Robert Zoller is a Latin scholar and graduate, Bachelor of Arts (BA) in medieval studies from the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at City College New York. He is a leading Astrologer and practitioner of occult philosophy. Many of his translations and other works are now seminal works on Astrology and the related Arts. His Tools and Techniques is a main text used by Predictive Astrologers. He is the principal of the Academy of Medieval and Predictive Astrology and offers some of the most advanced and well-presented courses on these subjects.
Concerned to return to the fountainhead of Medieval Astrology (so called because it draws on techniques used in Medieval Europe when Western Astrology was at its height some 700 years) Robert commenced translation and study of Guido Bonatti's Liber Astronomiae in 1976. The translation of Bonatti's work is an on-going project and further translations are released from time to time on his Website.
Robert has also published and lectured on a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from astrology to hermetic philosophy, alchemy and magic and reflecting over twenty-five years of labor. He has an extensive background in the Western, Nordic and Indian Esoteric Traditions.
Robert is a Co-Founder of the Mid-Hudson Chapter of the National Council of Geocosmic Research, New York. He serves on several editorial boards including Culture and Cosmos and is a member of the Association For Astrological Network. He has lectured extensively in the United States of America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland (including keynote speaker at the Astrological Association of Great Britain Chester Conference), Germany, Mexico and South Africa. He has also contributed to the Janus Astrology Software.
[This interview was recorded in 2006. Robert Zoller died on 24 January 2020, the day before his 73rd birthday]
Q: Why did you first get interested in astrology?
I'm not exactly sure why. I have to work backwards in time to get to that answer by first addressing the question of "when". I remember when I was about 16 years of age, I was buying my first books on astrology: Edward Lyndoe's Everyman's Astrology or Astrology for Everyone, or something like that. I had come to have an interest in astrology, because I had been reading about and writing about mythology and folklore prior to that time and had come across the idea of magic - and astrology as part of magic.
So, I guess I came to magic first, as a kid, and then realized that the prerequisite for getting into magic, from the traditional point of view, was to have a thorough understanding of astrology first. So, I tried to get into astrology. I couldn't do much with it at the time, as I had to prepare to go to college, and as a result, I put it aside until I finished college in the 1970s. But I picked astrology back up and actually started studying it.
Q: Has it worked as you thought it would? Has astrology given you a doorway into magic?
Well, it has, ultimately. But in order for that to happen, I had to clear a lot of rubbish out of the way. The rubbish was New-Age astrology, New-Age ideas about magic, New-Age ideas about alchemy, and things of that sort. Which are all cul-de-sacs.
I began to make progress by going back to school and learning Latin and then following up the Latin by getting a degree in medieval studies. I came into contact with some good instruction at the academic end of things - philosophy, theology, history of science - and the history of science led me to real documents and to historical, literary, and doctrinal monuments that showed me what the real tradition was, as opposed to the contemporary "reformulation" (one can call it that if one wants to be kind) of astrology, alchemy, and magic. I had to get out of the Jungian trap, I had to get out of the New-Age affirmation trap with regard to magic, and I had to come in contact with my own incapabilities before there was any conceptual light. I don't want to claim anything more than conceptual light - a theoretical as opposed to practical understanding.
Ultimately, I began to see that there is a tremendous interface between the history of science and the history of the occult. Very few people have written a history of the occult from that point of view. There's such a schism in our society between science and art, between science and religion, between science and the mystical, that the very people who ought to know more about this than anyone else (namely, the astrologers, the philosophers, people who are involved with alchemy and magic) are, in fact, at least as much in the dark about the origins of these subjects, and what the real stuff is all about, as anyone else is.
Q: Since magic is something that's understood in different ways, could you define what you understand it to be? Who would you consider the highest exponents of the art?
It's easier for me to answer the second part of that question than the first, because the definition of magic is a very, very troubling endeavor to get involved with. The word magic itself comes from the Persian, from the Zoroastrian tradition - "magh" - which, as I understand it, has to do with the power by which the magi did what they did. But that is a definition which is, in a sense, too restrictive, because it limits the content of the definition to the magi and the Persians. And you hear things such as "Egyptian magic," "Babylonian magic," magic in connection with Santería, brujaria, and various African traditions - the word gets applied very widely.
So, I think it's probably wise to ditch the word magic and replace it with the word science, or sapientia (wisdom) - something along those lines. But having done that, what is the real content of the idea? It's still a bit of a problem. In Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Henry Cornelius Agrippa puts forth the idea that the production of miracles is often not due to any supernatural capability as much as to the manipulation of energies or things (or potentia, powers that are in things, which are just not known to the average person). I guess that, as a result of my studies and my thinking about the subject, I've come to the conclusion that the word magic, or sapientia, really entails, in part, the ability to do things that other people can't do because they don't know how to do them.
