We’re going to have to get heady if we really want to understand the astrological phenomenon
When I tell people that I am an astrologer, I get a range of reactions, from bemusement and even anger at one pole, to excited enthusiasm at the other. Many people seem to wonder what went wrong – how could an educated, intelligent person in the 21st century possibly give any credence to something like astrology?
This article is in no way an attempt to convince anyone of anything about astrology. All I’m doing here is laying out a few prerequisites, things that are “necessary but not sufficient” to consider that astrology may have some validity. Without some experience of astrology – good astrology – none of this is going to seem particularly compelling. To be honest, we’re going to have to get a bit heady if we really want to understand how we can approach astrology with a 21st century mind.
Not Fitting In
If you’re already comfortable with astrology, it might not seem necessary to work out the details, but I think it is worthwhile to try to see how things fit together. Many people who have an interest in astrology or other metaphysical things tend to keep quiet about it, because although they see value in them they know that they don’t quite fit in with the rest of their world view.
In recent years, astrology has gotten a bit of support. For example, Richard Tarnas, who wrote The Passion of the Western Mind, a popular book on the history of Western thought that is widely used in colleges, has also written Cosmos and Psyche. Stanislav Grof, a pioneering psychedelic researcher, physician, and psychologist has endorsed astrology as means of predicting when transformative breakthroughs will occur.
However, suggesting that astrology may have some value frequently does less to elevate astrology than to lower the status of the endorser. It is a trap that catches anyone who looks outside of mainstream thought: no matter how “skeptical” and careful you are, if you are even looking at astrology, energy healing, psychics, life after death, any anomalous phenomenon, you are alreadysomething of a kook.
The first thing we should consider is temperament. William James, the great American psychologist, used the terms idealist and materialist, which Jung saw as something like what he meant by introvert and extrovert. But this distinction in temperament has been in operation for a long time. In the West, we usually trace it back to Plato (the idealist) and Aristotle (the materialist).
Materialists see the physical world as the real stuff, and mental and emotional contents as somewhat ephemeral. To them, the reality of a material object with all of its concrete, measurable properties, is obviously more substantial than the changeable world of ideas, which are just “in your head.”
Idealists think very differently. For them, the material world is real, all right, but it is transient. This or that physical object will be around for a while, but the underlying idea or form of it is transcendent. This snowflake or that leaf will last a short time, but the overall pattern of the seasons is a different story – it remains while the particulars change.
Don’t Get Each Other
Materialists and idealists do not “get” each other. They see the world through a different set of lenses, and because these lenses are what they see through rather than anything they are looking at, it is very difficult for them to recognize how their perspective is limiting them.
Being an idealist won’t make you think there is any value in astrology. But being a materialist will almost certainly get you to think it’s bunk. So, in order to even look into astrology, you have to be on the idealist side of the aisle. Since the Scientific Revolution, when we got very good at measuring and manipulating the material world, idealism has been more or less the underdog, although even materialists tend to express their ideas in abstract laws (like the law of acceleration). It’s just about impossible to be entirely on one side or the other.
The next thing to consider is meaning. Astrology is a symbol system: it is about meaning, not about concrete events. Sometimes, however, we need to actually live through a direct physical experience to get the meaning of the symbols. Symbols can manifest on all levels – as thoughts, feelings, ideas, or – it turns out – as a revolution, meeting someone, or changing jobs.
That’s where things get a bit sticky for materialists, because for them symbols are just ideas or thoughts. That they could show up as anything else makes no sense to them, and that they would arrive at a particular time is also out of the question. Thoughts are just thoughts, and they have a one-way relationship to the physical world (which causes them). For materialists, symbols aren’t real, for idealists, they are.
As Jung pointed out, symbols are productive. Consider the symbol “mother.” It applies to your biological mother, and to all biological mothers. It applies to humans as well as animals. But it also applies to many acts of nurturing and protection, and we can say that someone is “mothering” someone else, even when there is no biological relationship. We can also speak of “Mother Earth,” “Mary, Mother of God,” a Mother Ship, and an infinite (really) number of variations. We can talk about a project as being our “baby” to which we “give birth.” A symbol is indefinite and changeable, and it evolves, rather like a living thing.
(To the extent you’re a materialist, you lost interest somewhere in the last paragraph)
Astrology is all about symbols. When we speak about the sun, the moon, or any planet, we are speaking about a symbol. The same is true for all the signs of the zodiac, the houses, and everything else. The moon, for example, is relatively close to the symbol “mother.”
