My Annus Mythologicus blog post was recently retweeted on Twitter in response to an inane tweet from Richard Dawkins and somebody questioned the reference in it that Newton was inspired to take up mathematics upon reading a book on astrology. This was not a nasty attack but a genuine statement on interest from somebody who had difficulty believing a man, who has been called the greatest mathematician ever, should have had anything to do with an astrology book. There is a sort of naïve belief that it is impossible for the people in the age of Newton, which is touted as the birth of the age of modern science and rationalism, could have had anything to do with the so-called occult sciences. This belief led many people, who should have known better, to try and sweep Newton’s very active engagement with alchemy under the carpet. During Newton’s lifetime astrology lost its status as a university discipline but was still all pervasive and permeated all aspects and levels of society. In what follows I will sketch some of the details of the role of astrology in the age of Newton.
The Renaissance/Early Modern Period could with justification be called the golden age of astrology in Europe. This period was actually coming to an end during Newton’s lifetime, but astrology had by no means totally disappeared. That golden age began roughly with the beginning of the fifteenth century. During the first half of the century the humanist universities of Northern Italy and Poland created the first regular, dedicated chairs for mathematics and astronomy, which were in fact chairs for astrology, created to teach astrology to medical students. Teaching astrology to medical students was one of the principle obligations of the professors for mathematics at these universities and continued to be so well down into the seventeenth century. This trend continued with the creation of the first such chair in Germany, at the University of Ingolstadt, in the early 1470s. Astrological medicine, or iatromathematics to it is formal name was just one branch of astrology that flourished in this period.
Medical astrology was along with astrological meteorology considered to be a form of natural astrology and even those, who rejected natal astrology, for example, accepted the validity of natural astrology. Opposed to natural astrology was judicial astrology collective term for a group of other forms of astrology. Natal astrology, or genethliacal astrology, is the classic birth horoscope astrology that everybody thinks of, when they first hear the term astrology. Other forms of judicial horoscope astrology are mundane astrology concerns the fate of nations etc., horary astrology answers question by casting a horoscope when the question is presented, and electional astrology, which is used to determine the most appropriate or auspicious time to carry out a planned action.
All these forms of astrology were widespread and considered valid by the vast majority during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Astrology was firmly established in the fabric of European society and almost all of the active astronomers were also active astrologers right down to those astronomers, who were responsible for the so-called astronomical revolution. Georg Peuerbach, Regiomontanus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei were all practicing astrologers and in fact owed much of the patronage that they received to their role as astrologer rather to that of astronomer, although the terms were interchangeable in this period. The terms Astrologus, Astronomus and Mathematicus were all synonym and all had astrologer in the modern sense as their principle meaning. Following the invention of moving type printing in about 1450, by far and away, the largest number of printed articles were astrological ephemera, almanacs, prognostica, and writing and single sheet wall calendars. A trend that continued all the way down to the eighteenth century.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth century efforts to give astrology a solid empirical footing were central to the activities of the astronomer-astrologers. Starting with Regiomontanus several astronomers believed that the inaccuracies in astrological forecasting were due to inaccuracies in the astronomy on which it was based. The reform of astronomy, for exactly this reason, was a principle motivation for the research programmes of Regiomontanus, Tycho Brahe and Wilhelm IV, Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel. Another approach was through astro-meteorology, with astronomer keeping weather diaries in which they noted the horoscope for the day and the actual weather on that day. They were looking for correlations, which they failed to find, but the practice led to the beginnings of modern weather forecasting. Notable weather diarists were Tycho Brahe and Johannes Werner. There were also attempts to find genuine correlations between birth charts and biographies of prominent people. Such biographical horoscope collections existed in manuscript before the invention of movable type printing. One of the largest, still extant, such manuscript collections is that of Erasmus Reinhold, a professor of mathematics at Wittenberg. The first such printed collection was that of Gerolamo Cardano, Libelli duo: De Supplemento Almanach; De Restitutione temporum et motuum coelestium; Item Geniturae LXVII insignes casibus et fortuna, cum expositione, printed and published by Johannes Petreius, specialist for astrological literature, in Nürnberg in 1543; the same year as he published Copernicus’ De revolutionibus.
