While enormously popular – perhaps more than it has ever been – astrology suffers from a lack of prestige in Western culture. It is not covered daily along with sports and weather on the news. It may have a small section in tabloid newspapers and some magazines, but it is rarely integrated into the other material in those publications. It is perhaps given a passing glance now and then in television and film, but often as an oblique reference, or worse, as a joke. Importantly, astrology is entirely lacking among the pillars of serious Western society: science, academia, business, and government. While people within each of these institutions do consult astrologers, astrology is absent from any overt discourse.
Astrologers have given a great deal of attention to the relationship between astrology and science – I have devoted a chapter in my book, Integral Astrology, to the question, and have written several articles on the topic. While science is in a sense the dominant mythos of the modern era and so needs to be addressed by astrology, it isn’t only science that shuns astrology, but the underlying culture that has elevated science to the premier means of knowing. That culture we can describe as Modern.
What I hope to show here is that astrology is not – as astrologers often seem to think – challenged exclusively or even primarily by science, but by the Modern worldview. While I doubt that astrology will be given a better hearing by the more amorphous culture of modernity than it has by scientific skeptics, I do feel that there is value in having a broader understanding of the dismissive attitude astrology faces within mainstream culture. I also want to suggest that a more encompassing understanding of the dynamics of the contemporary world will help astrologers to advocate for ourselves more efficiently in a world that is beginning to transcend the Modern viewpoint.
A Product of the Renaissance
Modern culture is a product of the Renaissance, although it really gained traction at the European Enlightenment in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Although there were outcroppings of Modern thought before the Renaissance, their appearance was extraordinarily rare. We have to remember as we read through the works of classical and medieval authors that we are reading the ideas of a tiny percentage of the overall population, and their influence outside of a very small circle of people was almost nil –indeed, until fairly recently a very small percentage of the population was even able to read.
The hallmark of Modern culture is progress. Improvement in material conditions is certainly an important facet of progress, but it is not the only one. The progressive political attitude assumes that the goals of society and the means to those goals, while outlined by some general principles like freedom and self-determination, are flexible. Where we are headed and how we will get there are to be determined by independent individuals, equipped with adequate capabilities and knowledge, who confront changing circumstances. The Modern worldview stands in contrast to what we might call the Traditional mindset. In fact, it has openly rebelled against the Traditional, and astrology has been caught in the crossfire.
The Traditional worldview reigned from Axial Age (roughly 600 B.C.E.) until the European Enlightenment, and is still quite influential, dominating many cultures in the world today. While the Modern worldview is more powerful, it is probably true that more people have a Traditional outlook.
Tradition values authority. The truth is to be found in authoritative sources, whether that means the Bible or the Employee Handbook (or the Tetrabiblios). Rather than flexible, evolving concepts of what is good and true, it is assumes that these are eternal – often given as law. The Traditional view is conservative, and change is viewed with a very high degree of skepticism. Obedience and conformity are valued as a means to ensure security, which is greatly valued by Traditional cultures.
While the Modern mindset believes that the future will be better, the Traditional tends to measure the present against an idealized vision of the past. While the Modern sees rules as flexible guidelines, the Traditional views them as absolute. While the Modern questions everything and puts dearly held beliefs to the test, the Traditional accepts the weight of authority without question.
Historically, the emergence of the Modern worldview caused a great deal of anxiety among Traditional cultures – as it continues to do today. Progressive thought was viewed as a threat and quashed in many ways, and one of the most overt and striking examples of Traditional backlash against the Modern was in the treatment of early scientists – Galileo stands out as only the most famous of many examples (the Scopes ‘monkey trial’ of the 1920s is a more recent example, pitting science against tradition). These experiences lurk not very deep in the psyche of the Modern mind, especially among scientists. This is a key component of a mutual mistrust: while Tradition is fearful of the Modern, the Modern is dismissive (and fearful) of Tradition.
A Significant Challenge
A significant challenge for astrology, therefore, is not that it isn’t scientific – many components of the Modern world, such as representative democracy, are not scientific – but that it is perceived as Traditional. It is true that astrology was initially considered a science, and so scientific skeptics of astrology harp particularly hard on that angle, but beyond the scientific community the concern is not about the scientific validity of astrology, but about its Traditional roots. That suggests an important question for astrologers: is astrology Traditional?
By Traditional, I don’t mean the use of traditional techniques (Hellenistic, medieval, etc.), but a Traditional worldview. A worldview is a mindset, it is not about what is thought but about the assumptions behind the way of thinking. In fact it is ultimately about the thinker rather than the thoughts. An astrologer can use Hellenistic techniques but have a Modern worldview, or can practice a 20th century form of astrology from a Traditional mindset.