That's probably going to be seen, to some degree, as a demystification of the term. I guess to some degree it is a demystification of the term. But if you talk to people about the concept of magic - what magic as a word entails - it seems to me you have to conclude that they don't want to know what the word really means. They don't have any idea what it means themselves, and they don't want anybody else to know what it means. This is perhaps indicative of how primitive the concept is in humanity as a whole: There is something in us that is capable of doing heroic or unusual things - and we don't have a name for that, we don't have a real understanding of it, but we have a belief that it exists.
As far as the practitioners go, I would list John Dee, Faust, Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Marsilio Ficino, and Paracelsus as real people who did this sort of thing. I've known a number of Indian and Chinese practitioners who do remarkable things, whose names would probably be best unspoken for the time being, because you're talking about contemporary people here. But historically, I'm very impressed with Agrippa's Occult Philosophy and with the work of Picatrix and Paracelsus.
Q: Is there a necessary connection between astrology and magic? Is it possible for someone to do astrology and yet for there to be no element of magic in it? (I'm talking about astrology which is valid, which works.)
No, I think that astrology is part of the magical endeavor. One of the mistakes that the New-Age practitioners fall into is an unwitting complicity in secularization and demystification, which is part of the reductionism of the present day. Astrology is either reduced to psychology - which is an untenable hypothesis, really, because you can't show how it's reducible to the mind, you can only assert that it is. Or some people try to reduce it to a natural science.
I mean that, in an individual case, you can show that the state you're in at the present time is coincident with an astrological cause, but the link between the star and the subjective state is a mysterious one. I, personally, am of the opinion that the only way this sort of thing becomes clearer is through a change in the consciousness of the practitioner. It's not enough just to have a change of attitude; I'm speaking of a radical change that is possible to effect through yoga or through activities which have an effect on the psyche analogous to yoga. I think that, within the heart, there is a fountain, and from that fountain flow seven streams. Those seven streams are the antecedents of the planetary powers. This affects matter; this whole process of the flowing of the seven streams from the fountain is in some sense substantial, material.
But this flowing forth is generally unrecognized, so that most of the time what happens is that we are conscious of the effects of the planets and stars on the psyche yet only dimly aware that, somehow or other, the psyche and the external events are related. Exactly how that's the case, I really don't know. I'm rather suspicious of people who think this problem (of how the unmanifest "energies" which flow from the heart become astrological influences and ultimately become embodied in natural things) has been solved.
Q: There's something in humanity that's very reluctant to allow mystery to exist.
Yeah. There is mystery involved with this process, and I'm torn, myself, over this whole mystery business. On the one hand, I'm attracted by the mystery; on the other, I'm trying my darnedest to solve it! If I ever really did, I don't know quite frankly what I'd do with the solution!
Q: What is your model of human evolution - if you have one?
I doubt that there is human evolution, first of all. As a practising astrologer, I see clients coming back to me at twenty years old, looking for the ideal partner; thirty years old, the same person will still be looking for the ideal partner; forty years old, fifty years old, sixty years old… with the same problems as to why they cannot find the ideal partner. I observe my own behaviour and find myself making the same kinds of silly mistakes all the time, having the same sorts of addictions - fortunately no drug addictions or anything like that, but in terms of leaning towards certain kinds of social interaction, or to a certain intellectual efforts and interests, things of that sort - there's a consistency in who and what I am, and that makes me recognisable, both to myself and to people around me. So I'm personally of the opinion (as opposed to the knowledge) that God has given man free will, but man doesn't seem to want to use it much. That's my opinion.
Q: But - although the vast majority might be stuck in a recurrent cycle, it only requires one person to have broken the cycle in order for evolution towards whatever one wants to call it (God-realisation, enlightenment, whatever) to be valid as a possibility?
Christ died for our sins, I'm not Christ. I've goofed many times, I make the same mistakes and don't seem to be able to stop. I don't lie to myself any more about that. And while what you're saying is true - it only takes one person to do it, to show that it can be done and perhaps show the way to do it - being an optimistic kind of guy (though people think that I'm overly pessimistic and negative, I have been in my time a very optimistic sort of fellow) - I have looked for those people to whom you refer, and have found usually that their feet are made of the same clay as my own.
