Giuseppe Bezza

What is classical astrology.

Schema 1, June 1986

What does classical astrology mean? Is such a name suitable to any period of astrology? In this case an affirmative answer is very difficult to be given. On the contrary, other questions arise. Where and when was astrology born? Did a preclassical astrology exist? Did it have a golden period and a decay, and has astrology in the past ever been considered a science? Can our knowledge accept the creation, decay and death of a science? How could we give the name "science" to a semiotics of appearances, that seems the creation of an animosum pectus, rather than of a mens et ratio. Justice has long been done, quoting Terentius: mala mens, malus animus. But if we want to go on and draw our attention to texts of ancient astrologers, we would be astonished before such an overabundance and an extreme variety of procedures. These procedures, still available in several Greek, Latin, and Arabic texts, come presumably from an Egyptian and Mesopotamian doctrinal corpus, but the ancients have different opinions.

Where was this sidereal science born - a science that wanted to link the contemplation of the supreme beauty of the sky to severe laws of physics based on visual appearances, almost denying Shelley's dramatic dichotomy between poetry and science? Even though we can discuss the decay of astrology for hours, since it is evident, we cannot talk about its origins, because we do not know them. We are puzzled when we hear the ingenuous statements of the ancients concerning the inventors of astrology. When St. Augustine calls Atlas magnus astrologus he goes back to the euhemeristic doctrine that turns heroes into sages (De Civitate Dei XVIII, 39; cfr. Plinius Nat.Hist. II, 31; VII, 203; Vitruvius VI, 10, 6; Diodorus S. III, 60, 2; IV, 27, 17). And not only Atlas: Uranus, Belo, Thoth, Prometeus, Atraeus, Chiro the Centaur also disclosed astrology to man (cfr. Jo. Chr. Heilbronner, Historia Matheseos universae a mundo condito ad saeculum post Chr. n. XVI, Lipsiae 1742, pagg. 54ff.). St. Augustine tells us that Atlas lived in the same period as Moses, who was, according to a Philo, a mathematician, an astronomer, a geometer, a musician and an excellent philosopher and he learned the science of the sky from the Assyrians (vita Mosis I, 23). Before Moses, Abraham taught mathematics and astronomy to the Egyptians, who did not know anything about it (Berossos ap. Josephus, ant. jud. I, 8, 2; cfr. Eusebius, praep. ev. IX, 16). Those men had receveid the science of the sky through a revelation.

Moreover, there is a tradition according which both astrology and astronomy are taught by rebel angels (cfr. Book of Enoch VIII, 4), but the Greeks believed that those two sciences had been revealed by gods to "the kings loved by divinity" (Lucianus de astr. 1; cfr. Achilles Tatius isag. 1), namely per divine gift, munere caelestum, as Manilio says (I, 26). Revelation of natural laws that produces seasons and the changes of vegetation, revelation of the emanation that extends naturally from the sky to each physics and moral earthly law, be it mutual or individual. We cannot doubt that man perceived such a close relationship between sky and earth in remote ages. The Chinese Emperor, as son of the sky, was responsible for the mistakes of his ministers before the sky. Similarly, each sovereign, in each historical period, has always felt the need to base his divine right on meticolous observation of the sacred rite. But of which kind was the astronomic knowledge revealed? Undoubtely primitive, but also more complex than we could think. If today everybody knows that the Earth revolves around the Sun, this very same notion damage the full comprehension of apparent phenomena. Astronomy and astrology was in the past an indissoluble bond, so that one term was used to mean the other without distinction. The laws of ancient astronomy, from the eccentric orbs to the trepidation of the eighty sphere, were physical laws, stamps (episêma) of a celestial law, roots of the judgement and the forecasting, which were the aim of the astronomer, the philalêthês, the one who seeks the truth. Ancient men, says Aristotle, transmitted such concepts to their descendants, saying that these heavenly bodies are divinities, and that divinity surround nature. The rest was added afterwards, as a myth, in order to convice as many people as possible to impose obedience. If we were to consider only the content of such beliefs, namely that divinities were superior beings, then we should accept the fact that they talked divinely... (metaphysica 1074b). Who are these ancient men, palaitatoi anthrôpoi? Are they, as we read in Homerus, the inhabitants of Troy (Ilias XI, 166) or the contemporaries of Servius Tullius (Plutarchus, de fortuna Rom. 323e)? We believe they are those palaioi anthrôpoi, of which Plato tells us, those who invented the names of the things (Cratylus 441b), palaioi because they belong to the time of myth and cannot be placed in any temporal dimension.

