The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 316, titled:
With Chris Brennan and Dr. Justin Sledge
Episode originally released on August 24, 2021
Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcribed by Mary Sharon
Transcription released August 28, 2021
Copyright © 2021 TheAstrologyPodcast.com
CHRIS BENNAN: Hey, my name is Chris Brennan and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. This is episode 316, and in it I talk with Dr. Justin Sledge of the Esoterica YouTube channel about the philosophy of ancient Greco-Roman astrology and the relationship between astrology and some of the different philosophical and religious schools during that time period, basically during the Hellenistic and Roman era. This was originally structured as an interview where Justin was interviewing me for his YouTube channel based on my experience as the author of a book on ancient astrology titled Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune, but the discussion went so well that I’ve decided to release it as an episode of The Astrology Podcast on my channel as well and Justin’s given me permission to do that. The focus of the discussion is talking about the relationship between astrology and different philosophical and religious schools during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. And during the course of the discussion, we touched on Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Christianity, fate, freewill, determinism, different conceptualizations of the mechanism underlying astrology and a lot more. It was a pretty sweeping discussion and we just recorded it last night on August 17th, 2021 at approximately starting at 6:20 p.m. in Denver, Colorado for those that want to know. With that little introduction out of the way, let’s go ahead and jump right into the interview.
- JUSTIN SLEDGE: Well, I am very excited tonight to be sitting down and talking with Chris Brennan, one of the premier astrologers and authors on astrology who, in my opinion, has probably written one of the most definitive both histories and textbooks of astrology, his masterpiece, Hellenistic Astrology. I’m really excited to have you here on Esoterica, Chris. Thank you so much for joining me.
CB: Yeah, thanks for having me. It’s good to be here on your channel.
JS: It’s really wonderful to have you. Of course, astrology is maybe one of the most decisive aspects of the history of Western esotericism and I’m really happy to be in somewhat in both of our wheelhouses tonight. We’re going to be talking about the relationship of Hellenistic philosophy with your expertise, Hellenistic astrology, and of course, I have a background in philosophy. I somehow managed to do a PhD in it. And so, having some background in ancient philosophy and your enormous background in Hellenistic astrology, I’m really looking forward to having a conversation around the intersection of philosophical issues and astrological issues as they emerge in many ways I think in the cradle of Western esotericism, Western philosophy, Western science, and of course, Western astrology. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
CB: Yeah, I am too. And we did our episode on my podcast last month on ancient Jewish views of astrology, that was amazing. I was so happy with how that came out and how much ground we covered of over 2,000 or 3,000 years of history. I think we have a similar task of a huge, gargantuan thing to undertake tonight that’s in front of us. But if anybody can pull this off, I think it’s going to be the two of us.
JS: Sounds about right. I think we’ll get through what we get through. And what we don’t get through, the best thing about not getting through things is, well, we have the future ahead of us, hopefully, to continue to have these kinds of discussions so I hope that’s in the future possibility.
CB: And just to return to something you said before that, but astrology was very much integrated and if not completely integrated, there were relationships between astrology and many of the major philosophical schools and religious traditions in the ancient world in like the Hellenistic period and the Greco-Roman era in general. And that’s one of the things that makes the study of astrology so fascinating and until recently overlooked was just how much influence it did have on some of the big philosophical and religious questions of the day 2,000 years ago.
JS: Oh, it’s absolutely right. I think you can’t really in some ways study the kind of things that folks are doing in the philosophical world without at the same time understanding how they’re looking at the world above them, the celestial world, because in a very strong way the celestial world and the terrestrial world and the spiritual world were all one continuum mostly for these guys. And so, looking at that as one continuous idea is going to be a hugely important part of how to understand philosophy. And it’s amazing to me that if you take upper-level philosophy classes in the university environment, you actually just don’t learn about the intersection of astrology or the intersection even of medicine in these disciplines.
CB: Yeah, and it’s starting to become a little bit more accepted in academia and you’re starting to see more and more PhD students doing really interesting work in this area. But yeah, I mean, the connection between the cosmos and humanity is like one of the most fundamental philosophical and religious questions of all time no matter what culture you’re talking about and that’s where the entry point is for astrology because that’s also what the primary focus of astrology always was in whatever culture, so you can start to understand why there was some overlap there.
JS: Right, I think that’s true. I think that’s true. Let’s get into the Hellenistic world a little bit, right? Because that’s where in many ways the different currents of astrology, Babylonian astrology, Egyptian astrology, that’s where those currents are really going to come together and be formed there in that Alexandrian milieu. And so, to talk a little bit about that world, and I think one of the things that really jumps out to me about that world and I’d be interested to hear your analysis of this, is that on the one hand, the Alexandrian Hellenistic world is a world of enormous technological development and mathematical development. Alchemy is being developed. Astrology is being developed. So, there are all of these technical, philosophical developments happening. But at the same time, it’s a world of social chaos that you have the collapse of the whole project of Alexander to unify the world under one Hellenistic thing. And one way of telling a story of Hellenistic philosophy is to describe the various forms of philosophy that developed at that time, whether it’s Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, even Hermeticism and Gnosticism, as essentially what are get called coping philosophies, which is to say their ways of engaging with the world as to deal with it because it’s harsh and scary and bad and chaotic. And so, Stoicism says, look, we’re going to disattach our emotions from the world. Epicureanism says, we’re going to disattach the way we live and live in a garden with our buddies. Skepticism says, we’re just not going to hold any judgments about the world. Hermeticism says, we’re going to basically try to escape the world through spiritual purification. Gnosticism says, we’re going to escape it through getting out of this world of the prison. And I think the way that astrology links up to that is that astrology is also perhaps one of these intersecting coping philosophies in that the way that it copes is by trying to deeply understand how the world is going to be, right? What’s going to happen? If you know what’s going to happen, then at some level you might be able to have some control over it. And to what degree do you see this idea that these various philosophical schools are coping philosophies? And do you see astrology emerging in and mapping on to that characterization?
CB: Yeah, I mean, one thing I like about that and one thing to understand early on that I think has been really important for me to understand, very useful for me to understand that I don’t think is discussed enough when talking about some of these different philosophical schools and the time period in which they flourished is also understanding the progression and development of astrology over the course of its history and recognizing that there are different eras in terms of the practice of astrology and the types of astrology being practiced. And sometimes that’s what actually influenced some of these philosophical and religious schools in the types of questions they were asking, in the types of implicit assumptions they were making about the cosmos, especially from the Hellenistic era onward. So, I wanted to mention that just because it’s really fascinating that the first 1,000 years or 2,000 years in Mesopotamia, they had the practice of what’s called mundane astrology, which is just the application of the idea of astrology that planetary alignments somehow tell you things about what’s going on Earth or about the future in reference to the country or different countries as a whole. It’s very much not focused on the individual, it’s focused on the collective in some way. But then in 410 BCE, there’s this new development in Mesopotamia where we suddenly have the introduction of the concept of natal astrology and the concept of birth charts. And this took the idea of astrology that there was a correlation between celestial movements and earthly events and it personalized it by saying that the alignment of the cosmos on the day that a person or the moment that a person was born has something specific to say about their life and about their future. And so that principle has a lot of implications in it about individuals and their lives and how they’re set up and what their relation is to the cosmos as well as that there may be something pre-determined to some extent about the future. And I think it’s really interesting to see how many of the Hellenistic era philosophies grew up with that cultural context in mind. You have the Stoics that are practicing in a completely deterministic context where they think that everything is pre-determined in a person’s life from the moment of birth. You also have Hermeticism and Gnosticism operating in this broader context where they have very deeply ingrained beliefs about fate and what is indicating a person’s fate and to what extent you can break free of a person’s fate as indicated by the planets and by astrology. So that’s like one thing just in order to situate some of those. And when you’re talking about coping philosophies, one of the questions is, what are they coping with? And part of the overarching thing that most philosophies are dealing with from the fourth century BCE forward is this question of fate and predetermination.
JS: Yeah, this question of fate I think is central to the conversation around Hellenistic astrology that that is the core thing that they’re trying to deal with is what to do, how to navigate fate, and what is the relationship of our individual fate to the larger cosmic system? And it’s interesting this shift from mundane astrology in the Mesopotamian world to where they develop natal charts. Do natal charts continue to be cast in the Mesopotamian context or is there a sea change to natal charts after that? Does that way of doing astrology, is that a sea change in the way of relating to fate not as a nation state which we also see in ancient Israel, but as the way that we will navigate it now will be through understanding our own individual fate?
CB: Yeah, the Babylonian or Mesopotamian birth charts that are written on cuneiform tablets, there’s a book called Babylonian Horoscopes by a scholar named Francesca Rochberg, and she dates the earliest charts in cuneiform to 410 BCE, but then they continue all the way up until about the first century BCE. And right about the time those cuneiform tablets with birth charts stop happening is the same time that suddenly that concept shows up in Greek horoscopes. And all of a sudden, you have this increasing number starting with very few in the first century BCE to hundreds of them over the next few centuries that eventually peaks in the second and third centuries before declining after the advent of Christianity. There was this new development and invention of a system sometime around the first century BCE, where there was a new approach to astrology that was primarily focused on birth charts and a number of new techniques and concepts were introduced at that time to create a system that was primarily geared around birth charts and interpreting those in a more advanced or complex method. And that’s basically the creation of what we usually call today Hellenistic astrology because it emerged in Alexandria around the time of the late Hellenistic period and was very much a product of the Hellenistic period and many of the assumptions that were being made in philosophy and medicine and metaphysics and other things like that. But that system was very much focused on natal astrology from that point forward and very much focused on the concept of fate as being indicated in the alignment of the cosmos at the moment of birth.
JS: Right. If you were to ask a learned astrologer in the Hellenistic period, the first century BCE, first century of the Common Era, second century of the Common Era, how do you think they would define astrology for themselves? What might they say? And imagine there’s a lot of latitude among people, but if you were just to get the word on the street about, if someone were to want a definition of astrology in the Hellenistic period, what kind of definition would you give?
CB: Yeah, I mean, I struggled with that question for a long time because there was such a wide variety of different opinions on it, but what I came down to was that the fundamental thing is just there was a fundamental belief that there was a correlation between celestial movements of the planets and other stars and things like that and what happens in terms of events on Earth so that there’s a mirroring or some interaction between celestial movements and earthly events. And then within that context, there’s kind of a wide axis where on one axis, there’s a belief of some astrologers that planetary movements are just signs or heavenly writing of events that are happening on Earth or future events and that’s what I call the sign-based model of astrology, where the planets are not causing things to happen, they’re just indicating it like a clock on the wall to use like a modern analogy. But on the other end of the spectrum is those who believed in another emerging Hellenistic view that the planets and stars were causing events to happen on Earth through some celestial influence and there were various conceptualizations of that. But that was like one axis was whether an astrologer believed in an astrology of signs or an astrology of causes and then on the other axis was the extent to which they believed that events were pre-determined in a person’s life or things were fully fated to occur or whether there was any negotiability or any room for maneuver or freewill of some sort to use like a later term that still fits in a way that’s accurate to describe what they were talking about. Some of the astrologers believed that things were completely pre-determined and the purpose of astrology was just to find out your fate so that you knew what you had to accept about your life in the future in a very stoic sense. And then there were others, there’s a whole spectrum, but on the other end of that spectrum were those who believed that astrology just indicated events that were partially pre-determined but that the future was more negotiable and that things were not fully fixed even if they were to a certain extent.
