"As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul…"
- hermes trigimestus
Since February I have been studying for an MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology. The course is strictly academic, anthropological and historical; we study the ways in which mankind has attributed meaning to the cosmos since the dawn of the human race.
Just as a study of Theology does not require any religious beliefs, we do not need to ‘believe in astrology’ to find value in an examination of how we relate to the stars and the sky. Having said that, it is difficult to be constantly exposed to something so fascinating and not be curious, and seek seeds of truth in the idea. So I reassure myself, when reading about my Moon in Leo at 3.30am.
One philosophical and moral problem the study of which is enhanced - or complicated, on a bad day - by the addition of an astrological perspective is the dilemma of Free Will. It is also the sphere of Philosophy which I believe to be the most relevant to Real Life. If we do not have free will - and all sorts of people from all manner of disciplines are constantly suggesting we do not - then what of morality? If we are not free to make decisions, is it fair to punish us for wrongdoings? Why do we feel we are free to make choices when the effects of nature, of nurture, of neurotransmitters imply we are not?
Francis Crick, discoverer of DNA, began his book The Astonishing Hypothesis:
“You", your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
To this radically determinist viewpoint, we add an astrological one. In 1623, in his De Augmentis Scientarum, Francis Bacon wrote: ‘The last rule (which has always been held by the wiser astrologers) is that there is no fatal necessity in the stars, but that they rather incline than compel.’ This notion - that the stars merely nudge us towards certain actions - is an ancient one, with its origins attributed to the Classical astrologer Ptolemy (100-168 AD).
Despite this, the very nature of astrology dictates that there are at least some things totally outside the sphere of human freedom, that are said to be ‘fated’. Dane Rudhyar, bastion of 20th century astrology, wrote that ‘The basis of astrology — that the planets, the Sun and the Moon impel or "compel" us to act in a certain manner according to our birth charts — seems to negate free will.’ At the same time, it seems intrinsic to any useful astrological perspective to allow for some degree, or some modality, of freedom. A cornerstone of modern day astrology - popular Sun sign columns included - lies in our presumed ability to in some way mitigate our fate, by becoming aware of the changes that lie around the corner.
If we are aware of possibilities, we might be able to change them - but even if we cannot alter the path of fate, we can still cultivate an attitude of acceptance. Such an attitude might be useful even if the determinism we are coming to terms with is non-astrological. Moreover, it can be argued that the choice between acceptance and resistance is a free one, permitting at least a version of free will. This compatibilist compromise was the model of freedom proposed by the Stoics.
I must die: must I, then, die groaning too? I must be fettered: and wailing too? I must go into exile: does anyone, then, keep me from going with a smile and cheerful and serene?
So said the Greek philosopher Epictetus (born circa 50 AD). His idea is mirrored in the astrological understanding of Dane Rudhyar, and also in that of Liz Greene, another esteemed and influential contemporary astrologer. Greene writes that by recognising certain events as unavoidable, we can ‘hopefully learn to accept and live with our necessity in a more tranquil spirit’, once we have found out just what they are (or might be). Rudhyar, too, makes the importance of acceptance explicit: ‘When an individual reaches real freedom he comes to accept willingly the destiny conditioned by the time and place of his birth.’
It seems that for some people, recognising such inevitability can be reassuring- even life-changing. Steering clear of the muddy philosophical waters of whether we are, in fact, fated from the start to take an attitude of acceptance or one of resistance, it is possible to consider historic examples of how individuals have reacted to horoscopes cast for them, and how this has affected their lives. When researching my most recent essay, on fate and free will in the context of the stars, I came across a particularly intriguing example.
Don Riggs, comparing late fifteenth century systems of astrological interpretation in his Sixteenth Century Journal, analysed different conceptions of Michelangelo’s natal horoscope. It is suggested that an early chart drawn up for Michelangelo served as an ‘astrological warning’ about the ‘potential excesses of a Martial temperament’, that may have consciously or unconsciously affected his life. In his later years, the artist was likely made aware of another birth chart, possibly incorrect, that indicated his potential for great success but only through hard work and perseverance. Riggs writes that ‘the themes of accomplishment of goals after great difficulty and of having to help his family from his own resources recur constantly throughout [Michelangelo’s] letters’, so this will have fitted in with or informed the artist’s identity which was perhaps of a self-suffering nature. It is this second birth chart that was probably embraced by Michelangelo, perhaps as individuals today tend to embrace Sun sign columns when what they read resonates with or reassures them. From reading Riggs’ work it is clear, at any rate, that both false and ‘true’ chart readings have very real effects on the lives of individuals, whether or not our fate is defined and our free will compromised by objective astrological effects.
It is becoming clearer to me by the day that an astrological vantage point is a unique and refreshing one; it can help us to understand different cultures and historical eras in new ways, and it adds another dimension to philosophical and psychological questions. I feel privileged to be studying such terra incognita, and hope to share some more academic meanderings with the internet soon.