) preserved qualitative time from total annihilation, but only by sequestering in within human subjectivity as a form of inner intuition. Plato’s forms, once living cosmic powers, became for Kant fixed concepts within the human mind with no intrinsic relationship to the dead material objects they supposedly represented. Human consciousness was meaningful, qualitatively rich, and intelligent; but the soulless world upon which it gazed-whether it looked vertically to the sky or horizontally around the earth-was thought purely in terms of mechanism.

The picture painted by Kant is not so clear cut, however; he never suggested that the universe actually is a giant machine. He only argued that the human mind is unequipped to grasp it intellectually in any other way. He speculated, especially in the Critique of Judgment, about the possibilities of some supersensible substratum responsible for the organic formation of the visible world (e.g., the World-Soul), but remained in the end unable to defend such a view with the science and logic available in his day.

By the first few decades of the 20th century, things had changed dramatically: relativity and quantum theories destroyed the Newtonian clock-work universe with even more force than Copernicus’ discovery had shattered the static crystalline spheres of the ancient world.

Physicist Sir James Jeans remarked late in his life that

“Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physical side of science approaches unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”

The quantum revolution, in this sense, overturned the mechanistic pretensions of Newtonian science and made possible new forms of empirical, experimental, and experiential participation in the cosmos.

The Western mind has thus come full circle, such that the true spiritual meaning of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory now becomes clear. By astronomically de-centering the earth, Copernicus initiated a mutation in consciousness that simultaneously severed humanity from and sutured it to the solar logos—severed by exiling us from the cyclical-seasonal rhythms of the cosmic womb of geocentrically arrayed constellations; and sutured by lifting the earth into heaven in order to perceive its and the other planet’s motions from the perspective of the Sun. Both the light and the shadow of modernity here come into focus: the excellence of our intelligence was finally able to solve the millennia-old problem of the planets; but as a result of this solution, the Sun no longer could be understood to die into the underworld each night and each winter or to be reborn each morning and each spring. The synchronistic stories within which earth was embedded, especially the death and rebirth of the Sun and Moon, were revealed to be a hoax, an illusion of the senses. Instead, the Sun remained a hero undescended and unrisen; an invincible god unburdened by (e)motion of any kind; a distant, objective observer. This provides a telling analogy for the hubris of the newly empowered solar ego whose great flash of insight had lead it to forget or repress its shadow by pushing the death-rebirth mystery into unconsciousness.

This repression is cosmic in extent, and so requires humanity to enter into a form of personal and collective psychoplanetary therapy, which is just another name for archetypal cosmology. We must rediscover the Soul of Time in the archetypal rhythms of the planetary spheres. Unlike the skeptical Kantian consciousness which we are attempting to transform, ideas must no longer be hidden away in the private recesses of the human mind. The ideas, the forms, the archeptypes and ordering patterns of the visible world, are not projected upon that world by our consciousness, but discovered there in the motion of the heavens, in the growth of plants, in the flight of birds, and the songs of poets. But the planets in particular are the most potent communicative organs of the invisible because all-encompassing World-Soul; they distill the meaning of the Archetype, the Idea, most clearly, since they circle overhead providing a universal background for our particular earthly endeavors. They are the closest image humans have of the Transcendent, the Pleroma, Reality.

In order to correct our characteristically modern hubristic over-emphasis on the Sun (an important but not all-determining influence), the archetypal significance of the outer, transpersonal planets is especially important.

Uranus is in one sense is misnamed, reflecting its role as trickster (i.e., Prometheus), but in another sense is aptly named, since only with its discovery did the human soul breakthrough the threshold of personal death (i.e., Saturn) in order to be initiated into the libratory and immortal wisdom of heaven. The discovery of Uranus, the patron saint of astrology, represents the cutting of the 7 strings of the planetary marionette, and the release of the puppet: from that point forward, the human spirit was free to dance, or not, with the song of the spheres.

Neptune reminds the alienated ego that, despite all its frightened and anxious thrashing, it remains embedded in a nurturing cosmic womb of untold proportions.