JS: Right, so this is interesting and I think you have this in your book in fact, this quadrant model where we have the signs versus causation model, right? And those are very metaphysically different and very physically different. Because if it’s a sign model, it’s just like you said, the clock ticking on the wall, it simply tells us the time. It doesn’t make time happen. Whereas the causal model really beckons into existence a whole structure by which one has to begin to analyze how exactly the celestial world is doing that causation and there are lots of competing theories about how that causal relationship is happening. So we can get more into that causal story in just a little bit because I really find that it’s interesting that almost every philosophical school gave a different causal theory about how that mechanism worked. Again, what links back to this is this question between some kind of hard determinism and some kind of freewill and that being a spectrum that you could fall on that either things are hardcore determined or that you have some degree of freewill. And the interesting question here is, to what degree are concepts like fate or destiny or accident or necessity, chance, right? These are ideas that I think now we think of in a much less metaphysical way. But of course, the ancient Greeks especially really not only thought of them as metaphysical structures of reality, right? You have someone like Anaximenes who really believed that fate, Moirai, fate and Tyche, chance actually preexisted the gods, that they were primordial forces of being, ontological forces that even existed before the gods and even the gods are bound over to them at some level which I think is a really interesting idea that fate and chance are not uniquely affecting us, they’re affecting everything, including even the gods, which I find to be a really interesting kind of thing. But could you say something about how maybe the Hellenistic world articulated some of these concepts around fate or Moirai, Ananke or destiny? You have that really big idea in the ancient stoic world of the Heimarmene, a moderate fate. It’s a fate that you have, but it’s negotiable at least to some degree and other kinds of ideas, Tyche, chance and things like that. How do you see these various kinds of ideas playing themselves out in the Hellenistic world of the development of astrology at that time?
CB: Sure. And here’s that diagram you were mentioning just from my book where we’re talking about those four philosophical positions and that axis of signs versus causes or complete versus partial determinism.
JS: Yeah, this is a really helpful diagram that I really enjoyed in your book about this idea that signs don’t imply causation, right? They could be communicating. In fact, I think Chrysippus even says… Chrysippus, of course, has a much more deterministic view of nature than a lot of folks. Chrysippus, of course, is the third founder of Stoicism. In fact, in many ways, he’s the real founder of Stoicism. And he argued, I think, this really beautiful argument that the gods care about us, the gods like us, which is negotiable, but I like the idea that the gods like us. And because the gods like us and because the gods can see past, present, and future all at once, they do the job of looking to the future and then communicating what’s going to happen to us in the heavenly bodies. And if we’re smart enough, we can decipher them and then come to accept what’s going to happen to us, right? I like the idea that Chrysippus’ model of astrology, it is determined, we can’t figure out how it’s determined. The gods know how it’s determined, however, and they communicate the structure of that determination to us in the celestial body such that those of us who are wise enough can figure that out and then become at peace with what’s about to happen to us. I’ve always found that this Chrysippian idea very, I don’t know, there’s something beautiful about it and also it maintains that stoic rigor that your task is not to change fate, your task is simply to accept it and become even minded about it, apatheia, that you’re simply to be unemotional because there’s no crying about spilled milk even if the spilled milk is going to happen tomorrow.
CB: Yeah. And that’s so crucial for first understanding Stoicism and understanding that philosophical backdrop and the popularity of Stoicism in the late Hellenistic and early Roman period even at the highest levels with philosopher emperors like Marcus Aurelius, who truly believed that every event in a person’s life was pre-determined. And it’s not just pre-determined in a mechanical sense, but it’s pre-determined through Heimarmene, which is fate, is the Greek word essentially the primary word for fate, that is due to or the result of providential ordering of events according to a divine plan and that plan is the best plan possible because it emanates or it comes essentially from God or is God in some sense. And therefore if that’s true, then the best thing that you can do in that context is to accept your fate and learn how to be okay with that whatever happens whether it’s subjectively positive or subjectively negative event, but to have the same essential emotional outlook and reaction to that and the idealized stoic sage that the stoic philosophers like Chrysippus or other stoics talk about is the sage who’s become so enlightened that they’re able to accept any events that occur in their life without any problem and to treat them all with the same essential and fundamental outlook.
And one of my realizations at one point when I was citing the Hellenistic astrologers was realizing that the primary focus of Hellenistic astrology for many of the astrologers no matter what their philosophical position was was doing the same thing, which is helping individuals to learn about their fate and learn about what their future is so that they know what events they have to accept about their life and to become okay with for those who had not received or achieved the enlightenment of a stoic sage. Because of course, even though that stoic sage is like the idealized version of what we should all theoretically want to be like or achieve, that’s easier said than done. And in reality, for most people, if there’s some really heavy stuff coming down in your future at some point that you’re going to need to accept and deal with, it’s actually going to be helpful in a very practical sense to know about that ahead of time so that you can begin preparing yourself even years in advance. And no matter what the outlook of the different astrologers was, that was the one philosophical position that I kept seeing different astrologers repeat over and over again in the different astrological texts whatever their philosophical outlook was.
JS: No. And I think that’s a really fascinating point that so many of the astrologers argued exactly what you said that knowing what’s going to happen will help us come to peace with it. And the counter argument to that is the so-called lazy argument. The lazy argument was leveled at the Stoics that said, “Look, if you’re going to die, going to a doctor is not going to change it.” So, either you’re going to get better or you’re going to die. It doesn’t really matter, you shouldn’t go see a doctor. And the idea is that you shouldn’t do anything because everything is fated. And the Stoics had this interesting idea of co-fatedness that yes, things are determined, but at the same time they’re determined both from the outside world but also what you do matters too and so it’s your comportment toward it that matters as well. And so, I’ve always found this interesting dual way of looking at astrology where on the one hand, it can inspire a person to apathy, right? It’s apathy in the bad sense of the word. You just don’t do anything because nothing matters and everything is already fated as opposed to the idea that a lot of what’s going on in the process of Hellenistic astrology is actually trying to make people into better people. And I find that to be an interesting kind of debate in that world where on the one hand, determinism seems to lead to or could lead to a kind of apathetic, why should I do anything? And the other side is no, it’s precisely because it’s determined that now the onus is on you to be a better person because it’s going to happen. Your character is shown by how you respond to what happens to you not by trying to change things. That’s an act of desperation.
And I find this relationship between fate as something that’s harmful and frightening on the one hand. We see that for instance in perhaps the Gnostics, right? The Gnostics really do view the world as a prison and a cage and that the planets themselves are conspirators, right? They are archons, right? The planets are actually part of manipulating the world to keep you locked inside of it. They are these evil entities that fate you, but they fate only your physical body. And you see the same idea in Hermeticism as well though not quite as extremely dualistic. And the idea there is that you can escape fate, but only spiritually. That if you comport yourself in the correct spiritual way, doing the right kind of meditations or studying the right kinds of things or learning the right kinds of things, that your spirit can escape the world of fate, but your body is still condemned to it. And so the task there is simply to not care about what happens to your body. The Stoics are much more optimistic. They think that the world’s not fundamentally bad, the world’s driven by providence. So, I think what’s interesting about this is the various shades that get thrown on to this problem, where fate is thought of as something good or evil and your relationship to it is thought of as revealing your character or you trying to escape from it at some level. Is there any one of those positions that you found especially enlightening both from a historical point of view or philosophical point of view but also enlightening in the practice of actually doing astrology now? Are there any of those positions that you found, especially these variances that you found especially enlightening?
CB: Sure, yeah. I mean, one thing I want to say about the fate issue is that the reason why all of the later philosophical traditions from the Hellenistic period forward get tied up in this notion that the planets are somehow connected with fate is actually due to Plato and due to the Timaeus and especially the Myth of Er in the Republic, where Plato ends up creating this conceptualization where the planets get tied in with Heimarmene. And so, from that point forward in almost every philosophical school, we get this assumption that the planets are somehow tied in with fate and each of the philosophical schools deals with that or the religious schools deals with that in different ways, for example, through either Stoicism or through Gnosticism or Hermeticism and different shades of whether that’s a positive or negative thing based on the broader philosophy of whether the physical material world we’re in is fundamentally a positive providential place or whether it’s fundamentally a negative one like in the some Gnostic schools. I wanted to mention that first, but then also go back to your mention of I think it was Chrysippus who was responding to the lazy argument with that cylinder analogy and with the idea that there is both an internal fate as well as an external fate that happens to us. And this I think became really crucial for astrology and you can see astrologers taking this idea and running with it that was already there in the Stoic school, but Chrysippus’ analogy was that it’s not just external things happening and pushing to you but also your internal predispositions are fated. And he uses the analogy of if you had a cylinder that was sitting at the top of a hill and somebody pushes it and then it subsequently rolls down the hill on its own accord, basically. And so, he was making this argument that you have both external events sometimes that do push you in certain directions and that’s like your external fate, but then also the cylinder rolled down the hill because of its own cylindrical design or nature internally and so that’s the internal concept of fate. It wouldn’t roll if it was like a block or something, it instead would stay even if it was given a push, would stay sitting in the same location. So, I have to think that this would have been in the back of the mind of most astrologers when they’re talking about the concept of natal astrology in the birth chart, where you have both the internal fate of the native which is the birth chart showing certain things about their character and their predispositions. Like if a person has a tendency towards being overly aggressive or quick to anger as a character trait or the opposite, whether they tend to be given to depressive episodes or something like that. And so, they have these internal characteristics or each of us has these internal character qualities that we’re born with or that we have as inbuilt traits which is the internal fate. But then occasionally, you also have these external events that happen in our life which are also connected with the planets and with the concept of planetary transits in astrology which are indicating periods in a person’s life when certain events are more likely to happen and that would be the concept of external fate of being put in certain circumstances where different people are going to react to different stimuli in different ways. And this is one of the other underlying assumptions that’s happening in the astrology that you can see is either taken by and being influenced by some of these arguments that are happening in the philosophical schools like with Chrysippus’ internal versus external analogy or alternatively, those could be things that were happening in the culture because of astrology that were somehow influencing things like the Stoic philosophical positions or happening. It’s really murky and hard to say because we’ve lost so many sources from the Hellenistic period in both the Stoic philosophical tradition as well as in the astrological tradition. So it’s sometimes hard to know who’s influencing what.
JS: No, right. I mean, most famous I think Chrysippus is the most tragic in that regard. Diogenes Laertius says he wrote 705 books and exactly zero survive. He only survives in stolen fragments in the SVF. And to go back to your comment about the Timaeus, I think it’s only one line in the Timaeus has had such a decisive impact in many ways on how the history of astrology developed. I think it’s that one line, I forgot exactly where it is but he says, “All these conjunctions and oppositions and retrograde motions and things and they could be portents of all kinds of terrorists,” I think is what he says. I think it’s just one line. And of course, he comes back later and says some more things about astrology in The Laws. I’m just always struck by how sometimes what appear to be singular throwaway lines can be decisive in the history of philosophy astrology and things like that.
CB: Well, and you know it’s funny about that one line actually is there’s some scholars who have always given a side eye to that line and wondered if that line wasn’t a later insertion from Thrasyllus, who was the first century astrologer who was the astrologer to the Emperor Tiberius and he is famous for having arranged Plato’s dialogues in the first century into the form that we have them in today or into the sectioning that we have them in today, and some have speculated or at least tried to put that off on Thrasyllus and whether Thrasyllus inserted what seems to be almost for pro-astrology throwaway line in Plato. But even without that line, you don’t necessarily need it as a justification for astrology because there is this other connection that Plato makes between Heimarmene and the planets and that really is the thing that became the most influential in all the subsequent philosophical schools that then had to wrestle with and deal with the implications of what does it mean for the planets to be involved in a person’s fate, especially their personal fate? And that’s one of the reasons why in the subtitle for my book is Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune because I truly think that in the first century BCE somebody tried to create a system that could be used to study a person’s individual fate through the use of the birth chart.
