Astrology – why it used to be resonable and why it ain’t so anymore

Once upon a time, Astrology was a big thing. Astrologers ruled the world. Now they clatter in the back pages of second-rate magazines. Why were they so big and what’s happened to them?

We shall begin by following a line of thought that was very strong in many parts of the classical world. So strong, it was reason enough to deport Anaxagoras from Athens (he was advocating the stars were nothing but “hot stones in the sky”). The Epicureans made the fight against this view a focal point of their moral philosophy.

So, imagine you live in a society with a technology which is less than modern – there are no cars, no planes, etc. Now, observe: what things have “innate movement” (to borrow the Aristotelian term)? Living things, of course. Only living things can move without being moved by an external force.

Our second observation is this: all living things decease (given enough time).

All? Well, look at the sky – there you will find heavenly bodies moving perpetually in well-ordered paths. If living things are the only candidates for self-induced movement, then the heavenly bodies must be alive. They are also perpetual, hence immortal. They also seem to be moving in a nice circular fashion; hence they must be highly intelligent sentient beings (they know geometry! And circles are the most perfect of geometric forms).

Moreover, these astral creatures seem to be unbound by earthly physics: they float high above, unaffected by gravity, moving in circular motion – a type of motion that is not very common down here on earth. So the rules that work in the heavens are not the same as the terrestrial laws of physics.

Even more importantly, we know that the heavens directly affect our lives. Think about the weather: rain, snow, light, heat, cold, clouds… the different seasons… all these things govern our lives (esp. if we live in an agricultural society).

Let us sum things up. We have seen that:

  1. Heavenly things are alive
  2. They are immortal
  3. They must be very intelligent
  4. Heavenly things do not abide by earthly laws.
  5. They govern life here on earth.

What would you call a super-intelligent, immortal, sentient, and all-powerful being who controls your life down here on earth?

They must be gods.

I should emphasize that this view holds strongly as well in monotheistic cultures, and is in fact firmly embedded into classical Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Although they are no longer deemed to be actual gods, the heavenly bodies are still highly regarded in classical monotheistic religion, and are looked upon as angels or some other instruments of the one true god.

It is very easy to see how Astrology and Alchemy stem from this view. It would be only rational to try and consult the heavenly bodies – concerning almost everything – from the conception of babies to the signing of political and commercial treaties. If Mars is a god, then surely, when you come under his influence (which is, when he sees you – and that happens when you happen to see him up there in the sky above your head), there are certain outcomes you might expect (war, famine, etc.). If Venus is shining brightly, then this is probably a good time to get married. This from of “consulting the heavens” has a name – Astrology. It is a perfectly logical way of looking at the world. It’s all a matter of premises. And premises are a question of experience. For a person living in an ancient agricultural society, Astrology is almost inevitable. In fact, it was often considered the most important of the practical sciences. The Renaissance was full of princes and wealthy merchants, who needed Astrological predictions. The rich and the powerful had to know which decisions to make, when to go to war, when to send ships out to the sea, etc. They were paying loads of money to astrologers, who, in turn, were sharing this tremendous wealth with mathematicians and astronomers. The mathematicians and the astronomers had the nasty job of pinpointing the exact times for the rising and the setting of stars.

This wealth generated modern science. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory and Kepler’s rules caught so well because they were computationally superior. They made the astrologer’s task computationally simpler. They generated better results with less effort (and remember, these people had no computers). They were important because they were useful auxiliaries to the flourishing science of Astrology. And through Kepler’s rules came Newton’s mechanics. Astrology was an important catalyst for the scientific revolution.

And not just mathematics and physics, but chemistry too. If the heavenly bodies do not abide by terrestrial physics, then it would be very tempting to utilize the forces governing the heavens down here. If you could “make” Mars work for you, you would be free from the confines of terrestrial physics. You could float, transmute metals, do magic… and from this comes Alchemy. The rich and the powerful often paid loads of money to scholars, who sat down and attempted transmutation. The most excellent book by Charles Mackay has a long and magnificent chapter describing the incredible amount of work poured into this futility. But, as a side effect, these scholars often learned something about the elements. From Alchemy, you see, stems Chemistry.

It is also very easy to see why the Galilean views were so intimidating in the eyes of many renaissance scientists and policy-makers: Galileo’s observations were deadly to the dichotomy between earth and the heavens. He was showing that the stars were mere natural phenomena, rather then super-natural super-intelligent perpetually unchanging beings. He was, in short, killing an entire industry.

So, in the classical world, the case for astrology was almost trivial. The connections between heaven and earth were everywhere you looked, and the heavens were clearly something supernatural. In the post Galilean world, however, advocates for Astrology face an excruciating task. The easy-to-observe influences of heaven are dealt with within the framework of sciences e.g. Meteorology and Solar Astronomy. Further influences are no longer deemed trivial, and are very hard to show. The auxiliary sciences of physics, mathematics and chemistry, once subservient to Astrology and Alchemy, became important for other reasons – especially ballistics. Now it were armies and their guns which needed the physicists. Much of early 19th century classical mechanics was funded by a Corsican dwarf with an appetite for big guns.

So Astrology is somewhat like a roman cart wheel. It was reasonable craftsmanship for it’s time. But don’t use it in your BMW at 90 mph. It’ll break.

5 thoughts on “Astrology – why it used to be resonable and why it ain’t so anymore

  1. Michael

    That’s an excellent article. (I’m an addict silent reader).
    Did you consider translating it into your native language and publishing it in a daily newspaper?
    I’m pretty sure most of your readers do not practice astrology, but this line of though can help others see it’s not reasonable anymore…

  2. Pingback: Vidi « Archaeoastronomy

  3. Alun

    As a quick response, there is a difference between the divine and a god.

    I think in ancient Greece Divine would best be described as perfect and incorruptible. With the exception of the planets the stars are permanent and fixed which makes them divine. This might explain why there’s no concept of variable stars in ancient Greece, even though something like Algol would be visibly variable to the naked eye. Gods also have this same attribute of having incorruptible bodies, which makes them divine. Then ideas of divinity in gods feedback in some ways to planets, though in the case of Greek astrology the gods remained anthropomorphic.

    What the planets had was κοσμος, or order. For some Greeks justice was as much a natural force as gravity. Anaximander built a cosmology based justice being a force inherent in the universe. Many other Greeks preferred to see Justice as something given or enforced by the gods and it’s not something they have complete control over if you read things like the Iliad. The divinity of the planets placed them above earthly concerns and so they acted with complete order.

    That’s not a complete overview and someone else could disagree quite strongly with it in places. Greek religion and ancient religion in general doesn’t map very neatly onto the modern concept of religion. Additionally the concept of Astrology differs greatly over the ancient period. The end of the late antique period is closer to modern times than the protohistorical period I tend to study and attitudes change. For instance in Augustan times Astrology was considered by some people to be nonsense, but then a society which spends a lot of time abusing astrologers must also be a society where there are astrologers with power and status to abuse.

    That’s why I said the difference between divine planets and gods was hair-splitting. It doesn’t weaken your argument that Astrology was a product of its time and needs to be evaluated in its social context rather than as a science.

  4. David Marjanović

    Astrologers ruled the world. Now they clatter in the back pages of second-rate magazines.

    …and those of the most widely read daily newspapers.


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