|Lesson Eight: Modes and Elements|
The Modes: Cardinal, Fixed and Mutable Signs
Symbolically, the number three refers to the establishment of a relationship between two previously unrelated or opposing principles. For example, a line drawn between two points creates a relationship between these two points. What is particularly relevant about the symbolic nature of the number three is that our logical, discriminating minds have difficulty understanding it, because the intellect is divisive and polar by nature. 'Understanding' is an emotional, rather than an intellectual, function. It comes from the heart rather than the head. We could say that the number three is a quality of the soul rather than of the spirit. The more we understand, the more we are able to reconcile and relate. For example, words beginning with the prefix 're-' (which literally means 'back again') tend to be gentle, healing words describing the bringing together of that which has been previously separated: re-member, re-lationship, re-medy, re-pair, re-solve, re-form, re-concile, re-cognise. The number three teaches us that true and false are relative and that some kind of equilibrium between positive and negative forces is possible, such as occur, for example, in the forces of action, reaction and equilibrium. The Greek philosophers used the system of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in their rhetoric, and three exists in Chinese philosophy as the yin, the yang and the tao, which is the middle road between opposites.
The law of three can be observed in action in very many different areas of life. In sport, for example, where there are two opposing teams, the referee or umpire is the third force whose job it is to mediate between the two sides and to keep the game moving forwards without war breaking out. Or in a court of law, where the judge is the third force overseeing and mediating between the prosecution and defence counsels, or in the British House of Commons, where the two opposing political parties face each other in debate and are mediated by the Speaker of the House. Without this third force there is no possibility of a creative resolution, since each side would be endlessly trying to conquer and destroy the other.
When we are caught at the either/or level of duality or polarity, then we can be paralysed by a sterile, static, rigid kind of indecision in which we find ourselves weighing up the opposites, identifying first with one end and then with the other, but without being able to find a relationship between them. Jung's advice in situations of this sort is for the individual to first make both ends of the spectrum fully conscious and to deliberately suffer the tension of the opposites, since 'every tension of opposites culminates in a release out of which comes the third and in the third the tension is resolved and the lost unity is restored.'  This is a very profound idea and extremely helpful to live by, once we have grasped it.
Audience: Do you mean to say that solutions can't be worked out using reason or logic?
Clare: Yes. Although the use of reason and logic is an essential part of the process of identifying the alternative options and choices and the consequences of either choice, the intellect alone cannot provide the solution. If we are fortunate, and have the faith to be able to sit with the tension of uncertainty and indecision, an inclusive resolution, which does not deny either end of the spectrum but includes both, will emerge from somewhere other than the intellect. This is the third force. We could even describe this as the wisdom of the soul, which has long been considered to have three parts. It is said that Plato adopted his doctrine of the tripartite soul from the Pythagoreans. For Plato one part is 'spirited' (cardinal), another part 'desires the pleasures of nutrition and generation' (fixed) and the last part is 'reasoning' (mutable). When each part receives what it is due, the soul is brought into a state of harmony.
Audience: My daughter has Sun in Libra, and she is very rational and skilful at balancing up ideas until she is completely paralysed and doesn't know what to do. It's funny that you say this, because I have started suggesting to her that she sleeps on the problem to see if a solution presents itself to her. Otherwise, we get into a 26-hour discussion about either/or which never helps, and ends up making both of us miserable and frustrated.
Audience: This is an interesting idea, but either way seems to involve suffering.
Clare: That is true. The alternative is to identify solely with one end of the spectrum. This certainly reduces the tension on a superficial level, but is a move away from our task of differentiation and integration, and will not help us to tend to the soul's need for balance and harmony.
Cardinal, fixed and mutable natures
In astrology, the three forces or modes are known as cardinal, fixed and mutable; or initiating, resisting and mediating or accommodating. In exactly the same way, when the birth chart is divided into three, the 120º aspect known as the trine describes relationship, resolution and harmony. If we consider the first three signs of the zodiac, the primal force is Aries, cardinal fire, followed by the equally powerful resistance of the second sign of Taurus, fixed earth, creating a polarity which is only resolved by the third sign of Gemini, mutable air, with its ability to relate, communicate and to mediate between the two opposing forces without taking sides. This same theme is repeated around the zodiac, with cardinal energy followed by fixed energy and resolved by mutable energy, whether this is Cancer, Leo and Virgo; Libra, Scorpio and Sagittarius; or Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces.