JS: Right. Yeah, and I think that even the Myth of Er too, you have this idea that the planets are connected to the lots that people get and that determines their fate once they get born. They’ll roll back to the world and come back either righteous or vicious depending on what fate you ended up with. But yeah, it’s there in the Republic as well and The Laws, I think.
CB: Then let’s dwell on that because it’s another important backdrop which is really interesting and metaphysical, especially in the Middle Platonists and some of the Neoplatonists where you have that idea of the souls that are traveling to earth, and then on the outskirts of earth before being born they’re all given a selection of lives and they’re all casting lots using the concept of chance, which is tied into the concept of cleros or lots like a lottery and then they pick lives based on that and then immediately are born into those lives and have to live them out in some way. But this notion that a choice is made somehow before you’re born and then you’re living that out ahead of time has really interesting philosophical implications that in a very practical sense became very tangible with the rise of natal astrology, which says that it can tell you based on the moment of birth what the person will do and what they will become in their life and whether they will achieve greatness or whether they will become a beggar or what have you. Because thinking about Plato’s timeframe, Plato was born around let’s say 428 roughly BCE and the very first Mesopotamian birth chart that we know of that survives dates to 410 BCE, so we’re talking very close like timeframe there in terms of whether that concept would have been something he would have been aware of and would have been in the back of his mind and we don’t know. There’s no ever explicit statement in Plato about astrology. But it’s just interesting thinking of those two things roughly being in the same timeframe and how influential they would become over subsequent centuries.
JS: Right. My history of ancient Greek, it’s not quite as good as it could be. I think that’s also the same time period where the names for the planets actually shifted too as opposed to just being the twinkling one or this one or that one. They actually change and become deified. They actually get linked to the gods in a way that I don’t think they had been previously. In Homer and Hesiod, for instance, the names of the planets they’re just descriptive names of the planets like the bright one or the blinking one. And it’s I think around the fifth century BCE where you get the shift where the planets are now linked to the gods and now the gods are expressing their will or causing their will via the planet at some level and that’s impacting the world below us and as their souls filter down through, they are passing all these different beings, these creatures, the gods become alive. And that the gods I always kind of imagined as ping pong or not ping pong, pinball, where these souls are bouncing off these things and picking up a little bit of this and a little bit of that and depending where you fall, you might bounce off Saturn real hard and pick up some melancholy on the way down or whatever. And by the time they hit the lunar level, as they pass that lunar level, they’ve gotten their ticket and then they fall through and forget everything. And I think that’s what’s interesting about astrology is it says that pinball journey down through the celestial world, we can reconstruct that based on when you were born and now we know what will happen, what you’ll be, what kind of dispositions you’ll have, or at least what you’ll have to struggle with at some level. I think it’s also intriguing Plato too that in the Myth of Er, part of what makes Er interesting is that he escapes his fate at some level, right? He’s on his funeral pyre, wakes up, and he remembers everything. And you have the people going up into the heavens to be rewarded, to see the forms and the people going down in the hell, Tartarus, to be punished and Er is interested in the judges. How do you get to be one of the judges? And they’ve escaped fate. And I always found that the question of the judges and the courts and Er is rewarded with the ability to come back to Earth and teach everything. I’ve always found that myth to be… I don’t know. The myth of Atlantis gets all the credit in Plato, but the myth of Er does so much more heavy lifting.
CB: Yeah, especially in modern times people are focused on that. But in ancient times, they were very much more focused on those little lines about the planets and about souls choosing their life before being incarnated and the spindles that were being weaved by the fates and how the fate was ratified immediately once the choice was made. That was a good point that you made that it’s around this time, the time of Plato or shortly after, that in Greek suddenly we see the names of certain gods being applied to the planets. And I think that’s in the Epinomis, which is sometimes by modern scholars attributed to one of Plato’s students, Philip of Opus, and it’s in that text that for the first time we see certain Greek gods have been picked to match certain Mesopotamian deities. In the earlier Mesopotamian tradition, it’s like they had specific gods like Nergal the god of war, who was associated with the planet Mars and then somebody around the time or shortly after Plato did the same thing where they went through the Greek pantheon and they picked out Ares as the god of war and gave that name to Mars and associated that god. And in doing so explicitly then set up a continuity between the Mesopotamian astrological and astronomical and religious traditions and cultural traditions that then fed directly into Greek and carried through certain assumptions about what each of those planets meant astrologically into the Greek tradition that still persists 2,000 years later where we still have the Roman names that are applied to some of those planets.
JS: Yeah. So again, one of these decisive shifts in the history of astrology, astronomy and most people never heard these folks’ names before. It’s just one of those things where I just find, again, the esoteric side of history where these kinds of associations of Ishtar and Venus and these kinds of basic associations happened and we’ve inherited them, right? But it could have gone another way, right? It’s conceivable it could have gone another way and yet it didn’t or it never happened at all.
CB: Or Ishtar, and then picking the Greek Aphrodite as the deity then in the Greek pantheon that they associated then with the Venus and the goddess of love and things like that.
JS: Right. Yeah. Yeah, it’s just those associations have stuck so dramatically. Yeah, I find that just incredibly fascinating, that shift in language and one wonders and it’s always the eternal question, is this shift in language responsible or is this actually a titanic shift happening at the register of the technology of astrology and then that is shifting or this is being imported for Babylon and then appropriated by the Greeks? And that seems a much more likely scenario to me. What do you think?
CB: Yeah. I mean, I think the important thing is just that it sets up a continuity between the Mesopotamian astrological tradition and some of the assumptions they were making about the planets and what they mean in an earthly context and then setting the continuity so that now Greek speaking peoples which is, basically most of the Mediterranean after a certain point, after the third century BCE or so, suddenly is having a similar conceptualization where they’re using those names consistently for the planets and then when that planet is mentioned, that’s automatically going to evoke a range of meanings and myths and stories that are going to make the person think of certain things or certain concepts.
JS: Right, right. And I think that’s interesting because that also becomes grist for the mill for people to criticize those associations. I think of Plotinus as an example of someone who didn’t like the idea that Ares or Saturn would be bad, they’d be malefic evil planets, they would have an evil influence in someone’s life. I think that’s a strong way of putting it, but they would have a negative impact on someone’s life because Plotinus believed that the entire celestial world was inherently good and did only good and the idea that they would do anything bad at all to our realm, Plotinus thought was just a completely bizarre idea. Because to him the planets were divine spiritual creatures who only emanated the good, they were emanations of the good and therefore they could cause no bad down here. And so, Plotinus thought, “Yeah, it is the case the planets are emanating force to us. They are exerting things upon us, but not the way the astrologists at the time said.” It’s interesting that that also becomes something that where someone like Plotinus wants to criticize astrology, he criticizes the kinds of associations that were made with those planets.
CB: Yeah. And Plotinus, his main preoccupation because he’s living in a post, I want to say Ptolemaic in my own language, but post the astrologer Ptolemy in the second century where Ptolemy’s big program was to reconceptualize astrology as a natural science that was based on natural principles of efficient essentially causation that was emanating from the planets and was filtering down here into the earthly realm and was causing events to happen or causing people to behave in a certain way. And that was how astrology was tied in with fate for Ptolemy was through a causal chain of events that was emanating from the planets and emanating from the stars and that causal conceptualization of astrology very quickly within a century after Ptolemy became the dominant or prevailing view of astrology into the medieval and Renaissance periods, especially in Europe. But I think a century later, essentially, Plotinus is primarily objecting in his famous tract on whether the stars are signs or causes. And the main thing he’s objecting to is not the idea of astrology, which Peter Adamson wrote some very interesting papers on this I think like 10 or 15 years ago, where he points out that Plotinus was not objecting to the idea that astrology was real because he believed that astrology was a legitimate phenomenon. What he was objecting to is the idea that the planets and stars are causing events to happen on earth, but instead Plotinus argued that the planets and signs were acting as signs of future events rather than causes. And that was his primary preoccupation and objection because if they weren’t just signs of future events that were indicating what would happen if they were causes, then that would put some of the onus on the planets in terms of bad or good events happening in a person’s life, which he didn’t think was correct from a philosophical standpoint. But he didn’t otherwise seem to object to the idea of astrology in general just this question of what is the mechanism.
JS: Right. And that gets us to this big question of mechanism, right? And that’s the big transition that happens there in the second century BCE with Ptolemy is that we do, I think, and you obviously you’d be the expert here, that we do see a pretty definitive shift from astrology of signs to astrology of causation with the things like the Tetrabiblos and other kinds of documents. And that’s also reflecting a shift I think in the direction of a more Aristotelian worldview where Ptolemy basically imagine something like Aristotle’s universe. We have God at the middle and there’s almost these celestial spheres that are connected together, they are seethrough or whatever, the crystal spheres. And what’s happening is that the center one is moving and moving all the other ones, moving all the other ones, moving all the other ones until it’s like a transmission where the center transmitter is transmitting all of the efficient causation out into the world and that eventually reaches the stars and that obviously reaches down here to the earth as well. And so that gives us one major causal mechanism for how astrology worked. Do you see the astrology of signs surviving? You mentioned Plotinus, but do you see it surviving this Ptolemaic shift or do you think that the Ptolemy is the sea change in really reshaping and transforming what exactly astrology was and how it worked? Do you think that he’s a definitive change in everything or does the astrology of science persist in a way after him?
CB: Right, yeah. That whole shift towards a more causal form of astrology goes back to Aristotle at least in terms of the philosophical position because of the idea that you mentioned that Aristotle outlined just generally speaking some basic notion of celestial causation that you have the prime mover and that change emanates through series of levels from the prime mover down through the planets and to the sub lunar world and that all change essentially goes back to that prime source on some level. And Aristotle didn’t go much further than that in terms of articulating that, but you can see in subsequent Aristotelian tracts and schools from the Hellenistic period onwards that they kept elaborating this idea and taking it further because of the earlier Platonic established tradition that the planets were connected with fate. And so, the Aristotelian answer to that of how the planets could be connected with fate started being through this notion of celestial causation that’s emanating from the prime mover through the planets and then down into the sub lunar sphere. And there may have been different ideas about what exactly constituted that or what type of change or motion or what type of cause was involved because you do have like the four different types of cause in Aristotle which is an interesting issue in and of itself of were some of the Aristotelian astrologers truly talking about the efficient causation being emanated by the planets or where they are talking about one of the other three types of causation that was somehow being emanated by the planets which is an interesting issue in and of itself. But I think in the late Hellenistic period and certainly by the first century BCE, you start to see a mixture of views of whether the planets are causing events or just acting as signs so that there was some ambiguity about this in the early source texts that outlined this new system of astrology, this new approach to astrology that came about by the first century BCE. But definitely in the second century when Ptolemy wrote the Tetrabiblos and firmly argued for a more Aristotelian and more causal view of astrology not just because his astrological text had so much weight to it, but because he also created what became the new paradigm for astronomy and because he created essentially the new system for astronomical calculations through things like his tables and through the handy tables which became then used for centuries to actually calculate planetary positions more accurately and because that was like the hot new thing in terms of astronomical science that meant that his astrological works were also taken more seriously and became more influential and more dominant amongst especially like the higher classes of intellectual astrologers. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it became dominant and also it provided a nice set of protection from the second and third and fourth centuries onwards that became increasingly necessary to defend astrology as Christianity became more and more established as the established religion in Rome and became more and more hostile to astrology, especially due to its views on fate and freewill which were seen as antithetical in some ways to Christianity for theological reasons through the emphasis on freewill to choose salvation. So increasingly, astrologers would rely on Ptolemaic views and arguments in order to defend astrology as a natural science that’s just working through causation and is part of the natural world just like sunlight allows plants to grow and using analogies like that or that the Moon affects the tides so that it’s a natural phenomenon and not seen as something that is supernatural or that is impinging in any way on God’s plan or on human freewill. I think that’s one of the reasons why the Ptolemaic or some of the reasons why the Ptolemaic view of causation and causal astrology becomes dominant, but we do still see occasionally these references to the sign-based version of astrology, Plotinus’s tract being a major part of that when the century after Ptolemy, but then we also have references in different astrologers like Hephaistio of Thebes sometime around the early fifth century that says whether astrology works through signs or causes regardless this is an introductory text on how astrology works. And then he went through comparing the two different approaches of like Ptolemy’s views to the views of Dorotheus of Sidon and synthesizing those two approaches in the rest of his book. We do see even the astrologers still balancing or trying to treat this almost like a philosophical issue that almost didn’t matter because what primarily mattered to the astrologers was the technical practice of how to interpret birth charts and predict the future and that piece of it was almost for the most part unaffected by the question of how it works just in the same way that I don’t know exactly if somebody put a gun to my head and forced me to explain how a microwave works, but I know how to operate one to like heat up some pizza even if I don’t really know the mechanics exactly underlying it.
