Exegesis Volume 5 Issue #16

From: Janice & Dennis
Subject: on the metaphysical basis of astrology

Exegesis Digest Thu, 23 Mar 2000

Date: Wed, 22 Mar 2000 13:20:35 +1200
From: Janice & Dennis
To: Exegesis
Subject: on the metaphysical basis of astrology

Astrology's main traditional components have an evident metaphysical origin, in addition to the astronomical origin, and the religious origin. The allocation of elements to cardinal points, for instance.

[Since I wrote the rough draft of this piece, Bill Tallman's interesting backgrounder on Ptolemy has arrived (with some details I was unaware of, appreciated). Of relevance here is this comment: "We can understand that astrology was a metaphysical subject, even as the Greeks saw it."]

The belief that signs in the sky mean something for life on earth may have eventually become religious, but it seems to be basically a metaphysical premise. Astrodivination, then astrology, evolved from this premise. Initially, which bunch of stars were in a significant position: rising, or culminating. Then, the Moon being in them. Then the planets being in them. Millennia later, by deduction, not observation, the Sun being in them.

Heaven, realm of gods, divine, perfect, immutable, ordered. Earth, realm of creatures, mundane, imperfect, mutable, chaotic. Luna, Thoth, original measurer of time in prehistory, changing its appearance in a regular temporal pattern. Ordered, but fluctuating in appearance. Unlike the radiant constancy of the solar disc, but, due to some mysterious divine law (still inexplicable to scientists) precisely the same size.

Interpreting planets as gods & goddesses seems a religious correlation, and we have ample evidence that this practice had a culture-specific basis. The correlations were local and regional. But it is not clear how the proliferation emerged from the original dichotomy of sky father and earth mother (not that this was universal either). Was it simply collective projection into the heavens of the extended families that formed the basis of tribes on earth in prehistoric times? If so, the presumed reflection of such a social pattern is a metaphysical stance.

Come to think of it, I may be wrong to assume Rudhyar originated the equation planet = god/goddess = psychological drive. The infection had already taken hold in the '70s, but perhaps he just said planet = psychological drive, and all the camp-followers made the extension and said "Oh goody, that means we can have as many internal gods & goddesses as we can imagine." Apparently the implications for susceptibility to multiple personality disorder were too subtle for the asteroid-goddess crowd. Why bother with television soap-operas when you can have a cosmic melodrama in your mind continuously? Myth provides meaning, and in an apparently meaningless world, many find it preferable to social reality. To the extent, indeed, that they make it their personal reality, to insulate themselves from the collective reality.

Bill gives good reasoning based on history for why it is sensible to assume that "the Ptolemaic astrological doctrine is inherently suspect!" When I first read Ashmand's translation of the Tetrabiblos, circa '83, I immediately formed this impression. It actually struck me as dismayingly primitive at first, but more reflection informed me that it was also significantly inconsistent in places. Being totally obscure, as well, in many others. After reading for some years astrologers and historians referring to this text as the bible of traditional astrology, I consequently lost faith in astrologers as a suitable peer-group, and respect for their intellectual and philosophical capacities.

Knowing that what survived is the paraphrase by Proclus, we are never going to be able to unweave the later neo-Platonic strands from the earlier strands of Ptolemy's original thoughts (if any), the astronomy of Hipparchus, and the natural philsophy of Aristotle. Comprehension of technical terms and logic is also likely to be confused by mistranslations (as Bill notes) in the Arabic period and later when it reached Europe. Apparently the earliest surviving copy is from the 11th century. The effect of prior mistranslations on later practice has been documented (notably by Martin Harvey in England in the '70s), and it seems almost as significant as a regularly recurring source of error as false or hypothetical source data for horoscopes.

Bill wrote "we find we are not able to assume that the astrological tradition as we have it has any real basis outside Ptolemy's philosophical synthesis." Perhaps this is over-stating the case. Valens was a contemporary of Ptolemy, from Antioch, though he settled in Alexandria and there produced his Anthology. This dealt "with most facets of Greek astrology. More than any other astrologer, Valens may represent the mainstream of the Hellenistic tradition. Clearly a practicing astrologer, he exercises his critical intelligence on the tradition and the various competing contemporary astrological schools.. The Anthology as we have it also contains a huge collection of actual horoscopes and their delineations worked out as examples of his various techniques."

Ptolemy, by contrast "was first and foremost a theoretical revisionist. His astrological teaching is by no means representative of the main line of Hellenistic astrology. In fact, he discarded large portions of the tradition he inherited." And "it is not clear whether Ptolemy himself was a practising astrologer, and this must make us read him with caution." In fact, I do not recall seeing a single horoscope or example case study given in the Tetrabiblos. Since the original meaning of paradigm is model, example, and not collective belief system, we can see that Ptolemy's remarkable subsequent influence was due entirely to his ability of synthesis in providing a mental vehicle for the operation of a paradigm in the latter, modern, sense of the word. This is in stark contrast to traditional scientific practice, which teaches by example, in the sense of the original meaning of paradigm. Valens therefore must be seen to have the real street cred as proto-scientist, and, hence, a more authentic source of astrological tradition.

Quotes are from p53 "Companion to the Greek Track", R Schmidt & R Hand, Project Hindsight 1994. Further to my point are the prior sources (see p51/2) which partially survived, sufficiently to indicate that decoding techniques were being recycled. Dorotheus of Sidon (presumed 1st century) "is the primary source of catarchic astrology (electional/horary), since both Ptolemy and Valens seem to have disaproved of this subject." A couple of centuries earlier Geminus wrote a chapter on aspects. The Hermetic and Nechepso/Petosiris material is at least a century earlier, generally acknowledged as the main transmission route of concepts and lore from earlier astrologers such as the teacher Berosus, of whose texts only the titles survive. The tradition sure has a real basis in history, but I agree with Bill's implication that it is too tenuous to be much use to us. And I would include Ptolemy's output in this description.

However, this does not mean we ought to dismiss the junk-heap of traditional astrology. A careful sifting process is what I would advise, to isolate fundamental metaphysical premises or propositions that are detectable in the ancient sources. Ideally, this would involve selecting actual text quotes as evidence of an overtly-stated belief. Instead, a passing reference implying tacit belief is all that will be detectable. Any superstructure of technique that has been erected upon such premises may be provisionally worth retaining for consideration, but only to the extent that it is found in other writings: the consensual basis of tradition is what ought to be guiding the selection process. This is not fully reliable, since it could mean we just end up identifying the common delusion of a bunch of fools, but I can't think of any historical research approach that is more likely to bear fruit.

I envisage quite a rigorous application of this documentation. For instance, to provide the material for the chapter "The Philosophical Basis of the Horoscope, in my book, I illustrated the several primary metaphysical premises underlying the construction of the diagram by means of quotes from prior astrologer-authors. The whole point was to impress upon the reader the extent of consensuality (or, as Harvard biology prof EO Wilson wrote in the book of the same name, consilience). I confined my own contribution to the connecting commentary. My intent was to describe the metaphysical foundations of a collective belief system. [You can't do that effectively by asserting your own opinions. No matter how authoritatively you may frame your reasoning, others can always dismiss your assertions as idiosyncratic.] To identify the theme of correlation of pattern common to both heaven and earth, synchronicity, as illustrated by the ancient metaphysical premise, `as above, so below', I used quotes from eight different astrological publications. The sources were not merely the 6 different astrologer authors, but also an esoteric philosopher (Manly P Hall) and the `basic principles' booklet of a national organisation (AFA). When the like-mindedness is extensive, it pays to document that this is in fact so. Citing hearsay is taking the easy way out and will impress nobody.

Dennis Frank


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