And Pluto, the furthest planet from the Sun, is no less powerful for its great distance: it communicates the death-rebirth mystery that the heliocentric re-orientation had temporarily hidden from view, thereby correcting the hubris of the conscious ego by bringing it back into touch with its chthonic source.

Earth, too, must not be forgotten, since she is the planet whose destiny it is to reconcile the others, to integrate their powers into one Self. Consider the strange synchronicity expressed by solar eclipses: the Sun and Moon are the same size, but only from the perspective of Earth. Perhaps this is why Plato elevated geometry above all other sciences, since Earth truly is the measure of all things.

In closing, I will leave you with a short excerpt from one of Kepler’s works on astrology:

“There is a much more noble and miraculous unity of the sky and the earth than the material one. This unity is incapable of doing anything material. It is formal. It moves through forms in this world below, and it does not do so simply through the mute forms, as are found in stone and bone, but rather through the spiritual powers, through soul, through reason — indeed through the grasping of the most subtle things that are present in the whole geometry of things. For earthly creatures are so constituted, that they might thus be capable of channeling the celestial realm.”

Archetypally, astrology is the science of the Night, while astronomy is the science of the Day. Geometry, in the Platonic sense, can unite the two by reminding the sun-worshipping astronomer of the meaning of their embodied earthly perspective. Astrology is concerned more with Wisdom than with Knowledge; it involves participation in what could be called the non-ordinary reality of playful spirit. Knowledge, on the other hand, is concerned with the ordinary time and space of the toiling body, where energy (the cause of motion, and so of time) is defined as the ability to do work. From an astrological perspective, energy is not, or at least not only, work, but, as Blake said, is also “eternal delight.” Energy as eternal delight reflects a cosmic process that is ensouled and archetypally alive.

Plato and Astrosophy: The Wisdom of the Sky

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...
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Scholarship has been unable to determine who the true writer of Epinomis was, but it is generally assumed that the text available to us today is either what remains of an unfinished wax-tablet manuscript left behind by Plato at his death in 347 BCE, or is an extra chapter added later by a student of Plato’s, the astronomer Philip of Opus, who is known to have transcribed the first 12 books of Laws after his teacher’s death. Whatever the case may be, we can at least say that the dialogue provides us with perhaps the earliest example of a Platonic answer to the central question of philosophy: what must a mortal know in order to be wise?

In the dialogue, a Cretan, a Spartan, and an Athenian are said to come together to discuss that which is more important than their respective forms of political organization: namely, Wisdom. Epinomis seems more than just a clerical, but a highly significant title for a Platonic dialogue, since certainly what should come after (“éπι”) the laws (“νομίς”) of one’s local polis is a discussion of the universal principles from which all human laws are derived by way of feeble mimicry.

Plato wrote the Laws only after the political utopia he outlined in the Republic had failed to materialize in 4th century Syracuse. It represents the opinion of an older, more cynical thinker for whom the notion of rule by virtuous philosopher-kings came to be replaced by the “second-best” rule of constitutional law. With the addition of the Epinomis as a 13th chapter, Plato’s younger idealism is allowed to shine through the wear and tear of age. In it, he (or his student) points to the importance of an understanding of the harmonious motions of the heavens, because they transcend the petty disagreements of earthly men and so provide all with a publicly apparent source of Wisdom.

The Athenian begins the dialogue by offering an insight articulated by Gautama Buddha more than a century earlier (483 BCE), that, basically, life is suffering:

“I say it is impossible for men to be blessed and happy, except a few ; that is, so long as we are living : I limit it to that. But one may rightly hope to attain after death all the things for whose sake one may strive both in life to live as nobly as one can and in death to find a noble end. What I say is [973d] no subtle doctrine, but a thing that all of us, Greeks and foreigners alike, in some way perceive — that from the beginning existence is difficult for every living creature : first, partaking of the state of an embryo, then again, being born, and further, being reared and educated — all these processes involve a vast amount of toil, [974a] we all agree.”

