Book Review: The Passion of the Western Mind

img_3577The Passion of the Western Mind is a book I just put down, that I simply could not get enough of! Written in 1991 by Dr. Richard Tarnas, a Professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies, I had known about this book since at least 1998 but never set the time aside to read it. Perhaps waiting until the year 2017 to do so was fitting.

Before we jump in, I’d like to start with an excerpt from the book, which is actually a quote from Carl Jung and a reflection about modern times. He writes:

A mood of universal destruction and renewal has set its mark on our age. This mood makes itself felt everywhere: politically, socially and philosophically. We are living in what the Greeks called the ‘kairos,” the right moment for a metamorphasis of the gods, of the fundamental principals and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our choosing, is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this tremendous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science. So much is at stake  and so much depends on the psychological constitution of modern man; does the individual know that he is the makeweight that tips the scales?

In short, this great book takes a deep dive into the history of Western thinking, beginning over 2,000 years ago with the migration of Greek-speaking Indo-European peoples into the Aegean area uncovering nothing less than a rich tapestry of interwoven thinking across cultures and time, helping us to better understand the complex history of our shared ancestry.

Tarnas explores hundreds of thinkers across linear time, pinpointing the profound ideas that key individuals throughout history have brought forth during various cultural periods. He explores how those ideas were either initially opposed, built upon, shaped, synthesized by others, or all together ignored. For example, take Copernicus, who was the first to postulate that the earth was not at the center of the universe. It took a few generations before his ideas were taken seriously. From the book:

On the last day of his life, in the year 1543, a copy of the (his) published work was brought to Copernicus. But on that day, and even through the following several decades, there was little indication in Europe that an unprecedented revolution in the Western world view had been initiated. For most who heard of it, the new conception was so contradictory to everyday experience, so patently false, as not to require serious discussion. But as a few proficient astronomers began to find Copernicus’ argument persuasive, the opposition began to mount; and it was the religious implications of the new cosmology that quickly provoked the most intense attacks.

Beginning (essentially) with the Greeks in 580 BC, Tarnas moves through a series of Greek thinkers like Anaximander, the first to develop a systematic cosmology; Pythagoras, who developed a synthesis between science and mysticism; Socrates, Plato, and Hippocrates, who lays the foundation for ancient medicine; to Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Euclid, and many others until Greece was conquered by Rome in 146 BC.

Moving from Greek thought through to the Classical Era, Tarnas next explores the early thinkers of the Christian worldview and the Medieval Era; the Modern World View (encompassing the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and Secularism) and the Transformation of the Modern Era (exploring the changing image of the human from Copernicus through Freud); to the Postmodern Mind. The book culminates with an educated and critical look at all previous worldviews leading up to this point in Western human history.

Toward the end of the book, Tarnas suggests we are approaching a moment of cumulatively shaped and critically poignant cultural significance. He writes:

The intellectual question that looms over our time is whether the current state of profound metaphysical and epistemological irresolution is something that will continue indefinitely, taking on perhaps more viable, or more radically disorienting, forms as the years and decades pass; whether it is in fact the entropic prelude to some kind of apocalyptic denouement of history; or whether it represents an epochal transition to another era altogether, bringing a new form of civilization and a new world view with principles and ideas fundamentally different from those that have impelled the modern world view through its dramatic trajectory.

Let that sink in – and … read it again. Such a profound statement! And to read these final thoughts in the context of having just finished the book makes this question all the more compelling.

In short, as a marketing professional I would highly recommend the book because it sheds light on our modern situation by providing a  comprehensive approach to understanding how we arrived where we are at as a culture today. It shines a spotlight on the great issues of our time and provides clarity amid a sense of chaos. The book also offers a thorough and well-researched understanding about each major line of thought shaping our collective consciousness.

If I had to rate this book on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d most certainly give it a 10! If you’re interested in reading the book, an excellent starting point would be to begin with the epilogue to the book, which you can find on Dr. Tarnas’ page by clicking here. Would love to hear your thoughts on the book!



  1. Hi there,

    “Would love to hear your thoughts on the book!” … you said, so here are a few thoughts from me.

    If you like the Epilogue… you are probably inclined to like the whole book, I think. That, anyway, has also been my experience with this book. I liked it, in contents more than in style – Tarnas is a gifted “presenter” at times, but not always a great writer. Nevertheless, his main ideas seemed worthwhile.

    Suddenly, while reading, however, I made a discovery that was less “nice”… He quite uncritically (and without mentioning it!) adopts an essay of Freud in which Freud compares his own “brilliant contribution” to science with the revolutions brought about by Copernicus and Darwin. I discovered it only because I recently read about this shameless Freudian self-elevation in “The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis” (Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani – 2012)

    Since Tarnes is just paraphrasing Freud here (ch.VI) it makes me quite suspicious about the entire work. Maybe double-checking Tarnas is not such a bad idea.

    Beside: All his praise for Freud is not just a repeated misrepresentation of history (the discovery of the “unconscious”), it has meanwhile become quite clear that Freud’s work must be labelled as pseudo-science. At least in Europe (where I come from) Freud is seen as a most overrated scientist.

    I still think Tarnas has many valuable insights to offer, but I don’t think we should uncritically applaud everything he says.

    Best regards,

    James R. Grit (phil.theologian, Dutch)

    • James, thank your for sharing your thoughts. I greatly appreciate hearing them! Prior to reading Tarnas’ book, I also read a few books by Ken Wilber on integral theory. The central ideas brought forth by all of the books offered a new way of thinking about cultural evolution, as well as personal psychological development, in a way that made sense to me (and that hadn’t heard before.) I was also familiar with the concept of spiral dynamics, so Tarnas’ book for me was just one more way of thinking about a much bigger idea (how we develop, how cultures transform). I will say, however, that I went on to try and read Tarnas’ next book Cosmos and Psyche. That book was written in a different style and it wasn’t ultimately a book I was interested in. So my overall exposure to Tarnas is minimal. For me, this book was a page turner. Glad you were able to share in the experience as well.

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