The reliance on authoritative texts is a hallmark of traditional thinking, and suggests a limited way of thinking that can lead to a fundamentalist approach. To the extent that astrologers hew to tradition – whether Ptolemy or Ebertin – they are working with a worldview that is distasteful to the Modern mind, and for good reason. Such a viewpoint puts the source of all truth in the past, and prevents the evolution of new ways of thinking.
Yet in truth most astrologers aren’t all that Traditional. While they may follow a particular school or employ a given technique, most astrologers will allow for variations based upon their own experience. And not only are astrologers open to modifying tradition within their own practice, they regularly share their findings and ideas with the community, through publications, blogs, and at conferences and meetings.
Ideas are vetted by the larger community and are accepted or rejected, hopefully based upon evidence rather than dogma. While not a formal process, astrologers have in place a system for deciding what will and will not be included in their canon of knowledge. In this way, astrological thinking is modified and astrology itself becomes progressive and Modern rather than a Traditional discipline.
Remember: there is no need to be scientific to be Modern – it is the progressive attitude that is key. Scientific approaches to astrology have value, but we do not need to present astrology as a science in order to claim that it is Modern and has a place in the contemporary world. That place need not necessarily be next to physics, chemistry, or biology (though perhaps a spot may someday be found next to psychology and anthropology).
What if Astrology Works?
If one looks for criticisms of astrology outside of the scientific community, if we ask why business leaders, professionals, and politicians tend to shy away from declaring their use of astrology, we often find that it is the perception of astrology as fatalistic or deterministic that gives people the greatest hesitation.
Scientists may scoff at astrology because they have no model for how it could work, but many people are actually more concerned about the implications if astrology does work. Fatalism is extremely distasteful to the Modern mind, because it limits our sense of control and the ability to make progress. Within the Modern mindset, even the Buddhist inevitabilities of old age, sickness, and death are up for modification (by Botox, the Mayo Clinic, and cryogenenic freezing, if nothing else), and so much more so for our personal destinies in career or romance.
Yet most astrologers are anything but fatalistic. While there are some practitioners who are ready to announce an inevitable outcome, most view their predictions as a kind of ‘weather report’ to which the individual can respond in a variety of ways. In fact, many astrologers view prediction as indicating a set of meaningful potentials of experience rather than particular events. Choice is an important part of contemporary astrology.
There are limitations to the Modern worldview and its obsession with progress. Our environmental crisis, our consumption economy, and the disparities of wealth and income are just a few of the many problems that can be traced to the dominance of the Modern. Many of the problems that existed before Modern became the leading worldview have not been alleviated, and many appear to have grown worse.
In the decades since the Uranus-Pluto conjunction of the 1960s, a new, post-modern, Humanistic worldview has been emerging that has potential to supersede Modern as the dominant worldview in the West. While multifaceted and complex, for our purposes we can identify one particular aspect of the Humanistic worldview that is very relevant to astrology – the acceptance of multiple ways of knowing. Modernism is skewed towards rational thinking and sensation, and has typically condescended towards feeling and intuition (these functions are typically relegated to women, as in ‘women’s intuition’, an indication of their status in the male-dominated Modernist value structure).
There is a growing understanding that a strictly logical approach that focuses on the material world, that minimalizes or even ignores interior experience, is insufficient for life on an increasingly crowded planet. If it seems excessive to say that the Modern worldview ignores the world of feelings and experience, recall that in the middle of the 20th century behaviorism was a dominant school of thought in Western psychology, and at an extreme it relegated consciousness itself to an epiphenomenon of matter. In general, science still views consciousness as produced by matter.
With Neptune in Pisces, the acceleration of the Humanistic worldview is apparent (as is resistance to it from the Modern, unwittingly repeating the folly that was visited upon it by the Traditional). People are increasingly willing to recognize the validity of alternative ways of knowledge, both going back to ancient wisdom (in the revival of interest in indigenous cultures, shamanism, and the wisdom traditions of religion) and going forward in new explorations of consciousness (psychedelics, virtual reality, and technological support for meditation).
Although the Modern worldview tends to view the Humanistic wave as irrational, it is actually transrational – while not discounting logic and reason, it recognizes that there are more ways of obtaining knowledge and making decisions than are provided by our ‘everyday mind.’
The task for astrology may therefore be to find a place for itself within the emerging Humanistic worldview, rather than trying to wedge its way into the Modern. We may find that resistance to astrology is not overcome, but that it melts away in the Piscean waters of a new approach to life.