Traditional and Modern astrology: a philosophical exploration (part 3 – the birth of modern astrology)

The industrial revolution (1750 – 1850) changed the lives of ordinary people and had a profound effect on society. The shift from an agriculturally based economy to a manufacturing one saw a decline in rural population and an increase in urban living. It also led to changes in the distribution of wealth and class distinction; as entrepreneurs were able to make fortunes in manufacturing which in turn created new jobs and led to the rise of a new middle class through the 18th and 19th century. As this middle class became more numerous, better educated and influential, they developed an interest in and fascination for occult subjects and mysticism evidenced by the founding in the mid-19th century of the theosophical society amongst others. It was through the mystery schools of the late 19th early 20th century that astrology began to reemerge from its years in the wilderness and find a new audience.

The astrology that returned was changed and coupled with the legal challenges that many of its practitioners faced, astrology came to reject event-oriented and predictive horoscopic analysis while focusing on natal astrology with an emphasis on character analysis and the psychological and spiritual development of the individual.

It was Alan Leo (1860 – 1917), an immensely successful and influential astrologer who through his work put astrology firmly on the road to the more individual focus and psychologically-oriented horoscope delineation of modern times. He is rightly known as “the father of modern astrology”.  Being a devout theosophist he also incorporated many of the concepts of karma and reincarnation into astrology. One of the principle things that modern astrology rejected outright was horary, which was seen by Alan Leo as being spiritually dangerous.

“Horary astrology, as practiced today, is the vilest rubbish imaginable, and not worthy of the name. Indeed, it is not astrology at all, but simply divination, for which purpose geomancy or card laying would answer just as well… It is the curse of the science and the ruin of the astrologer.”[1]

While it could be argued that so much of the techniques and knowledge of traditional astrology had been lost, making the practice of horary near impossible, the main issue was probably more philosophical and possibly legal.

By the early 20th century the world had changed to the point where the reasons for astrology’s initial decline were not even a distant memory, but rather a forgotten and irrelevant footnote in the history of science. It had been so long since astrology had figured in serious theological, philosophical or scientific discussion, that most would find it improbable that it ever had.

Without prediction, astrology was safe from legal persecution and accusations of fortune telling. Focusing on character analysis was a good way of deflecting any awkward need to justify astrology to an intellectual world steeped in a scientific perspective, which was firmly focused on material rationalism. Astrology could continue to amuse and entertain the masses without being any threat to serious thinkers of the day.

The astrology that emerged in the early 20th century was rooted in the mystery schools of the 19th century but informed by the new science of psychology and astronomical advances. This astrology incorporated the recently discovered planets, emphasized universal significance of the signs and planets and became firmly focused on natal and character analysis. By the 1980’s ancient myths, Jungian ideas, popular psychology and a sprinkling of “new-age” concepts were dominating astrological discourse, but astrology was still unacceptable in serious, academic circles.

part 4

[1]Alan Leo from Modern Astrology II/VII: 10 (1896) pp. 434-437 as quoted by Patrick Curry in A Confusion of Prophets Collin & Brown (1992) p. 165


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