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A History of Western Astrology Volume II, The Medieval and Modern Worlds, by Nicholas Campion

Book Review

A History Of Western Astrology, Volume II: The Medieval And Modern Worlds by Nicholas Campion

Published by Continuum (2009)

Retail Price: £18.99 softcover (£70 hardcover)
ISBN: 9781441181299 - 392 Pages

Reviewed by Kirk Little

Astrology, that protean beast which has populated the imagination of western civilization for the last several millennia, has eluded successful capture by historians during its troubled existence. The subject's shape shifting tendencies have certainly not made the historian's task any easier, nor has its fluctuating reputation. Then too, the dictum of one of astrology's first modern historians, Auguste Bouche-Leclerq is hardly a cri de coeur for those who wish to study astrology's cultural contributions: "One does not waste one's time in studying how other people have wasted theirs." For the most part, historians, leery of appearing unscientific have either ignored it or portrayed it as a widely held delusion suffered by prescientific mentalities. Mercifully, the grip of scientism has loosened somewhat lately. Still, such dismissive attitudes have poisoned the well for many scholars and thus hampered the efforts of those who wish to develop a more accurate, nuanced understanding of astrology's contribution to western culture. Of course, the very nature of astrology makes such undertakings difficult, since that rubric has encompassed everything from primitive solar worship to Platonic cosmology; from rude marks on stones to complex computer algorithms; from religious and magical apprehensions of the nature of reality to Aristotelian studies in weather forecasting. It has spanned the yawning gap between folkloric healing practices of generations of cunning men and women to elevated philosophical forays into understanding how civilizations rise and fall. It is fair to ask, can any single history hope to pin down such a changeable beast?

Nicholas Campion's A History of Western Astrology, Volume II: The Medieval and Modern Worlds does its level best and at least much of the time succeeds brilliantly in placing astrology in its proper cultural and intellectual setting. Unlike other recent attempts (Benson Bobrick's superficial and error ridden The Fated Sky comes to mind) Campion's volumes are intent on preserving astrology's multifaceted qualities. We hear much about whether accounts of astrology are written by insiders or outsiders (the so called emic and etic views of academic discourse). Campion is the ultimate insider acting as an outsider. As an insider, Campion has been intimately involved with the world of UK astrology since the early 1970's, however, over the past fifteen years, he has become identified increasingly as an academic who has adopted a more neutral stance about the actual practice of astrology. For that reason, it is difficult to associate him with any of the current trends or practices of astrology. As an historian, Campion comes well equipped to undertake his task; though he is best known to astrologers for his writings on mundane astrology, he has written on nearly all aspects of the stellar art. For the past thirty years, he has been a strong advocate of improving historical scholarship in astrology; indeed his two-volume History is the culmination of a project he initiated in 1981, with the publication of his 83 page booklet An Introduction to the History of Astrology. For the past two decades, his writing has focused on the history and philosophy of the ideas which underpin the astrological world view. Campion's The Great Year: Astrology, Millenarianism and History in the Western Tradition (Arkana, 1994) is a dress rehearsal for many of the ideas which make their appearance in this volume. As he reminds the reader, this is not a technical history or an attempt to understand the roots of horoscopic astrology, its most prevalent form today. If his chief concern is the cultural expression of astrology over the centuries ,his approach is primarily that of an intellectual historian; in other words, he borrows from philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology and science, just as astrology itself has done for so many years. For that reason, this book is not an easy read and astrologers looking for a narrative less encumbered by philosophical twists and turns may find Peter Whitfield's superb illustrated survey Astrology: a History (The British Library, 2001) more to their liking. For those willing to put in the time, this book will richly reward them with thoughtful analysis and unexpected insights into astrology's cultural inroads over the past fifteen hundred years.

From the outset, Campion states "the central theme of my narrative is religious" (p. ix) and his introductory chapter nicely lay out the complex issues faced by the historian of astrology. Among those issues are the philosophical questions raised by the astrological world view concerning fate, free will and moral choice. The religious and philosophical issues, more than the social and political uses of astrology, constitute the major strands of his narrative thread and lend this book an intellectual heft lacking in other recent histories of astrology. Campion is quite concerned with historical continuity and often makes startling connections between groups of astrologers separated by both great distance and historical time. Take for instance, this passage on the Ghayat al-Hakim composed around 1000 AD by Moslem scholars in Andalucía:

