Despite exaggerated claims about the disenchantment of the world in the modern age, religious traditions and esoteric spirituality never went away, which is not to say that the persistence of enchantment didn’t cause severe anxiety among some who wished that those things would go away. Among the persistent modes of enchantment is the practice of interpreting the meanings of heavenly bodies in relation to human affairs: astrology.
It’s not very difficult to find people who practice astrology to some extent, ranging from amused interest or fleeting infatuation all the way to religious faith and professional dedication. Partly because of my work in religious studies and partly because I’ve been around San Francisco for some time, I happen to know more than a few people who take astrology very seriously, people who work as scholar-practitioners engaging with the history, philosophy, and psychology woven into the tapestry of western esotericism. I’m thinking specifically about people at my alma mater, the California Institute of Integral Studies, where the main approach to astrology (“archetypal astrology”) is inflected with depth psychology and transpersonal psychology. Among the varieties of astrology, archetypal astrology seems to have achieved the most nuanced presentation of astrology in tune the conditions and demands of late modernity. It is perhaps the best astrology for this current historical moment, and I have nothing but admiration for scholar-practitioners who are willing to take up esoteric traditions while participating in the development of field of psychology, philosophy, and religious studies. But, these are all things you say before you start criticizing something, right?
To be clear, I don’t have any criticisms per se. What I do have is a set of questions and problems, some issues, so to speak. I’ve grouped these issues into six points. All the points are interrelated, so I’ll try to indicate connections as I proceed.
[These questions and problems are based to some extent on my reading of the main book on archetypal astrology, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, by Rick Tarnas, and to a larger extent they are based on my experiences around people who study and practice archetypal astrology.]
1. The reverse Augustine problem.
Ancient astrology was deterministic, which meant that wherever the planets, signs, and houses are when you’re born has a necessary effect on your life, and you can’t change it, no matter what. It’s your fate, a signed, sealed, and delivered destiny with no possibility of revision. That is obviously false, and Augustine (Confessions, VII.6) gave a wonderfully simple and effective refutation of it. If astrology is true, then two people born in the same place and time should lead exactly the same lives, but he recalls meeting two people (twins) who were from the same place with the exact same time of birth, and it turns out those two people are not exactly alike at all, therefore astrology is not true. Archetypal astrology does not have the problem Augustine pointed out. Archetypal astrology has a participatory epistemology, for which the meanings and purposes indicated by celestial phenomena are not immutable and not simply given. Rather, they are enacted, performed with the participation of the embodied and situated human observer, such that each person is partly determined by the planets, and the meaning of the planets is partly constructed through human participation. So, out of the frying pan and into the fire, right? From determinism into subjectivism, or more like a context-dependent relativism, i.e., social constructionism.
If the Augustine problem was determinism, an immutable fate written in the stars, doesn’t archetypal astrology have a reverse Augustine problem, where fate is whatever you make it out to be, where the meaning of the stars has less to do with the stars themselves and more to do with a late modern psychological adaptation of symbols from a particular esoteric tradition? This problem is still named after Augustine because the underlying argument is the same: if astrology is deterministic, it’s demonstrably false that stars have an effect on us, and if it’s participatory, they have no effect beyond the part that people partake of through participation. It’s either false or subjective, which means that it’s never real beyond the human imagination. Of course, it’s not the nihilistic subjectivism of anything goes. It’s participatory, which means that the subject and object mutually inform one another, which ultimately means that the results of astrological analysis sound a lot more subjective than objective. So many times when people try to overcome the subjective/objective divide, they do it with some kind of subjectivism or idealism. Moreover, to the extent that it’s done for divination and healing, astrology isn’t harmed by its subjectivism, but its subjectivism would mean that Augustine is still right: if you’re looking for the real ground of existence, look beyond astrology.
2. The exclusion problem.
There are three types of exclusion I’m interested in: ontic, epistemic, and methodological. I’ll start with ontic. Some beings are excluded from astrology. If astrology studies meanings and archetypal processes written into celestial phenomena, why does it only study the phenomena it does? There are other heavenly beings, like asteroids, extrasolar planets, planetoids, galaxies, etc. I’m sure some people are working on developing archetypal interpretations of those entities. How is the field of astrological beings delimited? Maybe a proliferation of entities would exacerbate the subjectivism or relativism of the reverse Augustine problem mentioned above? However, not letting those entities in could give rise to the same problem (e.g., if astrology is restricted to the phenomena outlined in the western esoteric tradition, then astrology is less about the real world and more about a social construct or a consensus theory of truth).
The ontic exclusion problem comes with an epistemic exclusion problem. Western esoteric traditions are bound up with one another more or less. I am not saying they can’t work separately, but I wonder what happens when one symbol system or divinatory method not only takes precedence but even ignores or excludes others. Shouldn’t astrologers be better versed in alchemy, numerology, tarot, stichomancy, etc.? Wouldn’t it help mitigate subjectivism and be more effective as a healing modality if people working with astrology would cross the streams of different practice regimes? To be sure, archetypal astrology is arguably the most epistemologically inclusive of any other approach to astrology. Nonetheless, what remains left out leaves me wondering.