It's a currently-held, and zealously-held, opinion among a great many people that there is such a thing as evolution - because people need hope. I suppose it's not wise to mock the common opinion, but if you ask me the truth about my opinion regarding this subject - I have doubts about human evolution. I have doubts about the whole evolutionary concept as a whole, even Darwinian evolution.
One of the problems I have with the concept of evolution is that the word itself is used in an equivocal sort of fashion. When Steiner writes about evolution, he has a different concept than Darwin had, or Herbert Spencer had. The new-age evolution seems to be dominated by theosophical interpretations of what evolution is all about. I'm not quite sure what people mean when they talk about evolution, but there are very few people who are willing to torture the subject in this way - to say, 'Well - what does it really mean?', and will try to be consistent in the way they speak.
I'm of the opinion, again, that you can't make much headway in terms of thought unless you know what it is you are talking about and apply the same words in a consistent fashion sufficiently long enough to arrive at a rational conclusion. Occasionally the solution arises as a result of intuition, which seems to solve conundrums which the reason runs into; but the problem I have with intuition is that it is like God - it makes its own mind up as to when it is going to manifest and when it's not, so an awful lot of the time I'm left in the dark with my own reason.
Q: Given the problems and paradoxes that attend it, do you feel that astrology actually helps people? Or is it, in the ultimate analysis, simply fiddling whilst Rome burns?
I think it can be fiddling while Rome burns; I think that it can be of tremendous service, too, if it is properly practiced. The problem that I see - and I'm the veteran of many, many arguments about this - is that most of us get involved with astrology for the wrong reasons. We get involved with it either for purely solipsistic interests of one sort or another or for purely egotistical interests.
Q: What does it mean to be involved in a solipsistic way?
My point is that New-Age astrology often seems to reinterpret the injunction "know thyself" as meaning that, somehow, one's own subconscious is the cause of everything; whereas egotism doesn't care about first causes - it merely seeks to exploit all existing things for its own gratification. Solipsism and egotism are two wrong (but common) motivations for getting involved with astrology. The seeker either thinks that he will find himself to be God and henceforth enjoy mystic cosmic bliss, or he seeks power regardless of the hierarchies of being, the consequences, or anything else.
I am certainly one of those people who came into astrology from the egotistical point of view. I was interested in astrology because I was interested in magic; I was interested in magic because I wanted power, and I wanted power for myself. I was willing to cut a deal with God (or whatever powers might exist) to get a little bit of power, because I was such a powerless wretch that I needed something to make myself feel as though I was doing something significant in the world. I'd been systematically frustrated and teased, the butt of something like a cosmic joke; I was constantly confronted by my own impotence, and at the same time, I had intuitions of glory, which always seemed to be, like the food of Tantalus, a little bit out of reach.
I'm presently of the opinion that what is required in order to realize this kind of endeavor - the magical endeavor - is what the old occultists used to call "dignification": You have to become worthy of it. And that entails a major change in the level of consciousness.
But to answer your question about astrology more directly: Astrology, for me, is an indication of God's will. God created the cosmos, the lights, the firmament, and all the rest of that sort of stuff for purposes, for signs and times. In the final analysis, there is only one will - and mine is not that will. So, if I can conform myself to that will and work in accordance with it, perhaps there's a chance that I can achieve those goals that I was referring to. Astrology might help me to do that, or at least it might help me to recognize that my efforts, ultimately, are not good enough - there's something larger that has to come into the picture.
So, to the degree to which you become humbled by astrology and scared of astrology and realize your own incompetence and insufficiency, I think that you arrive at the first step from which real spiritual work can begin. That's my current opinion on the subject. If astrology leads us to that realization, it has done a major service for mankind.
Astrology also, I think, can do service to mankind by showing that things happen in their own times - that the individual human will sometimes appears to be capable of making things happen before their times, but most of the time what people do just nuances, fine-tunes, or twists a little bit the way things actually happen.
Q: Two things come to mind here. One is John Frawley's experience, where he was getting good results with predicting the outcome of football matches, sometimes betting small amounts. After he made successful predictions on a TV show, some people asked him to predict results so they could bet serious money, and, in his words, he "did disastrously" and only started getting the predictions right when the "serious money" had disappeared from the equation and he was doing it for fun again. His comment was: "It's a question of focus ... the focus must be purely on the prediction, not on the consequences of that prediction."
The second is that Lilly said: "The more holy thou art, and more neer to God, the purer judgement thou shalt give."
Both of these seem to point toward the inner state of the astrologer as being a relevant, perhaps even essential, component of the way the whole chart reading process works out.
