Science & Astrology

Astronomer seated at a table studying a book by candlelight.
Astronomer by Candlelight by Gerrit Dou (1655).
The Thesaurus.com notes that “astrology is the study of the positions and aspects of celestial bodies in the belief that they have an influence on the course of natural Earthly occurrences and human affairs.”

The “-logy” part comes to us via an Ancient Greek word, for which Wiktionary.org offers these meanings:

  • Ι lay down, put to sleep;
  • I put in order, arrange, gather;
  • I choose, count, reckon;
  • I say, speak, converse, tell a story;
  • I mean.

Which begins our story about astrology and science. Astrology began with observation when ancient Babylonians began to tell a story in which they laid down an ordering; a reckoning; and a count, of all that they had seen in the sky over centuries. To that they added interpretation, which is the essence of astrology, but not necessarily proof, which is the foundation of science.

But it began as science begins, with observation and a hypothesis that the stars affect life on Earth. Beginning around 1700BC as far as we can tell, and for hundreds of years thereafter, the Babylonians compiled a reference collection of sky phenomena and omens called the Enuma Anu Enlil.

They also created sky catalogues – naming, locating and describing bodies in the sky, a task which continues to this day.

Astrology and astronomy were historically one and the same thing, and were considered so in Western Europe until about the 17th century. Of course there were always those who did more astronomy than astrology, and those who viewed divinatory astrology in particular as superstition. The ancient and medieval worlds also had their skeptics, but it wasn’t until the rise of the discipline of science in the 1500s that Western European upper classes generally abandoned astrology.

Babylon

Four millennia ago Babylonian astrologers examined the sky and attempted to find correlations between the events in the sky, and those below. They were looking for profound effects on the scale of the state, not individuals. Surely if there were effects, this is where they would be noticeable and most useful. Based on their observations and speculations, they produced the Enuma Anu Enlil, a catalogue of omens.

In the service of state and religion, Babylonian astrology was performed by priests or magicians, who acted as the intermediaries of the gods. Their realm included spirits and magic, not just the material world.

While they may have needed to provide some convincing justification for their interpretations, like today’s astrologers they weren’t necessarily obliged to suggest a mechanism for how the cosmic forces worked: their function was to interpret and respond to them.

Their ability to make accurate conclusions would have been hampered by small sample sizes, difficult measurement and analysis, and by their faith and traditions; and their needs may have been too great and immediate to allow for more than best guesses and intuition. Perhaps these were the circumstances which led to the effort to create the Enuma Anu Enlil.

Without the means to progress further, astrology would never become a science. With gods involved it might not have occurred to Babylonians that the celestial movements could be understood, since it could not have a purely mechanical basis. For the Babylonians, they were just signs and omens.

Anyway, over time, particularly after the Greeks formalized much of it, astrology was less about new observation and invention than the application of an old tradition – at least until the technology improved.

The Greeks

Making Sense out of Chaos

Where the Babylonians had assumed that the Cosmos revolved around the home of their deity, Greeks believed that the Earth was the centre of the cosmos. With the Earth as the centre and central focus of the stars, it was easy to understand that the stars could have a unique effect and that Earth had a special destiny. It was good to feel special.

The Greeks were dedicated geometricians. They reworked astrology into a natural science, and developed a model of how the celestial bodies moved through the sky. The stars followed a generally predictable route that was geometric. This pleased the Greeks enormously because they liked the idea that the cosmos was exact, orderly, and perfect.

In the service of astrologers, geometry could be used to understand and predict the movement and positions of the heavenly bodies.

As Above, So Below

Surely, if the sky had a mechanical, deterministic nature, then so did the Earth, and if the Earth did, then so too did the things within it. By understanding the sky, you could understand the Earth and her inhabitants. Everything was in harmonious mechanical motion about the Earth. Rather than providing signs or omens, the Greeks showed how the stars might cause the events which unfolded.

A map of the cosmos according to Ptolemy showing Earth orbited by the other planets and the zodiacal belt.
A plate of the cosmos according to Ptolemy from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660) by Andreas Cellarius.
A map of the cosmos according to Tycho Brahe showing Earth orbited by the other planets and the zodiacal belt.
A plate of the cosmos according to Tycho Brahe from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660) by Andreas Cellarius.

Geocentrism

Significantly, some Greeks like Aristotle (and Ptolemy) settled on a model of the cosmos in which the Earth is at the centre and is stationary.

They imagined that the Earth was a sphere surrounded by concentric or homo-centric spheres around the Earth into which the stars and planets were set and arranged like jewels.
The Greek model of the geocentric and geostationary cosmos was an epiphany for anthropocentric Christians. This physical system placed the Earth at the centre of God’s attention. It was very reassuring; even comforting. To the Greek version of the cosmos, the Church knew what to add: God and his angels at the outermost sphere, guiding and watching over the celestial clockwork.

