The Great Challenge of Our Time


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The Great Challenge of Our Time - By Richard Tarnas




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The Reunion of the Masculine and Feminine Principles

from the Epilogue, The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnas

(Richard Tarnas has published a sequel to The Passion of the Western Mind called Cosmos and Psyche published by Viking, January 2006)

Many generalizations could be made about the history of the Western mind, but today perhaps the most immediately obvious is that it has been from start to finish an overwhelmingly masculine phenomenon: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Locke, Hume, Kant, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud…The Western intellectual tradition has been produced and canonized almost entirely by men, and informed mainly by male perspectives. This masculine dominance in Western intellectual history has certainly not occurred because women are any less intelligent than men. But can it be attributed solely to social restriction? I think not. I believe something more profound is going on here: something archetypal. The masculinity of the Western mind has been pervasive and fundamental, in both men and women, affecting every aspect of Western thought, determining its most basic conception of the human being and the human role in the world. All the major languages within which the Western tradition has developed, from Greek and Latin on, have tended to personify the human species with words that are masculine in gender: anthropos, homo, l'homme, el hombre, l'uomo, chelovek, der Mensch, man. As the historical narrative in this book has faithfully reflected, it has always been "man" this and "man" that - "the ascent of man," "the dignity of man," "man's relation to God," "man's place in the cosmos," "man's struggle with nature," "the great achievement of modern man," and so forth. The "man" of the Western tradition has been a questing masculine hero, a Promethean biological and metaphysical rebel who has constantly sought freedom and progress for himself, and who has thus constantly striven to differentiate himself from and control the matrix out of which he emerged. This masculine predisposition in the evolution of the Western mind, though largely unconscious, has been not only characteristic of that evolution, but essential to it.
      For the evolution of the Western mind has been driven by a heroic impulse to forge an autonomous rational human self by separating it from the primordial unity with nature. The fundamental religious, scientific, and philosophical perspectives of Western culture have all been affected by this masculinity - beginning four millennia ago with the great patriarchal nomadic conquests in Greece and the Levant over the ancient matriarchal cultures, and visible in the West's patriarchal religion from Judaism, its rationalist philosophy from Greece, its objectivist science from modern Europe. All these have served the cause of evolving the autonomous human will and intellect: the transcendent self, the independent individual ego, the self-determining human being in its uniqueness, separateness, and freedom. But to do this, the masculine mind has repressed the feminine. Whether one sees this in the ancient Greek subjugation of the pre-Hellenic matrifocal mythologies, in the Judaeo-Christian denial of the Great Mother Goddess, or in the Enlightenment's exalting of the coolly self-aware rational ego radically separate from a disenchanted external nature, the evolution of the Western mind has been founded on the repression of the feminine - on the repression of undifferentiated unitary consciousness, of the participation mystique with nature: a progressive denial of the anima mundi, of the soul of the world, of the community of being, of the all-pervading, of mystery and ambiguity, of imagination, emotion, instinct, body, nature, woman - of all that which the masculine has projectively identified as "other."