Yes, I think this is one of the things that we contemporary astrologers have lost. Not just astrologers but also contemporary people who are involved with magic, with alchemy, Kabbalah, and things of that sort. As a result of the Enlightenment, as a result of our cynicism and humanism, we have excised God from the picture. That, I think, is a big mistake.
Not only did Lilly say what you quoted, but most traditional practitioners of a non-Western art have a serious divine element in the work that they do. They don't conceptualize it as psychology; they conceptualize it as substance, or they conceptualize it as deity, or spirit of some sort, and they have a certain amount of humility.
One of the lessons I've been learning in connection with astrology is the importance of humility, the importance of subordinating the individual will to this higher will. This has not been an easy lesson for me, and I won't claim I've got it down yet, but I at least think that it's something that should be done. I recently had reason to go to a santero - a practitioner of Santería, an Afro-Cuban religion. You go to them with a problem, and they begin their analysis with certain questions, and then they get out their cowrie beads and do a divination.
At the beginning of the divination, and before every move in the divination, there is a prayer. Now, contemporary occultism is quite capable of taking over the methods of the santero, or any other traditional practitioner, and keeping the strict technical aspects of what they do to arrive at their answers whilst, at the same time, leaving out the prayers.
When Moslems do this - excise the pagan prayers of the Ifa from their geomancy - they don't leave it at that: They substitute the Ifa pagan prayers and sacrifices with Koranic verses and Koranic practices of some sort, which are regarded as being equivalent in some way to what they have excised. But when contemporary Westerners do the same thing, they want to find, if possible, a mathematical law that they can use instead of having any prayers at all. So, they try to reduce the whole thing to binary mathematics or to some sort of totally secular and scientific endeavor that the individual human mind can do, despite the state of the individual operator.
It's an old question in the West. Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas apparently struggled over it with regard to the Mass - the concept of ex opera operantis or ex opera operato ('it works because of the operator' or 'it works because it has been performed') dealt with the matter of why the Mass worked. Was it because of the precedent set by Christ's death and resurrection, or was it because of the character and quality of the priest? From a cynical point of view (perhaps from a wise point of view), the Catholic solution to this was that it was the former rather than the latter i.e. it worked because of the precedent set by Christ. I suppose this wisdom consisted in the recognition that, if it required real purity on the part of any of us, nothing would ever be accomplished.
Q: With the astrologers I've talked to, there is, as I'm sure you can imagine, a spectrum of opinion: At one extreme, there are people who think that the whole of astrology is a simple set of procedures which could ultimately be turned into a computer program without losing anything essential; at the other extreme, there are, amongst others, Geoffrey Cornelius and Nick Campion, both of whom talk about occasions when the right reading has been derived from the wrong chart. Where would you position yourself?
I've been bitten, at one time or another, by the same parasite that bites those people who think that astrology can be reduced to a mathematical science. I have to confess that, even now, there is something I find appealing about that idea. What is appealing about it, I think, comes down to inflation - the idea that "I can do something without anybody else permitting me to do it, without subordinating myself to anybody or anything." It's the prelude to a song that goes to the tune of "The Hell with Everybody Else."
That attitude has existed for a long time, and it's the demon behind our science, essentially. I think it always falls flat on its face, because there is a faculty of the human mind that is a kind of wild card. Maybe it's a faculty of more than the human mind, perhaps a faculty of the way being operates as a whole. Maybe it's G. K. Chesterton's "God as anarchist." Chesterton wrote a wonderful book called The Man Who Was Thursday, which is about a band of anarchists. A cop infiltrates this band and finds out that it is run by some fat fellow who is always a step ahead of the game - the fat fellow turns out to be God. So, Chesterton is portraying God as the ultimate anarchist. The justification for that point of view, in my opinion, is that, although there are laws of the universe, sometimes for seemingly inexplicable reasons these laws don't work.
I remember a movie from years ago called Little Big Man that featured Dustin Hoffman and an American Indian actor, Chief Dan George, who had a wonderful role as the shaman. In this film, the Cheyenne were beset by troubles from the white man, and the shaman determined that some sort of big magic had to be done to fix the situation, to rectify the laws of nature and protect the Cheyenne. He decided that he would take himself and his assistant, Dustin Hoffman, up to some holy mountain - 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 turned to Dustin Hoffman and said: "Sometimes the magic doesn't work."
That seems like a story about the impotence, or unreliability, of magic. To some degree, I guess that's true. But it's also, as I see it, indicative of the pattern of reliance upon science; scientific solutions are not invariably reliable. The problem is that, in those instances where these solutions don't come up with the goods, people do them over again, or they change the circumstances a bit and deny that it ever failed.
