Greek Philosophy and Astrology

Mutaceo malus[1]

The metamorphosis from the Babylonian ideology of the planets reflecting the antics of imperfect gods and goddesses to the Greek cosmos, which was not only of divine origin but also reflected the personality and will of its creator, was a major step which imbued astrology with a stronger and deeper sense of spirituality.  Whereas the Babylonians excelled with observing the skies and developing the seeds of astrology, Socrates, Plato and subsequent philosophers such as Plato’s student, Aristotle, gave astrology its soul.

Concern for the well-being of the soul and the movement away from the sometimes frivolous and self-serving antics of the pantheon of Greek gods began with Socrates, a concept which didn’t end well for Socrates but was clearly internalized by Plato nonetheless.  In The Timaeus Plato expressed his view of the creation and structure of the cosmos, imbuing it with intelligence, benevolence, and moral character which permeated its entire fabric with the essence of its creator, albeit an impersonal God, but divine nonetheless.[2]  This was a considerable step because it not only moved away from multiple deities toward monotheism but also took astrology to a more soul-centered level which could benefit the individual’s personal development and earthly sojourn.

Plato believed that the order found in the heavens was a mirror of divine reason, making it of paramount importance and worthy of study.  While he recognized the vast knowledge the Babylonians had accrued with regard to planetary motion, he nonetheless had little regard for observations alone when they lacked theory and mathematical backing.[3]  These missing ingredients Pythagoras and Plato proceeded to provide, opening the astrological world to the Greeks in a philosophical language they could implement into their lives, specifically on a moral level.

Plato’s idea of perfection comprised things that didn’t change, which was assumed to be the case for God, whereas change implied imperfection.  With the wisdom and goodness of God saturating the cosmos it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume that divine guidance could be gleaned through the heavens to assist mankind.  Perfect order as seen in the cycles of the Sun and Moon was to be emulated wherever possible, as reflected in Plato’s political astrology which indicated that the state should be governed by 360 members of whom 30 should govern for a month of 30 days at a time.  This may have been borrowed from Empedocles, who theorized that the planets would eventually return to the position they held at the beginning of the creation.[4]  This, in turn, led to apokatastasis, or the periodic destruction of the world.  Of course it would be handy to be able to predict such a major event, which in the Christian world included the second coming of Christ.[5]

Two contributions from the Greeks which distinguished their astrology from the Babylonian version include Pythagoras’ mathematical model and Plato’s theory with regard to the soul descending through the stars.[6]  If souls were originally associated with the stars, perhaps even a specific one, it made sense that the moment in time (time itself being an entity which is changeable and therefore separate from the divine perfection which exists in eternity) that each soul descends to Earth had significance.  In the Myth of Er, Plato states that each soul chooses its own life as well as its daimon, a.k.a. guardian angel, emphasizing the importance of free choice regarding one’s destiny.  The soul’s journey to Earth was through the planetary spheres, likewise its return trip at the end of its terrestrial sojourn.  Considering that the Creator’s wisdom permeated all of heaven, connections for each soul with that fateful moment were easily seen as containing a personal message from God.  This was further developed by Plato’s successors based on the different types of souls which were assumed to have unique relationships with God and the stars.[7]

It’s particularly interesting that Plato considered “better” and “worse” births, which certainly implies that he believed that the configuration of the heavens at the time of birth influenced the individual’s quality of life.  This concept caused me to ponder the fact that so many births, at least in countries that practice modern medicine, are now diurnal whereas previously they were more of an even split between diurnal and nocturnal.  Knowing the subtle yet basic differences between people with these two types of charts, it’s interesting to reflect on what the collective effect of so many diurnal people will have on today’s society.  The practice of induced labor and births planned to occur during the day shift has been in effect since at least the 70s with these individuals now adults.  I don’t want to go off on a major tangent, but I can’t help but contemplate how some of the woes of this “me” generation may be connected to the preponderance of forced, diurnal births and losing the balance nature intended.

Another difference between Plato’s astrology versus the Mesopotamian’s was that the Greek version included the concept of negotiation versus simple obedience to planetary dictums.  However, his obsession with perfection had its faults because he was the one who indicated planetary orbits were required to be circular to maintain perfection, a misperception that lacked scientific backing plus the fact he couldn’t explain their seemingly erratic movement.  Eudoxus came up with a complicated system of spheres which attempted to explain planetary motion which others dabbled with for centuries until Claudius Ptolemy essentially perfected it, leading astronomers astray for more than a millennium.[8]  This continually compounded error caused considerable problems centuries later when Kepler discovered that planetary orbits were indeed elliptical, causing another major flap with the Church similar to Galileo’s.[9] 

Plato’s student, Aristotle, took the theoretical principles a step further to causal mechanics, that the planets transmitted the will of God to Earth and represented secondary causes while God was the prime mover of the Universe.  Aristotle’s modifications placed Greek astrology in a favorable position with Christianity by its recognition of free will, indicating God was the source, i.e. physical and moral principles were connected with the cosmos, all rationales for astrology which persisted until the seventeenth century.[10]  In other words, being able to derive from the planets an individual’s purpose in life as opposed to simply the whims of the gods gave astrology considerable importance as a means for communicating with the divine.[11]  This is truly one of the reasons why people seek answers from astrology even in modern times.  Without these Greek changes to the philosophy behind astrology as opposed to the Babylonians it may have been lost with the pagan gods.

I very much enjoyed reading about how the Greek’s remodeled astrology and brought it into a form that was compatible with the rising popularity of monotheism and specifically Christianity.  I have always wondered why modern Christian churches oppose astrology; if they believe that God created the cosmos, then how could the planets provide messages from anyone but Him?  Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies were in harmony with the Christian religion and in many respects still are, so now I’m quite curious what caused that to change.  It sounds to me as if someone forgot that eternal principles don’t change.

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[1] This quasi-Latin phrase was a tongue-in-cheek motto we had at NASA which represented the attitude engineers had toward change, i.e. “change is bad.”

[2] Campion, Nicholas.  The History of Western Astrology Volume I. p. 151.

[3] Campion, p. 159.

[4] Campion, p. 161.

[5] Campion, p. 161.

[6] Campion, p. 162.

[7] Campion, p. 164.

[8] Campion, p. 167.

[9] Pasachoff, Jay M., Contemporary Astronomy Second Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders College Publishing 1981, pp. 240 – 243.

[10] Campion, p. 167 – 169.

[11] Campion, p. 171.

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