If we want to ask ourselves when, in western tradition, a complete prediction method based on astronomical phenomena was first used, we can say that Berossos, Epigenes and Critodemos are the first known astrologers. Today we believe that Critodemos came slightly before the legendary Petosiris, whose life was transported from the historians of science from VII to II century B.C., whereas, on the contrary, we believe that Critodemos lived during the III century B.C. Thus, Antiochus, Prassidicos, Timaeus, Serapio od Alexandria, Teukros would be contemporaries of the Egyptian priest.

But we would like to point out that the astrologers of the Hellenistic period love to underline that their predecessors were the archaioi and palaioi. The first ones are those who first dealt with astrology, the latter ones are those who invented it and named it first. Of the first ones we know their names and their lives, but of the latter ones we do not know anything, they are surrounded by myth, they are in a "timeless" dimension, like Hermes with thousand faces, to whom "our ancestors dedicated the inventions of their wisdom" (Iamblichus de mysteriis I, 1; cfr. VIII, 4). They first established the names of art, such as the name of agathodaimôn (bonus genius) to the eleventh place (V. Valens; Kroll 135,2), namely the names and characteristics ascribed to Hermes Trismegistos (Rhetorius, Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum VIII/4 pagg. 162-174). We have an example in Hephaestio of Thebes: Pancharius is neither among the archaioi, nor among the palaioi, because he is his contemporary, but Porphyrius (I, 157,1 Pingree), Antigonus of Nikaea (I, 162-163), Dorotheus (I, 263,10-11), the wise Egyptians who came before him (I, 258,19) are among the archaioi. The palaioi are, on the contrary, the first ones who observed the figures of the stars (Ptolemy, quadr. I, 2; Boll-Boer 8,9), the nature of the planets (ibid.; I, 4; 17,8; I, 5; 19,24) and the inerrant stars (ibid. I, 10; 30,7); palaios is the manuscript that Ptolemy holds in his hands (ibid. I, 21; 49,14).

According to Greek astrologers of the late antiquity, who lived after the II century, archaioi are their historic predecessors. Those, in turn, founded their doctrine referring to palaioi (Hephaestio I, 120,25). Among those there is a leading figure, that of Petosiris, the above all palaios (cfr. scholia in Cl. Ptolemaei quadripartitum, Wolf pag. 111). We therefore face three different astrology ages: the antiqui, the veteres and the novi. Among the novi there is a leading figure, not only for the completeness of his doctrine or his precise knowledge of the heveanly motions, but also for his new conception and a new method fors astrological predictions. Ptolemy, in the second chapter of the third book of the Quadripartitum fives up the ancient (archaios) method of prediction consisted in "the mixed quality of all or of the most part of clestial bodies, and if someone wanted to complete it accurately, it would be almost infinite" (B.B. 109,5-7). This prediction method was that of the Egyptians, who "followed a method rich in configurations, so that were infinite and hard to understand" (In Cl. Pto. enarrator ignoti nominis..., Wolf pag. 89).

These different and difficult to understand procedures (agôgai) of the ancient, as claimed by V. Valens (Kroll pag. 242,20) constitute the tradition of the novi. Many astrologers, such as Valens, tried to explain it. To keep entirely to the ancient pattern means to keep its richness, it also means to speak its language, that it is not the language of philosophers, that of naturalists, of scientists. Ptolemy has a different attitude: he does not express a total refusal towards tradition, the technical terms he uses are the same as those used by veters, and the aim of Porphyrius is to explain them to contemporaries (isag. Wolf pag. 181). But, since he is a philosopher and scientist, he prefers to follow a natural path, by interpreting the configurations and the motions of the stars that the knowledge of astronomy puts at our disposal "with a method pertaining to philosophy" (quadr. I, 1 B.B.: 3,6-7), even though it could mean a partial neglect of tradition.

Thus, Ptolemy is to us the novissimus astrologus. He stated that prediction includes mathematics and physics, which are the demonstrative parts of art, and of philosophy, which is its conclusive part. Further on, Greek astrology that followed Ptolemy continued to have ancients and new elements mixed together. In the IV century Paulus of Alexandria followed Ptolemy and recomposed his Isagoge, but he could not forget the "wise Egyptians". Hephaestio of Thebes parapharased the quadripartitum and added methods, opinions and aphorisms of archaioi in each chapter. At the end of VI century, Rhetorius, who showed his knowledge concerning the purity of the ptolemaic method of prediction, in his Instruction for the interpretation of nativities (CCAG VIII/1 pagg. 243-248), gives different authorities for each judgment.