So, rationally, I can't get behind the idea that astrology could be reduced to nothing more than a computer program. The human mind is capable of nuances that computers are not yet capable of and, I hope, will never be capable of. The act of judgment in reading a horoscope - or making a decision as to what popsicle to buy, for that matter - entails degrees of complexity that frustrate simple classification, simple computer programming, and things of that sort. Never mind the suggestion that you can do the right reading from the wrong chart. To be able to do a full, complete reading from the right chart implies a faculty that oversees the whole activity, keeps the whole in view, and enables the transmission, into the mind and out of the mouth, of the necessary statements that fit the circumstances you face in the present moment of reading the chart. I don't think that can ever really be achieved by artificial intelligence.
Looking at my own response to your question, I find myself sympathetic with how you represent Geoffrey Cornelius's and Nick Campion's point of view - but somewhere between them and the other extreme. I guess that the representation of the situation as a polarity - utter rigor and determinism on one hand, utter arbitrariness and intuition on the other end of things - is something that I'm not entirely comfortable with. I think there's a third place here, where something else is operating besides a mystical moment - although what it is, besides a mystical moment, I'm not entirely sure I know.
Q: Bernadette Brady has the model of the eagle and the lark: The eagle (standing for pure technique) can fly to the heavens but can't sing; the lark (which is intuition) can sing but can't fly very high. So, to fly to heaven and sing sweetly, it's necessary for the eagle and the lark to work together, the lark sitting on the eagle's back. Her point is that technique is a necessary platform from which intuition can take its leap.
I'm generally in agreement with that point of view.
Having said all of that, do you think there is one way of doing astrology which is right, or better than other ways? Or do you think there are a number of equally valid ways of practicing astrology?
I basically have both points of view. I think that all the systems of astrology are right for what they can do: Hindu astrology I'm very impressed with; I'm impressed with psychological astrology, from the psychological point of view - I'm just not interested in psychology! (I rather think that psychology is a spurious art of its own, though if you want to know what you can know about people's motivations, psychological astrology is the best way to go about doing it.)
On the other hand, I think that we ought to avail ourselves of traditions within our own cultural milieu. And medieval astrology is the way to go there, rather than New-Age, or so-called "modern" astrology, which I can show convincingly (I believe) to be a degeneration of medieval astrology. I'm not perversely anachronistic in saying this - I'm one of those people who think that the present contains the past and the future and that, as a result, what was true is true, and what will be true is true, and that what is is the only thing that can be. The only thing that is, is. So, we can find value in a state of the art of astrology which was current in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries - and what it does, from the predictive point of view, is superior to any other form of Western astrology.
I rather think an analogy with music is good at this point: If you're going to study music, you're frequently encouraged to study the classics first and to get those under your belt before you try to innovate and become a jazz musician. Now, the original jazz musicians, of course, didn't do that; the original rock-and-roll musicians didn't do that. So, the bottom line is, you can do whatever you want to do, and you'll probably do best following your own opinion and your own light. But my light on this situation in astrology, what I have tried to do, has been to give myself a firm foundation in medieval astrological techniques (which I see as being superior to either Greek or Babylonian astrology or to New-Age astrology) and then make whatever adaptations I feel I have to make to those techniques, such as the inclusion of the use of the modern planets.
Q: At what point in your astrological career did you get into medieval astrology?
I started studying astrology systematically in 1970 or '71, with Zoltan Mason in New York City. He had a bookstore on Lexington Avenue, and he was teaching what you would call modern astrology - a mixture of psychological and predictive astrology. In his case, his origins being central European (he was Hungarian), his astrology had a very strong central European flavor to it: It was demanding, rigorous, and not terribly optimistic. (In fact, he's been accused of being a doom-sayer in the United States, where they like people to speak very optimistically, regardless of the circumstances.) His style of astrology appealed to me, because I saw him as a no-nonsense, down-to-earth sort of fellow. Nevertheless, I could see that he was teaching - again and again - fairly modern stuff. When I found, in his bookstore, The Astrologer's Guide, including the 146 considerations of Guido Bonatti, I knew that I had found the real astrology.
Ultimately I asked Zoltan: "Why do you trouble us with all these theories of psychology and all this incomplete theosophical mysticism? How can I get to the good stuff?" And he told me: "You have to learn classical languages - Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, maybe German and French as well - in order to get to the real material." So, I went back to school and learned Latin. In the process, before I stopped studying with Zoltan, he began to instruct us in the 21st book of Astrologia Gallica, by Jean-Baptiste Morin de Villefranche, (who styled himself 'Morinus'). Now, I've since come to see that Morinus was a reformer of the older material I encountered with Bonatti in The Astrologer's Guide. Nevertheless, one of the things that appealed to me about Morinus's work was his rationality, his rigor, his discipline, and his Aristotelian philosophy (which is in common with Bonatti and medieval astrologers, generally).