JS: Right. And I think that’s what’s interesting here as we get into the Hellenistic period in this question of causation is that it seems to me that there are two issues at work here. One of them is a disjunction between people practicing astrology and philosophers philosophizing about astrology. There seems to be somewhat of an operative disjunction, and we can get into some of the other theories about how astrologers that time thought it works. I’ve always found those incredibly interesting. And it’s interesting that there’s another situation where while the Ptolemaic model proved to be enormously successful, almost every philosophical school at the time had some theory about how it worked. And I think it’s interesting that when we think about the history of astrology, what I would call the mechanical model, the model that stems from Aristotle via Ptolemy, and it’s also interesting that it can be both efficient causation and final causation. It could also be God literally moving the world to make the world do what the world does but also, God is programming into the world the ends and that would be fate, that God is actually saying, “No, this is what the world’s meant to be like.” And of course, Aristotle’s god is nothing like most people’s conception of God. It is pure activity thought thinking about itself. But because it’s thought thinking about itself, it has the whole thing planned out. It’s like a giant celestial computer and it’s basically programmed everything into nature and nature is playing out that program at some level. And so, it’s really interesting that the Ptolemaic model fits nicely with Aristotle because it does both the heavy lifting of describing how it happens but also why it happens. It does both at the same time and so it’s interesting that they link up so well and of course, Aristotle will come to dominance in the Islamic world and eventually in the Christian world as well. But the causal model, which I think is still popular when I talk to people who do astrology and when I’ve mentioned things about astrology, people often will talk about a causal mechanism that’s making fate the way that it is. What I find interesting is that in the Hellenistic world, they were half a dozen different competing schools of how astrology worked that just didn’t make it. We could go through some of these. And I think the Stoic model is especially interesting in that the planets there they survive this periodic cycle of destruction, right? The Stoics believe that the entire universe got recycled every once in a while. In fact, some Stoics thought they could see in the stars the stars almost acting like a giant time bomb. The whole thing was ticking down to the moment in which the whole thing would just erupt in a fireball and then they would reconstitute themselves and the whole process would begin and it’s been going on forever, the eternal recurrence. And what’s interesting according to the Stoics is that every individual planet remembers, they’re living beings, they remember the cycles of coming together and going apart and because they remember, literally the past, the present, and the future is recorded in their emotions. And so, if you learn to decipher them, then you can literally see into the remote past and into the remote future because they’re just literally describing, they are ticking down this moment until the whole thing begins again. But on the surface that somehow they’ve recorded everything that’s happened, past, present, and future and so a smart enough person could figure out how that works and determine what’s going to happen. Of course, you can’t stop the ticking time bomb that is the universe according to the Stoics, you can just accept that it’s about to happen or what’s about to happen to you happened to you. I just find that that’s a so different version of the Ptolemaic version, that it’s a completely different understanding of how the universe works. It’s a totally different understanding of why astrology works the way that it does, not because there’s some causal mechanism raining down from the heavens, but because the heavens are literally recorded all this information and you can unlock it by understanding how they relate to one another. Do you have any other causal mechanisms or causal stories or philosophical theories about how astrology worked in the Hellenistic world that you find especially illuminating or different than what people might expect or are unusual compared to perhaps how they get thought about now?
CB: Yeah. I mean, one thing to mention that’s interesting in the Ptolemaic model is that Ptolemy was not a hardline determinist, but instead believed that although the planets and stars influence events on earth and can influence a person to go in a certain direction, especially if the person is not aware of how they’re being influenced, that when a person does become aware of how celestial movements are influencing them that that awareness in and of itself can mean that they can counteract it in some ways. And so, becoming aware of astrology for Ptolemy is partially something you do in order to counteract fate potentially or to change your fate, even if only in certain subtle ways by doing things slightly differently. So there’s an interesting thing about the Ptolemaic model that allows more room for movement and room for choice whereas later version of that like, for example, Firmicus Maternus who seems to have a causal view of astrology two centuries after Ptolemy and mentions him, he also makes this offhand remark at some point that seems to be dismissing Ptolemy’s partially deterministic model, where Firmicus says it makes no sense to accept that there’s some influence of fate but then to limit it like that. Firmicus seems to have accepted a fully deterministic and causal model of astrology versus some of the more Stoically inclined astrologers who held a sign-based model like Valens will make these long statements about just using astrology to know your fate and know what you have to accept. So, I have this little opening statement in my book by Valens that is like one of his most famous philosophical digressions in his entire work from the middle of the second century. And he says, “Those who engage in the prediction of the future and the truth having acquired a soul that is free and not enslaved, do not think highly of fortune and do not devote themselves to hope nor are they afraid of death. But instead, they live their lives undaunted by disturbance by training their souls to be confident and neither rejoice excessively in the case of good nor become depressed in the case of bad, but instead are content with whatever is present. Those who do not desire the impossible are capable of bearing that which is preordained through their own self-mastery and being estranged from all pleasure or praise, they become established as soldiers of fate.” That’s the famous soldiers of fate passage that you’ll see cited in a lot of historical and philosophical academic texts over the past few decades because it’s such a strikingly Stoic sentiment that’s coming from an astrologer and where the explicit statement about the purpose of astrology is learning your fate so that you know what you have to accept but it’s not necessarily done in a causal context but instead maybe in this more sign-based context where the astrology is acting like an omen of what will happen in your future from the moment of birth.
JS: Do you find that that version of astrology proved popular through the Middle Ages? Do you find that it’s popular now when you talk to people that are interested in astrology, the idea that the task of astrology is basically an adjunct to Stoicism? That I can’t change the fact. What Epictetus says that if you love a pot, don’t get too attached because pots are meant to break. And if you love a wife, don’t get too attached because wives are meant to die. And so, the idea is if you understand the nature of a pot and understand the nature of a wife, well, you’re not going to be upset when they do their nature and ditto if you understand the nature of fate, when fate happens to you, you’re not going to be terribly troubled by it because, well, that was the nature of what was going to happen. I don’t know. Do you find that those ideas resonate with people these days? Because it seems like we are spiritual, metaphysical libertarians. We like to believe that we’re free and nothing’s really going to hold us down and the idea that astrology is meant to aid in your achievement of apatheia. Do you find that that notion resonates at all these days?
CB: No. And what’s funny about that is part of our Western culture heritage over the past 2,000 years and the reason for that sentiment no longer appeals to us as I think it was very popular for a few centuries for a period of time from the third century BCE onwards in the Hellenistic period during the heyday of Stoicism all the way into the first and second centuries, and that’s why you’ll see the astrologers repeating sentiments like this over and over again because there was a broader societal acceptance of Stoicism and notion that the purpose of divination is to learn your future so that you know what to accept. But what’s funny is I think the widespread acceptance of that for several centuries which allowed astrology which is based on such a deterministic premise one way or another to flourish as it did in the first century BCE and the first century CE and second and third centuries before it started to decline. The popularity of that led to a backlash. And part of that backlash came through a little-known religious sect which was the rise of Christianity. And part of the rise of Christianity, this has been commented on and debated amongst some philosophical and religious scholars over the past few decades or the past century, but the more and more I look into this and think about it, the more I realize what was so appealing about Christianity in the ancient world that we just simply cannot understand today is just how dominant astrology was and Stoicism was from a philosophical standpoint in the first and second century CE and how for just a normal person who is not an enlightened Stoic sage who’s just like ready to accept all events in the future, even the most terrible ones with this steely Stoic or cold Stoic resolve in some sense, for normal people who are not prepared for that to hear such negative things or any negative things coming up with about your future that you have to accept due to fate. If there is any group that comes to you or comes about at that time that says, “You know what, all you have to do is believe in or accept this one guy into your life. And if you do that, we will free you from Heimarmene and you will no longer be subject to the planets.” And I believe and I really think that that was actually one of the main appeals of Christianity in the first few centuries was that it gave you a way out. And suddenly, there was this new group that was saying that you could become free of fate and that Christians were no longer subject to fate or to the planets through their choice and through the act of their acceptance of Christ and things like that and that’s one of the reasons that led to it really taking off.
JS: Yeah, I think that’s an excellent observation. And I think you’ll see the same thing actually happening in other Christianity rivals, Hermeticism being another, where Hermeticism puts a lot of emphasis on fate and says, yeah, but one can escape it through ritual purification and through spiritual purification that the body might be bound to fate but the soul isn’t and so you work an escape. And in Gnosticism as well that you see this idea that the planets are these evil prison guards almost and that the soul can escape through and there are lots of different mechanisms of escape and Gnostic Christianity being one. But also, even in Neopythagoreanism and Middle Platonism and even in Neoplatonism, there are these ideas where in the sublunar world there’s some degree of freewill, there’s chance, freewill and necessity and depending on the various kinds of things one does, theurgical rites, magical rites, various kinds of purifications in the Middle Platonic and in the Neoplatonic world of theurgy and things like that Iamblichus and Proclus, less Proclus, Iamblichus really, that one can at some level escape the power of fate through religious observance or through magical means and things like that. It’s interesting that at the time Christianity was arising, of course, Christianity became the dominant mode of this and eventually worn out, but it seems like that cultural backlash against Stoicism and against this hardcore determinism that you see that was Stoicism plus astrology and mutual harmony sticking up with one another. And even in Stoicism, Posidonius and Panaetius went back and forth about whether or not astrology was affecting things the way that they mutually disagreed about. It’s just interesting by the second and third centuries with the rise of Hermeticism, Christianity, Gnosticism, there’s a cultural backlash against this idea and everyone’s trying to escape fate. And I think that it’s interesting that you see the same thing happen not just in the Hellenistic world, but also for instance in the world of Northern Europe, pagan Northern Europe, where the concept of weird which is a fate like concept in the Anglo-Saxon world, was clearly a very powerful idea in pre-Christian pagan piety, right? Resignation
to fate was a Wyrd bið ful aræd I think is what The Wanderer says. And then these poems begin to change under the auspices of Christianity where it’s like no weird is not actually all binding, Christ is all binding and I can escape weird through Christ. So it’s interesting that this may have played itself out not just in the Hellenistic world but in other kinds of pagan milieus as well. And I wonder if in the Neopagan world fate is now playing a greater or lesser role. It’d be interesting to talk to some Neopagan folk and Wiccan folk if one of the reconstructed things is this heavy emphasis on fate or is fate still sitting on the shelf because it’s a bummer or whatever, I don’t know, unless you’re really wealthy or something. But I guess it’s going to get to you anyway, it doesn’t really matter how wealthy you are. Yeah, I just find this interesting that this kickback with Christianity and other forms of religiosity, spirituality, where fate is something that they have in their sights and astrology also is something they’re going to have in their sights as well. And it’s not just the academic skeptics who are taking on astrology, it’s also the Neoplatonists, it’s the Christians, it’s the Hermeticists. It’s a wide range of people in this new religious milieu. You see that’s playing itself out in other places? But yeah.
