Astrology was a major contributor to the rise of modern science – a rise that began to make itself apparent around the time of the original Faust and the first published chapbooks about him in the sixteenth century.
Astronomy split out of astrology and changed Western culture’s perception of its place in the Universe, of the presence of God, and of the nature of reality itself by revealing hard truths about the Universe with disturbing implications for everyone.
(See main article History and Astrology.)
Western astrology is a traditional form of divination – essentially fortune-telling – going back over 4,000 years to ancient Babylonian cultures. Passed from culture to culture as a spoil of war, there have been some changes to astrology over the centuries, but being venerable and metaphysical, astrology hasn’t changed all that much.
From Babylonia astrology spread to the Persian empire; then to Alexander’s, and India, Greece, and Egypt. Later it was introduced throughout the vast Roman Empire; and the Islamic one before reaching Christianized Europe.
Faust in the Renaissance
In Faust’s time – the fifteenth century – astrology was taught in the universities, and was a sign of an educated man who could read Latin and do mathematics. Astrology was a part of weather forecasting and medicine, and alchemy, agriculture and navigation. It was used in calculating the date of Easter Sunday which depends on the date of the previous full moon.
The original Faust was an astrologer – there are existing horoscopes drawn by Faust – and in the fiction which followed, he created almanacs and consulted tables diligently.
But using astrology to divine man’s destiny concerned the church and threatened the state.
Still, around the time of the original Faust, many people were ready to take control of their own lives, and to seek meaning freely, rather than to wait for it to be revealed, and in Faust’s own Protestant northern Germany, religious attitudes were a bit more liberal compared to the Roman Catholic regions.
In an early Faust book, Faust asks Mephistopeheles about the nature of astrology and astronomy, but Mephistopheles explains that those things belong to the spirits, and are beyond the comprehension of men.
(See main article Science and Astrology.)
Rather than wait for truth to be revealed by God, there was a growing proto-scientific movement among educated Europeans – and there were more and more of them – to find out for themselves; without asking God or the church, and without depending on the restoration of the wisdom of the great philosophers of the past. It was a bold step, like fictional-Faust’s rejection of his own classical training.
Astrologers discovered facts about the Earth, the solar system, and the Universe which were contrary to revealed truths endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church and her offspring, and which was bleakly materialistic and grim.
Out of astrologer’s observations and calculations evolved the science of astronomy in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the rush to new power, astrology was abandoned by sponsors and institutions in favour of scientific astronomy. By 1750-1800 astrology and astronomy had completely parted ways, with astrology abandoned to the private realm.
(See main article Church and Astrology.)
For many Christians, astrology was useful to predict the weather or to practice medicine, but divination – called judicial astrology – was improper.
It was rude and dangerous to snoop into God’s realm. Presumptuous, arrogant magicians like Faust who wanted to challenge God risked bringing God’s righteous wrath down on everybody, not just themselves. They were endangering the whole world!
Astrology’s presumption that the stars influenced humans conflicted with free will. Free will is essential to sin and salvation, because if you don’t have it, you can’t be held responsible for the things you do. Astrology implied that since people’s destinies had been decided long ago, everybody was perpetually blameless and completely sinless, and there was no need for salvation or even judgement.
But for still others, Astrology was a route to a better understanding of God, and to better service to Him. It had to be pursued as a matter of duty and devotion. Astrology could open a direct channel to God.
The discovery of our apparent insignificance in the new Universe weakened religious power in Europe. The Church had no special insight, God’s cosmos wasn’t as envisaged, and the Earth was clearly not at the centre – if there even was one.
God is remote in our everyday technological world. We have separated the natural from the supernatural, and the supernatural plays no practical part. In our daily lives we trust that everything material can be explained in material terms alone and that nothing can interfere with mechanics except material things. This is part of our legacy from astrology. There is no possibility of an intervention from God. This is a necessary presumption of our scientific method and allows us to rely on cause and effect to, say, fly us from one city to another.
Europe’s ancestral cultures had different relationships with nature and with their God and gods. Even a half-millennium later, many beliefs have persisted as we maintain intertwining threads of belief about science, religion, superstition and magic. We still imagine God in heaven – but where is heaven? We pray to God, but how can He intervene? And we still read our horoscopes with a divided mind.
Fortune telling is about all that’s left of old-time astrology. Science has not been particularly disposed to astrology, and it is seen as a relic of the superstitious past, consequently, it has been reduced to selling fortunes for entertainment.
Popular Western astrology is based on the horoscope, a facet of Greco-Egyptian (Hellenic) astrology. Horoscopy is a divination based on a chart of the sky at the beginning of the existence of the thing under examination, for instance, a birth date.
Sun sign astrology (based on the position of the Sun in the zodiac at the time of birth) is strictly Western, and strictly 20th century. It provides an easy way to give daily astrological advice to millions of people at a time, dividing them into twelve zodial signs. There is some irony there: according to John Draper, the Church lost control of the people when the newspaper replaced the pulpit.
Astrology still provides many with entertainment, hope, and some conceit that our lives have direction and promise. As astrology hasn’t changed much over the millennia, in this, we haven’t changed very much either.
Notes and references
- Draper, John William. History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. Henry S. King & Co. (1875). The Project Gutenberg EBook. Release Date: August 21, 2008 [EBook #1185].
- Jacobi, M. (1907). Astrology. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 3, 2011 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02018e.htm
- Whitfield, Peter. Astrology: A History. Published by Harry N. Abrams. 2001.