That was 1973 or so, when I began to get interested in medieval astrology. It wasn't until 1974, when I got finished with the Summer Latin Institute at City College Graduate Center on 42nd Street in New York, that I began to have any facility in Latin. In 1975, when I was at the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at City College on Compton Avenue in New York, I began to translate Marsilio Ficino's De Vita Coelitus Comparanda and some of Agrippa, and I was able - through the good graces of my teacher in paleography at City College, who was also a professor at Columbia University - to get an actual microfilm of Bonatti's Liber Astronomiae from Columbia University.
So, I began to translate from Bonatti's work back then. I got through the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies; I was able to get hold of Bonatti's Liber Astronomiae and John Baptiste Morin de Villefranche's Astrologia Gallica. Those two works have basically dominated my astrological endeavors since that time; of late, I have gone more in the direction of the medieval.
Q: In your talk yesterday you mentioned having worked as a dynamiter and in a bar at different times. Presumably your studies were going on at the same time?
Yes. I left Pratt Institute in 1968 - a year short of graduation, there was too much revolution, too much sex, drugs and rock 'n roll going on, and I was too closely involved with it. So I went back upstate to where my family was living (in Putnam County, New York State - a fairly rural area) and very quickly ran foul of my old man. The two of us had to live in the same house for a while, which neither one of us particularly featured! I had already begun to entertain my interest in the occult by reading cards (mostly poker cards at that point, but I was starting to get into tarot cards) - I was getting far too weird for my old man, who was a German engineer, from whom I wish I could have learned more, but things being the way they are, that wasn't the way it worked out.
I left the house and got a place of my own, so was free to do whatever I wanted to do. I began buying books on astrology, working in the meantime for the electrical utility company as a labourer. That was where the blasting and drilling came in - working on a pneumatic drill all day long, blasting holes, setting poles, things of that sort. I eventually got into climbing, became a lineman - that was 1969/70. By 1971 I was tired of freezing my tail off (as a lineman I was outdoors all winter long - at 10 degrees below zero, with the wind blowing round your ears. You couldn't feel your feet when you came down off the pole). I began asking myself questions like, 'What the hell am I doing here? Frostbite - who am I trying to impress?' So I went back down to New York City, and that afforded me the opportunity to study with Zoltan Mason, and so to continue my astrological studies. But I had to support myself while I was doing this, so I was working in an electrical business, in a machine shop for a while, as a bartender for a while. Then I would go in and out of the construction business - working in it for a year, getting out, working as an astrologer for a year or so, getting out and going back into construction - I did that for a number of years.
In 1992 the bottom fell out of the construction business in New York City, and this tremor in my left arm began in 1991 - so I was sort of forced into the direction of going into astrology full time and staying there. I've been very productive since I did that, so it's serendipitous.
Q: You mentioned yesterday that medieval philosophy has an Aristotelian/Neo-Platonic basis compared with the idealistic philosophy that underpins contemporary stuff. How do you define that idealistic philosophy?
Well, idealism starts with Kant essentially. You get variations on idealism with Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Dewey, Josiah Royce in the United States - and ultimately Marc Edmund Jones is the result of all this in the astrological field.
Keep in mind that I'm not a philosopher; I'm an astrologer who's had the good fortune to get a certain amount of academic training which I've put into the service of astrology. So I'm not really a philosophical wiz. But, from what I've learned, the central idea in idealism is that mind is the real; the only thing that really exists is mind, and everything else is a projection or an illusion - sort of a western variation of the Indian philosophy.
The primary concept in idealism being that mind is the real, seems to provide the foundation for the new-age reformulations of hermeticism in a metaphysical form such that you get the assertion of philosophical validity to something like an affirmation; if I say that I change my mind about things, then I change my world. This seems to be something that becomes imported into astrology in the nineteenth century - just before the time when the whole evolutionary, Darwinian revolution occurs. If I had to say what is the difference between medieval astrology and modern astrology, I would say that - apart from the shrinking down of technique, the loss of predictive and delineation techniques - the philosophical difference is that modern astrology, like modern alchemy, like modern concepts of magic (such as the Golden Dawn and things of this sort) are reformulations of traditional magical conceptualisations and techniques in terms of idealistic philosophy.