The model of the cosmos extended as far as to heaven itself. Heaven was above. It was invisible, but it was there: we were enveloped in God’s hands, and it was beautiful to conceive and logical: we were at the centre of God’s love.

The geocentric and geostationary model fit within Christians’ powerful vision of the Earth under God’s watch from His divinely perfect firmament. There was a lot about Greeks like Aristotle that the Christians liked.

Unfortunately, it was wrong, but it took astrologers to prove it.

Christian Europe

Truth Revealed

Europeans emerging from the fourth century collapse of the Western Roman empire
reconnected with lost secrets of ancient civilizations when the Islamic Arab empire (which had maintained continuity with the past) invaded Spain and Sicily. From about 900CE to 1300CE Europe profited from one of the greatest transfers of thought and ideas known with the translation of Arabic, Greek and other ancient texts.

Back then, the best “truths” were both those revealed by God; and ancient truths which had been preserved and passed down, and sometimes lost. That was the accumulated wealth of Humanity.

Europeans recognized that there was greatness there. These long-lost secrets united with the revealed knowledge of the one true (Christian) God, could be made even more powerful and complete.

For the Church there were questions about the religious implications of astrology. The rediscovered teachings needed to be reconciled with Christian doctrine. One had to tread carefully to avoid tricky doctrinal errors. Opinions could change quickly, and your past deeds could come back to haunt you.

But at least the Greeks had converted astrology into a natural science. It wasn’t about the hand of God or the gods any more. Stars were a natural phenomenon that plausibly had an unseen but real effect. That made mundane (applied to medicine, agriculture, etc.) astrology palatably subordinate to God and subject to God’s laws,[1] even if it didn’t really reconcile the divinatory side of it.

Fortunately, secure in their power in the early years of second millennium (about 12th century), the Church recognized the quality of much of the rediscovered ancient works, and embraced many of them. They particularly liked the Greeks, likening them to pre-Christians, tragically born too soon to be saved. The idea of the cosmos perfectly fit a Christian conception of God’s relation to us.

Secret Knowledge

Is there a code, a process which unlocks the secrets of the Universe? Yes: it’s a rational approach to understanding called science. It’s just a method, of course, but it’s the best way we have to arrive at truths we can all agree on. It’s been a way to keep the peace by preventing arguments based less on facts than beliefs.

From Astrology to Astronomy

The Scientists

In the time of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Kepler (1571-1630), there was a recognized need for more accurate astronomical tables. Both were astrologers with the responsibility of preparing the most accurate astrological charts possible for their main employer, Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. Kepler developed his law of Sun-orbiting, heliocentric planetary motion using his and Brahe’s meticulous observations, and published the Rudolphine Tables in 1627: a new star catalogue containing over 1400 stars and their positions, with over 1,000 of the stars new to catalogues.

Copernicus (1473-1543) had already suggested the Earth revolved around the Sun. Kepler found how the planets traveled around the sun (not circular, but elliptical), but still thought of the cosmos as small, geometric and harmonious. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), a contemporary of Christopher Marlowe, burned at the stake for his thoughts, considered that the stars were like our own Sun, and might have planets like the Earth. Galileo with his telescope saw that the Sun was only one of almost infinitely many suns and that there wasn’t a classical Cosmos, but a Universe out there. Neither the Earth nor the Sun were the centre of the Universe, and the Universe wasn’t perfect.

Galileo looked at Jupiter and saw moons orbiting around it like our own moon orbits Earth, and analogous to our solar system with the moons orbiting the planets which themselves orbit the Sun.

We weren’t special anymore.

Descartes divided experience into mind and matter, supernatural and natural, and said that matter was deterministic and entirely physical – natural. Newton showed that objects obeyed laws that were consistent whether they were apples or planets – “as above, so below,” comes to mind.

Materialism, Reductionism, Determinism

The ancients had long noted the regularity of the Cosmos, and the “harmony” of it. They spoke of its perfection. The Greeks discovered it submitted to their miraculous geometry, and the Europeans found that they could write equations that exactly explained and predicted its movements. It ran like clockwork, even though, viewed through their new telescopes, the Europeans could see it wasn’t clockwork at all.

While these advances, and others, reinforced a materialistic, deterministic view of the Universe, it wasn’t an atheistic movement by any means. Many of those who delved most deeply into the pursuit of the truth were clerics hoping to get closer to God, only to discover the virtue of removing God from the equation(s).

First off, God wasn’t visibly out there. While perhaps hoping for a sight of God, the astronomers found that we were lost in an incomprehensibly vast, centre-less, and indifferent Universe with no sign of God.

Then there were the formulas and their reliability. They really worked, and they worked best when you removed the idea of God from your thinking. The unrelenting precision of the processes they described suggested not even a hint of inexplicable variation once their natures had been reduced to fundamentals. Whatever their pasts may have been, these phenomena no longer needed God to propel them; they ran on their own.

Thus the victory of materialism and reductionism – and the uneasy feeling that perhaps we, too, were subject to the simple laws of the Universe, and once set in motion, we too wheeled around like wind-up toys. Materialism was going to be a great success.