Wisdom, then, begins to dawn upon the human soul only after she has realized that life is full of suffering, that happiness and blessedness are impossible until she has dealt squarely and honestly with the traumas of birth and death. The death-rebirth mysteries at Eleusis into which Plato was initiated provided the ancient Greek soul with an opportunity to die in spirit before dying in flesh. The philosopher’s task upon being reborn is to integrate the vision of heaven and immortality with their participation in political life on earth. This is no easy task.

The Athenian continues:

“the soul firmly believes and divines that in some fashion she has [Wisdom], [974c] but what it is that she has, or when, or how, she is quite unable to discover. Is not this a fair picture of our puzzle about wisdom and the inquiry that we have to make?”

As Plato articulates in the 7th letter, wherein he reflects on his failed experiment in Syracuse, Wisdom cannot be finally attained through verbal discussion of names, through written formula, or through sensory experience of any kind. All that can be said for certain is that the soul knows that Wisdom is possible for herself, that it is asleep within her and can sometimes be awakened through the application of the proper technique (i.e., philosophy).

The Athenian then runs through the various technologies employed by human intelligence: the cultivation of land and the production of food, the building of homes and the smithing of various tools and weapons, artistic reproduction like poetry and painting, the arts of sailing and of medicine. He concludes that none of them are productive of wisdom, since each deals only in conjecture and opinion. The only technique productive of Wisdom–the only way to become “a wise and good citizen, at once a just ruler and subject of his city, in tune with himself and the world as well”–is the study of the heavens, of the stars and the cosmos, the ordered motion of which is responsible for “[giving] number to the whole race of mortals [976d].”
The Athenian suggests that the rhythmical motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets through the sky taught the human soul to count and to record time. Modern paleoanthropology lends some support to this idea, since one of the earliest known forms of writing consisted of notches carved into bone fragments to record the phases of the moon. This science of seasonal time learned by contemplating the motions of the heavens, he argues, provides the foundation of every other technique that has subsequently been acquired through the exercise of human intelligence. “Thanks to these celestial events,” he says,

“we have crops, the earth bears food for all living things, and the winds that blow and the rains that fall are not violent or without measure. If on the contrary anything turns out for the worse, we must not blame God [who orders the heavens and provides for their participation in earthly events], but humans, for not rightly managing their own lives [by living in harmony with the seasonal motions of the planets] [979a].”

At this point in their search for Wisdom, the Athenian, the Cretan, and the Spartan agree that they will need to pray for the guidance of God himself if they hope to understand the true meaning of the planetary spheres and the process of their generation. Philosophy here becomes beholden to the power of faith. The seekers of wisdom pray that they might be granted Her council, that the Soul of the World might speak within their humble and open hearts.

The Athenian then says, “as a whole, soul is older than any body. Do you recall? You surely must remember.” He adds to his anamnesiac appeal that the celestial spheres are to be considered “living things…endowed with the finest body and the best and happiest soul [980d].” Either these spheres are indestructible, or “each of them is content to possess such a vast length of life that they could never possibly demand more [982a].”

Wisdom, the Soul of the World whose voice is made audible in the Song of the Spheres, is embodied by Plato’s Fifth element, also mentioned in Timaeus and his 7th letter. Soul is without name or color or shape or weight, no more made of fire than it is earth; rather, it is the invisible intelligent force underlying the harmonious activity of the other Four elements.