The way we approach astrological symbols is very similar to what Jung said about the archetypes of the collective unconscious. It is also very similar to a more contemporary concept, that of “attractors” in Chaos theory. Put simply (too simply), there are general patterns that we can discern and differentiate from each other, but which we cannot precisely define or predict. This means that there is no definite manifestation of any astrological symbol.
We can feel our way to an understanding of symbols, aided by intellect. We can know one from the other, yet there is no definite limit on any symbol. It’s sort of like the way you can classify food as Thai or French, although there are as many variations of these as there are cooks.
Astrologers, of course, are as likely as anyone else to be a bit rigid where this is concerned. They tend to feel that if they could predict things accurately, they would be vindicated and accepted. But as I’ve said, this isn’t too likely, given the symbolic nature of astrology.
Back in the day, astrologers at least seemed to have better luck as far as prediction goes, but astrology isn’t the same as it used to be, and neither are astrologers or their clients. After all, it wouldn’t have taken much astrology to predict the life of a rural Saxon blacksmith back in the 16th century, would it? The more circumscribed and limited our approach to life is, the fewer options we see available to us, the easier it is to predict how a particular symbol will manifest.
Many critics of astrology expect it to work like a physical science, with definite meanings tied to specific events, but that’s not how any symbolic system works. Even at a very simple level, if each of us were to picture a truck, we would all have unique images in our heads -from a fire truck to a tractor-trailer – but they would all be trucks.
That’s why in today’s complex world most astrologers use the unfortunate term “psychological astrology” to describe what they do. True, many manifestations of astrological symbols will be internal, felt as emotions or perceived as thoughts. But the symbols could manifest in any number of ways, including as physical or material phenomena.
How does astrology work? From a materialist perspective, causality is the sine qua non of meaningful connection. That there could be a symbolic coherence among things without a causal link is nonsensical. That’s good thinking where most of the physical world is concerned, but it has little application to the world of meaning.
To understand astrology, we have to somehow get into the divide between the meaningful world of the idealists and the physical world of the materialists. As I’ve said, we have to approach it from the idealist side or we won’t be able to go very far, but the idealist with any interest in astrology is going to need some matter to work with – planets are physical objects, after all.
Let’s consider this. For the materialist, ideas and such are passing notions that are dependent on the physical world. The mind (which is usually just the brain for materialists) encounters the physical world and builds its images and ideas up from experience. For the idealist, transcendent ideas reign supreme, and at the extreme of the idealistic perspective the material world is just a kind of condensation of thought, literally “the word made flesh.”
The Hermetic Maxim
Astrologers have for centuries been invoking the Hermetic maxim, “As above, so below” to explain that meaning is threaded through the entire universe, from the microscopic to the macroscopic levels. And this is the perspective that best serves modern astrology. It is not that matter creates consciousness (no one has ever explained how that could be) and it isn’t necessarily the case that mind creates matter.
Yet what if instead of two distinct realms, mind and matter, we were to think in terms of a single reality? What if the very distinction between mind and matter is a construction? What if matter and mind do not cause each other, but they reflect each other.
Physicists and certain other hard-core materialists have been saying something like this for about a century now, but the idea hasn’t caught on in our everyday reality. Many physicists and other progressive scientists are just about in love with psychic phenomena (or psi as it’s often called). That the world of consciousness and the world of matter are connected and can manifest as psychic experiences like clairvoyance excites them immensely.
The mechanism by which psi works is an unknown, but their theories usually involve a field of one kind or another. That’s one clue that while matter and consciousness may be equal partners in their estimation, matter is just a smidgeon more equal. What they seem to be talking about is information, rather than meaning, since it is information that can be held in a field. Meaning implies value.
Astrology takes a different tack, and assumes not just that matter and consciousness get their startin a unified realm, but that the coherence of the two continues upwards from the subatomic or subconscious level to be present at every level of existence.
Why that should be the case is a question that cannot be logically or experimentally answered, although with some meditation, psychedelics, or luck, you might get some experiential insight into the paradoxical nature of reality. That sort of experience apart, if you can accept that both matter and mind are part of the fabric of reality, astrology ought to at least be possible.
Possible doesn’t mean probable. Almost no one today could hear about astrology and think that it made sense or that it was coherent with their view of the world. Experience with it might do the trick, assuming that one has both an idealist bent and the requisite understanding of the creative nature of symbols, and a sense that matter and meaning may co-occur.
Even so, it’s a lot of work. If all we got for it was a bit more understanding of our relationships and a good time to ask the boss for a raise, it probably wouldn’t be worth it. But astrology – for those willing to take a look – offers something more: an experience of the harmony of matter and meaning, experiential evidence that we are not empty shells scattering through a meaningless void.