Prior to 1850 or so, alchemy was regarded as a totally exploded form of proto-chemistry. If you go back to the seventeenth century and before, you can see that there are two streams to the alchemical tradition; there is a spiritual alchemy, and there is also a physical alchemy. But from 1850 the physical alchemy is essentially ignored, because it's rather the opinion of people in the west at that time that that was proto-chemistry, and chemistry is of no interest, but spiritual alchemy is.
How do we conceptualise this possibility of the transformation of the soul? Well, we'll have to do it in terms of idealist philosophy, because idealist philosophy is the philosophy of the day, and it's the only thing that makes any sense that seems to be an alternative to materialism (I'm not personally convinced that it is, I think that the old occultism, particularly the old alchemy, was highly materialistic - and in addition, had a spiritual dimension to it which was also materialistic….)
So the whole conceptualisation of magic gets reorganised in the nineteenth century along idealistic lines - if you go back to medieval texts on magic, there's likely to be precious little in the way of magical theory articulated in these books, just as there is precious little astrological theory articulated in the astrological books. But a good deal of the magic is either spiritual magic - in which I invoke a spook of some sort to do something for me - or else it's materialist magic, which has to do with the properties inherent in matter: various drugs, potions, and spiritual affinities that are allegedly inherent in various forms of matter.
I'm impressed at this point with the fact (as I see it - I'm still working on this myself) that the quest for arcane knowledge in the past, which was prior to the scientific revolution and gave rise to the scientific revolution, was the search for the 'secreta naturae' - the secrets of nature. Which means, the secrets of matter; not the secrets of psychology. This gets transformed in the nineteenth century, and you can see this very clearly in theosophical literature. The way it's phrased is that they are looking for 'the powers latent in nature and man' - and the 'and man' means that we are looking for psychological insights.
Q: Is that part of the reason why the valuable stuff in the medieval tradition was lost sight of?
Yes, I think that bigotry has a hand in all of this as well. Bigotry can be either racial, ethnic, religious - and there's such a thing as religious bigotry on the part of secular figures, who hate religion because they prefer secularism. There sometimes are justifications for that, it's a very complex issue. I don't want to generalise too much - but I'm stuck with generalising somewhat here, whether I like it or not!
The nineteenth century was perhaps the most scientific century we have come through. The twentieth century, I think, is finally going to be recognised to be a technological century - the difference being that we are applying the insights that we had recognised in the nineteenth century. We have had some insights - the theory of relativity and quantum theory are twentieth century products, but they're generally pretty early in the twentieth century.
So what happened in the twentieth century was that an awful lot of the intelligentsia of Europe, even those who were dissatisfied with the overly rationalistic outpourings of the Enlightenment (namely the Romanticists and people of that sort - who were really the ancestors of the contemporary occultists) - even these early occultists were convinced that all the questions relating to material realities would be solved by science, and that the spiritual answers of the past were essentially superstitious. Certainly Jefferson, the President of the United States, was convinced that this was the case.
The problem with medieval astrology from the point of view that I've just been articulating is that it's a Catholic astrology. And this riles the shit out of a lot of people! '… what are you suggesting Zoller, that we become Catholics?' - and as a Lutheran I'm not about to suggest that; but even being a Lutheran scares the Dickens out of people, because it suggests that there might be something worthwhile in the western Christian tradition, which is anathema to a lot of astrologers and occultists, and has been for some time.
The paradox with idealism is that it's been used by theistic scholars and theistic philosophers to shore up the argument for the existence of God, because by typical philosophical and semantic workings you can make 'mind' equal 'God', and therefore you can say 'there's one mind, there's one God - it must be God's mind'. It's very handy to say that it's 'God's word' - so that you can get Jesus in there.
So idealism has had one foot in developing the new-age philosophy, which is decidedly non-Christian, and another foot in a theological arena, wherein it's been used to support the concept of an enlightened Christianity by various Christian theologians. In the final analysis, I think that Idealism falls flat on its face because it doesn't really come to terms with matter. It merely baptises matter as energy, and then tries to sneak in consciousness as equal to energy, so that matter and consciousness become different states of the same thing; so there's no reason, then, why they shouldn't be called 'states of matter'.
Q: What would you think of as being your biggest success with astrology? A reading where you were particularly accurate, for instance?