“Let us suppose,” suggests the Athenian,

“that [the divine stars and the creatures of the earth] are two kinds of living things, that both are visible, the one made entirely, as it might seem, of fire, the other of earth, and that the earthly kind moves in disorder, while the one of fire moves in perfect order. Now what moves in disorder (which is exactly how the kind of living things around us behave for the most part) we ought to consider unintelligent. But if something has an orderly path in the heavens we should treat that as powerful evidence of its intelligence. For if it always proceeds in its course uniformly and without variation, and always acts and is affected in the same way, it gives ample evidence of intelligent life. The necessity of the soul that possesses intelligence is by far the most powerful of all necessities. For it is a ruler, not a subject, and so ordains its decrees. When a soul reaches the best decision in accordance with the best intelligence, the result, which is truly to its mind, is perfectly unalterable…Humans should admit as evidence of the intelligence of the stars and this entire movement of theirs, the fact that they always do the same things, because they are doing what was decided an astonishingly long time ago and do not change their decision back and forth, sometimes doing one thing and at others doing something else, wandering and changing their orbits. This opinion of ours is the exact opposite of what most people believe–that because they do the same things uniformly they do not possess soul. The crowd has followed the fools in supposing that the human race is intelligent and alive because it undergoes change, whereas the divine is unintelligent because it remains in the same orbits. But in fact a person can adopt views that are finer, better and acceptable, and could have understood that whatever always operates uniformly, without variation, and through the same causes is for that very reason to be regarded as intelligent. Such a person could also understand that this is the nature of the stars, the finest of all things to behold, and further that moving through their march and dance, the finest and most magnificent dance there is, they bring to pass what all living things need [982a-e].”

The Athenian establishes that one Life moves through all things earthly and astral, that a single invisible Soul animates each and all. Even if the visible planetary spheres are but the elemental images of Wisdom, rather than the eternal gods themselves, still “no other image will appear more beautiful or more widely shared by all humans than these [984b].” He goes on to discuss the role of various atmospheric mediators, or daemons (i.e., angels and demons), who facilitate communication between gods and humans:

“…some of them have had various types of encounters with humans, whether through dreams in sleep or in audible communications through divine voices or prophecies to certain people whether healthy or ill or even at the point of death. The resulting beliefs affect both individuals and communities and have been the origin of many religious rites for many people and will be in the future as well [985c].”

Religious revelation, in this sense, is true, a fact about the Universe that reason must take into its consideration of the whole. But revelation must be checked through comparison to the meanings of the visible motion of the stars and planets, since “the worst people are those that do not dare to declare to us the gods that really do appear to us [985d].” Private, inner revelation is not enough. The words of God’s messengers must be plainly present for all to see and hear. The sun, moon, and other planets are these words, publicly available to all with ears to hear and eyes to see. Each one of them “contributes to the perfection of the visible cosmos established by the most divine law of all [986c].” In this way, the science of the heavens, astrology (which is not other than astronomy for Plato), is said to have provided humanity with God’s true revelation of Wisdom.

The Athenian summarizes what Plato treats more fully in Timaeus concerning the character of the 8 “powers,” or “orbits.” The first 7 appear to move to the right (from East to West), while the 8th, the cosmic sphere of fixed stars, appears to move to the left (from West to East). By holding together and harmonizing the different movements of the 7 inner spheres with the stable identity of the outer 8th, the World Soul creates time, perpetually birthing the visible Universe as “a moving image of eternity.” Through the unifying animation of the World Soul, all things in heaven and earth are made full of gods (991d).

Without the study of the heavens, according to the Athenian, “no one in cities will ever become happy [992a].” A true participatory democracy, where every person is both ruler of themselves and subject of their civilization–each full members of the Nocturnal Council capable of contemplating the true meaning of the morning sun–requires that all be initiates into the Mysteries of the Sky.

“Let no Greek ever fear that being mortal we should not concern ourselves with the divine Universe. We should have quite the opposite thought; the divine [i.e., the Cosmos] is never without intelligence nor is it at all ignorant of human nature, but it knows that if it teaches we will follow along and learn what we are taught [988b].”

Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Archetypal Analysis

a sketch
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The following is a short essay for a course on archetypal astrology that I took this semester with Richard Tarnas. For those unfamiliar with the general approach, this essay by Tarnas may be of service. Also see this introduction to planetary archetypes.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Archetypal Analysis 

Tonight I walked under the stars through the snow & stopped & looked at my far sparklers & heard the voice of the wind so slight & pure & deep as if it were the sound of the stars themselves revolving.

Wide World (Emerson’s personal journal), February 17, 1838

  “The truest state of mind, rested in, becomes false,” writes Emerson.