CB: Yeah, that’s a really good point that it’s not just Christianity it was reacting to it, it was a bunch of different philosophical and religious traditions that were reacting to the dominance of astrology at that point and to the overwhelmingly prevailing trend that astrology and fate were intertwined. And so, when you start to get after the first century and like the second, third and fourth century, Christian tracts that are attacks on astrology or attacks on the concept of fate and their attacks on the concept of fate are attacks on astrology because they are seen as so intertwined. But as a result of that, you’re right. It’s not just Christianity, but other schools like Hermeticism and especially Gnosticism or different Gnostic schools that are talking about how to free yourself of fate and how to free yourself over the influence of the planets. But also in the magical tradition, there’s magical fragments of one little passage of somebody who is trying to get free of their fate and has some magical ritual where they’re explicitly asking to be freed of the influence of Heimarmene and freed of the fate that’s indicated by their birth chart and this really famous fragment that survives. In the Neoplatonic tradition, you have Porphyry and Iamblichus arguing about the idea that you can use astrology to identify your guardian spirit or guardian daemon and Iamblichus criticizing Porphyry and saying that how absurd it is the notion that you can use astrology to identify your guardian spirit and then to ask your guardian spirit to free you of fate when the purpose of the guardian spirit in the first place is supposed to be to make you live out your fate and to somehow enforce that or enforce the decrees of the planets. So, there’s this whole like rich philosophical tradition and debates about different schools that are talking about how to get free of fate. Even as we talked about last month in the episode we did on Jewish views on fate, we have these discussions about whether either Jewish people are exempt from fate as like an entire class of people due to their beliefs or whether Jewish people can become free of fate through certain acts of righteousness, for example, or whether the planets, whether the stars or constellations, the zodiacal signs have any control over Israel. What was that famous saying again?
JS: Yeah, we got this famous that there is no mazel in Israel, right? There’s no mazel. And as you know we talked about at length in that conversation, right? And I think that’s part of it, right? Because those conversations are happening around this time. They’re happening exactly the same time. Whereas we know that astrology, there were Jews writing technical astrological manuals, so a couple generations prior to that, and then there’s a break in the Talmud or at least the beginning of a debate in the Talmud about whether mazel bore on Israel proper and could you escape fate through various kinds of things. And I think that conversation between Iamblichus and Porphyry is really interesting because it introduces the idea that, and this is a Neoplatonic… And again, it has everything to do with the worldview these people accept. Whereas for the Aristotelian worldview you have the prime mover and it’s like a machine and you can’t do anything about it because you’re the cog in the machine, you turn. Whereas in the Neoplatonic world, yes, the one is emanating out and eventually you’re there but also you have procession and then recession. And the idea is you can absorb some of this spiritual energy and by manipulating it in certain kinds of ways using theurgy or magic or other kinds of things, you can rebroadcast it up. And if you know your daemon, you might be able to focus that energy back up in a way that manipulates how it comes back down to you. And so, there’s a procession recession model that’s begins with Plotinus and you find it all the way down to Proclus. And so, what’s interesting again is how one’s worldview affects how one views astrology, affects how one views one’s interaction with fate because you might want to do sacrifices to burn incense and call down power into something to affect how your daemon works if you believe in a world where it’s coming down and going back up. But if you accept an Israelite worldview, well no, the planets are either ruling over you or God’s ruling over you and you better be good because if you’re good, maybe God will directly help you as opposed to the planets ruling over you. And so, I think what’s for me so fascinating about these various ideas about what’s going on in astrology this time period are the various kinds of ways that people are dealing with fate either in the sense of having to accept it, how to live with it, how to alter it, how to escape it, and how astrology at some level depending on how you structured your world allowed that or didn’t and how astrology no matter what worldview accepted was the tool that you had to use. And I think that’s what’s interesting, and I think this is the point you make in your really great book is it doesn’t matter some what worldview, this was the tool. And the fact that that was a tool meant that in some level everyone had to deal with it. And I find that whether you’re a Stoic or a Jewish person or Hermeticist, a Gnostic, Neo-Platonian, whatever, everyone had to deal with this, what was taken to be a fundamental truth about reality and that is the celestial bodies are doing something, they matter and it’s our task to figure out how they move, why they move the way that they move, and what that means for us. And I find that that’s the unifying thing and I find it’s really… One could teach an entire class. I’ve always made the joke that if I had my druthers, I would teach all of Greek philosophy backwards. I would start with the Trinity, like the Christian idea of the Trinity as it’s found in the Nicene creed and Athanasius and then I’d work my way back from that idea, which is only possible using the entire apparatus of Greek philosophy and work my way all the way back through the history of Greek philosophy starting with the Trinity. I think one could do the same thing with Hellenistic astrology. You could learn astrology and then learn the Hellenistic Greek world back through it and you would see all these different philosophical schools reflected and how they understood their relationship to the celestial bodies and to fate more generally.
CB: Yeah, definitely. And what a greater context once you do start with that understanding, it sheds on all of the different philosophical and religious debates that are being had for centuries in the Greco-Roman world. And it’s just hard sometimes, I think. I think it’s hard for modern people because of culturally in the West like what a dominant role those reactionary religions and philosophies have had on our culture in really putting freewill at the very center of our Western cultural understanding of the world and about our lives and about what’s important and what’s valid in terms of choices and the idea that we can make freewill choices being like a fundamental almost unspoken philosophical premise that was even heightened even more in the modern times with ideas of humanism and things like that and how core that is to our Western philosophy to go back to a first century BCE context where Stoicism, an astrologer to the prevailing and dominant philosophical schools and to have just a worldview where the acceptance of fate and the idea that everything is pre-determined and that your future is indicated by your birth chart was just a given that was taken for granted by so many people. It’s interesting even with the early birth of Christianity, early on astrology was actually being used to justify that Jesus was the Messiah through stories like the Star of Bethlehem in the Gospel of Matthew and the notion that there were this group of foreign astrologers from Mesopotamia who traveled to the birth of Jesus by following some celestial portent that indicated that the Messiah had been born. And therefore that story has this political context in that it’s using astrology and saying that there was an astrological alignment that indicated that somebody really important was born at that time on that day and by implication therefore had a special birth chart in the same way that other politicians during that time period like some of the early Roman emperors were publishing their birth chart because they thought that it showed that they would accomplish great things and it justified their reign. You get a similar thing there in the Gospel of Matthew. And it’s interesting how astrology initially is being used as something to justify the new religion, justify Christianity and then later becomes something that it’s explicitly pushing against or fighting against for theological reasons.
JS: Yeah. And it’s always interesting to me the double-edged sword of astrology because if it can point out that your birth chart indicates you’re destined to great things, it might be able to figure out when you’re going to die. And it’s interesting that the Roman emperors were really happy when the story was good and when they would cast charts about what might happen to them in a battle or when they might die, they were like, “All right, round them all up and kick them all out.” And so, they were more than happy to expel them all when the story wasn’t so good. And also, it’s interesting ditto that with the birth chart of Jesus, that was one of the big capital crimes you see people being punished for in the Middle Ages, astrologers trying to cast birth charts for Jesus. Check out Ascoli I think was one of these medieval people that attempted to do this and got in a great bit of trouble trying to sort out exactly when Jesus was born through astrology because there was something about the idea that on the one hand, of course, the heavens aligned as a sign that something was very important. But if it’s the case that natal astrology is true and that Jesus was born under a certain birth chart that he was destined to do what he did, that’s a mess. That’s a theological mess because obviously God shouldn’t be destined to do stuff.
CB: Yeah, it’s a funny fundamental incompatibility that’s built into Western Christianity, which is on the one hand this almost Stoic belief that Jesus was born with this auspicious astrological alignment that indicated that the Son of God had just been born basically, that the Messiah had been born and therefore justified that and what would happen and justified the new religion. But then on the other hand, especially growing later theological emphasis on freewill as being a really important component of Christianity that wasn’t just a minor thing, but it’s actually one of the core components that made it really stand out from some of the other philosophical and religious schools of that time period. Yeah. And you mentioned the length of life, that was one of the great preoccupations that the astrologers had. And very early in many of their textbooks, they had a specific technique that was outlined in one of the early foundational texts probably in the first century BCE that was attributed to Petosiris and this technique for determining the length of life was not just a preoccupation of the astrologers because they gave the rationale that you shouldn’t predict events like great events for somebody who will not live long enough to see them was like the classic rationale that Ptolemy mentions and he alludes to or I think attributes this to Petosiris from the source text that he got this technique from or that most of the astrologers got this technique from, but it’s interesting how that technique became the bane of many of the emperors during that time period when the astrologers were running around predicting when different emperors would die and that was not something they were happy about and that was one of the biggest times when political backlash would happen against astrology and you would see it getting banned or see astrologers getting kicked out of Rome was when predictions like that were being made.
JS: Yeah, it’s fascinating. Again, it’s one of these things where, same with magic, many people in power were happy to have magicians on their employ as long as there’s no suspicion at all, they’re not using that stuff against them. And so, it’s interesting that one is always in danger if you’re a court astrologer or a court magician that this is going to always cut against you in lots of ways.
CB: Yeah. And magic is really important and that’s something that’s very underexplored. It’s hard to explore because there’s not a lot that survives from the Hellenistic tradition, but there’s some tie in there with the Egyptian tradition and some of the earlier Egyptian practices as well as some of the Mesopotamian practices which were propitiation rituals because in the older Mesopotamian tradition from, let’s say, the seventh century BCE, there were notions that the planets and the stars acted as heavenly writing indicating the will of the gods and things that they were expressing to humankind about the present or the future, but it wasn’t within a deterministic or Stoic context because they viewed some of those indications as being negotiable and that you could use certain rituals or magical practices in order to avert the things that were indicated, the decrees that were indicated by the stars. And we see some survival of that in the magical tradition in the Hellenistic period and then especially in the medieval period through the use of things like talismans and amulets, where you could pick an astrological moment that was auspicious when a certain planet was prominent in the sky and then create or consecrate a talisman or an object that would capture the astrological or the magical astrological energies at that moment into an object that you could then carry around with you in order to capture the energy of that moment and keep it with you in order to offset and influence your fate from that point forward. Some of those magical traditions even in their survival into the medieval period through books like the Picatrix are an interesting, again, alternative legacy of trying to use astrology not to accept your fate but instead using that knowledge in order to free yourself from fate by learning how to manipulate the planetary energies or what have you.