Finally, the methodological exclusion. Astrology clearly presupposes a methodological individualism. Astrological readings that combine charts (synastry) are the exception, the marked term, not the rule. There’s attention to multipolar analysis, either at the level of small groups (families, friends), large groups (cities, nations), or historical events (revolutions, social movements, scientific discoveries), but the unmarked mode of astrological analysis is the individual natal chart (i.e., chart of planetary alignments at the time of one’s birth). Juxtapositions with current or future planetary alignments can be added, which is quite common. Less common is adding other people’s charts. Growing up in my family, I can’t imagine that my family members’ charts haven’t had a permanent effect on my own, such that reading my chart by itself might obscure and confuse much more than it clarifies or heals. Could this methodological individualism entail an ethical individualism, a sort of astrological bypassing of family and social relationships?
3.The ethics problem.
There is not much by way of thorough inquiry into the ethical principles or guidelines that do or should operate in the practice of astrology. Some astrological counselors and professional associations have codes of ethics, which tend to be simple guidelines for not harming clients. That’s fine, but much more is needed. From the perspective of effective altruism, the methodological individualism of astrology raises a red flag. To what extent is astrology about self-empowerment and how much is it about cultivating respect and concern for others? Is astrology ethically neutral (doubtful!), or are there ethical implications inherent in astrological ideas and practices? Is it another form of spirituality that is making people stupid, selfish, and unhappy? How does astrology negotiate the multiple overlapping scales of responsibility that open up with an interplanetary perspective?
From the perspective of environmental ethics, astrology might seem irresponsibly otherworldly and anthropocentric, not unlike other spiritual traditions. Even if it touts a stewardship ethic or ecofeminist care ethic that would mitigate it’s anthropocentric focus, wouldn’t such an astrological application of such a caring ethic entail ethical attention to planets other than Earth, and couldn’t such extra-planetary care distract from more immediate concerns here on Earth (e.g., mass extinction, immigration, global warming, and poverty)? Speaking of poverty, there are issues of wealth and knowledge distribution involved in access to empirical astrological data (this overlaps with the epistemic exclusion problem mentioned above). Who gets access and how? Is it a field for medical ethics or religious ethics or both? Medically or religiously, a key issue is that it would probably be inappropriate for someone to impose their practice on you, which would mean that asking someone “what’s your sign” would be less like a friendly conservation starter and more like asking for someone’s medical history or asking them if they’ve heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. Telling me that my computer malfunctioned because of the retrograde movement of Mercury would be similar to telling me that my computer malfunctioned because God is angry with me.
Furthermore, another ethical challenge that goes unaddressed is that astrology and esoteric traditions more generally tend to reflect conservative values; they’re not progressive, not liberal, not anarcho-communitarian. The secretive, initiatory, and traditional nature of esoteric spiritualities renders them inherently conservative. That has political implications, but for now I’ll leave those aside and just mention the ethical problem that comes with it, which is something like group narcissism or in-group bias, what Pierre Bourdieu described as “the sort of collective narcissism affecting intellectual groups…inclining them to turn a complacent gaze on themselves” (The Rules of Art, 385).
4. The sex problem.
The way that sex works in astrology doesn’t seem particularly helpful for understanding symbolism, planets, sexuality, or really anything. The old idea that the Sun is male and/or masculine and the Moon is female/feminine ignores cultural variability (e.g., Sun goddesses and Moon gods) and locks sex and symbols into pretty narrow roles. The new archetypal approach appears to address the problem by situating gender diversity within each astrological archetype, such that there is a masculine and feminine dimension to the Sun, and I guess there is a spectrum of hybrid possibilities between far poles of masculine and feminine (NB: letting hybrids exist between polar opposites does not necessarily constitute respect for sexual difference; it could just be the double pincers of the judgments of God).
Men aren’t from mars, and women aren’t from Venus. For archetypal astrology, it’s more like men and women are each from Mars and Venus….and all the planets. Whether you are getting more of the feminine or masculine side of Venus might just be subjective (i.e., it might depend on the way you’re participating in the planetary archetype). Overall, this sounds to me a little bit like sweeping a problem under the rug, sweeping women into Mars, Sun, etc. and sweeping men into Venus, Moon, etc. I don’t think that locating complementarity internal to each planet (e.g., lunar masculine and feminine) is really very different from distributing complementarity across planets (solar masculine and lunar feminine). It’s a far cry from the “thousand tiny sexes” roaming the plateaus of rhizomatic materialisms, queer theories, and SF worldings. Not only is it putting symbolism and healing in an unhelpfully partitioned box, it’s also maintaining structures that have been used historically as justification for the exclusion of women from social space. Astrologers might respond that they aren’t talking about actual men and women but about masculine and feminine symbols, but that’s just sweeping under the rug the ethicopolitical implications of symbols for actual human bodies. Astrology, like so much else that developed during the Holocene, has some patriarchal baggage that it can go ahead and drop now. This is not criticism. It’s support from a friend.
