Astrology in the Year Zero
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Tales from Babel

By Garry Phillipson

Based on an article published in the Astrological Journal Vol 42 No.1 (Jan/Feb 2000)
under the title 'Two Thousand Years of Solitude'

A Confusion of Tongues

Between 1986 and 1993 I had the privilege, and the struggle, of living as a Buddhist monk.  Astrology had been a serious interest of mine before '86, and I started edging back into it as '93 wore on. 

What struck me most about the astrological world which I encountered in meetings, conferences, classes and magazines was the lack of consistency, and quite often the contradiction, in the techniques which different astrologers used (such as: traditional, modern, western, Vedic, harmonic, and draconic).  Perhaps these differences in approach struck me so forcefully because I had spent time in an environment where the entire focus was on one philosophy and one approach (that of Theravadan Buddhism).  Maybe, if there had been no break in my astrological career, I would simply have grown into an acceptance of the proliferation of disparate techniques.  As it was, however, I felt as if I had stumbled into the Tower of Babel during its last days, and seriously wondered if this confusion of tongues spelled the doom of the whole astrological edifice.  As well as doubts as to whether astrology had a future, I also began to experience doubts about whether I had a future in astrology.  

Doubt can sabotage anything you try to do.  I felt that, unless I made inroads into some of the questions which troubled me, I would never be able to wield astrology with the precision which I alternately believed and hoped to be possible.  Finding the way beyond this impasse in a manner more serendipitous than designed, I began interviewing people who are involved in one way or another with astrology.  The types of involvement are various - from the sceptical scientist to the ritual magician, from the ardent astrologer to the man who decided, with searching honesty, to stop using astrology because he was no longer convinced of its validity. 

The process of interviewing has spanned a period of four years, at the end of which I have interviews with 33 people on record.  Astrology raises many questions about the world we live in, and hopefully many of these are covered, from different perspectives, in my book 'Astrology in the Year Zero' in which the interviews are compiled and presented.  In this article I should like to pursue one line of thought, and (with the help of excerpts from a few of the interviews) look at the issues raised by astrology offering so many different techniques - having so many different languages. 

Two Versions of Babel

There are two basic approaches to the 'different languages' issue.  One is expressed by Dennis Elwell, in his comments on prediction: 

 

Dennis Elwell: With so many predictions being ventured, worldwide, the chances are that somebody will get it right sometime. So you can't take any particular comfort when your turn comes around. The only merit is to be able to get it right consistently, because your methods are reliable, which means you can show everybody else how to get it right consistently. Given our pretensions it is crazy that we cannot reach a consensus on what astrology says, rather than what this particular astrologer says. We are here in the domain of testable science. Those who insist that astrology is merely divination are indistinguishable from the Tarot readers and rune casters - my vision for the future of astrology is something altogether more tangible and objective. 

In Dennis's vision, the diverse systems within astrology as we know it have the potential to be rendered down into one coherent and optimal approach; astrology is (or at least should be) a "testable science".  The different tongues of Babel, then, may be resolved once more.  Other astrologers argue that the presence of 'different languages' is an inescapable feature of astrology.  This angle is developed here by Robert Hand: 

 

Robert Hand: First of all, I do not believe that there is an objectively real astrology.  I also don't believe there is an objectively real physics.  The real question is, 'Does our experience of nature in any way uniquely determine a functional versus a dysfunctional response?'  I think the history of science has clearly demonstrated that the answer is 'yes', but it has not demonstrated that the determination is total; it has not demonstrated that consciousness does not have a role to play, in fact, post-Schroedinger, it rather strongly implies that consciousness has a potent role in this.  I think that 'consciousness' - for lack of a better term - (I actually like the Greek word 'nous', because that eliminates more primitive - or more definite - notions of what consciousness is, but I'll say consciousness) - I think consciousness enters into a dialogue with the apparently external (it may be external, but I'm going to call it the apparently external) and creates, with that apparently external, a series of language systems.  And these language systems, like the language you and I use with each other, begin to determine the experience of a phenomena.  But it isn't quite the same as projecting, because the 'apparently external' has an equally powerful role in determining the nature of the language.  What makes this different is, there is no one correct language.  Just as you can say the same thing in French, German, English, Italian, Chinese, Japanese - more or less - you can say the same thing in different languages of this kind.  These are what the Renaissance called 'natural languages'; the languages of nature.  They would have thought they were wholly external.  I would say, it arises out of this dialectic between consciousness within and consciousness without.  Or nous within and nous without. 

