What is Astrology?
Astronomy and Astrology Contrasted
Astrology is an ancient science and an art, practised throughout every major civilisation in human history to the present. In the eyes of our present Western industrialised and scientific culture, astrology can be seen to be that activity from which science of astronomy emerged.
Many people in the West today – especially those known as scientific materialists – have relegated astrology to the historical dustbin. That is, they regard astrology and related ways of gaining information about the universe and the person’s role within the universe, as primitive attempts to do what science does now. The thinking goes that, as astrology is the outmoded product of pre-scientific world views, it holds no validity whatsoever. Those who see value in astrology are therefore regarded as irrational, superstitious, gullible, fraudulent, or worse! By the way, the same sorts of arguments are directed against those who subscribe to religious views of the universe!
Such a critique of astrology seems to ignore or make little of the fact that many of the seminal thinkers of the scientific revolution – Kepler, Galileo, and Brahe – were both astrologers and astronomers, at a time when the distinction between these labels was only becoming apparent with the parting of the ways between traditional systems of knowledge and science.1
Further, such an understanding of astrology seems to make little of the fact that astrology is not nor has ever been a science in the same way that contemporary astronomy is a science. Astrology deals with planetary and stellar symbolism and meaning as well as astronomical measurement, whereas astronomy is mostly or exclusively concerned with the latter.
Given the above, what role can astrology play today? How can this activity be of any service and use to people living in a scientific or post scientific age? 2
Stephen Arroyo, a renowned thinker in astrological circles of the last quarter of a century, calls astrology a psychology because it can be used as a symbolic and descriptive language to identify and work with “all human functions, needs, energies, urges, archetypes and dilemmas, rooted in real human experience and the cosmic order of life” 3 That is a very large claim! Arroyo is basically saying that astrology can be applied to every facet of human life and is intimately connected with how humans understand themselves, how they relate with one another, and how they relate with the world as a whole.
Another renowned contemporary astrologer – and my present mentor and teacher – Noel Tyl, would observe that astrology concerns itself with the particularities and peculiarities of all human being and experience, and includes the examination of the various epochs or changes experienced by the human subject over time and space, most notably the significant tensions which each person experiences in the course of their life’s development. Astrology seeks to make sense of – or provide an interpretive synthesis for – these myriad experiences. 4 Astrology seeks to answer the questions: ‘How does the human subject bring their potentialities into being?’ and ‘How can a dialogue between astrologer and client based on astrological data further the ends and aspirations of how this human seeks to live their life and pursue their goals?’ 5
Richard Tarnas, another contemporary astrological thinker, employs the archetypal categories of depth psychology – that field of psychology inspired by the life and work of Carl Jung – to describe the basic function of astrology. He says that astrology can be employed to bring to human consciousness that which would otherwise remain unconscious and unrealised. In his latest book, Cosmos and Psyche 6 he makes correlations between certain events within world history and in the lives of particular people with various planetary aspects (where the planets are at any particular time and how they are related to one another, the earth and to their positions at the time of a particular person’s birth, by way of mathematical aspect).
When he attempts to explain the inter-relationships between the various aspects and the epochs of history or events within the personal lives of particular people, he explains that astrology does not work “mechanically” or by a way that can be described in terms of cause and effect. The relationship is of a different nature. Tarnas observes that “the archetypes associated with specific planetary alignments [are] equally apt to express themselves in the interior life of the psyche as in the external world of concrete events, and often both at once.” 7 That is, astrology concerns itself with both inner, psychological, “archetypal” events of the human as well as outer events in time and space. This inter-relationship is not literalistic, but is a highly nuanced and subtle interplay of archetypal energies and possibilities, capable of many and various outcomes, and somehow amenable to the consciousness and free will of the human subject:
“In essence, astrology seem[s] to offer a singularly valuable kind of insight into the dynamic activity of archetypes in human experience – indicating which ones [are] most operative in a specific instance, in what combinations, during which periods of time, and as part of what larger patterns. In providing such a perspective, the emerging development of the astrological tradition can be seen as essentially continuing and deepening the depth psychology project: namely, to make conscious the unconscious, to help free the conscious self from being a puppet of unconscious forces (as in acting out, projection, inflated identification, drawing towards one as “fate” what is repressed or unconscious, and so forth). Such an astrology appear[s] to possess a unique capacity for mediating a heightened level of communication and coordination between consciousness and the unconscious, with “the unconscious” now suggestive of considerably larger dimensions than originally conceived – less exclusively personal, less subjective, more cosmically embedded. It provide[s] this mediation, however, not by spelling out anything in a literalistic predictive manner, but rather by disclosing intelligible patterns of meaning whose very nature and complexity – multivalence, indeterminacy, sensitivity to context and participation, and a seemingly improvisatory creativity – [are] precisely what [makes] possible a dynamically co-creative role for human agency in participatory interaction with the archetypal forces and principles involved.” 8
Some Other Issues to Consider
Given the broad nature of the comments above, I think it is important to focus on three issues which seem to figure prominently in most people’s understanding astrology, especially as clients or prospective clients of astrological counselling.
