By Courtney Roberts, MA
Reformation and Restoration
To return to the topic of astrology, and our search for the origin of the current contempt for this former centerpiece of academia, Patrice Guinard eloquently expresses his view of its suppression by,
“…people whose interest was served not by liberty of thought, but rather by the success of their own ideas, the preservation of their social position, and above all, by imposing direction on the ideas of others.”21
Here Guinard was not referring to the officials of 5th century Greece, but to the influence of ‘ the scientific academies, religious orders (above all the Jesuits) and the literary salons’ in 17th century France. According to Guinard,
‘Astrology was not displaced by a convincing argument of philosophical or scientific nature, it was simply rejected on the basis of the enforcement of a consensus among an established body of intellectuals…” 22 ‘
In the English-speaking world, the depth of astrology’s fall from grace can best be judged by comparison with the height of its influence during the 16th and 17th centuries. It permeated every level of society. The poorest of labourers still ordered even their most mundane activities, from farming and sowing, to traveling, or putting on new clothes, by the phases of the Moon.
The lower classes were not the only ones who devoured the popular astrology of the almanacs, which sold an estimated 400,000 copies a year and were read even by those who could read little else. Astrology was still included in the universities’ curricula, and, as mathematics and astronomy were necessary to cast an accurate chart, it had a distinct appeal for gentlemen. Meanwhile, the monarchs and their courts, from Henry VII through Charles II, relied on the advice of their favorite astrologers.23
As Bernard Capp succinctly puts it in Astrology & the Popular Press,
“The most famous mediaeval astrologers were drawn towards the courts of kings and princes. Their patrons valued their medical skills, and perhaps still more their ability to predict the outcome of wars and rebellions… Governments soon came to believe however, that what was suitable for the eyes of the king was best concealed from his subjects.”24
Capp quotes a Puritan complaint about the Elizabethan court, that the ‘nobility put more trust in the astrologer than in God.” 25 However, in a situation which closely parallels the perils of astrology in Rome, in 1581 a statute was passed in Parliament making it a felony to ‘erect figures, cast nativities, or calculate by prophecy how long the Queen would live or who would succeed her.” 26
Just as in Rome, astrology and conspiracy were intimately linked. Even the most famous astrologers and almanac makers did their stints in jail, including Forman, Lilly, Culpepper, and the royalist, Wharton. Nevertheless, according to Capp,
“…the government saw a potential value in astrological prophecy, properly controlled.”28
The onset of civil war in 1642 changed everything, and the uncertainties of the time gave rise to an explosion of popular political astrology as the monarchist and parliamentary factions seemingly fought out their differences among the stars. When the dust had settled, William Lilly emerged from the pack as the most influential astrologer at the time of astrology’s greatest influence.
Lilly was an astrological genius; revered and sought after by students and querents from among the highest ranks. Scholars, clergymen, nobles, and astronomers all held his judgments in high esteem and saluted him as the apotheosis of the art.29 Which is not to say that he didn’t have his detractors. His open support of Parliament’s cause, his predictions of the eventual death of Charles I, and his intrigues in intelligence in France, which still remain something of a mystery, made him the uncontested champion among radical astrologers. He was even pensioned and retained by Cromwell’s government, which he had served so freely in his almanacs throughout the war.30 Consequently, his very name was anathema to the Royalists.
Once the monarchy was firmly re-ensconced and stability restored, astrologers became an unpleasant reminder of desperate times. To the educated and ruling classes, enjoying their renewed comfort and status under the patronage of Charles II, astrology was the enemy of peace. The future Bishop of Rochester, Thomas Sprat, in his History of the Royal Society, published in 1667, referred to astrology as
‘...this melancholy, this frightful, this Astrological Humor’ which was ‘a disgrace to the Reason and honor of mankind, that every fantastical humorist should presume to interpret all the secret Ordinances of Heven.’
Echoing current politics, Sprat claimed that astrology ‘withdraws our obedience, from the true Image of God the rightfull Soveraign’; and nothing could be more dangerous to ‘men’s public, or privat peace.’32
Astrology & 'The New Science'
Despite the rejection of the Anglican Church and the ruling class, astrology had plenty of support among the new scientists. Nowadays, it is assumed that astrology died out because it was somehow superseded after the publication of the work of Copernicus. That has turned out to be yet another gross oversimplification.
Astrology and science were closely joined during this time, and astrologers, almanac writers, and scientists were often one and the same. Far from being eclipsed by the latest discoveries, astrologers were enthusiastic promoters and educators. By putting the powerful public forum of the almanacs into the full service of science, astrologers played an important role in communicating the latest discoveries to the general public.
