On the subject of astrology, the world is pretty much divided into three camps: skeptics or religious zealots who know nothing at all about it (but think they do) and loudly preach against it, consumers who only know their “sun signs” and use it for fun, and practitioners who know entirely too little about it and call themselves professionals. The result has been, for the last couple of hundred years, that this former “Mother of Sciences” has fallen onto hard times, indeed.
But there’s something to it that just won’t quit — something in the inner workings of human evolution that knows that God doesn’t play dice, a gut-level instinct that everything is somehow connected, including what’s on the earth and what’s in the sky, and that survival depends upon knowing it. The pursuit of just what those connections are and how to frame them is what’s bringing astrology back into vogue worldwide and may eventually restore her maternal status. To the horror of some and the delight of others, fervent interest in the stars, destiny, free will, chance, and the individual’s place among them is on the rise, big-time, but so far with more heat than light on the subject. Everybody’s got a close-up viewpoint to promote, but few have a broad perspective on the matter.
Fortunately, historian Benson Bobrick has come along in the nick of time (or, at the right, destined time, shall we say?) to help correct the problem. It’s time to see the forest instead of the trees and to study history so we don’t make the same mistakes yet again. And, as so often happens, it is a work of newly researched and refreshingly revisionist history, instead of retrospective propaganda written by victors, that clarifies the issue and brilliantly illumines a formerly ill-lit stage.
In The Fated Sky, Bobrick rises above the current frays and their frayed arguments to present us with pure history, which tells the story better than any proponent of any particular approach possibly could. More important, he tells it from an inside, historical perspective without the modernist “we-now-know-better” attitude that often plagues cultural and scientific histories. He traces the evolution of astrology from the inside out, from its beginnings in Mesopotamia, through its golden Classical, Arabic, and Renaissance ages, into its sudden forcible rejection by both science and religion, right up to its currently hopeful but often clueless revival. His ever-detailed view is that of the astrologers themselves along with the daily users of their art — how and why they formulated what they did, and their successes and failures in applying it to themselves and each other.
It’s a long journey, from there to here, and it’s a well-told, entertaining, and eye-opening read all along the way. Astrology buffs may already know that major public figures from the Roman emperors through the Medici to Ronald Reagan often consulted the stars. What even aficionados may not have heard are the amazing and marvelous details of the scheming and counter-scheming that went down on a daily basis between astrologers and the royalty, politicians, generals, businessmen, bishops and popes who consulted them. On the scientific side, it is known to many that some of the most influential founders of modern science — Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, Brahe, Boyle — knew something of astrology. But few realize how totally wrapped up in it they often were, and how much it led their way to the discoveries they are most known for.
Further, most people today are only dimly aware of how steeped in astrological reference and thinking European culture itself was, and still is. Most of us know of a couple of Shakespeare references to astrology, but in fact he made hundreds of them — often long, playful banters that assumed his audience to have an intimate knowledge of natal horoscopes and the particulars of their interpretation. And he was nothing out of the ordinary in this respect. Even the Church was part of the game, with elaborate arguments by St. Augustine and Aquinas that allowed this Classical view of the universe to fit in with the tenets of Christianity, or at least framed friendly parts for both to play. Not without reason was William Lilly's Christian Astrology the most important book of the 17th century on the subject.
The fact is astrology was at the heart of the Western worldview — physically and spiritually — right up until well into the 18th century. It was the crowning technical and philosophical endeavor that attempted to describe and make sense of the universe, inside and outside, from the cradle to the grave and beyond. All the sciences were within its purview, and vice versa, because life was considered to be all of a piece. It attracted the best and brightest minds in science, mathematics, literature, politics, and religion and in the process reached new heights of technical complexity, which only the best and brightest could generate or even keep track of. A glance at some of the generous quotes included from contemporary chart analysis would challenge the most astute modern astrologer, and they are impressively beyond arcane to the passing reader.
