Traditional and Modern astrology: a philosophical exploration (part 2 – history)

While we may never know exactly how or when horoscopic astrology first began. We do know that it sprung out of a time and place that was greatly influenced by the cosmological ideas of the Babylonian, the celestial religions of the Egyptians, the Hermetic magical understanding of correspondence in nature and the philosophies of the great classical thinkers and their schools, including Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. The period between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE was a time when many of the ancient cultures and their accumulated wisdom came together. The city of Alexandria and its famous library became the cultural and commercial center of the Western world. Here Jewish, Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek traditions intermingled and unified under the Greek language of the Hellenistic lords. Horoscopic astrology appears to have been the results of this interchange of wisdom and ancient learning.

The Babylonian contributed their concept of the 12 fold zodiac and the planetary positions in the signs. The Egyptians brought the concept of the 36 decans and the importance of the rising decan which is possibly the origin of the Ascendant and it’s the importance in the horoscope. The Greeks contributed their understanding of the characteristic of the planetary Gods, the elements and most importantly their system of planetary rulership which was based on the distance of planets to the Sun.[1]

From these rich ingredients arose horoscopic astrology; a subject which was to profoundly influence man throughout his cultural, religious and political history. Astrology was understood to be at various times: a tool for predicting a predestined and fated future, a way of interpreting the will of God or the Gods, a form of Divination with which one could enter into a dialogue with the God(s) and sometimes a bit of all the above. By highlighting some of the mysteries that have fascinated mankind since the dawn of the ages, astrology engendered serious philosophical and scientific debate and challenged intellectual thought and beliefs over the centuries.

One of the foundations on which horoscopic astrology was based was a perception of life which was accepted for over two thousand years. This view was idealistic and held that the physical, transient, sub-lunar world that we experience through our senses was the result or expression of an immaterial, eternal and essentially divine reality. Over the centuries the details of what that essential reality actually constituted and how the natural world and humans were connected or related with it, was the subject of much debate; however the understanding that matter was subservient to a higher and more refined spirit or mind was the accepted paradigm.

In the centuries leading up to the birth of the Jesus, the pagan religions perceived the world as being at the mercy of the Gods whims. The planets were representatives or symbols of these Gods, and so could be relied upon to display their will or intentions. Astrology could forewarn man of the Gods intentions; man could then proceed to make decisions that were in accordance with them, thereby avoiding the displeasure and wrath of their Deities.

In the early centuries CE, as pagan polytheist beliefs were overshadowed by the monotheist beliefs of the Judaic/Christian and later Islamic religions; the planets lost their positions as representatives of myriad Gods, but retained their role as emissaries or signs from the singular Divinity, at least for a period of time.

As Christians challenged the dominance of pagan beliefs in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the role and influence of astrology changed. Astrology reached a height of sorts, during the dying days of the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors used astrology as a tool to give them political advantage; though this was not always to the advantage of their astrologers[2].

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, schools and libraries closed as financial support dried up, the knowledge of the Greek language died out, and the people became less literate. It is with gratitude that we should view the Arabic and Persian astrologers of the early Middle Ages; for while Europe descended into the period we now know as “the dark ages”, the intellectual light was transferred to the Middle East and there the wisdom of the ancient world including astrology was preserved, refined and expanded.

In the 5th and 6th centuries Hellenistic astrology traveled to the East and was intermixed with the astrology of the Persians[3]. Many of the Greek astrological texts were translated into Pahlavi (the language of the Persians) and we can surmise that some additions would have been made. It is unfortunate that no manuscripts from this period have survived, having been destroyed when later the Arabic Muslim armies overthrew the Persians and established their own empire.

Finding themselves in need of help to administer their empire the Arabs invited experts and intellectual giants of the world to assist them in building and maintaining their empire. They established a cultural, commercial and intellectual center emanating from their capital Baghdad; a city whose foundation date and time was elected by a group of astrologers.[4] For the next few centuries Baghdad and the Arab world attracted philosophers, artist and intellectuals of all sorts including astrologers.

Medieval or Arabic astrology flourished from the mid-8th century and lasted for about 200 years. A new translation project began as surviving Greek and Pahlavi texts were translated into Arabic. While the so called Arabic astrologers of the 8th and 9th centuries (many of whom were actually either Persian or Jewish), did refine some technical and mathematical points, the astrology they practiced remained for the most part Hellenistic. It is from this period that we begin to encounter the concept of planetary orbs, quadrant house systems and the beginning of horary astrology proper.

In the 11th century Europe began to reawaken from its 600-year hiatus. As the Christians began to repulse the Muslim from the Hibernian peninsula and reclaim their territory; they discovered the libraries left in their wake. Europe’s intellectual fire was reignited. By the mid-12th century one of the most feverish translation projects began. Arabic texts on all subjects including many on astrology were being translated into Latin. Classical Hellenistic works were made available for the first time in over six centuries to a very intellectually hungry Europe.

