Please don’t tell any of my fellow astronomers, but I love astrologers. Really I do.
Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely no belief whatsoever in the proposition that the positions of planets or stars or moons or anything else that is moving across the sky has or ever has had any sort of control over your life, your actions, or your choices. Zero. Really.
So if I don’t believe in what I must assume would have to be considered a central precept of astrology, how can I possibly claim to love the practitioners? Let me count the ways.
Astrologers care about the sky and the positions of the stars and the moon. I care about the sky and the positions of the stars and the moon. Astrologers try to understand patterns in the orbits and motions of the planets and determine their meaning. I try to understand patterns in the orbits and motions of the planets and determine their meaning. In a broad sense, we do many of the same things; it’s just that our methods are different.
Astrology and astronomy are brothers with roots deeper than just the first five letters. Until perhaps the Enlightenment they were inseparable. Copernicus, who made one of the greatest conceptual leaps in human history, pulling the earth out of the center of the universe and replacing it with the sun, was a dedicated astrologer, calculating astrological charts with as much fervor as trying to understand the paths of the planets. It’s not hard to understand why he would feel that some connection should be there. I don’ t think anyone can watch the rhythms and pulses of the movements of the planets and sun and moon and not somehow get a gut feeling that there is somehow meaning in all of that beauty, precision, and symmetry.
But from their common upbringing, the brothers split in adulthood. They each retained their common interest in the sky, but with thoroughly different ways of looking at it. Astronomy moved to the purely objective realm of descriptive and predictive reality. It moved to science. And a wondrous science it is. I can go outside tonight and look up to see the bright glowing star Betelgeuse, the red orb in the upper corner of constellation Orion, and then I can tell you a pretty good version of the entire story of its birth in a cloud a gas and dust, its long existence as a smaller and cooler star with hydrogen atoms fusing together in the deep interior, and its recent expansion to form ball of gas the size of the orbit of Mars. That we have been able to determine this story at all, simply from looking at the feeble light from these little points in the sky, is as improbable as it is incredible. When I see Betelgeuse at night and stop to think these thoughts I am left in awe.
So what can astrology offer that can even come close to matching? It can’t tell me anything, I don’t think, about my history or my future or my personality or my pitfalls. Or about anyone else’s. Isn’t it therefore worthless, or even potentially dangerous? I don’t think so. Astrology is the brother who kept the fascination with the sky but rather than growing an interest in science kept its interest in humanity. Scientific astronomy, for all of its awe-inspiring, mind expanding, and just simply amazing discoveries, leaves people and their consciousness out of the picture. Astronomy involves people looking up at the heavens, but the heavens are never looking back. Astrology, in contrast, never removed that connection between the sky and the people.
But but but, you protest, there is no connection between the sky and the people. The heavens do not, in fact, look back. And, while you are scientifically correct, you are culturally incorrect. You are thinking literally, but you need to think literarily. Good astrology can be like good literature. Good literature builds a world that is not the real world but teaches us more about ourselves than we would ever learn by simply staring in the mirror. No real King Lear ever had a trio of daughters to split his kingdom amongst nor wandered insane on the heath, but do we disdain Shakespeare for writing about it? No, we read, and we think about children and parents, we think about truth and loyalty, and scheming, and we learn more about ourselves and our world. We’re left enriched by stories that are not true.
Again, I have to plead: don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying that all astrology is equivalent to Shakespeare, but neither is all of the rest of the fiction writing out there. The in-flight magazine that I currently have in front of me has both a short story and an astrology page. I would rate them equal quality examples of their genres.
Here’s a snippet of my in-flight horoscope (I’m a Gemini, perhaps explaining my ability to accept the dual nature of astronomy/astrology) for the month of January:
As your attention is consumed by an array of projects, you may spread yourself too thin. Remember to stop and take a breath, if for no other reason than to garner some perspective.
OK. I don’t need an astrologer to tell me that, but it’s hard not to read it and, why, yes, stop and take a breath and garner a little perspective. It’s not such a bad idea.
A quick perusal of the short story, a few pages earlier, gives a remarkably similar take home message, spread out, instead, over about three pages. After reading both of these I am now convinced: I think I will stop and garner some perspective, at least if I can finish a few of these other projects first.
So where are the Shakespeares of astrology? I will admit to not knowing if they exist at all. My astrological reading is only passive; occasionally someone will send me something and in a spare moment I will pick it up and I just might find it a bit intriguing. Here, for example, are some thoughts about Eris by Henry Seltzer, writing in The Mountain Astrologer:
The astrology of Eris seems to be related to the no-holds-barred fight for continued existence that is fundamental in all natural processes, and to taking a stand for what one believes, even if violence is involved. As the sister of Mars, the God of War, Eris willingly sought the battle. There is a side of nature that is quite harsh, a struggle for survival; this struggle is an essential part of the human condition as well, for we are still half animal. Nature can be viewed in a rosy light, as it was in the hippie era of the Sixties, Bambi innocently drinking from a little stream. But underlying this beauty is the possibility of sudden death at any moment, since all of nature's children need to eat. Eris is related to this principle of violence as a natural component of existence and to the concept of the female warrior that embodies it, especially the feminist struggle for rights in a patriarchal society.
As a general discussion of the national psyche circa late 2007 this passage is not at all bad. It covers the war in Iraq, global warming, and the Hilary Clinton candidacy all in the discussion of one name. It certainly does not require literal belief that the naming of an object in the sky is the actual cause of any of the things discussed.
But what is the point of astrology if you chose to read it figuratively rather than literally? Again, you could ask the same question of King Lear. You could ask the same question of the Bible. And you wouldn’t. To ask it is to miss the point entirely.
Here’s a question you should ask though: why tolerate the existence of astrology, with the danger that people might actually take it literally, with the danger that it might confuse and distort science, with the fear that real cause and effect will become confused, when real literature abounds? Why read pithy but relatively generic snippets of advice and pretend they are somehow connected to a particular constellation along the zodiac? Why read more extended essays purporting to be an in-depth analysis of how a recently discovered ball of rock and ice far from the earth affects all of humanity? The answer? There is no reason. I personally prefer my literature to be of higher quality, to make me think and feel more. Feel free to follow my lead. But if you do chose to read it, read it for the reason that I can’t help but love it. Astrology is not just figurative literature about humanity. Astrology cares about the sky. The astrologers who occasionally correspond with me love to hear about new solar system discoveries, figure out orbital relationships and patterns, and speculate about what else might be out there and how everything fits together. I do all of these things, too. I then take these thoughts and move on to think literally their scientific implications. The astrologers take these thoughts and move on to think figuratively about what these mean for humans. But we, astronomers and astrologers, start in the same spot, with an intense interest in the sky. To me, that matters.
Astronomy and astrology are brothers. Brothers don’t always do the same things or make the same choices. But when they maintain their initial ties to where they came from, their connection cannot help but stay strong. What is not to love?