More to the point, the most important astronomers of the time were also practicing astrologers. Historians of science have been accused of being less than forthcoming about this. Tycho Brahe was the astrologer to the Danish court, and later court astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II.
Two of his early tracts, namely, Against Astrologers, For Astrology, and another on new methods of house division, have since disappeared, but other works have survived. For instance, in 1574, lecturing in Copenhagen, Tycho elaborated on his theories about the astrological correspondences between the heavenly bodies, terrestrial substances, and the organs of the body.41 Tycho not only wrote astrological interpretations of supernovas and comets, he did extensive work in astrological weather prediction. Some of his basic principles of astro-meteorology were published in 1573 in De Nova Stella. His work in this direction continued throughout his life and he left behind copious notebooks and written accounts.
Tycho’s successor as Emperor Rudolph’s astrologer was his assistant, Johan Kepler. Kepler was a deeply religious man who had originally aspired to become a Lutheran minister. Like Phillip Melanchthon, his astrology was part and parcel of his Christianity. As the Imperial Mathematician, he not only interpreted horoscopes for the emperor and his court, he published regular almanacs and predictions and made himself available for questioning on astrological and meteorological matters by the people of Prague.
Kepler also published extensively on his passion for reforming astrology: something of a hot topic in his time. In 1601 Kepler published De Fundamentis, or, On the More Certain Fundamentals of Astrology, in which he explains his opinions on how, and to what extent, astrology works. He published Tertium Intervens, or the Third Man in the Middle, in 1610. In this classic of astrological reform, he presents himself between the two extremes of those who practice superstitious star-gazing and those who want to throw astrology out altogether. In 1619 he published his masterpiece, Harmonices Mundi. Kepler poured twenty years of his life’s work into this grand synthesis of geometry, arithmetic, music, astrology and astronomy, which also contained his third law of planetary motion.
One of Kepler’s favorite correspondents was Galileo, with whom he shared thoughts on astronomy and astrology. Galileo both practiced and taught astrology, and had a consulting clientele which included the Medici family. In 1610, Cosimo II appointed him to the post of court astrologer. Galileo’s Astrologica Nonulla, contains fifty pages of horoscopes, along with his notes and interpretations, which lend insight into the personal idiosyncrasies of his art.
So while there were the usual complaints about the vulgar excesses of judicial astrology, there was tremendous cooperation, even excitement, on the subject of natural astrology, and the effect of cosmic influences on larger biological and physical systems. To quote Keith Thomas on the demise of astrology, “the clergy and the satirists chased it into its grave, but the scientists were unrepresented at its funeral.”*
Capp agrees, stating that scientists “made no systematic attempt to destroy it … their task was not its destruction but the separation of truth from mere tradition and the extension of the scientific revolution into a new sphere.” 49 He concludes “that other, non-scientific reasons contributed to the decline.” 61
The arguments against astrology were instead couched more and more in religious language, as the Protestant churches stiffened their stance against it, even attacking astrology as ‘popish.’ Their attitude has persisted to this day, resulting in modern Christianity’s almost unanimous hostility towards anything astrological, but it also has had lasting influence in the now unquestioned exclusion of astrology from academia. Mathematics eventually emerged as the theologically safer avenue of pursuit, after its own struggles with clerical suppression.
So we find the source of the current sad condition of astrology in the Restoration; banned from the universities by Protestant fundamentalists, and scorned by agreement of the ‘wise and learned’ as a vulgar knowledge. An almost unspoken, unconscious agreement still lingers within all our public discourse, to refuse to treat astrology as anything but a joke, for to do otherwise is to risk scorn.
It has been said that all history is historiographic; no one merely assembles historical facts outside of a theoretical framework, and that is as true of this paper as any other. Nick Campion has also claimed that,
“cosmologists are obliged to operate like historians, selecting the evidence which suits their theories. Even though most cosmologists would probably insist that they are scientists they are probably closer to social scientists in that they construct mathematical models but are dependent on the interpretation of evidence which may constitute but a tiny fragment of the whole.”66
Perhaps this is where the exclusion of astrology has hurt us the most. In constructing mathematical cosmologies, devoid of the dimensions of meaning and consciousness that natural astrology provides, we are only working with a tiny fragment of the whole. To quote the eminently quotable Dr. Will Keepin, “Astrology, in a sense, is a science of the order in meaning, and of its interpenetration with the physical space-time universe.” 67 This is how far we have come since the Restoration, where, in the metaphor of curved space, astrology, science, and religion have grown so far apart that they must inevitably run back into each other. We have all got a lot of catching up to do.