Thought is the manna which cannot be stored. It will be sour if kept, & tomorrow must be gathered anew. Perpetually must we East ourselves.[1]

Emerson was born the afternoon of May 25th, 1803, with a Uranus-Jupiter-Saturn conjunction (by midpoint) rising in the Eastern sky. His Sun is trined by Uranus and Jupiter, and squared by Pluto, with Pluto opposite his Saturn. Emerson took on earthly form destined to breathe new life into the religious traditions of Western civilization at a time when they had grown increasingly prosaic and spiritually stultifying. A Mars-Moon conjunction gave him the strength of soul required to champion individual freedom (Jupiter-Uranus trine Sun) over and against socially imposed dogmas. As one biographer put it,

Stronger than his sense of duty and the long tradition of the Emersons in the Church was his personal rebellion from the dying rituals of Christian worship.[2]

His life’s mission, often expressed in the most sublime turns of phrase, was to free the human soul from the strictures of mass society and from the Church by awakening each individual to the creative power and immortality of their soul.

In the short essay to follow, I’d like to focus an archetypal lens upon the dynamics at play in a few particular events, especially Emerson’s lecture on “The American Scholar” (August 31st, 1837) and his address to the graduating class at Cambridge Divinity School (July 15th, 1838). Before interpreting the transits on these especially significant days, I will first briefly unpack the major planetary aspects in Emerson’s natal chart.

A journal entry from Dec. 21, 1823 clearly reveals how the above-mentioned aspects, especially Saturn opposite Pluto, Sun trine Uranus-Jupiter, and Mars conjunct Moon, are personified in the then twenty-year-old Emerson[3]:

Who is he that shall control me? Why may not I act & speak & write & think with entire freedom? …Is Society my anointed King? Or is there any mightier community or any man or more than man, whose slave I am? I am solitary in the vast society of beings; I consort with no species; I indulge no sympathies. I see the world, human, brute & inanimate nature; I am in the midst of them, but not of them; I hear the song of the storm— the Winds & warring Elements sweep by me— but they mix not with my being. I see cities & nations & witness passions— the roar of their laughter— but I partake it not;— the yell of their grief— it touches no chord in me; their fellowships & fashions, lusts & virtues, the words & deeds they call glory & shame— I disclaim them all. I say to the Universe, Mighty one! thou art not my mother; Return to chaos, if thou wilt, I shall still exist. I live. If I owe my being, it is to a destiny greater than thine. Star by Star, world by world, system by system shall be crushed— but I shall live.

Jupiter may have functioned on this night to inflate Emerson, or perhaps it was on this evening that his daemon took a great leap toward the heights of the over-soul. The relationships between his Sun, Saturn, Pluto, and Uranus produces an archetypal complex that refracts to influence Emerson in a whole spectrum of ways. His lectures and essays always champion the deeper, universal will or vitality at the base of all reality (i.e., Pluto): “The individual is always dying. The Universal is life.”[4] Pluto opposite Saturn is reflected in Emerson’s distaste for “the masses,” and his Uranus trine Sun is reflected in his elevation of the distinctly individual:

Masses! the calamity is the masses… I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.[5]

His desire to divide and separate from the masses may, in moments of emotional exaggeration, even devolve into alienation:

An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with.[6]

A Mars-Moon conjunction in Leo sheds archetypal light upon the polar nature of his character: a quiet, solitary, receptive soul though he may have been, Emerson was also a powerful preacher, the emotionally penetrating force of his pronouncements befitting of a prophet. A true soul-warrior, Emerson’s confidence never waned:

The soul always believes in itself…it knows that the total world is my inheritance, & the life of all beings I am to take up into mine.[7]

This conjunction is sextiled by Uranus, which, also trining his Sun, liberates Emerson, spirit and soul, from

…every form of life & doctrine that ever existed…[so that he could] give [himself] alone, original, pure to the Lonely, Original, & Pure.[8]