After astrology was reintroduced into Europe in 12th century, it took its place at the center of theological, scientific, mathematical and philosophical debate. It was an accepted subject of serious study that invited much debate, criticism and controversy[5] and was one of the principle subjects taught in the newly founded Universities. The basic curriculum consisting of the foundational trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric; and the more advance quadivium: geometry, music, astronomy and arithmetic.

It is important to remember that during the middle age and renaissance, science and theology were more closely aligned; in fact, religious dogma aside, they had the same goal, to understand and come to know the nature of life and the universe. Within the study of nature, God was a given and needed to be reconciled with science as well as astrology.

In the west astrology reached the apex of its popularity and influence around the mid 1600’s; a time in which the political and social structures of Europe were irreparably changed by the English civil war, which culminated in the execution of Charles I.[6] At the end of the 17th century astrology experienced a sharp decline in influence. The reasons for this decline are multi-faceted and complex.[7] Astrology did not die so much as it was split into various factions that were unable to survive the tumultuous paradigm shift of the time.

After the restoration (circa 1660 – 1685) there was a backlash against astrology, more specifically judicial astrology[8], which had been used as a propaganda tool during the volatile and insecure period of the civil war. Astrology had become associated with seditious radicalism which was perceived to be the cause of so much destruction and unrest. The natural desire for calm and peace made many suspicious of anything that reminded them of that dangerous and dark period in their recent history; therefore astrology and astrologers were no longer trusted.

At the same time the new intellectual climate favoring a more Baconian[9] science based on observation and experiment, began to view judicial astrology as being irrational and overly steeped in magical thought and superstition. Publicly astrology lost favour with the intellectual world. Though many of the great minds of the late 17th early 18th century privately acknowledged the validity of astrology, especially natural astrology[10], they believed that judicial astrology had been corrupted and needed to be purged of irrational beliefs, popular magical connotations and political rhetoric. Many hoped to restore astrology, bringing it more in line with “natural philosophy”.[11]

There was another branch of thinking which believed that astrology had strayed from the purity of its classic Ptolemaic roots, and needed to be purified by eliminating the “false Arabic inventions”, the magical thinking and the new rational scientific thinking that had polluted astrology. Though many wanted astrology to be restored or purified in order to takes its rightful place in the world of the educated elite, its negative reputation and fragmentation weakened it so that it could not defend itself against its critics.

As the world and life came to be understood from the perspective of mechanical, material and intellectual rationale, rather than from the perspective of divine creation and immaterial soul; the perceived connection of astrology to divination and magic led to its diminishing importance in science and philosophy, and its eventual banishment from intellectual discourse. By the early-18th century much of what had previously been the domain of astrology, became redefined as astronomy or medicine; while astrology was dismissed as trivial and irrelevant or worse, misguided superstition. By the end of that century astrology had been relegated to the fringes and was of no consequence in academic or intellectual circles.

A third arm of astrology did survive and remained popular with the majority of the rural and uneducated public; this was the simplified astrology of the popular almanacs which the intellectual elite rejected and mocked as being only fit for the “vulgar” commoners. The common rural folks held on to evident truth of idealism (mind before matter) for longer.

Eventually even this more popular astrology was attacked when the vested interest of the industrial power fought to eliminate these almanacs because they were rooted to a past that was subject to the natural rhythms of time, which did not accord with the more mechanical “clock” time of the industrial age.

part 3

[1]For a full and detailed history of astrology’s beginnings see Nicholas Campion, the Dawn of Astrology, (Continuum Books, the Tower Building, 11 York Road, London)

[2]See Ben Bobrick, The Fated Sky: Astrology in History (Simon & Schuster, Rockefeller Center,  New York)p. 27-60

[3]Sassanian Persian empire flourished between 220 to 650 CE

[4]The chart was elected by the Caliph Al-Mansur’s court astrologer Nawbakht the Persian, Umar al-Tabire and the young Masha’Allah. The chart was set for July 31, 762 around 2:40 PM in Bagdad, Iraq.

[5]Benson Bobrick, The Fated Sky: Astrology in History, (Simon & Schuster, Rockefeller Center, New York) p. 91-92

[6]The execution of the King was a momentous event which destroyed the long held notion of the “divine right” of the King to rule.  I believe this created a split between us and the divine, which has led to the fragmentation of our world.

[7]For more information about this see Patrick Curry, Prophecy and Power (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey  1989)

[8]Judicial astrology refers to specific chart analysis and judgment leading to individual prediction or advice, as different from natural astrology which looks at the natural phenomenon such as weather, health and mundane events, associated with celestial movement and cycles.

[9]Roger Bacon (1214-1294) whose ideas were later developed by Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

[10]See note 6.

[11]Natural sciences


Published in: on December 5, 2016 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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