Translated into Latin in 1256 by the Castilian monarch Alfonso the Wise, it was known in medieval Europe as the Picatrix, and was to be the key text of magical astrology until the seventeenth century. The Picatrix provided a direct line of transition for Islamic Hermeticism, and hence for Babylonian celestial deities, direct into the thirteenth century Christian West. (p. 66)

Or this one concerning the 19th century occult writer Eliphas Lévi:

Lévi's astrology was embedded, even more than Ebenezer Sibly's, in the medieval system of magical relationships by which nature's secrets could be penetrated and manipulated. Lévi, following in the tradition of the esoteric Masons and illuminists of eighteenth century France, advocated practical magic in the style of Agrippa and the Picatrix… (pp. 223-4)

Leaping across centuries and cultures, Campion hopes to demonstrate unifying themes and intellectual commitments, even if the actual uses of astrology are quite different.

And they are different. Adopting Patrick Curry's all encompassing definition of astrology as "the practice of relating the heavenly bodies to lives and events on earth, and the tradition that has thus been generated", (p. ix) Campion acknowledges thinkers most astrologers would be loathe to include in their camp. This is especially true for the chapters dealing with the 18th century to the present. Cotton Mather, the early 18th century Massachusetts theologian may have believed New England was the Promised Land, but his denunciations of judicial astrology as satanic would certainly exclude him from most astrological gatherings. Yet Campion sees a kind of Christianized astrology in a passage where Mather ponders the fate of a fellow divine Jonathan Mitchel:

The precise day of his birth is lost, nor is it worthwhile for us to enquire, by an astrological calculation. What aspect the stars had upon his birth, since the event has proved, that God the father was in the horoscope, Christ in the Midheaven, the Spirit in the sixth house, repentance, faith and love in the eighth: and in the twelfth, and eternal happiness, where no Saturn can dart any rays. (p. 182)

While the technical argot is familiar, it seems apparent Mather was simply borrowing astrology's form and replacing the planetary content with the holy Trinity. At least he was familiar with the astrological lexicon of his day. When it comes to the 19th century sociologist Auguste Comte, the astrology disappears completely under the laws of positivism. Updating a notion he first put forth in The Great Year, Campion asserts that Comte believed that "Kepler and Newton had discovered the laws of celestial motion and, if these were universal, then they must apply to all things on earth, including human behavior and relationships." (p. 218) still, it is hard to comprehend his system of ideas as astrological, since Comte never posits any connection, symbolically or empirically, between the planets and human behavior or social change. How then, is this astrology?

That is Campion's point. In order to comprehend astrology's true cultural significance, we need to perceive its influence on people who would never have been caught dead casting horoscopes. Thus, during judicial astrology's fallow period of the late 18th century, the astrological torch is carried by such unlikely souls as Anton Mesmer, the hypnotist and healer, the astronomer William Herschel, the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, the German idealist philosopher Georg Hegel, and the English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. One way or another, these individuals, none of whom accepted judicial astrology, adopted and nurtured a world view which accepted the notion that the cosmos shapes human destiny. For Campion, these individuals are as important in the transmission of astrological ideas as the most fervent advocates of horoscopic astrology, maybe even more so. Indeed, throughout his History, Campion stresses the importance of the roles played by Christian Platonists and Jewish Kabbalists during the middle ages and Renaissance, or magicians and hermetic philosophers, be they inspired by Ficino in the 15th century, Fludd or Boehme in the 17th century or followers of the Golden Dawn in the late 19th century. All helped to keep alive the perennial philosophy that has sustained astrology over its long lifespan.

This is not to say that Campion neglects the role of those who promoted and practiced astrology. One of this volume's chief merits derives from Campion's desire to use recent scholarship to enhance our understanding of astrology's influence on thinkers who normally populate our histories of science and technology. Thus, some of the giants of the 17th century scientific revolution, such as Tycho Brahe, Kepler and Galileo are rescued from the distortions imposed on them by historians embarrassed by their astrological pursuits. Campion understands that their astronomical researches were often motivated by a desire to improve their astrology. We learn that Kepler drew the attention of Brahe, then Europe's most famous astronomer for his discovery of the super nova of 1572, by the publication of his Mysterium Cosmographicum, Kepler's monumental treatise describing the Pythagorean and Platonic nature of the cosmos. By inverting the usual historical explanations of this "trio of astronomical geniuses and astrological reformers" Campion succeeds in deepening our appreciation of their actual accomplishments. Along the way, he demolishes a number of historical myths, such as the devastating blow the Copernican revolution supposedly delivered to the world of astrology. Similarly, his discussion of Galileo's persecution by the Catholic Church rejects the simplistic 'progressive' science versus 'reactionary' religion scenario; instead we are asked "to absorb the significance of this encounter: Galileo was welcomed to the circle of occultists, astrologers and Hermeticists at the very senior reaches of the Catholic Church, who were sympathetic to his work and included the Pope himself." (p. 146) Campion's awareness of such philosophical and historical ironies make his chapter "Horoscopes and Telescopes" without doubt, the best account we have of the singular contributions made by astrologers to the scientific revolution.