Emerson’s Mars-Moon conjunction may be his most crucial aspect, since it gives him the strength of soul to respond to the impact of Saturn and Pluto on his Sun (Saturn being pulled in by its midpoint with Jupiter and Uranus). Death was not at all foreign to Emerson, who lost his father at 8 years old, and lived through the death of two brothers, his wife, and his son later in life. Sometimes, the sheer force of his soul was not enough to overcome the darker, destructive influences of Saturn and Pluto:

My external condition may to many seem comfortable, to some enviable but I think that few men ever suffered (in degree not in amount) more genuine misery than I have suffered.[9]

Saturn also seems to have generated self-doubt, something Emerson battled his entire life:

The main difficulty of life is to strike the balance betwixt contending claims. I am embarrassed by doubts in all my purposes, & in all my opinions… For me I fear I lose days in determining how hours should be spent.[10]

As he aged, however, his soul became confident enough to integrate the difficult lessons of Saturn and Pluto:

The love that is in me, the justice, the truth can never die & that is all of me that will not die. All the rest of me is so much death— my ignorance, my vice, my corporeal pleasure. But I am nothing else than a capacity for justice, truth, love, freedom, power. I can inhale, imbibe them forevermore. They shall be so much to me that I am nothing, they all. Then shall God be all in all. Herein is my Immortality.[11]

In late 1832, two years after the death of his wife Ellen and during the height of his Saturn return, Emerson decided to resign his ministry at the Second Church of Boston. He wrote in his journal around this time:

I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship the dead forms of our forefathers.

Upon leaving his post with the Church, Emerson sailed to Europe, where he visitedItaly,France, andEngland. While in theEngland, he met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle, maintaining a correspondence with the latter for the rest of his life. Upon returning from Europe in 1833, Emerson began to lecture on natural history inBoston. Over the course of the next few years, he lectured widely on topics ranging from English literature to the philosophy of history.

On September 9th, 1836, Emerson published his first book entitled Nature. The stars were truly aligned on this day: Mercury was conjunct his natal Uranus and trined by a Jupiter-Venus conjunction transiting his natal Mars-Moon conjunction, the Sun was conjunct his Saturn, and Neptune trined his natal Sun. The expansiveness and beauty of the poetic vision (Jupiter-Venus) expressed in this text is checked only by the clarity of its ideas (Mercury) and discipline of its moral insight (Saturn). Emerson was careful to balance the spiritual heights of idealism (Neptune) with the practical realities of earthly life (Saturn):

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.[12]

As Geldard described Emerson’s first publication, it was “a self-reflective dialogue between the transcendent seer and the pragmatic Yankee.”[13]

On August 31st, 1837, Emerson delivered perhaps his 2nd best-known lecture before the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge entitled “The American Scholar.” His goal was to further many of the same themes discussed in Nature, and according to Geldard, the event marked the auspicious beginning of Emerson’s life as a public figure.[14] Oliver Wendell Holmes, present at the lecture that day, remarked that it wasAmerica’s “intellectual declaration of independence,” which is born out by the Sun-Uranus opposition in the sky at the time of the speech. Emerson spoke of several influences on the scholar’s mind, the first of which being nature:

  …nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part…Its laws are the laws of his own mind…And, in fine, the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘study nature,’ become at last one maxim.[15]

The Sun-Uranus opposition (with both the Moon and Jupiter within orb of the Sun) is almost exactly aligned with Emerson’s natal Saturn-Pluto opposition, highlighting the archetypes at play in the above excerpt. The soul (Moon) is in generative tension with nature (Pluto), though the laws (Saturn) of each form a higher unity (Jupiter) as our true self (Sun).