JS: Yeah. I mean, of course, the most famous example of that is Al-Kindi’s On the Stellar Rays. On the Stellar Rays is often given the subtitle in the Middle Ages, theory of magic. Because on the first part of On the Stellar Rays is his Neoplatonic vision of how the stars radiate various kinds of causation and how one can use images to capture them up. I think of them of like astral batteries where if there’s a certain conjunction with a certain kind of energy, you can capture that energy and then deploy it later into doing things and you can amplify or de-amplify those energies using things like sacrifices and incense and things like that. And Al-Kindi’s On the Stellar Rays basically became one of the principal textbooks for what we consider astrological magic along with Picatrix into the Middle Ages which was used. And again, what’s also interesting is the survival of the idea that the planets are living creatures, that they’re entities that are alive. We see that going back into the Hellenistic period as well. And because these entities are alive, they can be manipulated. And you see this idea developing in the traditions of astrological or astral necromancy where these intelligences, these beings, not only are they out there, but by using various kinds of magical systems, one can manipulate them and actually call their power down to do all kinds of various things. And this astral necromancy was a very popular form of magic into the Middle Ages where you have the commentaries of Hortelanas and other kinds of people on these astrological textbooks which are very innocuous on their own, they’re just astrological textbooks, but what would end up happening is people like Michael Scott or Hortelanas or Cecco d’Ascoli would write these necromantic versions of them where not only are they describing how the planets work but also describing what the planets are, these living beings and how to manipulate them. And at that point, you cross the line into criminality and you could be executed and some people were executed for this kind of thing as well. And we see that idea of the planets being living beings going back I think even to Plato and his successors. So it’s just interesting, I think, what’s the right word? The vicissitudes, think about fate again, that astrology in the Hellenistic world has left us in the Western world all these different tendrils, all these different traditions, all these different ways of relating to the celestial world. And it’s my experience, and I wonder if it’s yours, that those kinds of questions are only getting more popular. Questions about astrology, questions about our relationship with the celestial world at some level are actually only increasing in popularity over the course of the past 20 years both at the academic level, thank goodness, but also at the practical level at the doing of astrology, and it seems like this is a period of renaissance for both of doing of astrology but also for the historical re-understanding of all of this stuff where many of these texts are just now being published for the first time in hundreds of years. Is that your sense of it as well that we’re living in an astrological renaissance of a certain kind?
CB: Yeah, and there’s been a huge resurgence of astrology recently in the past decade and also more broadly in the 20th century in that resurgence in the ‘60s and ‘70s as well as the broader which I tried to document a little of resurgence of academic interest in astrology over the past century and the important role that’s played in our understanding by recovering some of these texts that survived in libraries and private collections and editing and printing them which many of these texts were just not accessible and scholars did not have the ability to read them until recently. And so that’s one of the reasons why academic interest in astrology has grown is just the availability of being able to study some of the original primary source texts. So that whole modern component is definitely something I’m interested in talking about, but I want to bring it back really quickly to something since we started talking about the magical tradition and talismans, one other development we need to talk about also is the practice of electional astrology which was basically the third branch of astrology that developed at some point. And the premise of that, there may have been earlier versions of the Mesopotamian tradition, but it definitely became a third full-fledged branch that entire books of astrology were dedicated to by the first century CE such as the first major one that survives is Dorotheus of Sidon book five of his text deals entirely with what the Greek astrologers called it inceptional astrology or what later medieval astrologers referred to as electional astrology, based on the premise that if the alignment of the planets indicates what’s going to happen in the future or it indicates what’s happening right now in the present or what has happened in the past, then by extension you should be able to choose certain days to act that are going to be more auspicious for having a positive outcome. That basically, if the alignment of the planets at the moment that something begins indicates its outcome, which was the fundamental premise of astrology in the Hellenistic period onwards, then one of the extensions of that is that by choosing one moment to act instead of another, you can actually control or manipulate the outcome. And this led to the whole branch of electional astrology where astrologers would give you rules for what types of planetary alignments would indicate different types of outcomes, and especially which types of alignments would indicate more favorable outcomes if you’re trying to choose a desired outcome like, for example, for starting a journey or for getting married and having a successful marriage between two partners and entire things were dedicated to that. So that becomes a very important practice of astrology where it’s interesting because there’s some overlap with the philosophical tradition around the same time period that you have that emerging, that practice of electional astrology, you also have some of the Platonic authors, and especially the Neoplatonic authors articulating this conditional view of fate, which some of the modern scholars have really wrestled with and wondered how this makes any sense and have criticized as being not very consistent, but this notion that individuals have the ability to choose things freely. But once they make a choice to act, once they make the choice, the outcome is somehow determined or is pre-determined at that point. There’s some sort of interplay there between either the Neoplatonic philosophical tradition influencing the astrological tradition with its approach to electional astrology which is essentially the same thing. Or alternatively, I tend to think is probably more likely to some extent as the astrological tradition actually influencing the Platonic philosophical tradition because the practice of electional astrology is a very practical application of that fundamental notion that somehow you have freedom to act and to choose to act at one moment rather than another, but that once you do make that choice and you initiate or commence the inception of something using the Greek word katarche, which is the term that was used to refer to this branch of astrology called katarchic or inceptional astrology, that once you make that choice, the outcome is then determined of what will happen in the future. And it’s funny because you see, again, just going back to the Christian and the philosophical tradition that St. Augustine, for example, criticizes this very practice at one point. And I cite this passage in my book where he says, “Now who could tolerate the assumption that in choosing lucky days, people manufacture new destinies by their own acts. Can a man by the choice of a day change the destiny already decreed for him?” And in this translation, it’s used in terms like destiny, but I’m sure the term used had more to do with fate and that concept of fate and being able to choose your fate by acting at one moment rather than another.
JS: Yeah, this criticism there’s some technical stuff that I thought to get into earlier on, but then I was like, do I really want to get into Chrysippus propositional logic about future counterfactuals and I thought, no. But that’s a big part of Chrysippus because Chrysippus thinks that there is a degree of freedom because of internal co-fatedness that because of the way propositional logic works, that there may be future counterfactuals that aren’t determined at a sufficient point but get determined by a given term at a specific point, but they weren’t determined to be at that point. And what ends up happening is, I think it’s Cicero, really thinks that this is just insane. He’s like, “You’re just kicking the can down the road. Because if you chose to do something at one point, what determines you to make that choice?” It’s like, you can’t turn determination on and off willy-nilly. Of course, there’s all kinds of philosophical ways that I think people tried to solve that and I think one could bring to bear Chrysippus as one way of solving that. But again to me what’s interesting about that from the philosophical point of view is just how the practical astrologers just don’t seem to care about the logical problem because they go happily on doing electional astrology. I think my two favorite examples are the founding of Baghdad being done by Masha’allah and those guys. But also, when you read John Dee’s diaries, they’re these cryptic hieroglyphs that if you look through his personal diary they’re not quite clear what these hieroglyphs mean and then you compare it to his astrological diaries, and you begin to clearly see what they are. They’re when his wife is menstruating and when they’re having sex and Dee is trying to plan kids based on these things. And it’s really interesting some astrologer friends of mine trying to look at the date in which they’re having sex trying to conceive a kid and then looking at the astrological configuration at that time, and Dee is very particular about it as you might imagine, they’re trying to see what was he going for? What was he selecting for? And of course, they found things that they think that he was trying to influence the life of these children. Unfortunately, I think all of them but Arthur Dee died, but I don’t know if he did a good job. But yeah, it’s always interesting that there are these high-level philosophical debates about, can one logically do electional astrology? And then of course, it seems that the astrologers are happy to keep doing it regardless of what the philosophers think works given the logical necessity of future counterfactuals.
CB: Yeah. I mean, one of the issues we have is only a very small selection of astrological texts survive. And for the most part, we don’t have a lot of texts, what we have is technical manuals of how to do astrology because those are the things that the astrologers themselves copied over and those are the things that the scribes copied over for centuries that survived all the way through into the Renaissance or into modern times so that scholars could actually put those texts together, edit them and translate them. So, what we have mainly is the practical texts of how to do astrology, but I think we’re missing a lot of texts about what was the philosophical conceptualization of astrology by some of these different astrologers. We instead only have these brief digressions sometimes by astrologers like Valens and that quote on fate that I had earlier that was just this digression that he makes at one point in the middle of otherwise largely technical text where he’s showing birth charts and teaching his students because he actually ran a school for astrology in Alexandria in the second century and he was trying to instruct his students how to interpret birth charts and make predictions based on his often sometimes textual analysis of the earlier tradition but also empirical analysis. He says, “This is the technique that worked for me. It’s a really powerful technique. I’m passing on to you. Here’s this other technique. I’m going to outline it but I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s that effective. Or here’s this technique, but I think you should do it this way.” There’s a very empirical component to that. But circling back around, you mentioned there’s high-level astrology. Something I realized lately more and more, astrology is always operating in society at all levels of society and there’s high-level astrology that’s always being done for things like kings and emperors and presidents. There’s middle-level astrology and there’s always low-level astrology that’s being practiced on the street. There’s these stories about street level astrologers in the medieval period who would draw charts in sand for a few pennies or something like that. And you mentioned the use of the caliph at the time in Baghdad in the eighth century, who got together a group astrologers and said, “We’re going to move the capital of the newly emergent Islamic empire to this new city. Pick me an auspicious electional chart for the founding of this new city.” Which the astrologers did and we have that chart actually survives and we know the date of the founding of Baghdad because Al-Biruni preserves that chart for us that the astrologers Masha’allah and another group picked at that time. But even centuries later in the 1980s, that was one of the big controversies that happened late in the Reagan administration was it turned out that they were employing an astrologer named Joan Quigley, and her primary job was like astrologers from the Hellenistic or medieval period was to use electional astrology to pick auspicious dates to start different ventures and undertakings or basically to choose lucky or astrologically auspicious dates to initiate certain actions such as the launching of his presidential campaigns or signing a treaty with Russia. One of the nuclear ballistic missile treaties signed with Russia, Quigley said that she was in charge of picking the date for that in order to ensure a positive outcome, and many other things that she documents at one point once it became public knowledge that they were working with an astrologer. My point with that is just we always have astrology operating in all these different levels in society and sometimes there’s stratification of it.
JS: Yeah. And I think that’s certainly true of magic as well, where magic is always operating in a spectrum at every register of society. And also, for instance, from the Hellenistic world, we have the Greek Magical Papyri which are a huge amount of forms of magic ranging from lots of different levels of society, but we don’t have from the same time period or many technical manuals about how exactly magic was supposed to work with the exception at some level of people like Iamblichus and the Egyptian mysteries gives us some clue about how he thought maybe magic worked and things like that. But yeah, the technical manuals, the technical doing of magic, we have lots of evidence for how exactly it was supposed to have worked. There are very few philosophical documents describing this is how exactly it’s supposed to, this is the causal mechanism, this is why it works. And I think that’s interesting that at least on the astrological front, we do have a good bit of philosophical data about how they thought it worked, at least in the rough philosophical sense. But it’s interesting that the philosophical side of things, and this is true of the Hermetica as well, right? That we have a lot of technical Hermetica that describe astrology and alchemy, we have a lot of philosophical Hermetica that describe the worldview of some of the people writing some of that stuff, but rarely do we have someone writing both the same time.
CB: Right. Yeah. I don’t think it’s because that didn’t exist in the ancient world because occasionally, we do have high-level scientists and philosophers like Claudius Ptolemy who are explicitly not just trying to write practical texts, but are also writing very detailed philosophical not just defenses, but justifications for and providing a philosophical outlook for what they’re doing. And we sometimes see practicing astrologers like Valens whose manual is like 95% practical knowledge, but we do occasionally see him making digressions and these sort of inklings of what the broader philosophy is. It’s just that some of the philosophical stuff was not the stuff that got copied over by scribes for the most part because it wasn’t as important as the actual technical doing of astrology and that’s really always what the astrologers themselves are the most interested in passing on because it has practical value.
JS: And I wonder to what degree the technical versus logos distinction which played a big deal in especially the artic world where technical arts were looked down upon as opposed to more philosophical arts were looked more highly at. I wonder if that was also beginning to break down in the Hellenistic world. And it’s interesting that not just astrological magical manuals survive. I think one of my favorite genres of Hellenistic literature are technical manuals translated into verse, where we get technical manuals in things like beekeeping where they people would write these manuals, but they would put them into verse and they preserve. We know a lot about Hellenistic beekeeping practices, which is interesting because these manuals survive for various reasons. Yeah. I wonder what might be the reasons why some of these didn’t survive because I’m trying to think of any other philosophical magical texts from that time period that we know were written but are lost. None of them are jumping to my mind. But it’s amazing also how much more we know about what existed of philosophical literature that was lost, but also of astrological literature that we know the list of all these books that existed and we now know that they’re no longer extant, which is a great pity of course.