Let's leave the different periods during which the technique of astronomic prediction was taught. Among those periods there is non consistency, the historical development is somewhat against the consistent development of human thought. During the late antiquity, astrology was considered the "mathematic science that reveals the concatenation of destiny" (Salustius, de diis et mundo IX, 4) and this concept remained the same over many centuries: a mixture of art and mathematical science, not an empirical opinion that has not certainty that the contrary is false. "When millions of men have shared for thousand years the very same opinion, we can suppose that such an accepted opinion was based on positive facts, on a long theory opf observations justified by the events". In a like manner the Earl of Altavilla wanted Alicia top believe in charm, and so it was tried to defend and save the believe in the stars. However, a science doies not need such an excuse. After the copernican revolution, between the XVI and XVII century, besides a natural astrology that still legitimately explains figures and apparent motions of the stars and planets and claims to forecast the condistions of the weather, another kind of astrology, together with its experts and students, is heavily discredited: "They call it judiciary astrology, because it seems that this is an injurious title", neverthless "the aim of a scientific technics is to know their objects by the way of their cause, as the Philosopher said: scire est rem per causam cognoscere, etc., and such a knowledge is nothing but a syllogism, where one can deduces the conclusion and the unknown judgement from the antecedent prepositions already know" (Placido Titi, Tocco di paragone..., pagg. 19-20).

Before Newton had divulged the law of universal gravitation, scientific thought knew and accepted another universal law of nature. This universal law was of astrological kind (L. Thorndike, The True Place of Astrology in the History of Science , Isis 1954 p.273). This law was based on the assumption that nature is governed and directed by the motions of the heavenly bodies and thhat man, as an animal directly generated in the natural world, and who lives in it, is subjected by nature under this law. From this point of vew astrology is a true and natural science exactly like philosophy. "It is a natural science because it inquires into natural effects. It is demonstrative, because it isa about the motions and phenomena of heavenly bodies, such as eclipses or the rising or setting of the Sun; but if it deals with the effects that heavenly bodies have upon us, then it is a conjectural science, as St. Thomas calls it..." (Placido Titi, op.cit., 1-3).

We do not want to talk about the most recent centuries. When the protean dimension of a subalterne culture began to legitimate itself, there have been placed the disordered remnants of an astrology in flight. But that does not interest us now. Up to whole Renaissance period, astrology is part of the scientific culture and takes part in the vicissitudes of human thought. After the school of Athen was closed, the Egyptian Rhetorius founded, upon the authority of archaioi and of the ptolemaic method, a syncretistic attitude that seems to anticipate the learned Byzantine encyclopaedism.

If Rhetorius represents the last important figure of greek astrology, the birth of arabic astrology will be again interested in the archaioi tradition and it will expand it, thanks to the knowledge of the cultures of peoples subjugated to Islam. Modern historiography, before the great wars, claimed that the coming of the aristotelian philosophy in the Islamic culture, around the VIII-IX centuries, represented a restraint to astrological speculation (cfr. C.A. Nallino, Raccolta di scritti editi e inediti, Roma 1944, V, pag. 20). Actually, it is exactly the conbtrary: as in the cases of Greeks and Latins, also in arabic culture a division between astronomy and astrology never existed: both constitute a single science, al-nujûm. Abû Ma,shar justifies the scientific aspect of the astrology on the basis of Aristotle's natural philosophy, and states that astrology is a complete and perfect science in the aristotelian sense. The, main authorities of Introductorium in astronomiam of Abû Ma,shar are Aristotle, Ptolemy and Hermes (cfr. R.J. Lemay, Abû Ma,shar and Latin Aristotelianism..., Beirut 1962, pag. 41ss.). These are the emblematic figures of astrological science throghout the Middle Ages.

Up to late XVI century, the astrologer is mainly a philosopher who interprets the motions of the heavenly bodies and the laws of nature. He is both an astronomer and a physicist, sometimes he is also a physician, and he considers himself a follower of Ptolemy, Galen and Aristotle. After all, Ptolemy himself was considered aristotelian, both by the Arab astrologers and by medieval and Renaissance astrologers. The principles of Abû Ma,shar and al-Kindî were also considered aristotelian, as well as the physical-philosophical culture of astrologers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. But later, around the first half of XVII century, the aristotelian physics passed through a deep and unstoppable crisis that portended the Enlightenment; even though one of the most significant interpretations of classical astrology, based on aristotelian reading of Ptolemy's quadriparitum (Placido Titi) dates back to that period. When King Louis XVIII escaped the Imperial Eagle, the Prince of Condé thought he should enquire whether the King intended to perform the purification of the feet in the poor shelter of the village, where unhappy times took him on the day of the anniversary of the ceremony.