Emerson goes on to mention the need for scholars to have confidence and self-trust, which is archetypally related to the near conjunction of the Sun with Jupiter and the Moon, also representing an expanded sense of self and a transparency to the unconscious psyche. The call to self-trust and independent scholarship is Emerson’s attempt to counter the mass-mindedness and herd mentality that he felt had overtaken American society; Uranus transiting his Pluto brought to greater awareness his need to liberate the masses from their disjointed existence:

The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.[16]

Neptune was opposite Emerson’s Moon, which may help account for his repeated insistence throughout the lecture on the ultimate unity of each human soul with the World Soul:

It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.[17]

He continues,

A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.[18]

In 1838, Emerson was invited to give an address to the graduating class atCambridgeDivinitySchool. Up to this point, Emerson had not publically attacked theUnitarianChurch, but his private journals were full of criticism:

They [Unitarians] think that God causes a miracle to make men…They do not & will not perceive that it is to distrust the deity of truth—its invincible beauty—to do God a high dishonor—so to depict him.[19]

On July 15th, 1838, with the Sun and Mercury conjunct in his midheaven, trining his Neptune, Emerson gave the address that perhaps defined the rest of his life as a spiritual figure. Although it took 12 years to sell the first five hundred copies of Emerson’s first book, Nature, the first three hundred copies of this address sold out immediately.[20]

In his address, Emerson sought to redirect attention away from the personality of Jesus, whom the Church had elevated to superhuman status, and instead direct it to the infinite spirit hiding within everyone. With Neptune opposite his natal Mars-Moon conjunction, Emerson went to war against the stodgy clergy ofBostonon behalf of the spiritual power of the soul:

Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith throttles the preacher; and the goodliest of institutions becomes an uncertain and inarticulate voice.[21]

A Jupiter-Uranus opposition is lined up with his natal Saturn-Pluto opposition, with the Moon trining Jupiter and Saturn, freeing Emerson to destroy the customs of his time and place in order to replace them with the higher laws of the soul:

I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shinning laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.[22]

Transiting Saturn was conjunct his natalNeptune, trining Uranus, and opposite the Moon, allowing him to see through illusions and fully incarnate the spiritual reality that he felt Jesus truly came to teach:

To aim to convert a man by miracles, is a profanation of the soul. A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made, by the reception of beautiful sentiments…they have not yet drunk so deeply of his sense, as to see that only by coming again to themselves, or to God in themselves, can they grow forevermore.[23]

Mars and Venus were conjunct his Mercury (which squares his Jupiter), giving a beautifully elevated, but sharp tone to his words. In the coming weeks and months, with the authority of the Church challenged, the clergy began to attack Emerson’s character. This seems not to have fazed him, as he did not respond to them formally and continued to rise in popularity as his lecture circuit picked up steam.

  On April 19th, 1882, Emerson went for a walk in the rain and caught pneumonia. On April 27th, with Neptune and Saturn conjunct in the sky opposite his natalNeptune, Emerson left his body.


(1) Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. Volume 15 of Library ofAmerica. The American studies collection. 1983.

(2) Geldard, Richard G. God in Concord. Larson Publications, NY. 1999.

(3) Tarnas, Rick. Cosmos and Psyche. Viking Adult; First Edition. 2006.

(4) Emerson’s complete works @ Univ.of Michigan. Accessed 12/5/11.

(5) All journal entries from The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Volume 1.HarvardUniversity Press. 1960

[1] Journal, May 13th, 1835

[2] God in Concord, p. 68

[3] An interested reader might also want to look at the transits on this night, with Jupiter in a grand cross with Mars, Pluto, and a Mercury-Neptune-Uranus conjunction, with the latter squaring Emerson’s Uranus-Jupiter-Saturn mindpoint.

[4] God in Concord, p. 88

[5] The Conduct of Life, VIII

[6] Experience, from Essays and Lectures, p. 473

[7] God in Concord, p. 115

[8] ibid.

[9] Journal, March 16, 1826

[10] Journal, Jan. 16, 1828

[11] Journal, October 24th, 1836

[12] Nature, from Essays and Lectures, p. 47

[13] God in Concord, p. 90

[14] ibid., p. 108

[15] Essays and Lectures, p. 56

[16] ibid., p. 54

[17] ibid., p. 67

[18] ibid., p. 71

[19] April 23rd, 1838

[20] God in Concord, p. 17

[21] Essays and Lectures, p. 83.

[22] ibid., p. 92

[23] ibid., p. 82