CB: Yeah. Well, that’s one of the issues is there’s a parallel with astrology with Hellenistic astrology in that what we mainly have is some later third and fourth and fifth generation astrological texts from the first and second and third centuries CE which are all drawing on an earlier collection of foundational source texts from the first or second centuries BCE. But for the most part, we’ve lost all of the foundational source texts from the first and second centuries BCE. We just see references and snippets and very occasionally like excerpts from some of them in later authors like Valens where he’ll cite this text attributed to Nechepso, to Petosiris or to Hermes Trismegistus or Asclepius, and these weren’t just like mythological names that were being thrown around but instead it seems like these were early foundational texts that were ascribed these names of legendary sages and philosophers and kings from the past in order to perhaps give them greater social credit or to show some cultural indebtedness. We don’t really know. There’s lots of debates about why those texts were written with pseudonyms. But all we know is just that we’re missing a bunch of the foundational texts in the same way that with Stoicism we’re missing most of the early foundational texts from Chrysippus or Zeno. But we know that those existed because of the later references and snippets of them in authors from the first and second and third centuries CE.
JS: No, that’s right. I mean, people forget that we have Plato’s dialogues, but we have none of Plato’s discourses. They’re all lost. Ditto with Aristotle. We have Plato’s discourses, none of his dialogues. They’re all gone.
CB: And that’s crazy with Aristotle the notion that what we have is like his private notes. It’s not even his public stuff.
JS: Yeah, we have some. We have lecture notes. We have students notes. We have some of the stuff he probably wrote down. We have fragments of things like the Poetics that aren’t complete. Yeah, it’s a mess. And people also take for granted that everything we have of Aristotle survived in one collection of manuscripts. It was found in a basement in Rome. It could have easily gotten flooded and that was it and Aristotle would be someone we know by name and nothing would have survived. I always tell people that if you read Diogenes Laertius’ biography or gossiper about the philosopher’s really, he’s to be trusted as far as you can throw him typically, but one of the things that he leaves us that’s invaluable is lists of everything that people wrote. And if you want a laundry list of tragedy, just read Diogenes Laertius’s list. And again, 705 books Chrysippus wrote and not a single one survives. We’re lucky to have anything at all, frankly. And also, with astrology too and magic, considering that the hostility that astrology faced by the rise of Christian hegemony, that any of that stuff survives it’s just we’re very lucky.
CB: And I want to mention a few things in relation to that. One, you mentioned verse texts and it’s actually really interesting that a bunch of the Hellenistic texts that survived, the astrological texts, are written in verse even though they are technical or instructional manuals. And one of the reasons for that is that it’s a lot easier to remember and to pass down a text that’s written in verse because it has a sort of internal consistency where you know what rhymes and what the words should be in order to fill out the rest of the stanza and it’s also a good mnemonic device to remember the instructional rules by having like a catchy tune that you can actually remember that’s written in the form of a poem rather than just a list of rules where different words or letters or entire paragraphs could drop out and you have no idea that something’s missing. The text of Dorotheus of Sidon which was hugely influential written in Greek in the first century, survives partially in Greek and partially in Arabic or Persian translations and was so influential in its five books partially because it was written in verse. Or Manetho was another astrologer who may have written the early part of his text in the second century and we actually know roughly the date of it because he included his birth chart, which is dated to one of the things that’s cool about astrology from historical perspective is that when an author mentions a birth chart, he’ll give a position of planets that you can actually look up in an ephemeris or in a book of planetary tables for the first few centuries and you can look and see when the planets would be in that combination and that will give you a precise date of when that birth chart dates to and then all of a sudden you know when that author was born. Manetho, for example being born I think it was in May of 80 CE or something like that or Vettius Valens, we think he used his birth chart a bunch of times. David Pingree, the modern editor of that text, notes that there’s this one chart that keeps being used over and over again by Vettius Valens that he seems to know an awful lot of information about this person’s life, including this person’s conception date and when this person was involved in like a shipwreck and all sorts of different things like that. And if it actually is Valens and his birth chart, then we know that he was born in February of 120 CE and that roughly lines up with his known timeline for other reasons. Yeah, I just wanted to mention that and mention a number of other texts that were written in verse like Maximus or Manilius, the most famous of the Latin authors. And weirdly, one of the earliest astrological texts that survives is Manilius which was written in Latin sometime in probably the early first century CE during the late reign of Augustus or early reign of Tiberius, probably. And again, that’s another verse text where Manilius was taking some technical knowledge and showing off by putting it into verse and showing how clever he was by taking this really dense technical information but being able to put it forward in an aesthetically pleasing poetic form.
JS: Yeah, I mean, Virgil is famous for this too, right? His book Bucolics basically is how to be a farmer in verse which in many ways it seems so strange, but now it’s a classic of Western literature to take these technical things and put them into Greek. It’d be fun project to do that to take, I don’t know, the warranty for this camera and translate it into a meter and maybe it’ll survive for 2,000 years, the operating manual.
CB: I actually heard in a lecture recently, there was like a passage from Dorotheus that was in verse originally, where we have like a fragment of the original Greek text and it was translated into prose basically by a modern translator, Levente László, who’s working on a Patreon project where he’s translating Greek astrological texts into English and you can support that translation project through his Patreon while he’s working on his PhD dissertation, which he’s hoping to complete on ancient astrology later this year. But I took that passage that Levente translated into prose and I tried to retranslate it into something that rhymed and sounded a little bit more like verse like Dorotheus would have sounded originally and it was a fun project to do. I’m trying to find that really quickly. I don’t know if you’ve seen other modern things like that.
JS: I mean, people obviously have tried translating The Iliad and Odyssey and things that are rhyming. I think that the example that jumps to my mind is people who have translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into terza rima, which just seems like a nightmare to do in English. Italian sort of naturally flows into that way, but trying to write the copy of the rhyme structure of Italian into English, it seems like a Herculean task, but people have done it. Another genre that’s also interesting in that way with taking verse is there’s a Gospel story where someone took parts of Virgil, rearranged lines of Virgil to retell the Gospel story. This was apparently a genre of literature where you would take poems, rearrange them, tell a different story. Again, it’s a super interesting kind of world literarily fated and otherwise.
CB: Yeah. Here’s that passage I was able to find. This is like an attempt, but it’s pretty rough, but the original Dorotheus might have sounded like this where it says, “In a three-sided aspect, the malefics stand corrected. A star is no longer spiteful once it is in a beneficial place that is delightful and neither is the place base when it welcomes an honest face.” So all of that’s like transmitting very specific technical information. The first line basically means a three-sided aspect is a trine or a triangle aspect which is the geometrical aspect that has three sides. And it says when the malefic stand corrected, the malefics are improved. The two malefics of course, are Mars and Saturn. And they’re thought to have their negative indications in astrology blunted or to be not as negative when they’re configured according to this triangular geometrical aspect or other things just to go on. We’d have to get too much into the technical thing, but just to give people an idea of how some of that technical information was sometimes transmitted in verse, yeah, and one of the reasons why some of this survives is because the scribes were very much interested in transmitting and preserving some of that technical information because it was thought to have practical value, not just in interpreting birth charts, but also in other applications such as natal astrology. Or one thing we might mention that eventually emerged late in the Hellenistic tradition at some point and became much more dominant in the medieval period was what eventually became the fourth branch of astrology which is known as interrogational astrology or horary astrology questions and sometimes that’s just shortened to in modern times, horary astrology, where the astrologer would cast a chart for the moment that a client approached them and asked a single important pressing question under the premise that if they cast a chart for the exact moment of that exchange that the chart would reflect not just what the person was asking about, what they were inquiring about, but also it would indicate something about the outcome of those thoughts or what would happen with that situation in the future. And this became a very popular practice in the medieval period and some of our first major surviving textbooks on it survived from the eighth century from astrologers like Masha’allah, who is that astrologer who was involved in casting the electional chart for Baghdad. But then it became a major practice, but also a practice that was sometimes subject to criticism because by that point, we had a distinction between, especially in Europe, between what was called natural astrology, which was the type of astrology that was seen as permissible especially to the Christian church which is the type of causal astrology that just relates to things in nature, the influence of planetary bodies on nature and on the body that was seen as okay because it was just an extension of nature versus this other distinction of so-called judicial astrology, where the astrologers are making judgments about charts and they’re using astrology as a type of divination in a way that was seen as not natural or not part of the natural world. And practices such as horary astrology were ones that were really hard to justify in a naturalistic causal context because you’re just casting a chart for the moment of a question under the premise that that will indicate the outcome of the question and that’s much more obviously like a type of or tied into some divination and divination at that point was something that the Christian church was more against.
JS: Right. And it’s interesting, again, linking this back to this conversation, we see that this fourth branch of astrology beginning with Dorotheus at least in some fragments maybe, but then we see it certainly mature in Masha’allah in a way that he didn’t invent it. He’s clearly inheriting this tradition from the Hellenistic world at some level, and again, it just shows you what we’ve lost, right? That this probably existed in Dorotheus or maybe even before, maybe it goes back to maybe even earlier than that and yet everything gets so murky because the fragments get very corrupted. And then all of a sudden, we see it in Masha’allah and you’re like, did he invent it? No, he didn’t invent this. This is something he’s inheriting and it went on to survive to great fame and great criticism in the Christian world. So again, this is one of those places where what we have and what was… You’ve seen the joke of the archaeologist where they pick up one piece of a column and it shows a thought bubble coming off from the archaeologist and then it’s like a giant thought bubblel of like a city. All they get is the fragment of the column and then they can see the entire city. What we have that survived are often these just tiny fragments of things and we have the task of having to or we have the task of trying to reconstruct some of this incredibly fascinating world that was Hellenistic astrology and the world that in many ways gave birth to the astrologies that have come to exist, both in the Middle Ages and in our world. It’s been a really great conversation, Chris. Any final ideas?
CB: Yeah, before we wrap up that segment of horary, I just want to mention because it was one of my first real research papers on astrology in college that I got really into was trying to reconstruct the origins of horary astrology and figure out what happened with that gap where, like you said, there’s little references to it in Dorotheus in the first century CE, and then all of a sudden you have full textbooks on this entire branch of astrology by the time of Masha’allah in the eighth century. In Dorotheus, it’s initially just this almost like a couple of throwaway lines where it’s seen as a secondary or tertiary moment of importance that you could ask a question or you could cast an astrological chart for a moment of an inception that you can then cast a chart forward to determine the outcome of that inception in the future, but the primary one initially is the moment that the event happens. So, Dorotheus says, “If you want to learn about the future of something, cast a chart for the moment that the event began and then interpret that and you can determine the outcome.” But then he says, “If you don’t know when that thing happened and when it began, then cast a chart for when the client first learned about that event or that moment and that chart will tell you the outcome.” And then he says, “If you don’t know that moment, if the client doesn’t remember what time or day it was when they learned of the event, then cast the chart for the moment that the client asks you or comes to inquire to you about the future and then that chart will tell you about the outcome.” It’s just a couple of lines in Dorotheus refer to that in the first century, but then eventually that grows and becomes this whole fourth branch of the tradition that became very popular and very prominent by the time of the eighth century. It was just again, one of those examples I wanted to mention just because astrology is something that’s always constantly growing and changing. It’s not a fixed singular thing that’s just static, but it’s something that new things are being added to and there’s new applications and new modifications of constantly in different eras. And astrology also goes through these periods of being very popular during different times and then other times falling out of popularity or being a fad for a little bit for a century or two or three centuries, but then being suppressed at different points for different reasons and then eventually coming back and so on and so forth. It’s a very long history. It’s just had many different variants and variations and forms, but it’s something that’s been with us in Western society especially for a very long time now and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to study because it’s been a major part of culture in society for such a long time and it’s had such an important influence in ways that are sometimes we don’t realize until we really start to look into it and realize just how important it’s been.