Each sign of the zodiac is either cardinal, fixed or mutable. You can see from this diagram that we can now add the modes to the polarities, which gives us another level of information with which to understand the meaning of the zodiac signs.
We have already identified the signs according to their polarity, and the modes describe an additional level of orientation and motivation. The motivation of the cardinal signs of Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn is to initiate and to achieve. The motivation of the fixed signs of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius is to resist and stabilise, and the motivation of the mutable signs of Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces is to adapt, mediate and reconcile.
Audience: Are you saying that the mutable signs reflect the meaning of the number three?
Clare: Yes, they are the reconciling signs. The mutable signs do not really have their own clear motivation, other than to remain fluid and flexible. This is why they are so good at mediating between the 'unstoppable force' of the cardinal signs and the 'immovable object' of the fixed signs. Mutable signs are adaptable, adjustable, changeable, flexible and restless. The cardinal signs of Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn are initiating and goal oriented. Cardinal people start ventures; they have a vision of what has to be achieved; they are self-motivated. They challenge themselves, they want to lead and they have the natural urge to instigate action and to initiate. The fixed signs of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius don't like to be pushed around. If they feel pressurised or challenged they are likely to dig their heels in and not give an inch. Planets in the fixed signs are stable and consistent, and people with predominantly fixed charts tend to be very loyal, with a tremendous capacity for endurance and perseverance. There is a strong resistance to change and difficulty letting go, which means that they can get stuck in a rut. On the other hand, planets in the fixed signs can really make things happen, because they have the patience to see things through to their logical conclusion.
The mutable signs of Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces are adaptable, adjustable, changeable and flexible. Planets in these signs tend to be more interested in the journey than in the destination. They also tend to avoid conflict at all costs, because it is not in the nature of the mutable signs to engage in conflict, except as mediators or go-betweens. They will find a way around things and are generally not a bit bothered by changing situations.
An image from Philosophia reformata (1622) by Johannes Mylius presents us with the four stages or grades of the alchemical work timed according to the Sun's entry into the cardinal signs. The first stage begins in Aries, the second in Cancer and the third in Libra, while the fourth, beginning in Capricorn, symbolises both putrefaction and fermentation.
Because the modes describe very different orientations, they help us to understand and appreciate why people respond in very different ways to the same situation. I once heard a good example of this. Imagine that three people are travelling along a road - one cardinal, one fixed and one mutable - and that they find the road has been blocked by a huge boulder. Cardinal is likely to see this as an interesting challenge and scale the boulder with climbing equipment, going straight over the top. Mutable simply goes round the outside and carries on, or changes direction altogether and finds another road. Fixed, on the other hand, will spend five years drilling a hole right through the centre.
Another example could apply to a classroom situation like ours. Imagine that one evening a completely new tutor arrived whom you weren't expecting. Mutable people are likely to think: 'OK, this might be interesting, let's go with this and see what happens.' The fixed people are more likely to resist: 'We were never told about this, we weren't expecting it and it is not acceptable. We are going to complain.' Cardinal people will probably want to challenge the new tutor to see if they are up to it.
Audience: Would you say that people with the same orientation are likely to be compatible? That the cardinal signs, for example, are likely to get along with each other?
Clare: This is a very interesting question, although the answer is not particularly straightforward. I think it is true to say that with all relationships there is both an attraction of the same and of the different. Unless there is enough similarity, we would have no point of contact with the other person. We would be unable to relate to them in any kind of comfortable, familiar way. However, if, as I suspect, relationships are our major vehicle for growth, self-development and self-awareness, then they tend to be most powerful when the partner carries qualities and motivations which are either lacking in our chart or which are in our chart but which we are not expressing for ourselves.
Now, if you have a look at the same seven planets in your own chart, you will discover whether you have any particular modal emphasis. Looking at the example charts, we can see that David has the following modal balance:
Sally has the following modal balance:
This distribution immediately gives us clues about David and Sally's natural orientations. David is mostly cardinal and fixed, so he is perfectly capable of setting himself goals (cardinal) and seeing them through to completion (fixed). This is a fairly driven and powerful combination, and there may be times when he needs the input of mutable people, to help him think of alternatives, or ways around the difficulties he comes up against. Sally's natural orientation, on the other hand, is predominantly fixed. She is naturally loyal and reliable and determined (fixed) but is not a natural initiator (lack of cardinal). Does anyone here have a particularly strong cardinal emphasis?
Audience: I have five points in cardinal signs.