5. The evidence problem.
I’m not sure exactly what counts as evidence for archetypal astrology. Considering that astrology is partly historical and partly predictive, it’s not clear to what extent evidence should conform to the standards of logic or to the standards of divination. If there is some overarching standard that includes both logical and divinatory evidence, how is that combination negotiated? Can astrology make falsifiable claims about causal interactions, or can it only facilitate personal experiences of healing or betterment? Shifting between imaginative, intentional, affective, and logical registers of meaning entails a risk of blurring the boundaries between them and confusing them with one another. It also risks becoming a red herring, distracting from the inadequacy of evidence at each register.
What most forcefully makes me bring up the evidence problem is the lack of counterfactuals in astrology. I hope I’m wrong, but it appears that archetypal astrology never brings up counterfactuals. I can see how Martin Luther King’s natal chart can be interpreted in a way that reflects his life, but can’t any chart fit the bill if you do the interpretive legwork? Is there any evidence that a different natal chart would have produced different results? Maybe it’s the Mars-Mercury conjunction in my natal chart talking, but it seems like a thorough hermeneutic effort on the part of an astrologer could make any natal chart feel like it’s the signature of the cosmos written in my heart. I suppose that someone could try to read two different natal charts (one real, one fake) for me and give as sincere of an astrological analysis as possible from both charts. Of course, if the analyst or analysand knew which one was real, confirmation bias would ruin the experiment. It has to be a blind test. If I felt like the interpretation of the fake chart was truer to my life experience, what does that say about this method? Addressing counterfactuals would be a way of responding to the reverse Augustine problem. (To repeat: the Augustine problem is that multiple people with the same chart leading different lives refutes deterministic astrology, and the reverse Augustine problem is when we have multiple charts—real and fake, different times/places—applying equally to the same person, which reduces astrology to a relativism or subjectivism.) This exclusion of counterfactuals could be considered part of the exclusion problem mentioned above, but insofar as it intersects with the problem of discerning rational from divinatory evidence, it is also part of this problem, the evidence problem. Both problems reflect Alfred North Whitehead’s point: “The chief danger to philosophy is narrowness in the selection of evidence” (Process and Reality, 337).
6. The anachronism problem.
Aren’t contemporary uses of astrology anachronistically judging the character of premodern astrologies? I’m not saying that traditions shouldn’t install updates. Regular updates are part of the maintenance routine for any tradition. However, while bringing astrology into a postmodern context of participatory meaning-making, it seems like premodern astrologies (Vedic, Hellenistic, Mayan, etc.) get short shrift. The ancients are romanticized for participating in an enchanted world, but the details of how astrology figured into their practices of everyday life are not given very much attention, as if those practices aren’t of much importance for contemporary astrology. Even calling it an “enchanted” worldview is more about reading Max Weber’s theories back into ancient ways of life than it is about describing those ways of life on their own terms. Better phenomenological and hermeneutic clarifications are needed to understand what premodern (ancient, medieval, pre-Columbian) practitioners experienced, particularly considering that they were not simply “subjects” experiencing a “world” through a “worldview” or a “world view.”
Much is lost—perhaps the tradition itself—when old ways are reduced to their appearance for modern categories. At its kindest, this anachronism lets the premodern tradition become an object of nostalgia. At its meanest, the anachronism justifies setting the tradition up as a punching bag for critics, e.g., when somebody responds to the criticism that astrology is too fatalistic (deterministic) by saying that it was premodern astrology that was fatalistic, and the new and improved archetypal astrology doesn’t have that old problem. Instead of throwing premodern people under the critique bus, why not clarify premodern hermeneutics? Maybe fatalism wasn’t so fatalistic too the ancients. Fate was experienced differently in premodern contexts than it is by modern or postmodern people, and it wasn’t necessarily as naïve of an idea as it seems in light of the aleatoric, stochastic, chaotic perspectives so cherished today. Premoderns weren’t stupid, and they weren’t simply sages with an enchanted worldview to which we should look back with nostalgia. Who were they, and who are they? From what vantage could that question be addressed? Maybe the question is less about who they look like to us and more about who we look like to them. Perhaps some premoderns would have cautioned against adopting Pluto into the astrological pantheon.
In sum, issues around relativism (reverse Augustine), the delimitations of the field (ontological, epistemological, methodological), ethics (environmental, medical, and religious), sexual difference, evidence, and anachronistic historiography all leave me scratching my head about archetypal astrology. I wrote these things not as criticisms but as a series of notes I’ve been keeping as part of my own effort in understanding, part of my own concern for religious and esoteric traditions. I would like to think that others might find these notes useful. Perhaps archetypal astrologers would take these points (if they read this at all) as footholds for attaining greater heights in their practice, reaching for the clouds, the heavens, the impossible.