During the first half of the seventeenth century the failures to find empirical evidence for astrology, a change in the philosophy underpinning science, astrology was justified with Aristotelian metaphysics, and changes in the ruling methodologies of mainstream medicine led to a decline in the academic status of astrology. Although a few universities continued teaching astrology for medical students into the eighteenth century, astrology as a university discipline largely ceased to exist by 1660. However, astrology was still very much woven into the fabric of European society.
Newton was born in 1642, which meant he grew up during the Civil War and the Interregnum. Astrology was used by both sides as propaganda during Civil War. Most famously William Lilly (1602–1681) publishing powerful pamphlets on behalf of the parliamentary side.
This caused him major problem following the restitution. Lilly’s Christian Astrology (1647) was a highly influential book in the genre. Lilly was friends with many important figures of the age including Elias Ashmole (1617–1692) an antiquary who gave his name to the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford, which was founded on his collection of books, manuscripts many objects. Ashmole was a passionate astrologer and a founding member of the London Society of Astrologers, which included many prominent intellectuals and existed from 1649 to 1658 and was briefly revived in 1682 by the astronomer, astrologer, printer and globemaker Joseph Moxon (1627–1691).
Moxon successfully sold Ptolemaic globes in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, which were intended for astrologers not astronomers. Moxon’s Ptolemaic globes reflect an actual fashion in astrological praxis that could be described as back to the roots. In the middle of the seventeenth century many astrologers decide that astrology wasn’t working, as it should, because the methodology used had drifted to far from that described by Ptolemaeus in his Tetrabiblos. This movement was led by the Italian P. Placido de Titis (1603 – 1668) whose Physiomathematica sive coelestis philosophia published in 1650 with an improved 2nd edition, 1675.
Alongside Moxon another English supporter of this back to the roots movement was John Partridge (1644–c. 1714), who published the first ever English translation of Ptolemaeus’ Tetrabiblos in 1704. Partridge was one of the most well-known astrologers of the age until he got skewered by Jonathan Swift in his infamous Isaac Bickerstaff letters beginning in 1708.
We always talk about the big names in the histories of astronomy and mathematics, but it is often more insignificant practitioners, who teach the next generation. In this Newton’s education in astronomy followed the norm and he learnt his astronomy from the books of Vincent Wing (1619–1668) Astronomia Britannica (1669)
and Thomas Streete (1621–1689) Astronomia Carolina, a new theorie of Coelestial Motions (1661).
They were the two leading astronomers in England during Newton’s youth and were both practicing astrologers. The two men were rivals and wrote polemics criticising the errors in the others work. Streete was friends with several other astronomers such as Flamsteed, who also used the Astronomia Carolina as his textbook, or Halley together with whom Streete made observation. Streete was Keplerian and it’s Kepler’s astronomy that he presents in his Astronomia Carolina , although he rejected Kepler’s second law and presented the theories of Boulliau and Ward instead. It is very probable that reading Streete was Newton’s introduction to Kepler’s theories.
Flamsteed, as already said, like Newton, a student of Steete, actually cast an electional horoscope for the laying of the foundation stone of the Royal Observatory in 1675 although he didn’t actually believe in astrology but was maintaining a well-established tradition.
Another example of this sort of half belief can be found in the attitude of Newton and Halley to comets. The two of them did far more than anybody else to establish comets as real celestial bodies affected by the same physical laws as all other celestial bodies and not some sort of message from the heavens. However, whilst neither of them believed in the truth of astrology both retained a belief that comets were indeed harbingers of doom.
As I said at the beginning Newton grew up and lived all of his life in a culture permeated with a belief in astrology. At the end of the seventeenth century astrological ephemera–almanacs, prognostica, etc.–were still a mass market phenomenon.
A large annual fair such as Sturbridge in 1663, the largest annual fair in Europe, would have had a large selection of astrological literature on offer for the visitors; a public many of whose yearly almanac was the only printed book that they bought and read.
It is perfectly reasonable that a twenty-one year old Newton, just entering his second year at Cambridge university, stumbled across an astrological publication that awakened his mathematical curiosity as reported separately by both John Conduitt and Abraham DeMoirvre, in their memoirs based on conversations with Newton.