JS: No, I completely agree. And I think our conversation tonight shows that when we think of perhaps philosophy being rational or whatever and astrology perhaps being more mystical, maybe that’s a misconception but I think a popular misconception where we can see for hundreds and hundreds of years philosophy and astrology and science and everything else set side by side, not always agreeing about how everything worked, but all agreeing that this had to be worked out. And I find that to be the interesting thing that they couldn’t quite agree about how it worked, but they could all agree to that it had to be worked out. And you’re absolutely right to say that a history of Western thought, of Western science, a history of the way Western people, whatever Western is, how they related to the heavens and related to fate, if you’re going to have a history of that and leave out astrology, you basically leave out 90% of the conversation so it wouldn’t be a very good history at all.
CB: Yeah. And you mentioned the dichotomy between science and philosophy or science and religion and really astrology is important because it is one of those weird subjects that straddles the line between both, between science and philosophy or between science and religion, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s hard sometimes I think for modern people to look at it historically when we have such a clear distinction between the two at this point in time because it really was not distinguished as much or there was much more overlap or ways in which astrology was in both camps in the ancient world, especially with some of the ancient astrologers like Ptolemy, who’s a great scientist and empiricist with works like his astronomical works, but then also he was doing things with astrology at the same time. And some of the work with astrology was also in authors like Vettius Valens who used example charts was just as empirical as some of the scientific texts, at least to them because they thought that they were trying different astrological techniques out and testing them out and trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t and sometimes that practical focus was paramount to them much more than the philosophical focus of how does this work or why does this work because it was just a technology to them that could tell you things about the future. And if anybody believed that that was true, truly believed that astrology was a valid phenomenon and that it could tell you anything about the future, then you can understand why so many people for centuries would have dedicated their lives to it and expended a great deal of energy trying to figure out how to make it work and how to practice it. And that’s the history of astrology.
JS: No, absolutely. And again, I think that, again, this relationship of the future and is it fated and is it not fated, to what degree is it fated and to what degree do we know? That’s going to remain a perennially interesting question both scientifically as we try to predict the future using whatever scientific tools we have but also philosophically about the nature of freewill, the nature of compatibilism, the nature of determinism. None of those questions are going anywhere. And in so far as none of those questions are going anywhere, I think astrology is always going to be, will long be part of that conversation.
CB: Yeah. I mean, who doesn’t want to know not just the future but their future? It’s one of the most tantalizing ideas and tantalizing pieces of technology to the extent that astrology if it could say anything about the future just becomes not just a philosophical question for people living in ivory towers, but it becomes a very practical question or practical technology of if you can know the future, what can you do with that information? And there’s a lot of different ways that different people have applied that or have tried to use that information either to improve their lives or for self-gain or what have you, just the notion that they could somehow figure out what was going to happen in the future, which is one of the greatest questions I think that humanity has always wrestled with in some form or another.
JS: I think you’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. Well, speaking of the future, I think a future conversation I’d love to have with you is… Also we’ve dealt with some of the philosophical issues around astrology but also thinking through some of the philosophical challenges to astrology which we’ve touched on a bit tonight, but it’d be great to have you back on again for more of… In the same way that philosophy has also had challenges to magic itself or the challenges to astrology and thinking through some of those challenges also, again, reveals some of the really interesting things about both of them and how they operate and how they were practiced and how they continue to be practiced, so maybe that would be a conversation for a future time. I think that requires both of us to wear different hats and these conversations are already heady enough as it is. It’s amazing how much time we get through.
CB: Yeah. I’m surprised how much we covered. This amazing and I really enjoyed this. Thank you for doing this with me tonight. Yeah, there’s two issues. One of them, I’ve tried to steer away from talking too much about the practice of contemporary astrology and contemporary views of astrology in this conversation so that’s certainly something we could talk about at some point in the future in a separate discussion, which is how astrologers these days deal with and conceptualize some of these issues and what the practice of astrology looks like in the 21st century as opposed to in the first century and in Greco-Roman times as we’ve been talking about here in this episode. And then a separate question or a separate topic we might do at some point that I’ve wanted to do and I haven’t had a good person to do with but I think you might be the guy, is addressing some of the skeptical critiques and attacks on astrology in the ancient world especially, I mentioned one passage from St. Augustine, for example, which is one of the great skeptical critiques of astrology because he was actually familiar with it and claimed to be a former astrologer or to have dabbled in astrology earlier in his life in his youth before he converted to Christianity, but also bringing in some other skeptics who wrote pen critiques of astrology like Cicero or the actual skeptics, Sextus Empiricus or others like that. That might be a fun episode to do at some point.
JS: Yeah, I think it’d be great, yeah, bringing in Sextus Empiricus and some of the academic skeptics, but also people like Pico who wrote an attack on astrology and even some of the modern ones I think for people like Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper and they’re more modern attacks not on astrology per se but thinking through this demarcation problem, right? What is a science and what is not a science? How do we legitimately get knowledge and how do we not? And I find that question rather demarcation problem interesting, but also questions around the historical criticisms, the twin arguments and stuff like that. So yeah, I would love to have… Those conversations would be great. I mean, I’m always the kind of person who I don’t want to go on someone’s show or have a conversation that’s just adversarial because I find those conversations to be just often not terribly enlightening. But I think that having a conversation around what those critiques look like, how do people answer them, how do people in the modern world deal with them, I find that interesting. Just because there’s something about astrology that seems to raise the hackles of so many mostly straight white dudes that I’ve often find this incredible like emotional response that people have demographically to astrology because they hate the fact that it’s pseudoscience or irrational, whatever. And I’m like, “You’re being pretty irrational. It’s a strange kind of response because how rational you’re being.” Yeah, I think the psychology of that is really fascinating, the historical reality that’s fascinating and also these philosophical challenges through history that astrology has weathered incredibly well. But it’ll be interesting and fun to talk through them given your enormous expertise both on the practice of astrology now, the astrological community now, but also your deep knowledge of the history of both practice and theory. That’d be a great conversation.
CB: Yeah, definitely. And also, because there’s always been historically, an exchange. It’s been a dialogue between astrologers and skeptics and skeptics and astrologers and it’s interesting sometimes, historically, to see how the practice of astrology reacts to or how astrologers respond to and react to skeptical critiques of astrology like some of the modern academics have pointed out how some portions of the very first book of Ptolemy’s texts where he’s introducing and outlining the philosophy of astrology partially seem like they’re responding to portions of Cicero’s critique of astrology from the first century BCE. So, there’s some ways in which sometimes astrology adapts to some of the skeptical critiques or the arguments against it and takes into account those arguments in interesting and sometimes innovative or surprising ways and that’s one of the most interesting things to explore or also seeing what the skeptics are attacking of astrology and how that sometimes tells you and gives you more insight into what astrologers believe in different periods. Like the fact that none of the skeptics in the early first few centuries, even though they attack natal astrology and the idea of birth charts or they attack mundane astrology and the idea of applying astrology to nations or they attack electional astrology like Augustine did in the selection of auspicious days, none of them say anything about the practice of horary astrology which is one of the things that tips you off that maybe it wasn’t practiced as widely early on. And there was like a developmental period because later in the medieval period or during the Renaissance, you do have skeptics like Pico who do openly and quite strongly attack horary as one of the weakest or most obvious targets of criticism because of its premises being seen as the least defensible. So that’s another reason why skeptical critiques might be interesting to talk about.
JS: Yeah, sure. I mean, Agrippa also has critiques and stuff as well. And again, it’s interesting because Agrippa is thought of as this occult philosopher and yet he has some skeptical stuff to say about, well, basically everything with astrology as well.
CB: There’s a new translation of Agrippa coming out soon, so I’m excited about that and I’m excited–
JS: Two new translations.
CB: Oh, two? Okay.
JS: Two new translations of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy out this fall, I think.
CB: Wow, okay. I knew about one of them because the translator I know has been working on it for a while. But then there’s also I think somebody’s been working on a translation of Pico for a while that I’ve been looking forward to as well, right? Or have you heard anything about that?
JS: Yeah. I think that there’s a Russian scholar. I need to ask my friend [unintelligible 2.13.22], he would know. That’s his wheelhouse. I think there’s an entire book out actually recently about Pico’s attack on astrology. I think there’s a whole monograph that puts into context and stuff like that. I think it’s by a Russian scholar, I believe. I could be wrong about that, but I have to look that up to be sure, but yeah. Again, the interesting intersections of philosophy, Western esotericism and astrology I think we have lots of fruitful conversations that we could have that go on for many, many, many hours.
CB: Yes, and many more hours to come. Thanks for doing this and thanks for this discussion today. I really, really enjoyed it.
JS: Yeah, absolutely, Chris. It’s really great to be able to have a conversation with someone who operates at such a high level with such an expertise on this subject matter, so yeah, I really appreciate you hanging out with me and having this wonderful conversation. Thank you.
CB: Yeah. And your YouTube channel is the Esoterica channel. And what’s your website again?
JS: Yeah, you can just find me at justinsledge.com. I actually have a brand new FAQ up and folks can contact me there, but also you can find me at my Esoterica channel.
CB: Okay, brilliant. And mine, of course, is The Astrology Podcast which you can Google or just go to theastrologypodcast.com. And my book is titled Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune. I just wanted to make sure both of us got our two things in there since we don’t know where we’re releasing this necessarily yet or whose audience is watching it. But this is a lot of fun. And I think, hopefully, they’ll have to let us know in the comments will have appealed to some of the interests of both audiences.
JS: Yeah, hopefully so. And again, I would really highly encourage folks if you’re going to have one book on your shelf on astrology, it should be Chris Brennan’s. It was one of the only books on my shelf for a while and eventually I had to pick up the Campion and other stuff. But man, Chris, your book does so much heavy lifting. I really, really appreciate it.
CB: Yeah, I always just wanted that one book that you could refer to to give you an overview of that entire first thousand years of Western astrology, of the Greco-Roman astrology essentially, because the last one that attempted to do that was Bouché-Leclercq which was written in the late 1800s. Yeah, over 100 years ago. But most of the academic literature, even written in the past couple of decades, is still citing that book even though it’s super out of date and there’s been so many more texts that have been discovered or edited or translated in the past century by academics. So much work has been done, but most people are still citing this 100-year-old academic treatment, which was good especially for the time and in terms of what resources he had available and what he was able to pull out of that, but yeah, I wanted something that could finally replace that that is a little bit more up to date.
JS: That’s great. I mean, I will say that the same is true for Hellenistic alchemy. The main text is still the Bouché-Leclercq text from 100 years ago. There’s been no modern–
CB: Literally the same guy.
JS: Yeah, it’s the same thing so a lot of the stuff is desperately in need of updating and I appreciate you having done the heavy lifting to give us such a wonderful book. Thank you for that.
CB: Yeah. Well, and thank you for all of your amazing videos and overviews of some of these fascinating pieces of the Western esoteric tradition because you’re now doing that work and making it much more accessible for a whole new generation of scholars and enthusiasts so keep it up.
JS: Yeah, ditto man, thank you.
CB: All right. Well, thanks, everyone for watching this episode of whatever we’re releasing this on, either Justin’s channel or my channel on The Astrology Podcast. I guess that’s it. We’ll see you again next time.
JS: Yeah. Everyone, thank you so much for watching and I hope to see you in the comments.
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