So that, when we forcefully create, collectively, a construct, that construct becomes a part of the forming of our experience, and we get a feedback loop going.  Now, can any construct be created?  The answer is no, only some constructs can be created - maybe a large number, but it's finite.  And these are determined, (a) by the structure of human consciousness, and (b) by the structure of nature - or 'the apparently external'.   

So for example, you can have Hindu astrology and Western astrology doing very good jobs with mutually contradictory means - namely the zodiac.  But at the same time, you and I can't sit down and create an astrology that will work whimsically, out of pure intentionality.  What we will find is, when we enter into the dialectical relationship with the apparently external, some of our intended means will not work - because there is no resonance between the structure of the apparently other, and the structure of the apparent self.  That's actually a deep one; the apparent other and the apparent self.  'External' is not really a proper word; 'apparent other' is the proper way of putting it. 

In the view of Robert Hand, then, there is no problem in the presence of these different languages; it is inevitable that astrology should develop this way. 

The distinction between 'astrology as objective science' and 'astrology as subjective art' is, of course, one which has been discussed before and doubtless will be again.  It is, I suppose, one of the Big Questions which each generation of astrologers will need to question and discuss anew.  For myself, I feel that I have gained enough clarity on this point that I can lay my questions about the foundations of astrology to one side and start learning about and using it again.  For what it's worth, my answer begins with the observation that thought is, ultimately, only a tool for modelling what really exists; that 'what really exists' is sometimes too intractable to fit neatly into a single 'either/or' compartment; and that a better question might therefore be: when is it useful to think of astrology as 'subjective art', and when is the 'objective science' model more useful?  Let's look at each option. 

Astrology in Subjective Mode

If astrology works at all, this fact implies that things and events in this universe are interconnected at a level which challenges, and quite possibly surpasses, the human intellect's capacity to understand. 

With this interconnection as the basis, the core assumption behind astrology, it is difficult to see how the astrologer could stand outside the web of interconnection, discerning the workings of the cosmos in an objective way (more or less as a creator God admiring his handiwork).  It is, surely, more consistent to concede that, since we are not separate from the nexus of events, the act of interpreting a chart is inevitably filtered through the astrologer's intellectual history and way of seeing things.  An interesting parallel (and that's all it is) can be found in quantum theory, where the way in which the experimenter looks is considered to influence the result of an experiment. 

The conclusion which emerges from this is that there can not be one uniquely right way of interpreting a chart; if astrology works at all, it works in multiple ways (though not, as Robert Hand points out, an infinite number of ways).  Thus, in the big picture, different systems (such as western and Vedic astrology) may claim to be different fingers pointing at the same Moon.  The same principle can be applied to astrologers working in the same tradition, or even the same astrologer working at different times: given the almost infinite array of techniques available, plus the variations in weighting which can be assigned to factors in synthesis, every act of astrology is unique.  You cannot cast the same chart twice. 

Astrology in Objective Mode

I saw a cartoon once: a footballer, poised to pass the ball to his team's centre-forward, had suddenly stopped and was thinking to himself, 'According to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, this ball could go anywhere.'  The ultimate truth of things may not always provide a manageable context for action. 