Sadly, astrology's brilliance was to become its undoing. As modern science evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries — founded in large part by thinkers who were astrologers themselves — a new, separative concept of the world emerged, fueled by the economic gains provided by new technology. With it came a schism of unbridgeable proportions between the spiritual and secular. The foundations laid by the likes of Newton sprouted a burgeoning world of mathematics and applied science that bankrolled a triumphant evolving secular society and backed the Church into a corner. By the middle of the 18th century, secular and spiritual sides pretty much agreed to part ways, with the generally ineffable and profound parts of life relegated to religion and the immediately tangible yet complex world awarded to science. Astrology, and the whole idea that all facets of existence are of necessity connected, was suddenly left holding the bag in the middle and was soon excoriated by both sides. By the 19th century, it was considered quackery by one side, blasphemy by the other, and often outlawed by both. What had once been the most highly trained art of intellectuals became a lost litter of lore, scattered in the gutters of the uneducated and gullible masses who feasted on almanac prattlings, patent medicine, and sun-sign astrology.
In the latter 20th century, astrology regained some small semblance of its former stature, but only by adopting, and being adopted by, soft science like psychology and fringe religion like Theosophy. From pop sun-signs to “Jungian” astrology to “past life” sign and house regression, we are still a long way down from our former heights and not doing much to reclimb them. We are trying rather badly to shoehorn pieces of a universal worldview into our own pet projections and cosmic conceits. Bobrick notes just that, and he has little patience for most modern practitioners. Yet, he is not without hope, observing that disciplines as far apart as weather forecasting and agro-investment are including possible effects of the motions of Sun, moon, and planets, albeit tentatively.
Despite its scope, the book is individually insightful and entertaining — it’s about how humans have used the art, after all, in their own crazy ways. Suppose you’re emperor of Rome and it’s been predicted that you face catastrophe ahead. Isn’t a logical approach to instigate disaster yourself, to pre-fulfill the prophecy and divert Fate's intentions? That’s what Nero thought, and so Rome burned. Ultimately, it didn’t fix it for him, but it did distract the public for a while. Toward this end of history, there’s Hitler. He actually held astrologers in contempt, though he had them rounded up and shot, just in case. Rumors led the British to believe otherwise, however, so they secretly hired their own astrologer to try to predict the moves the Fuhrer would make based on what his (actually non-existent) astrologers were advising — and with surprising success. The book abounds with such wonderful contradictions — and also with tales of astonishingly accurate predictions based solely on cold charts — where the astrologer doesn’t know for whom he’s forecasting — one of the phenomena that makes astrology uniquely reliable (sometimes) and bafflingly mysterious (always). Strange to say, ancient astrologers were much better at that than most are today, probably because their methods were more rigorous and their world itself had more limited options.
The Fated Sky doesn’t officially take sides on the validity of astrology, which is probably a wise move on the author’s part, considering that the subject faces, as he says, “head winds” from all points of the compass. Early reviews of the book prove him right, as mainstream critics somewhat nervously editorialize on the issue, implying either that it should not be taken seriously (The Washington Post) or that it’s no crazier than neo-Darwinism or string theory (The New York Times). The former senses that Bobrick may be dangerously pro-astrology, and the latter cheers him on for it, each with doubtful premises — but all have applauded his thorough and enlightening inside approach to its history.
We applaud it, too, without reservation. If you want to get a thorough sweep on Western astrology and enjoy a really good read in the process, go out and buy this book immediately. There’s never been anything remotely close to it. And, for anyone intending to study the subject with professional aspirations, this should be required reading — after which, at least half of the titles in the generous 13-page bibliography should come next.
Benson Bobrick has been called, in The New York Times Book Review, “perhaps one of the most interesting historians writing in America today.” He is the celebrated author of eight previous books on various subjects, ranging from the American Revolution to the translation of the Bible into English, and holds a doctorate in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. In 2002 he received the Literature Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.