Sunday, October 12, 2014

In our Stars

One has to wonder why, despite our reliance on science and our enlightened state, so many of us take astrology seriously.  You would think that its day is long gone, but it isn't.  One can see it in any  newspaper (even the ones which still are made up of paper), and be enthralled by an Eastern version of it in many Chinese restaurants.  Curiously, it seems that whether we are, e.g., a Cancer or a Horse, many fine qualities are attributed to us as being a part of our nature.  Our signs, or years, at birth never seem to ordain that we're idiots, or twisted, or fanatic, or hideous.

We all know the story of the Reagans, or at least Nancy Reagan's, belief in and reliance on astrology when considering the future.  It's reminiscent of Tiberius' reliance on it especially during his time in Capri.  Presumably, neither Ronald or Nancy would have hurled their astrologers off a cliff in the event of a bad "reading" however.

It must be said that astrology played a part in the birth of modern science, particularly astronomy, much as alchemy may be said to have played a part in the birth of modern chemistry.  Since the time of the ancient Chaldeans, at least, some of us have been busy identifying and plotting the courses of heavenly bodies.  These observations were reputedly quite precise; indeed, it appears that a good deal of mathematical information and knowledge were employed by those who read the stars and what else can be seen from the Earth.  The problems with astrology resulted from inferences made from the mathematics based on unfounded assumptions regarding the nature and influence of the stars and planets.

The cult of Mithras in the Roman Empire is an example of the influence of astrology on religion.  We know little of the ritual or liturgy of that cult, but we know from the mithraeums themselves that astrology was involved as the signs of the Zodiac are frequently on display, along with Mithras and his bull and the torch-bearing twins, Cautes and Cautopates.

Why, though, did we (and do we) associate the stars and the planets with our character and fate?    Were the predictable and regular movements of these objects in the sky suggestive of the order of the universe, the laws of the universe?  Being such, was it inferred that we were similarly ordered, or that the order in the sky necessarily governed the creatures of the Earth? 

It's difficult to contend that astrology was or is a means to control our destinies as that is plainly not the case.  Astrology seems to be an example of deterministic thinking; that is to say that we are controlled and unable to control ourselves.  It would then seem more plausible that astrology was used as a means by which to understand our destinies, to know the future which has already been ordained. 

It can't be the case that astrology was looked to as explaining, or at least predicting, what the gods had in store for us as we thought of them as gods themselves.  Particularly in ancient Greece and Rome, the gods were notoriously unpredictable and some of them easily offended or aroused to action.  It would be difficult in that case to attribute to them neatly ordered conduct such as that displayed in the sky.

The Romans, of course, adopted the apparently Etruscan practice of determining the future from the entrails of animals.  Thus the liver of an ox or other creature took the place of the stars as indicating the what was in store.  This seems even more unlikely than accepting the movement of the stars as governing us and our fate. 

Undoubtedly it was hoped that the future could be known and predicted and so it's nor surprising that we sought for (and found) ways by which that could be done.  Priests who knew that way were not required to be of high moral character themselves, as they were simply discerning what was written for us through a consideration of what took place in nature, not through a vision or grace bestowed, or special favor of the gods.  Astrology represented a kind of learning or system rather than a knowledge granted for good conduct.  It was not an award by the gods, it was something that could be taught.

We can "forgive" the ancients for their ignorance, but modern practice of astrology or consultation with astrologers is mystifying.  As it must be the case that most of us are now aware of the vastness of the universe and our planet's tiny part it in, it should be extremely difficult to believe that the stars and planets in their movements serve to fashion our nature and reveal our fates.  But we all still want to know the future, and it may be said that praying for such knowledge or awaiting a revelation of it by some beneficent deity is not all that different from seeking it in the movements of the stars and planets.    If we have no problem accepting the former, there is no problem with accepting the latter.

Acceptance, however, is not something that can be associated with astrology.  If we were blithely willing to accept whatever happens we'd have no need to know what is going to happen.  Astrology and certain kinds of religion may therefore be considered efforts on our part to disturb ourselves with things not in our control, a cardinal error for a Stoic.  I don't recall whether Epictetus, Seneca or Marcus Aurelius dealt with this practice, but will review their work to find out.

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