Jim Harrison one of my regular commentators posted the following comment/ question on my post about the astrology wars:
Arguments about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of astrology in the past may make us lose the opportunity to study the downfall of astrology as a well-documented case of how scientific programs fail. I’m not a historian, though I read a lot; and I don’t have a very clear idea of how it happened during the 17th and 18th Centuries that astrology lost its legitimacy and was relegated to a sad after life in the Metaphysics sections of used bookstores. Its my impression that astrology lost its mojo in England around 1650. I’d like to find an explanation of how and why that occurred assuming I’ve got the dates roughly right. (Goethe began his memoir by summarizing his natal horoscope in his memoir (Dichtung und Wahrheit) in the early years of the 19th Century so maybe I’m assuming that astrology became crank science earlier than it actually did.)
A full answer to his enquiry would be more than book length but I will attempt an outline of an answer here.
The status of astrology in Europe, as we understand it today, and its respectability as an academic discipline has gone up and down like a roller coaster over the centuries since it emerged in ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE. In antiquity it reached a high point in the second century CE with the codification of its rules and methodology by Ptolemaeus in his Tetrabiblos, which would remain the bible of astrology up till at least the 18th century.
Following the appearance of Ptolemaeus’ book astrology went into decline along with the rest of the intellectual activities as the Roman Empire collapsed and with it civilisation in Europe. However it should be pointed out that the two most popular and well known astronomy texts in the Early Middle Ages, Macrobius’ Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis and Martianus Capella’s De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii were both as much astrology as astronomy.
As civilisation and urbanisation returned to Europe at the beginning of the High Middle Ages, 1000 to 1200 CE, the renaissance of the sciences did not include astrology as one of the respectable discipline because of the dominance of the Catholic Church in education. For the Church astrology was suspect, and had in fact been strongly criticised by both Augustinus and Thomas Aquinas, because it seemed to contradict the Churches teachings on free will. However in the secular world those rulers on the boarders of the Islamic Empire, in Sicily or Spain, started to adopt the Islamic practice of having court astrologers as political advisors, the evil vizier of Hollywood film, in about the 12th century. This practice spread and by the 15th century nearly every European court had its own mathematicus or astrologus to interpret the stars, amongst other things.
Astrology entered the world of higher education with humanism at the end of the 14th century. The main driving force was the rise of astro-medicine derived from newly available texts from the Hippocratic corpus. In the 15th century humanist university in Italy and famously in Krakow established chairs for astrology and throughout the next two hundred and fifty years nearly all European universities offered Astrology 101 for medical students taught by the professor for mathematics. Nearly all of the leading Renaissance mathematicians were practicing astrologers, many of them court astrologers. Even Galileo, a practicing astrologer, routinely taught Astro 101 during his tenure as professor for mathematics in Padua. This is not to say that astrology was without its critics, the most extensive criticism of astrology being written by the humanist scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463 – 1494), his Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem, which contains all of the standard arguments against astrology still in use today.
Astrology continued to thrive well into the 17th century but went into a steep decline from about 1650. The big question is why? In general histories of science and cultural histories the standard answer, if they deal with the question at all, is that the new heliocentric astronomy killed off astrology as an academic discipline. This is completely false as any superficial examination of the historical facts immediately shows. As I wrote in an earlier post, Robert Westman famously wrote that there were only ten Copernicans in the entire world between the publication of the De revolutionibus in 1543 and the beginning of the 17th century and as a historian of astrology correctly pointed out all ten of them were practicing astrologers. Although Kepler, whose heliocentric system was the one that came to be accepted, rejected traditional horoscope astrology as it was practiced in his own times he believed deeply in celestial influence and wrote extensively about his own attempts to create a reformed astrology. So how are we to explain the loss of status of astrology in the 17th century?
The answer lies in another aspect of the scientific revolution. The Renaissance belief in astrology was based on the micro-cosmos macro-cosmos theory or as above so below. This theory said that the world of the heaven or celestial sphere is reflected in the normal world or terrestrial sphere and that the ability to read the one enabled predictions in the other. This philosophy was inherited from Greek philosophy and was also present in the interpretation of Aristotle that dominated mediaeval philosophy. As Aristotle was replaced as the foundation of natural philosophy by the new scientific philosophy of the 17th century and disappeared out of the academic realm the micro-cosmos macro-cosmos theory also lost its foothold in academia and with it astrology. Although this process was general throughout Europe it would appear that the reasons for the final loss of respectability for astrology varied from country to country. This has been researched in some countries, such as Britain, but not in others, such as Germany.
In Britain the English Revolution, or Civil War, played a major role in the demise of astrology. In the decades leading up to the English Revolution the social status of astrology was very strong and there was even a Society of Astrologers in London, which boasted many members of the intellectual elite amongst its supporters, such as Elias Ashmole and John Evelyn. During the Revolution astrologers on both sides used their reputations and supposed skills to make war propaganda for their troops, predicting victories and losses that were written in the stars. Following the restitution of the monarchy astrology fell into disrepute because the puritan astrologers had been more successful than the royalist ones. The Society of Astrology was also suspected as being a secret puritan organisation and so the members dissolved the society to remove the suspicion. The fashions in medicine also changed throughout the 16th and 17th century and by 1700 at the latest astro-medicine was out and Astro 101 was no longer part of the university curriculum.
In the 18th century astrology was still alive and well but was no longer part of the academic establishment however in the 19th century not only astrology by the occult sciences, in general experienced a surprising social renaissance amongst the well heeled and well educated. There were great fashions for things such as spiritualism, theosophy and other forms of mysticism and magic. Perhaps most notoriously in Aleister Crowley’ s Golden Dawn a rebirth of Renaissance hermeticism. I know too little about the subject to say why this occult renaissance took place but Dr SkySkull at Skulls in the Stars has an interesting post on one aspect of the subject.