Some adherents of horoscopic astrology will inevitably be disappointed by those Campion chose to ignore, though this is inevitable in surveys. Admittedly, there is a perverse streak running through the narrative. Influential practitioners of judicial astrology often take a back seat to more culturally prominent individuals whose connection to the world of astrology is tenuous at best. Because this is a cultural history, we expect to see figures from the world of art, literature and science featured, however, some readers may take issue with those Campion chose to emphasize. Modern abstract painters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian are favored over their contemporaries, the astrologers Walter Gorn Old (Sepharial) and Alfred Pearce. But does anyone think that astrological ideas were transmitted by viewing their art? Or consider the inclusion of Andre Breton, who makes several appearances in these pages. Without doubt, the founder of surrealism and Dadaism is a more colorful character than either Charles Carter or the widely read American astrologer Grant Lewi, the former who is mentioned once (and that in a footnote) and the latter not at all. While some astrologers might delight in the notion that much abstract art was inspired by partially digested Theosophical ideas and astrological notions, more would certainly be familiar with Carter's The Astrological Aspects or Lewi's Heaven Knows What, which continue to attract readers more than seventy years after they were first published. Given astrology's marginal cultural status, no one would argue that Carter or Lewi's books were culturally more influential than Breton's surrealistic productions (in truth, the hypothetical, surreal planets of the Hamburg Uranian school might make a more apt comparison) or that Sepharial played a more important role in the birth of modernism than Kandinsky. However, it seems perverse to barely acknowledge such prominent astrologers, whose impact on the practice of judicial astrology during the twentieth century was immense.

Similarly, literary figures are given preference over astrologers. This makes sense, especially when those writers are also astrologers whose work is enriched by that fact. Chaucer was a technically accomplished astrologer who wrote an authoritative tract on astrolabes; clearly, his Canterbury Tales reflect his profound understanding of the cosmology of his day. This is a harder argument to make for modern writers. While prominent twentieth century poets such as W. B. Yeats and Ted Hughes may have used astrology on their spouses and to inspire some of their literary work, no one (especially literary scholars) thinks their poetry influenced their readers to take up the study of astrology. I would imagine that until the publication of Neil Spencer's True as the Stars Above (2000), most astrologers were hardly aware these men could construct horoscopes. By and large, literary scholars continue to ignore these embarrassing revelations and pretend that Yeat's A Vision is an annoying aberration in an otherwise sound body of work. It is annoying to be reminded that some poet's connection to astrology is culturally more significant than the output of astrologers like Rob Hand or John Addey, but if one steps outside the small world of serious astrology, that is undoubtedly so.

Like a nation, England say, whose halcyon days of political and cultural hegemony are long past, astrologers frequently remind themselves of those times when astrology mattered. Thus, particular chapters of Campion's history will be read with special scrutiny by some readers, who continue to carry the torch for certain astrologers. Perhaps for some, Guido Bonatti's Liber Astronomiae remains the classic text of medieval astrology. For others, Ficino's translations of Plato during the 15th century Italian Renaissance and his The Book of Life represent some kind of pinnacle; while for still others, Lilly's 17th century London remains an inspirational peak for the practicing astrologer. Campion's treatment of each of these eras and astrologers is instructive, since they reveal his capacity to relate the various uses of astrology to cultural themes. Those themes, astrology's relationship to the realms of politics, philosophy and religion, and commerce are important reminders of astrology's capacity to adapt itself to the exigencies of any particular culture. In other words, context is everything.