There are, it seems to me, times when it is expedient to think about astrology as if it were an objective science.  One such time is when we are learning the subject; it is not, I think, possible to just intuit the meaning of a chart without training (and I do know one or two people who have tried!).  There do not seem to be any shortcuts to avoid learning the definitions of planets, aspects and so on, and at this stage it can be helpful if the student approaches their task as if they are learning the incontrovertible laws of an objective science.  For instance, to dwell on the fact that a planet in Scorpio in the tropical zodiac would be in Libra in the sidereal, would only engender doubt and hold up someone who was trying to learn the meanings of the signs.  (Though this is not to say that this disparity could not be an interesting point for discussion.) 

In a similar way, when an astrologer judges a chart, one essential quality is focus - which again entails a total belief in the technique one is using at that moment, as if it was the only way; as if one were wielding the absolute laws of an objective science. 

A Quest for Quality #1 - The Improviser's Art 

With this, another issue is starting to emerge: how can we think about what makes for quality in astrological interpretation?  In discussing this, several astrologers resorted to analogy with music, and this is the most useful way I have so far encountered of articulating and illustrating the issues.  This excerpt from the interview with Maurice McCann (himself formerly a jazz guitarist) sums it up nicely: 

 

Maurice McCann: (discussing the astrologer's training) .It's like being a musician, or a doctor, or a snooker player - you've got to train, you've got to put the hours in. 

Q: Sure.  But what I'd also say is that - taking the analogy of the musician - in the end, you need to transcend your technique.

 Maurice McCann: Exactly.  What happens with a musician is - you learn your scales, all your chords, all your arpeggios, you do your exercises - and then comes the time when it's automatic.  And then you're playing, but you're way off in the hills somewhere - you're not thinking about what you're doing.  You see this with the jazz musicians, because they just take off.  And if you ask them afterwards what they played, they haven't an idea.  But they know their stuff. 

You have to know your stuff before you can improvise in music, and likewise in astrology.  This raises the interesting question of how much astrological technique you need to have under your belt before you can practise to a good standard.  You'll note that I said it's an interesting question, not that I have an interesting answer.  It is of course another Big Question, so perhaps the best which can be hoped for is to have a nibble at its edge.  Here goes. 

A Quest for Quality #2: How Much Technique? 

In Buddhist philosophy, it is considered that several mental factors1 have to come together if one is to think, act or observe to the best of one's ability.  Amongst these are confidence and investigation, which should be more or less equally strong.  Thus, if one lacks confidence, if one doubts what one is doing, that doubt is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Certainly, I have been struck by the way in which the more confident astrologers seem to get the best results.  Yet confidence alone is not enough; the man who believes he can fly may jump off the roof with supreme confidence, yet that confidence is unlikely to keep him airborne on its own.  It is also necessary to have a  knowledge of relevant precedents (whether it be unpowered flight or astrology) in order to succeed.  As Robert Hand says, "you and I can't sit down and create an astrology that will work whimsically, out of pure intentionality".  It is necessary to investigate - to study, to ask questions, to assemble a body of knowledge on which one can draw. 

So a basic confidence needs to be present - confidence in the viability of astrology per se, confidence in one's own ability, confidence in one's understanding of technique.  On this theme, at least three astrologers spoke of reaching a point where they no longer believed in the efficacy of what they were doing.  One gave up altogether, whilst two stopped practising for considerable periods of time in order to re-think their technique from the ground up.  Maybe it is necessary for some people, some of the time, to re-evaluate their technique (which is the domain of investigation) in order to rebuild their confidence.  As an aside, here - it is interesting to speculate, in the context of an intimately interconnected universe, that the way they were practising before the reappraisal might have been the right way for them for some while, but that they reached a point where it no longer fitted them. 

So how much technique do you need?  Enough that you feel confident in what you are doing - always with the rider, of course, that this confidence is reasoned and grounded in experience.  So in the end it falls to the individual astrologer to evaluate where they stand and to achieve a good working balance between these factors.  No doubt there will continue to be confident astrologers who have nothing to be confident about, and masters of a thousand techniques who lack the confidence ever to seriously apply one. 

