by Richard Tarnas
It is returning, at last it is coming home to me — my own Self and those parts of it that have long been abroad and scattered among all things and accidents.
-— Nietzsche , Thus Spoke Zarathustra
The modern mind has long assumed that there are few things more categorically distant from each other than “cosmos” and “psyche.” What could be more outer than cosmos? What more inner than psyche? But today we are obliged to recognize that, of all categories, psyche and cosmos are perhaps the most consequentially intertwined the most deeply mutually implicated. Our understanding of the universe affects every aspect of our interior life from our highest spiritual convictions to the most minuscule details of our daily experience. Conversely, the deep dispositions and character of our interior life fully permeate and configure our understanding of the entire cosmos. The relation of psyche and cosmos is a mysterious marriage, one that is still unfolding at once a mutual interpenetration and a fertile tension of opposites.
It seems we have a choice. There are many possible worlds, many possible meanings, living within us in potentia, moving through us, awaiting enactment. We are not just solitary separate subjects in a meaningless universe of objects upon which we can and must impose our egocentric will. Nor are we blank slates, empty vessels, condemned to playing out passively the implacable processes of the universe — or of God — or of our environment, our genes, our race, our class, our gender, our social-linguistic community, our unconscious, our stage in evolution. Rather, we are miraculously self-reflective and autonomous yet embedded participants in a larger cosmic drama, each of us a creative nexus of action and imagination. Each is a self-responsible microcosm of the creative macrocosm, enacting a richly, complexly co-evolutionary unfolding of reality. To a crucial extent, the nature of the universe depends on us.
Yet it is no less certain that our own marvelously complex nature depends upon and is embedded in the universe. Must we not regard the interpenetration of human and cosmic nature as fundamental, radical, “all the way down”? It seems to me highly improbable that everything we identify within ourselves as specifically human — the human imagination, human spirituality, the full range of human emotions, moral aspiration, aesthetic intelligence, the discernment and creation of narrative significance and meaningful coherence, the quest for beauty, truth, and the good — suddenly appeared ex nihilo in the human being as an accidental and more or less absurd ontological singularity in the cosmos. Is not this assumption, which in one form or another still implicitly pervades most modern and postmodern thought, nothing other than the unexamined residue of the Cartesian monotheistic ego? Is it not much more plausible that human nature, in all its creative multidimensional depths and heights, emerges from the very essence of the cosmos, and that the human spirit is the spirit of the cosmos itself as inflected through us and enacted by us? Is it not more likely that the human intelligence in all its creative brilliance is ultimately the cosmos’s intelligence expressing its creative brilliance? And that the human imagination is ultimately grounded in the cosmic imagination? And, finally, that this larger spirit, intelligence, and imagination all live within and act through the self-reflective human being who serves as a unique vessel and embodiment of the cosmos — creative, unpredictable, fallible, self-transcending, unfolding the whole, integral to the whole, perhaps even essential to the whole?
If so, perhaps the approach of the second suitor to the mystery of the universe will ultimately be a more fruitful and appropriate strategy than one that presumes the universe’s fundamentally meaningless and purposeless nature as the very starting point of legitimate knowledge. Let us recall those remarkable words of Sir James Frazer a century ago at the end of his twelve-volume magnum opus, The Golden Bough:
In the last analysis magic, religion, and science are nothing but theories of thought; and as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect hypothesis. . . . Brighter stars will rise on some voyager of the future — some great Ulysses of the realms of thought — than shine on us. The dreams of magic may one day be the waking realities of science.
Yet perhaps those stars will have been there all along, hidden by the bright dawn of our modernity. And our Ulysses will be but awakening to a very ancient cosmos whose vast intelligence, beauty, and mystery we have been slowly preparing ourselves to know.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot
From the Epilogue in Richard Tarnas’
Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (Viking; 2006)