Campion adapts Clifford Geertz's definition of culture as "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form" and quickly notes "such a definition could function equally well as a description of astrology." (p. xi) Bonatti, for instance, was perhaps the most famous astrologer of his day and apparently advised Frederick II on military matters. He was, Campion informs us, "a professional astrologer pure and simple." Yet his powerful influence on the Holy Roman Emperor so alarmed Dante, that he placed him "in the fourth division of the eighth circle of the Inferno, with those spirits who were condemned to look backwards forever as a punishment for trying to pry into the future in life." (p. 56) What is not clear, however, is which "pattern of meanings" most offended Dante, or whether he was simply jealous of Bonatti's influence. It remains historically significant that Frederick never distanced himself from Bonatti and seemed to value the advice he received from various astrologers. Two pages later, Campion equates Bonatti with Joan Quigley, Ronald Reagan's astrologer. Apparently, by the late twentieth century, the worst fate that befalls any astrologer with connections to the politically powerful is blatant denials from White House press secretaries and tell-all books which confuse astrologers with psychics. Strangely, while Quigley's technical methods remain opaque to us, Bonatti's astrological writings continue to find readers eight centuries after they were first published. Such are the quirks of culture.

Ficino lovers will be pleasantly surprised by the treatment he receives in a chapter Campion terms "The Pagan Revival". Relying on Angela Voss's profound scholarship on Ficino, Campion provides the broader historical context by discussing the revival of the Platonic cosmos as a response to the prevailing (and increasingly stultifying) Aristotelian assumptions of medieval scholasticism. His satisfying reconstruction of the political and intellectual milieu inhabited by the Medicis and Ficino enables us to see why Campion perceives him to be a revolutionary figure in the history of astrology. The basis for this judgment appears to be Campion's interesting insight that Ficino's theology "challenged the Church more substantially than Copernicus or Galileo were to do: they were interested only in the physical structure of the cosmos, whereas Ficino's concern was the soul." (p. 94) In terms of technical astrology, "Ficino followed the medieval canon"; thus, it was his philosophical stance towards astrology which was revolutionary, since he contradicted Aquinas' notion that the stars had no influence on the soul and insisted the mind had a direct relationship with the stars. Ever alert to the philosophical implications of his subject's ideas and beliefs, Campion deftly informs us that Ficino was "an evangelist whose astrological texts gave a practical voice to Platonic cosmology". (p. 86) Later, when discussing Jung, he connects his religious ideology with "the ideas of Ficino and Boehme", (p. 252) again demonstrating his contention that Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas often form an intellectual background to those drawn to astrology. Campion's almost lyrical treatment of Ficino appears connected to his Platonism; he seems particularly drawn to Plato, who casts a long shadow over both volumes of his history. It seems Campion, imitating Whitehead, sees the history of astrology as a series of footnotes to that Greek thinker.

If Bonatti and Ficino come through these pages with their reputations enhanced, the same cannot be said for William Lilly. Perhaps Campion feels it necessary to provide a market correction for the "irrational exuberance"[1] shown for the stock of this 17th century horary practitioner over the past quarter of a century. Admittedly, it is hard for this writer to avoid the conclusion that he is taking a swipe at the followers of divinatory astrology, who have embraced Lilly as their patron. Campion's social and historical depiction of England on the verge of its Civil War is sure footed and his grasp of its effect on 17th century astrological practitioners is both astute and precise. While Campion acknowledges Lilly was a "master of technical astrology",(p. 120) he chooses to emphasize Lilly's opposition to the Keplerian reforms of astrology, as though they would have somehow improved his practice. Oddly, he dismisses Lilly's Christian Astrology as "an uncontroversial book, little different in tone or assumptions to so many previous works". (p. 151) This misses the fact that the works of astrologers such as Bonatti, Cardan or even Lilly's fellow countryman John Dee were not available in English. In the same way that Luther's translation of the Bible into the vernacular took it out of the hands of the specialists and enabled people make their own judgments, Lilly's decision to write in English invited many people to study astrology, who had no familiarity with Latin. This move opened the way for a flood of astrological publications during the era of the Civil War and Restoration. Christian Astrology remains the definitive horary text more than three hundred and fifty years after it was first published, not only for the sheer number and variety of cases he presented, but for his frank judgments and clear exposition. Because horary astrology confounds the patterns of stellar determinism found in the rest of the tradition, it remains philosophically important as a reminder of astrology's connection to other modes of divination. It is this other tradition, rooted in magic and the occult, which makes Lilly's book so significant.

