The fall of astrology: two footnotes

At the beginning of my post on the rise and fall of astrology I said that a full explanation would run to a full-length book or more and I attempted a short but informative sketch of history. Unfortunately the comments show that in at least one point I was too brief or too confusing and that I had completely ignored another aspect. This is an attempt to plug the holes in the dyke before the flood of ignorance brings the whole structure to collapse.

The first point is by and away most important as it concerns what I see as the main reason for the fall from grace of astrology in the second half of the 17th century. From the comments it is clear that Rebekah Higgitt is not clear what I was trying to say and if Becky who is a historian of science with the necessary background knowledge is not sure what hope do mere mortals have?

The whole subject hinges on a radical change of metaphysics that evolved over the second half of the 16th century and the whole of the 17th and also underlay that which is known as the scientific revolution. The metaphysics that mediaeval Europe inherited from the Greeks and which was renewed in the Renaissance was largely based on the philosophies of Aristotle and to a lesser extent his teacher Plato. Although teacher and pupil differed in many aspects of their thought they were united in their concept of the universe. Their universe was split into two spheres the celestial or heavenly and the terrestrial or earthly. These two spheres were fundamentally different the earthly sphere was constructed from four elements, earth, water, fire and air, was corrupt and subject to change and knew two forms of motion, natural straight towards the earth’s centre and all other motion which was per definition violent. The heavenly sphere was constructed of a fifth perfect element, the quintessence, was harmonious and unchanging and knew only one form of natural, perfect motion, circular. There are more details but they needn’t bother us here. These spheres were separated by the moons orbit and n’e’r the twain shall meet. However the perfect celestial sphere was reflected in the imperfect terrestrial sphere, which was so to speak a badly made model of its heavenly twin.

This situation led to the Renaissance philosophy of micro-cosmos/macro-cosmos or as above so below and the concept of celestial influence. This is the belief that the events in the upper world or celestial sphere influence the events in the lower world or terrestrial sphere and provided the underpinning for the belief in astrology and the acceptance of astrology as a legitimate system of knowledge. During the 16th and 17th centuries the developments in natural philosophy slowly dismantled this system of metaphysics and in doing so dissolved the concept of the spheres. The whole universe was constructed of the same substance(s) and motion was the same above and below the moon no longer natural to its sphere but the result of forces (whatever they may be). The final move in this process was Newton’s theory of gravity, which is a universal theory, which means it applies not only on the earth but on and between all the planets and even on comets the jewel in the crown of Newton’s theory.

With the collapse of the difference between the spheres the whole of the micro-cosmos/macro-cosmos philosophy goes out the window and with it the underpinning for astrology. Interestingly this change was at least partial guided by the adoption of two other Greek philosophies those of the Stoics and the Atomists whose metaphysics had never included the difference between the two spheres.

The second point turned up in a discussion in the comments on to what extent the failing empirical confirmation for astrology influenced its decline as an academic discipline. On the whole I don’t think it did. Astrology experienced its high point in European history during the Renaissance and its leading practitioners where largely serious scientist who made significant contributions to the evolution of the natural sciences in the Early modern Period, people like, Regiomontanus and his teacher Peuerbach, Cardano, Phillip Apian, Rheticus, Tycho, Galileo and Kepler. All of them were painfully aware of the empirical deficiencies of astrology and all of them undertook projects to try and remove those deficiencies. These projects were actually the main driving force behind the astronomical revolution and the creation of modern meteorology amongst other things. All of their efforts were in vain and they failed totally in their attempts to establish astrology as an empirical science, however I know of no single case of one of them giving up his belief in astrology. First with a change in the underlying metaphysics and a new generation did astrology loose its academic status.


Filed under History of Astrology

11 responses to “The fall of astrology: two footnotes

  1. I missed the first day or so of this discussion. Thanks for addressing my original question. I was aware, of course, that I was asking for a heck of a lot. In my own efforts to look at what happened, I mostly stick with the English experience; but even narrowing things down leaves a hard historical problem that would require, among many other things, a detailed knowledge of academic politics at Oxford and Cambridge. Nevertheless, I keep an open dossier on the issue because it’s a pretty good case study of what I think of as intellectual taphonomy: how systems of thought decay.

    I don’t doubt that the replacement of the old Aristotelian/Neoplatonic synthesis with various atomistic, Cartesian, and eventually Newtonian ideas played a big role in the downfall of astrology as an intellectually respectable activity; but the macrocosm/microcosm model was not the only available explanatory framework for the apparent effect of the stars on human affairs. There were also a host of theories of celestial influences. In fact, the word influence itself was originally a technical term in astrology. Astrology might work not only because the heavenly motions were analogous to what occurs on Earth, but because particular planets were effective causes. Why weren’t the astrologers able to reinterpret their systems in a Newtonian way and sell the amended theory to the universities? Why couldn’t some new Cardan have credibly explained my love life by the occult amorous influence of Venus if Newton could successfully explain the tides by the equally occult gravitational influence of the moon? Was love any more mysterious than gravity in 1700? One thing’s for sure. The difference between astrology and Newton in this comparison is not that Newton was better at making predictions. Tide tables were worked out empirically then and, so far as I know, still are because of the irregularities of coast lines and sea depths. Sublunary phenomena remain hard to calculate whether you’re a physicist or a fortune teller.

    • Outside of the accademic system they did Jim. Astrology did not go away and still had masses of adherents who thought up all sorts of alternative mechanisms to explain their beliefs and if you have followed the astrology wars, as I called them, they are still actively doing so. My theory merely explains why astrology lost its toehold on the European universities.

      • Oddly, I happen to know a great many professional astrologers personally. They do suggest a host of explanatory theories, though some of them eschew theory in favor of a radical empiricism. These days, of course, the favored explanations gesture towards Einstein or even Feynman in place of Newton.

        To return to the 17th Century, however, the question remains why the academic system rejected astrology, granted that it could certainly be recast outside of the Perennial Philosophy. You wrote earlier about the politics of astrology in the wake of the English Civil Wars. I’d like to follow up on that if you have some bibliographic suggestions. I’m going to take a look at some Augustan polemics about astrology this week if I get the time. (It never hurts to reread some Swift.)

      • Patrick Curry’s Prophecy and Power: astrology in early modern England.

        One who was involved in the attempt to reform astrology after its fall from grace was John Partridge who led the English return to Ptolemaic astrology and published the first English translation of the Tetrabiblos in 1704. Partridge was the target and victim of Swift’s wonderful and vicious satire on astrology The Bickerstaff Letters.

  2. Rebekah Higgitt

    Thanks Thony. I realise, looking back, that my question does look staggeringly naive for an historian of astronomy! But I think what I meant was that, despite knowing about Aristotelianism vs the new philosophy, or Tycho finding something new in the super-lunary sphere etc, I still feel vaguely uneasy about an explanation that falls back to a fundamental change in metaphysics. Is that a cause? Or is it rather an effect of something else? Printing, or travel perhaps? This is why I thought your suggestion about comparing different local contexts might be revealing.

    Or another question. Why did alchemy, or biblical prophecy, remain important areas for Boyle, Newton etc, but not astrology?

    (Also, Thony, did you know my surname is Higgitt not Higgitts? 😉 )

  3. Jeb

    A look at prophecy and astrology from 12th to late 17th century is a rather a tempting target.

    Workable and you can fire a large range of questions at it.

  4. Pingback: When did what end? | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  5. Pingback: When did what end? | Whewell's Ghost

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