The Coronation of the Virgin,
Agnolo Gaddi,
Tempera on wood, c.1370

      But this separation necessarily calls forth a longing for a reunion with that which has been lost - especially after the masculine heroic quest has been pressed to its utmost one-sided extreme in the consciousness of the late modern mind, which in its absolute isolation has appropriated to itself all conscious intelligence in the universe (man alone is a conscious intelligent being, the cosmos is blind and mechanistic, God is dead). Then man faces the existential crisis of being a solitary and mortal conscious ego thrown into an ultimately meaningless and unknowable universe. And he faces the psychological and biological crisis of living in a world that has come to be shaped in such a way that it precisely matches his world view - i.e., in a man-made environment that is increasingly mechanistic, atomized, soulless, and self-destructive. The crisis of modern man is an essentially masculine crisis, and I believe that its resolution is already now occurring in the tremendous emergence of the feminine in our culture: visible not only in the rise of feminism, the growing empowerment of women, and the widespread opening up to feminine values by both men and women, and not only in the rapid burgeoning of women's scholarship and gender-sensitive perspectives in virtually every intellectual discipline, but also in the increasing sense of unity with the planet and all forms of nature on it, in the increasing awareness of the ecological and the growing reaction against political and corporate policies supporting the domination and exploitation of the environment, in the growing embrace of the human community, in the accelerating collapse of long-standing political and ideological barriers separating the world's peoples, in the deepening recognition of the value and necessity of partnership, pluralism, and the interplay of many perspectives. It is visible also in the widespread urge to reconnect with the body, the emotions, the unconscious, the imagination and intuition, in the new concern with the mystery of childbirth and the dignity of the maternal, in the growing recognition of an immanent intelligence in nature, in the broad popularity of the Gaia hypothesis. It can be seen in the increasing appreciation of indigenous and archaic cultural perspectives such as the Native American, African, and ancient European, in the new awareness of feminine perspectives of the divine, in the archaeological recovery of the Goddess tradition and the contemporary re-emergence of Goddess worship, in the rise of Sophianic Judaeo-Christian theology and the papal declaration of the Assumptio Mariae, in the widely noted spontaneous upsurge of feminine archetypal phenomena in individual dreams and psychotherapy. And it is evident as well in the great wave of interest in the mythological perspective, in esoteric disciplines, in Eastern mysticism, in shamanism, in archetypal and transpersonal psychology, in hermeneutics and other non-objectivist epistemologies, in scientific theories of the holonomic universe, morphogenetic fields, dissipative structures, chaos theory, systems theory, the ecology of mind, the participatory universe - the list could go on and on. As Jung prophesied, an epochal shift is taking place in the contemporary psyche, a reconciliation between the two great polarities, a union of opposites: a hieros gamos (sacred marriage) between the long-dominant but now alienated masculine and the long-suppressed but now ascending feminine.
      And this dramatic development is not just a compensation, not just a return of the repressed, as I believe this has all along been the underlying goal of Western intellectual and spiritual evolution. For the deepest passion of the Western mind has been to reunite with the ground of its being. The driving impulse of the West's masculine consciousness has been its dialectical quest not only to realise itself, to forge its own autonomy, but also, finally, to recover its connection with the whole, to come to terms with the great feminine principle in life: to differentiate itself from but then rediscover and reunite with the feminine, with the mystery of life, of nature, of soul. And that reunion can now occur on a new and profoundly different level from that of the primordial unconscious unity, for the long evolution of human consciousness has prepared it to be capable at last of embracing the ground and matrix of its own being freely and consciously. The telos, the inner direction and goal, of the Western mind has been to reconnect with the cosmos in a mature participation mystique, to surrender itself freely and consciously in the embrace of a larger unity that preserves human autonomy while also transcending human alienation.