From its bleak perspective, there was no need for a non-material world: for spirits, for magic – or for God, although few would say it because obviously, God’s nature was unknowable. Science was – almost by definition – simply concerned with that which was outside of God’s realm, but science’s new realm was being revealed to be much larger and more pervasive than once thought.

Good Reason

There was a better way of discovering and even proving “truth” other than through the Church, and that was by using reason. The tools for proof included the scientific method.

The formulas of men like Newton were stark, exact, and undeniable. The world could be understood through a reasoned step by step methodology. In the new world it was okay to not know, and difficult to insist on an unproven belief – faith – because real knowledge – truth – could be demonstrated through science.

Perhaps that’s why astrology died off for a time – there was so much more to discover now, new things, and new ways to do it. Astrology had long been a reputable component of weather forecasting and medicine (natural astrology), but the divinatory part – so-called judicial astrology had never been very convincing, anyway, and had become a bit farcical.

That old Greek geometry was proving to be the downfall of both magic and traditional religion. It pulled the Universe out from under astrology, and left the collapsed remnants abandoned to be poked at by curious individuals.

The Scientific Presumption

Although science – the scientific method – was just a tool for exploring the materialistic world, in using it, one had to first presume and accept that there were only material influences – that everything could be explained, because without a clear division between material and spiritual matters, only an incomplete truth could ever be extracted from the material world alone.

If God were an active participant in daily life, intervening here and there, then one could never trust in irrevocable and reliable laws of nature, and scientific investigation could never come to a sure conclusion.

Materialism was a necessary premise for advancement of knowledge, and one that progressively and regularly bore fruit.

The well-reasoned approaches of astrologers like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Bruno, and Newton showed without question that the Church’s concept of how God manifested Himself in the world was simply wrong. The Cosmos was not centred around the Earth, it was a universe uniformly subject to laws of physics, and materialism alone could explain the movements of astronomical bodies – God’s guiding hand was not evident, and (except to get it all started) not needed.

Astrology and astronomy began to irrevocably diverge. Believing in astrology or not wasn’t just a matter of opinion anymore – it was becoming a matter of facts, and it was a lot harder for progressive, educated people to defend a belief in judicial astrology or its associates, especially when there were so many new things to discover.

Famous Astrologers

Famous astrologers included Ramon Llull (Raymond Lull), Tycho Brahe, Martin Chemnitz, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Paracelsus, Johannes Trithemius, Galen, Galileo Galilei, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella (who predicted astronomical advances), Giovanni Domenico Cassini (“all but denounced astrology as he became increasingly involved in the Scientific Revolution”), Hippocrates, Philipp Melanchthon, Franz Mesmer, Count St. Germain, William Butler Yeats, Pope Sylvester II, Pythagoras, Albertus Magnus, Nostradamus, John Dee and Isaac Newton.

Just a Working Concept

For better or worse, the formulas of Newton and the rest don’t tell the whole story either. The nature of the Universe is still unknown and rigid reductive materialism falters at the quantum level where reality fails to meet our expectations.

Making Chaos out of Sense

At the quantum level, “as above, so below” doesn’t follow, because it’s an odd dreamland down there, where things seemingly pop in and out of view or existence as they are thought of. While this doesn’t correspond to our idea of our mundane reality, if “as above, so below” is to hold, we may have to continue to change our perceptions all over again.

Free will versus determinism has never been decided, and much depends on our understanding of the nature of the universe. Science is a tool of philosophy.

A Nice Idea

So there wasn’t really a zodiac, just a mess of stars forming a fanciful zodiac viewed from a particular perspective, and the cosmos didn’t really revolve around the Earth. The Earth wasn’t likely the focus of cosmic influence. It wasn’t likely the focus of anything. The Earth was an infinitely minor member of an infinitely large universe. The comets weren’t portents, but predictable – too predictable to be portents. Well, so much for astrology as a serious pursuit.

Many astrologers said they didn’t care. The stars hadn’t moved, just people’s ideas about them. The Earth may revolve around the Sun, but the centre of human concern was still the Earth.

Astrology may have been based on false premises, but with new models, better measurements, equations, and equipment, astrology was still in the game. But astrologers were no longer on the level of Kepler and Newton. They – and their vital sponsors – chased off in more lucrative directions.

Notes and references

  • Baron, Frank. Doctor Faustus From History to Legend. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1978.
  • Liggett Catherine. Herr Mikrokosmus: Faust As Astrologer. A Thesis Presented To The Department Of German And Scandinavian and the Graduate School of the University of Oregon in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts. June 2010.
  • History of Astrology in the Renaissance Series of articles on astrology and its influence in the Renaissance. Originally Published
    in the Mountain Astrologer, October/November 2002.
  • Whitfield, Peter. Astrology: A History. Published by Harry N. Abrams. 2001.

Footnotes

  1. Whitfield, p. 125 []