Free Will versus Determinism
There is an inherent assumption in the way many contemporary astrologers (including myself) approach astrology which upholds the view that astrology is not to be used in a fatalistic or deterministic manner. That is, astrology is a language of life that seeks to assist the client to maximize his or her potentials, to become aware and conscious of their psyche, their way of being in the world, to assist them to make better decisions based on better self understanding and a knowledge of personal cycles and possible ways in which energies are likely to reveal themselves.
Astrology is therefore not about discovering what a person’s “fate” is, or somehow allowing a diagram of “rocks in space” to dictate to the living human how their life will unfold or how they are doomed to repeat actions emanating from the same character flaws. By the same token, astrology is not about gloating about how good we look on astrological paper!
Robert Hand has described astrology as a “technology” or tool – an effective way of acquiring certain knowledge – which we can use for good or ill based on our ethical values 9. Although astrology may be used for negative or purely selfish reasons, I and many other astrologers would advocate a responsible and reflective use of astrology to further the ends of creating peace and harmony in human self-understanding and in relationships of all kinds. To this end, I understand astrology as a tool to be used primarily to gain insight into how inner human experience and consciousness interacts with outer events within a worldview which seeks meaning and purpose within this interaction.
Astrology as a Healing Art
Arroyo argues quite strongly that, in Astrology’s efforts to meaningfully connect the individual with the greater whole of the Universe, astrology acts as a healing art. Many people in our scientific or post-scientific age have experienced a profound loss of connection with the natural world. Astrology seeks to rebuild this lost connection, and in so doing “its practice is no less important, challenging or sacred than the vocation of the physician, psychologist, or priest.” 9
How does Astrology ‘work’?
It is very difficult to improve upon the comments of Damian Rocks, in his excellent article appearing recently in WellBeing Magazine11. The following is a small excerpt from this article:
“Astrology puts forward the idea that there is a kind of connected pattern between the structure of the human psyche and the structure of the cosmos or solar system. No one knows how or why it works, but astrologers have been observing – for at least 6000 years – that planets in certain relationships to each other, or to us here on Earth, correspond with certain states or changes within individuals, and collectives.
This idea is based largely on observation. Over time, astrology has built up a vast library of knowledge through studying planetary movements. Because many people who practice astrology have taken the time to learn the principles, they understand how this system works. They have tested astrological theories on themselves, as well as on the people that they know, and are content to say – “Yes, this makes sense for me and most of the people I come in contact with.”
Yet, how it works is still open for speculation. What can be said for sure is that thousands of intelligent and sophisticated people throughout history have noticed that astrology, when applied to the lives of individuals, works. Their observations and recorded information from the body of knowledge astrologers draw upon. By studying the correlations between people, events and the positions of the planets in the sky, astrologers have built up a complex system of knowledge that is profound and highly specific.”
So – essentially – the answer to how astrology works is a mystery. Over the millennia of human observation of the correspondences between the heavens above and the affairs of human beings below there is no doubt that for many people a meaningful relationship does exists between the human being and the greater whole – or cosmos – within which we live.
Astrology seeks to provide a descriptive language of the potentiality and unfoldment of lived human life, interconnected with the all of life, within which the human subject acts, moves and participates, not as some lifeless billiard ball in space, under the control of mechanical laws of action and reaction, but as a conscious being able to act, choose and respond to all the sorts of energies and circumstances that surround and comprise human life on earth.
1 See http://www.mountainastrologer.com/standards/editor’s%20choice/articles/science_ast.html; also see Robert Hand’s very interesting postings on the inter-relationship between astrology and science:http://www.stariq.com/astrologybyhandlib.htm
2 An interesting newspaper article on this distinction:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8020211/Is-the-age-of-scientific-discovery-ending.html
3 Stephen Arroyo, Practising the Cosmic Science, (New Ages Books, New Delhi, 1999), p 9
4 Noel Tyl, Synthesis and Counselling in Astrology – The Professional Manual (Llewellyn Publications, MN, 1998) pp xix-xxiii
5 Noel Tyl, The Creative Astrologer (Llewellyn Publications, MN, 2000) pp 1-8.
6 Richard Tarnas, Cosmos & Psyche (Plume Book, NY, 2007) – this impressive work includes an examination of the various epochs of Western intellectual history, including the effect of the renaissance and the scientific revolution on Western cosmology and the effect this has had upon the way our culture has evaluated the significance and importance of the human within the universe.
7 Tarnas, p 67
8 Tarnas, p 68
9 See his one hour lecture on YouTube: Astrology, Morality and Ethics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L6eb4wK_Pk
10 Arroyo, p1
11 Damian Rocks, “How Does Astrology Work?” pp63-65, WellBeing Astrology 2012 Magazine, published by Universal WellBeing Pty Ltd, Copyright Universal Magazines MMXI: http://www.universalmagazines.com.au
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