      But to achieve this reintegration of the repressed feminine, the masculine must undergo a sacrifice, an ego death. The Western mind must be willing to open itself to a reality the nature of which could shatter its most established beliefs about itself and about the world. This is where the real act of heroism is going to be. A threshold must now be crossed, a threshold demanding a courageous act of faith, of imagination, of trust in a larger and more complex reality; a threshold, moreover, demanding an act of unflinching self-discernment. And this is the great challenge of our time, the evolutionary imperative for the masculine to see through and overcome it hubris and one-sidedness, to own it unconscious shadow, to choose to enter into a fundamentally new relationship of mutuality with the feminine in all its forms. The feminine then becomes not that which must be controlled, denied, and exploited, but rather fully acknowledged, respected, and responded to for itself. It is recognized: not the objectified "other," but rather source, goal, and immanent presence.
      This is the great challenge, yet I believe it is one the Western mind has been slowly preparing itself to meet for its entire existence. I believe that the West's restless inner development and incessantly innovative masculine ordering of reality has been gradually leading, in an immensely long dialectical movement, toward a reconciliation with the lost feminine unity, toward a profound and many-levelled marriage of the masculine and feminine, a triumphant and healing reunion. And I consider that much of the conflict and confusion of our own era reflects the fact that this evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climactic stages. For our time is struggling to bring forth something fundamentally new in human history: We seem to be witnessing, suffering, the birth labour of a new reality, a new form of human existence, a "child" that would be the fruit of this great archetypal marriage, and that would bear within itself all its antecedents in a new form. I therefore would affirm those indispensable ideals expressed by the supporters of feminist, ecological, archaic, and other countercultural and multicultural perspectives. But I would also wish to affirm those who have valued and sustained the central Western tradition, for I believe that this tradition - the entire trajectory from the Greek epic poets and Hebrew prophets on, the long intellectual and spiritual struggle from Socrates and Plato and Paul and Augustine to Galileo and Descartes and Kant and Freud - that this stupendous Western project should be seen as a necessary and noble part of a great dialectic, and not simply rejected as an imperialist-chauvinist plot. Not only has this tradition achieved that fundamental differentiation and autonomy of the human which alone could allow the possibility of such a larger synthesis, it has also painstakingly prepared the way for its own self-transcendence. Moreover, this tradition possesses resources, left behind and cut off by it own Promethean advance, that we have scarcely begun to integrate - and that, paradoxically, only the opening to the feminine will enable us to integrate. Each perspective, masculine and feminine, is here both affirmed and transcended, recognized as part of a larger whole; for each polarity requires the other for its fulfilment. And their synthesis leads to something beyond itself: It brings an unexpected opening to a larger reality that cannot be grasped before it arrives, because this new reality is itself a creative act.
      But why has the pervasive masculinity of the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition suddenly become so apparent to us today, while it remained so invisible to almost every previous generation? I believe this is occurring only now because, as Hegel suggested, a civilization cannot become conscious of itself, cannot recognize its own significance, until it is so mature that it is approaching its own death.
      Today we are experiencing something that looks very much like the death of modern man, indeed that looks very much like the death of Western man. Perhaps the end of "man" himself is at hand. But man is not a goal. Man is something that must be overcome - and fulfilled, in the embrace of the feminine.

