Planets and Archetypes
Richard Tarnas, Ph.D.
(excerpted from Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, New York: Viking, 2005)
"Wisdom is knowing in depth the great metaphors of meaning." C.G. Jung
The concept of planetary archetypes, in many respects the pivotal concept of the emerging astrological paradigm, is complex and must be approached from several directions. Before describing the nature of the association between planets and archetypes, however, we must first address the concept of archetypes more generally, and the remarkable evolution of the archetypal perspective in the history of Western thought.
The earliest form of the archetypal perspective, and in certain respects its deepest ground, is the primordial experience of the great gods and goddesses of the ancient mythic imagination. In this once universal mode of consciousness, memorably embodied at the dawn of Western culture in the Homeric epics and later in classical Greek drama, reality is understood to be pervaded and structured by powerful numinous forces and presences which are rendered to the human imagination as the divinized figures and narratives of ancient myth, often closely associated with the celestial bodies.
Yet our modern word god, or deity or divinity, does not accurately convey the lived meaning of these primordial powers for the archaic sensibility, a meaning that was sustained and developed in the Platonic understanding of the divine. This point was clearly articulated by W. K. C. Guthrie, drawing on a valuable distinction originally made by the German scholar Wilamowitz-Moellendorff:
Theos, the Greek word which we have in mind when we speak of Plato's god, has primarily a predicative force. That is to say, the Greeks did not, as Christians or Jews do, first assert the existence of God and then proceed to enumerate his attributes, saying "God is good," "God is love" and so forth. Rather they were so impressed or awed by the things in life or nature remarkable either for joy or fear that they said "this is a god" or "that is a god." The Christian says "God is love," the Greek Love is theos," or "a god." As another writer [G. M. A. Grube] has explained it: "By saying that love, or victory, is god, or, to be more accurate, a god, was meant first and foremost that it is more than human, not subject to death, everlasting. . . . Any power, any force we see at work in the world, which is not born with us and will continue after we are gone could thus be called a god, and most of them were."
In this state of mind, and with this sensitiveness to the superhuman character of many things which happen to us, and which give us, it may be, sudden stabs of joy or pain which we do not understand, a Greek poet could write lines like: "Recognition between friends is theos." It is a state of mind which obviously has no small bearing on the much-discussed question of monotheism or polytheism in Plato, if indeed it does not rob the question of meaning altogether.
As the Greek mind evolved, by a process sometimes too simply described as a transition from myth to reason, the divine absolutes ordering the world of the mythic imagination were gradually deconstructed and conceived anew in philosophical form in the dialogues of Plato. Building on both the Presocratics' early philosophical discussions of the archai and the Pythagorean understanding of transcendent mathematical forms, and then more directly on the critical inquiries of his teacher Socrates, Plato gave to the archetypal perspective its classic metaphysical formulation. In the Platonic view, archetypes ”the Ideas or Forms ”are absolute essences that transcend the empirical world and yet give the world its form and meaning. They are timeless universals which serve as the fundamental reality informing every concrete particular. Something is beautiful precisely to the extent that the archetype of Beauty is present in it. Or, to put it alternatively, something is beautiful precisely to the extent that it participates in the archetype of Beauty. For Plato, direct knowledge of these Forms or Ideas is regarded as the spiritual goal of the philosopher and the intellectual passion of the scientist.
In turn, Plato's student and successor Aristotle brought to the concept of universal forms a more empiricist approach, supported by a rationalism that was more secular in the character of its logical analysis rather than spiritual and epiphanic. In the Aristotelian perspective, the forms lost their numinosity but gained a new recognition of their dynamic and teleological character as concretely embodied in the empirical world and processes of life. For Aristotle, the universal forms primarily exist in things, not above or beyond them. Moreover, they not only give form and essential qualities to concrete particulars but also dynamically transmute them from within, from potentiality to actuality and maturity, as the acorn gradually metamorphoses into the oak tree, the embryo into the mature organism, a young girl into a woman. The organism is drawn forward by the form to a realization of its inherent potential, just as a work of art is actualized by the artist guided by the form in the artist's mind. Matter is an intrinsic susceptibility to form, an unqualified openness to being configured and dynamically realized through form. In the case of a developing organism, after its essential character has been fully actualized, decay occurs as the form gradually loses its hold. The Aristotelian form thus serves both as an indwelling impulse that orders and moves development, and as the intelligible structure of a thing, its inner nature, that which makes it what it is, its essence. For Aristotle as for Plato, form is the principle by which something can be known, its essence recognized, its universal character distinguished within its particular embodiment.