More unflattering still, Campion seeks to depict Lilly as a grasping middlebrow professional who gave the public what they demanded. Without doubt, as both Patrick Curry and Ann Geneva showed us, Lilly was a busy metropolitan astrologer, who catered to a wide ranging clientele and adjusted his fees and language to reflect that fact.[2] However, it is not Lilly's business practices, so much as the lack of attention this astrologer paid "to the philosophical framework within which he was operating" (p. 155) which seems to diminish him in Campion's eyes. Lilly's belief in witches and fairies adds to the picture of wooly mindedness. But what if ceremonial magic and the conjuring of spirits was Lilly's philosophical framework? Campion is not deaf to these influences: he understands that Lilly studied ceremonial magic and that his 'Considerations before Judgment' in Christian Astrology partake of a "magical Neoplatonic cosmology in action"; (p. 152) he also praises his Monarchy or No Monarchy woodcut of the London Gemini twins dangling over the fire by stating "if true, and the evidence is convincing, Lilly had performed one of the most amazing prophetical feats in history." (p. 155) His picture of Lilly emphasizes the earthy and tangible practitioner. In a 2002 talk, "Angelic Consorts: Wm Lilly & Mundus Imaginalis", Geoffrey Cornelius roots Lilly's astrology in the "neo-Platonic, hermetic, magical tradition" and says Lilly attributed his "'propheticall' understanding" to "not that learning from Books, or from any Manuscript I ever yet met withal, it is reduced from a Cabal lodging in astrology."[3] By placing Lilly in line with other hermetic and magical thinkers, from Pythagoras to Agrippa (whose Occulta Philosophia appears in the bibliography to CA), Cornelius succeeds in painting a picture of Lilly that pushes us to look at his exoteric astrology as the shell of a much deeper esoteric and magical worldview. Connecting Lilly's astrology to a hermetic and magical cosmos, Cornelius doesn't invalidate Campion's depiction of him, but he certainly shows us a different astrologer: more complex, elusive and mysterious, not unlike the most esoteric expressions of astrology itself.

Perhaps capturing such subtle shadings is not to be expected in a work of this nature. Certainly such interpretive differences arise at least as much from the realm of feelings or gut intuitions as they do rational thought and Campion is entitled to his. More importantly, they comprise one of the chief difficulties of describing the contributions, cultural or otherwise, which astrologers and their ilk have made to the western tradition. Whether we agree with his interpretive glosses or not, astrologers should be heartened that Campion has staked out territory that honors our tradition. Indeed, he has enlarged the intellectual turf which we tend to claim as "astrological". To that end, he has challenged some of the opinions of the more mainstream academics from Theodore Adorno's hostile sociological attack of the 1940's, to Wayne Shumaker's "discredited" bias towards John Dee, to the shameful cover up of CSICOP's failed efforts to debunk the Gauquelin Mars effect. By placing the arguments of astrology's critics in historical perspective, he reminds us that the tradition always elicited its share of skeptics and half believers, as well as both subtle and broad defenders of the belief required to entertain the astrological world view. Plus ça change.

Campion's history will remain indispensable for anyone intrigued by astrology's fascinating contribution to the mystical, religious, philosophical and scientific dialogue which comprises the western tradition. For the serious scholar, or even for the casual reader who wishes to use this book as a reference to provide background about some particular phase of western astrology, there is much else to recommend this volume. Though I have emphasized Campion's preference for seeing astrology's historical continuities, chapters may profitably be read on an individual basis, though they will certainly need to be supplemented, as scholarship progresses. I would be remiss, if I did not acknowledge some careless editing: there are a number of typos and mistaken dates; for example, Chaucer's birth year is given twice and one is wrong. More alarmingly, the footnotes in chapter 17 are misnumbered starting on page 242 onwards. In addition, a few historical characters drop into the text unattributed. Henry Andrews, the editor of the Vox Stellarum is mentioned only by last name (p. 183) and Bernard Capp's work is not referenced, but undoubtedly provides the source for this man. These are quibbles and do not essentially mar what is otherwise tremendous scholarship. Campion has done a great service to those of us who see ourselves as part of a long, if not always glorious tradition. Astrology's protean beast will continue to run untrammeled through the byways of western culture, but at least for now, Campion has provided us with a descriptive field guide which will amply serve the needs of future hunters. His History should become part of every serious astrologer's library.

Kirk Little
November, 2009

Notes & References:

  1] For non American readers, I am referring to former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan's piquant phrase describing the mindset of investors that occurs during speculative bubbles in the stock market.
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  2] Curry's Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England (Oxford, Polity Press, 1989) and Ann Geneva's Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995) provide superb historical context for understanding Lilly's practices. Both are indebted to Keith Thomas's magisterial work Religion and the Decline of Magic (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Peregrine Books, 1971), whose description of Lilly and other 17th century English practitioners remains extremely perceptive and valuable.
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  3] Company of Astrologers Bulletin No 40, 11 June 2002 transcript of "Angelic Consorts" talk at the Lilly 400 Astrologer's Feast The quote is from chapter XV of Lilly's autobiography.
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