This passage from 'The Passage of the Western Mind' is reproduced here with the permission of Richard Tarnas.

The Passion of the Western Mind was published 1991 and 1993 by Ballantine Books, New York. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers and is also available in German, Spanish, Portuguese and Hungarian. It has been translated into Swedish and Danish (not yet published) and translation rights have been purchased by Chinese and Korean publishers.

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The Crisis of Our Age

by Pitirim Sorokin, Chapter one.

Every important aspect of the life, organization and the culture of Western society is in extraordinary crisis…Its body and mind are sick and there is hardly a spot on its body which is not sore, nor any nervous fibre which functions soundly…We are seemingly between two epochs: the dying Sensate culture of our magnificent yesterday and the coming Ideational culture of the creative tomorrow. We are living, thinking and acting at the end of a brilliant six-hundred-year-long sensate day. The oblique rays of the sun still illumine the glory of the passing epoch. But the light is fading, and in the deepening shadows it becomes more and more difficult to see clearly and to orient ourselves safely in the confusions of the twilight. The night of the transitory period begins to loom before us, with it nightmares, frightening shadows and heart-rending horrors. Beyond it, however, the dawn of a new great Ideational culture is probably waiting to greet the men of the future…
      The present crisis is not ordinary but extraordinary. It is not merely an economic or political maladjustment, but involves simultaneously almost the whole of Western culture and society, in all their main sectors. It is a crisis in their art and science, philosophy and religion, law and morals, manners and mores; in the forms of social, political and economic organization, including the nature of the family and marriage - in brief, it is a crisis involving almost the whole way of life, thought and conduct of Western society. More precisely, it consists in a disintegration of a fundamental form of Western culture and society dominant for the last four centuries.
      Any great culture, instead of being a mere dumping place of a multitude of diverse cultural phenomena, existing side by side and unrelated to one another, represents a unity or individuality whose parts are permeated by the same fundamental principle and articulate the same basic value. The dominant part of the fine arts and science of such a unified culture, of its philosophy and religion, of its ethics and law, of its main forms of social, economic and political organization, of most of its mores and manners, of its ways of life and mentality, all articulate, each in its own way, this basic principle and value. This value serves as its major premise and foundation. For this reason the important parts of such an integrated culture are also interdependent causally: if one important part changes, the rest of its important parts are bound to be similarly transformed.
      In brief, the integrated part of medieval culture was not a conglomeration of various cultural objects, phenomena and values, but a unified system - a whole whose parts articulated the same supreme principle of true reality and value: an infinite, supersensory and super-rational God, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, absolutely just, good and beautiful, creator of the world and of man. Such a unified system of culture, based upon the principle of a supersensory and super-rational God as the only true reality and value, may be called ideational. A basically similar major premise respecting the super-rational and supersensory reality of God, though differently perceived in its properties, underlay also the integrated culture of Brahmanic India, the Buddhist and Taoist cultures, Greek culture from the eighth to the end of the sixth century BC, and some other cultures. They have all been predominantly ideational. The decline of medieval culture consisted precisely in the disintegration of this ideational system of culture. It began at the end of the twelfth century, when there emerged the germ of a new - and profoundly different - major principal, namely, that the true reality and value is sensory. Only what we see, hear, smell, touch and otherwise perceive through our sense organs is real and has value. Beyond such a sensory reality, either there is nothing, or, if there is something, we cannot sense it; therefore it is equivalent to the non-real and the non-existent. As such it may be neglected. Such was this new principle - one entirely different from the major principle of the ideational system of culture.
      This slowly rising new principle met with the declining principle of ideational culture, and their blending into one organic whole produced an essentially new form of culture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Its major premise was that the true reality is partly supersensory and partly sensory - that it embraces the supersensory and super-rational aspect, plus the rational aspect and, finally, the sensory aspect, all blended into one unity, that of the infinite manifold, God. The cultural system embodying this premise may be called idealistic. The culture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Europe, like the Greek culture of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, was predominantly idealistic, based upon this synthesizing major premise.
      The process, however, did not stop at this point. The ideational culture of the Middle Ages continued to decline, whereas the culture based upon the premise that true reality and value are sensory continued to gather momentum during the subsequent centuries. Beginning roughly with the sixteenth century, the new principle became dominant, and with it the new form of culture that was based upon it. In this way the modern form of our culture emerged - the sensory, empirical, secular, and 'this-worldly' culture. It may be called sensate. It is based upon, and is integrated around, this new principal value: the true reality and value is sensory. It is precisely this principle that is articulated by our modern sensate culture in all its main compartments: in its arts and sciences, philosophy and pseudo-religion, ethics and law; in its social, economic and political organization; in its dominant ways of life and mentality. This will be developed in subsequent chapters. Thus the major principle of medieval culture made it predominantly 'other-worldly' and religious, oriented toward the supersensory reality of God and permeated by this value. The major principle of our modern sensate culture is predominantly 'this-worldly', secular and utilitarian. All these types - ideational, idealistic and sensate - are exemplified in the history of Egyptian and Babylonian, Graeco-Roman, Hindu, Chinese and other great cultures…
      For the past four centuries [the sensate culture] has been dominant. In the period of its ascendancy and climax it created the most magnificent cultural values in most of the compartments of Western culture. During these centuries it wrote one of the most brilliant pages in human history. However, no finite form, either ideational or sensate, is eternal. Sooner or later it is bound to exhaust its creative abilities. When this moment comes, it begins to disintegrate and decline. So it has happened several times before, in the history of a number of the leading cultures of the past; and so it is happening now with our sensate form, which has apparently entered its decadent stage.
      Hence the magnitude of the crisis of our time. Even if it does not mean the extinction of Western culture and society, it nevertheless signifies one of the greatest possible revolutions in our culture and social life. As such, it is infinitely deeper and more significant than the partisans of the 'ordinary crisis' imagine. A change from a monarch to a republic or from capitalism to communism is utterly insignificant in comparison with the substitution of one fundamental form of culture and society of another - ideational for sensate, or vice versa. Such shifts are very rare phenomena. As we have seen, during the thirty centuries of Graeco-Roman and Western history they occurred only four times. But when they do take place, they produce a fundamental and epoch-making revolution in human culture and society. We have the rare privilege of living, observing, thinking and acting in the conflagration of such an ordeal. If we cannot stop it, we can at least try to understand its nature, its causes and its consequences. If we do this, we may be able, to some extent, to shorten its tragic period and to mitigate its ravages.

The Crisis of Our Age was originally published in 1941 and re-published 1992 by Oneworld Publications Ltd., Oxford. I consider it to be one of the most important and illuminating books describing the deep cultural influences active at the present time. It is available from

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