Clare: Do you recognise yourself as someone who has drive? That you are self-determining, self-motivated and goal-oriented?
Audience: Well, now that you mention it, I suppose that is right. I do like to be at the wheel, for example. I always have to be the one that drives - literally!
Clare: Exactly. You have just got to lead and be in charge. You are the one who knows where you are going.
Audience: I see myself as a cardinal person but my chart doesn't agree. I have no planets at all in cardinal signs, but I have always thought of myself as extremely goal-oriented. How can that be?
Clare: Well, this is another example of the psyche's inherent compensatory function in the service of our development towards wholeness and personal integration. As we saw when we looked at the principle of polarity, if something is 'missing' from our birth charts, it doesn't mean that it is not there. Rather, it means that it is not an innate part of our conscious awareness of ourselves, so we will meet it in our dealings with the world and with other people, often very powerfully. If you have no cardinal planets in your chart, then it is likely that you are not particularly comfortable on a personal level with this particular motivation. In an ideal world, you would prefer that other people make the decisions and lead the way. However, I suspect that as soon as you have dealings with the outer world and with other people, circumstances conspire in such a way that you end up feeling compelled to take the lead. With plenty of planets in cardinal signs, this would be instinctive and taken for granted, but with no planets in cardinal signs, it is likely that you feel driven, forced, and compelled and challenged into action. It can become a very compulsive drive or a kind of over-compensation, which can be extremely effective, however uncomfortable. We do tend to find ourselves forced to contend with anything which is missing in our charts.
If you are working with a chart which has a marked lack of a particular polarity or of a particular modality, or even of a particular element, then it is always important to pay attention to this, because it is the imbalances which can provide real clues to the way someone functions in the world. Does anyone have a particular emphasis on the fixed signs?
Audience: Yes, I do.
Clare: So we can assume that you are an extremely reliable person, and that your strengths are being able to stick at something and see it through.
Audience: I am more likely to finish things for other people than for myself. It's a time thing - I only have seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day, but in the end everything will eventually get done.
Clare: Just listen to that determination. I very much doubt whether a mutable person would have the sticking power to hang around long enough to get everything done. And it is possible that the work you are finishing off for other people was started by cardinal people who have already moved on to their next goal. It is often said that fixed signs finish off what cardinal signs start.
Audience: My sister is a Scorpio and she just won't budge. Ever.
Clare: Isn't it fascinating how different we are? Let's imagine our three people, cardinal, fixed and mutable, planning a holiday. How is each likely to go about it and what kind of holiday would they choose?
Audience: Well I suppose cardinal would like a challenge, like an adventure holiday, but with a goal. Not just sitting on the beach. They might go on a climbing holiday or a cultural tour or a driving rally. At any rate, it would probably come naturally to them to do the planning, to get all the information and to make a decision.
Clare: Yes, that's right. Mutable is likely to leave it up to others to decide and to organise, and then join in and 'go along for the ride'. Left to their own devices, mutable is unlikely to want to commit to a particular action or destination in advance, and may prefer to leave things open until the last minute and take pot luck, or see if anything else comes up. If cardinal and mutable are going on holiday together, this could either work very well, with mutable perfectly happy to adapt and adjust to cardinal's plans, or mutable's lack of focus and commitment could just as easily infuriate cardinal. On the other hand, fixed would be resistant to change and may have been to the same place for their holidays for the last twenty-five years. So I am sure you can see that the issue of where to go on holiday can be a potential minefield.
Audience: I have to argue with you here, because virtually all my planets are in fixed signs, and I always want to go somewhere different. I have often been told about this fixed business and how resistant I am to change, but in fact I always need change.
Clare: Just to tease you a little bit, how do you think you would react if your partner suggested that you go back to the same place as last year?
Audience: No, we would need to go somewhere different. Okay, I see what you mean - this makes me very fixed and resistant!
Clare: Obviously we are just looking at extremes, for the time being. These are just caricatures, and the actual picture is always much more subtle. It is extremely unusual to find completely pure examples. However, just understanding the difference between these three basic orientations is a tremendous help when it comes to understanding ourselves and others. It helps us to appreciate that everyone has their own particular innate orientation, which may not be the same as ours but which is equally valid. Each of these three modes has its gifts and qualities and its contribution to make, as well as its more annoying, irritating and difficult aspects. If we can understand someone's orientation, it makes all the difference to our relationship to them.
Copyright ©2005 by Clare Martin.
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