A Quest for Quality #3: Self-Concern 

Another factor to consider in defining what influences the success of a chart reading is self-concern.  William Lilly said, "the more holy thou art, and more neer to God, the purer judgement thou shalt give"2, and I believe that being 'holy' and 'neer to God' can be (at least partially) translated as the absence of self(ish) concern.  

Some of the astrologers I talked to adduced relevant examples here.  For instance, John Frawley mentioned his experiences when, after having appeared on TV and successfully predicted the results of important football matches, he was taken up by some people who wished to bet serious money on his predictions: 

 

John Frawley: After my TV predictions, I found myself under pressure from various quarters to provide lucrative predictions, & did disastrously. It's only now3, when these people have washed their hands of me and I can do it for fun again that I'm getting predictions right. It's a question of focus: like in tennis - if your focus is on hitting the ball, you'll do fine; if it's on lifting the trophy, you'll lose. So in astrology - the focus must be purely on the prediction, not on the consequences of that prediction. 

Another illustration came from Robert Hand, who cited with admiration the attitude of a financial astrologer whose comment on his work was, "'The money isn't important - it's just a means of keeping score!'" - showing that he saw astrology as a type of game, and not as a means of self-aggrandisement. 

But perhaps the most perfect paradigm for self-concern was this, from John Frawley again: 

John Frawley: An extreme example of self-interest is where someone you find attractive comes in for a consultation and asks, 'Should I divorce my husband?'  And the temptation is to say, 'Wa-hey, yes, come on, divorce him, I'm free!' This is what one seeks to avoid. 

The way in which self-concern sabotages effective action is, I think, wonderfully illustrated by the following rendition of Chuang Tzu: 

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.

If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.

If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets -
He is out of his mind! 

His skill has not changed.  But the prize
Divides him.  He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting -
And the need to win
Drains him of power4 

It may also, however, be misleading to suggest that the right attitude will always deliver astrological results.  Perhaps it may be that astrology (no matter which technique one employs) simply does not always deliver the answer.  This is a point which was made by Robert Zoller: 

 

Robert Zoller: I remember a movie called 'Little Big Man' years ago that featured Dustin Hoffman and an American Indian actor, Chief Dan George, and he had a wonderful role in this movie.  It was about the Cheyenne; they were beset by troubles from the white man, and it was determined by the shaman that some sort of big magic had to be done to fix the situation, and to rectify the laws of nature and protect the Cheyenne.  So he decided that he would take himself and his assistant, Dustin Hoffman, up to some holy mountain - which was a long, arduous trip - and then perform some big magic on top of the mountain - and the inevitable result was that the status quo would be restored.  So they climbed up this big mountain and performed these elaborate rites, invoked the ancestors and all the proper spirits.  They waited for the results; and there were no results.  So finally he just turns round to Dustin Hoffman and says, 'Sometimes the magic doesn't work'. 

Sometimes the magic doesn't work.  Perhaps one of the greatest incentives an astrologer can have to maintain a disinterested equanimity toward his or her work is the consideration that, for all our efforts, the universe may sometimes remain inscrutable.  And perhaps, in contemplation of this sometimes inscrutable universe, we may find good reason to connect with other seekers of what may always be the same truth.  

Notes: 

1: The reference is to the 5 'spiritual faculties' (indriya) - see, for instance, Nanamoli (tr), The Path of Purification (Visuddhi Magga), Buddhist Publication Society, 1964, p. 135. 

2: William Lilly, Christian Astrology, 1647 (Regulus Publishing, 1985), p.9 ('To the Student in Astrology').  I should also like to mention here another book, in which I first encountered Lilly's statement: Geoffrey Cornelius, The Moment in Astrology, Arkana Publishing, 1994.  Geoffrey's book has been an immense help and inspiration to me in my efforts to think philosophically about astrology. 

3: Interview recorded 8th October 1997 

4: Thomas Merton (tr.), Chuang Tzu, 1970, Unwin.  As Merton remarks in his introduction, his work is as much an interpretation of the original text as it is translation. 

 

Garry Phillipson, 2000