Astrology's rise and fall in the star chart of Western ideas

A History of Western Astrology, by Jim Tester. Wolfeboro, New Hampshire: The Boydell Press. 256 pp. $36. Contemplating the rise and fall of astrology is like watching Orion in its path across the night sky. Regardless of one's beliefs, it's hard not to be moved. Indeed, star-gazing seems to be one of those primordial experiences - others would be fire-watching and wave-watching - that the modern geneticist may claim roots us to the earliest forms of conscious life.

The subject of the history of astrology is a neglected one. When it was revealed that the First Lady of the White House, Nancy Reagan, had been planning the President's schedule with the help of an astrologer, journalists and other commentators were caught off guard. Apparently they hadn't noticed that their local paper carries a horoscope column just as assuredly as it carries the Garfield comic strip.

Jim Tester's ``A History of Western Astrology'' is not only the only book of its kind, it's a very good book. The irony is that it ends with a whimper. Tester, who died while the book was in production, thought he had written astrology's epitaph.

In these well-documented and gracefully written pages, Tester accounts for one of the great cultural stories of Western history: the differentiation of astronomy from astrology, and finally medicine from both.

Astrology is a form of divination based on the theory that the planets and stars influence human affairs. A horoscope is a map of the heavens at the time of an individual's birth, using the chart of the zodiac. The ``house,'' or sign in the ascendancy at the time of birth, is said to determine temperament, tendencies to disease, and liability to certain fortunes or calamities.

The appeal of astrology is complex. The evidence gathered by Tester suggests just how complex - and how widespread. In very general terms, it reflects mankind's interest in discovering invisibilia per visibilia - the unseen through the seen.

Astrology is encyclopedic as well as personal, and stretches from the most intimate circumstances and feelings outwards towards business and family. Before its divorce from astronomy in the 15th century, astrology helped people organize their lives. While human life can seem to rush by in a blur, the stability of the celestial markers provided a kind of grid by which to stop the flow, divide it up, and study it - in a sense, control it.

Tester shows how much information about human life was preserved in astrology. Much traditional knowledge, that is, not only about the order of the heavens, but about the order of the emotions, about moral character and the phases of human life, about pathology and even perversion (Tester relates this knowledge to that found in today's ``agony'' or advice columns). In a sustained reading of Ptolemy's famous textbook on the subject, he notes that astrology helped men and women cope with fate, making it much less frightening and even less inevitable.

Ptolemy wrote in the middle of the second century AD, most likely in Alexandria; from studying his work, Tester feels that he was not a practitioner of astrology. For the intellectual Alexandrian - and Alexandria was as busy with intelletuals as today's New York City - astrology was core knowledge (remember, it included astronomy). It was to Ptolemy and his contemporaries what a knowlege of quantum physics and DNA is to us today.

Testor's account of St. Augustine, who would later attack astrology, shows how hard it was from ``an intelligent and educated young near-pagan'' of the fourth century AD to condemn it, even though he rejected magic and superstitious divination through prayers and sacrifices to the gods. When Augustine did come to reject astrology in ``The City of God,'' he revealed how deeply he had been immersed in it. His arguments are often lucid and rhetorically stunning, as when he answers the question about the stellar acknowledgment of the birth of Christ. ``...Christ was not born because it shone forth, but it shone forth because Christ was born...''

Christian scruples were added to scientific disagreement in the 17th century. Very gradually, astrology was separated from astronomy.

The earliest modern scientists were astrologers and alchemists, as well as astronomers and chemists. The career of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) shows other clinging aspects of astrology: mathematics and mechanics. He separated superstitions behind the man-made divisions of the zodiac from the closed universe inscribing geometrical spaces (these quantities, he believed, were made in the image of God and implanted in our minds). This points up the enduring connection between cosmology and astrology, as well as the ambiguity in the Greek word cosmos, which means both order and ornament.

To use one of the big words of our own times, astrology is packed with ``information'' - about the cosmos, about nature, about man's concept of himself. Thus ``A History of Western Astrology'' is more than a diversion. Because it is as smart as it is well-written, Tester's book will last.

The persistence of astrology from prehistory down to the 18th century (where Tester leaves it), points to a constant in history - mankind's hunger for knowledge. At a time when the big brains have tracked the goddesses of fate, the blueprints of human life, into the ``alphabet'' preserved over millenia in the macromolecules of the DNA, we should be humbly interested in another scheme, one that lasted very nearly up to our own enlightened time.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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