I have to say that I think I'm fortunate, because I think this system works. I haven't done much in the way of mundane astrology - I can't claim that I predicted the fall of the stock market or anything of that sort, though I have done some stuff with lunations and eclipses that have been right in connection with local politics in New York (City and State). But most of the work that I do is natal astrology, and it has to do with individual predictions for people. There are all kinds of small anecdotes that fall into that class of "success stories," most of which I can't tell you because they are personal matters. There are a couple that I think I can talk about, which are prosaic and perhaps illustrative. They are not earthshaking in themselves, but they are the sort of thing that should be the everyday fare of an actual practicing astrologer:
A lady friend of mine had a daughter who was looking for a permanent relationship, with a view to getting married; I predicted for her the day on which some fellow would present her with the idea that he was the guy, and I told her that he would actually fit most of her criteria. It did indeed happen exactly as I said it would, but she decided that she didn't want to go ahead with the liaison, because she was afraid she was going to lose her independence. (She had the young woman's conundrum, you know: "How do I get the wealth that I am looking for, the love that I'm looking for, and the freedom that I'm looking for - all at the same time?") My accurate prediction made a big splash in certain quarters, and I got a lot of work on the relationship end of things on the basis of that one success.
Some years ago, when I first got into astrology, I was in the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. There was a young lady in the Institute who was also an artist. She had all kinds of hang-ups, and she wanted to know what the outcome of her life was going to be. In the process of reading her chart, I could see that there were 13° between two planets in the 4th house and the 4th-house cusp; one of those planets was Saturn, which was the ruler of (or had honor in) the 8th house, and the other planet had honor in the 5th house. So I asked, as cautiously and compassionately as I could, "Were you raped by your father at thirteen years of age?" She hadn't even told her mother about that! She was duly impressed, and I was impressed with the art. That kind of specificity is something you can very often find.
There are numerous examples of that sort of stuff, because this type of astrology is very good at the concrete level.
Q: You can see where I'm going with this, I'm sure. We've had books attempting to prove astrology through "scientific" methods. A subtext of this book I'm working on (Astrology in the Year Zero) is to collect circumstantial evidence such as the cases you have just recounted, because I think it's often much more impactful and thought-provoking than a collection of statistics (though I don't want to deny the validity of the statisticians' work).
With medieval astrology, your practice entails people writing or calling you almost every day, saying that what you predicted did occur: "I changed jobs" "I got a better job" "I relocated." Of course, nothing's one hundred percent; one doesn't claim 100% accuracy. I think the astrologer who loses sight of the fact that the astrologer is the weakest link in the astrological chain falls into inflation, hubris, and mistakes. I have certainly made some goofs, where I made statements that never came true and were subsequently contested hotly.
But I'm very happy with the percentage of accuracy that I get with medieval astrology; I'm always trying to get it better.
Q: When things don't work, are you usually able to look back and see something else that should have been figured in and thus refine your technique? Or do you think, "Well, can't win them all"?
Some of both occur. It may be that the mistakes I shrug off and say, "You can't win them all" came about because I didn't have all the information. For years, I judged women's charts vis-à-vis partnership from the point of view of the 7th house. It turns out that the medieval method for judging a woman's marriage has nothing to do with the 7th house. Judging a man's marriage does have to do with the 7th house, but judging a woman's marriage is more involved with the Sun, largely, and Saturn and Venus. But the parameters for how you judge the 7th house of marriage for a man's chart are far more complex than for a woman's chart - not because of giving preference to men over women but because of certain differences in the ways they view marriage and the ways their lives unfold.
Q: Through teaching you must (I imagine) have experience of people who have already studied what would be regarded as standard Western astrology these days. What do you find are the most useful things that people are able to learn from the medieval tradition as you teach it?
What I generally find is that you cannot teach anyone who thinks they already know the subject. People have tried to teach me when I've thought that I understood the subject, and I haven't learned a damned thing. And when I try to teach people who are convinced that they have the scoop, I run into problems. So, the best thing that can possibly happen is to approach medieval astrology not with just an open mind, but rather with a mind that is looking at astrology for the first time, as though one didn't know anything.
That's an ideal. The only time you come really close to that ideal is when you are dealing with someone who really doesn't know anything else. I find that people make the fastest progress in medieval astrology when they haven't studied any other astrology at all. And they need a modicum of intelligence, for though astrology is not an overwhelmingly demanding mathematical discipline, there is some math involved with it, and there is also some common sense involved with it. The person who has some wit as well as some application and whose mind isn't cluttered with extraneous belief systems that have to be cleared out of the way before you can get down to work - that person can make the best progress in the subject.
What everybody else can get out of it is some degree of ability to predict. It's pretty much in our own hands how much that amounts to. The trouble is that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, astrology became a coat-rack upon which various social and political ideas got hung. This remains the case for the majority of practitioners to this day: There is a catechism of New-Age astrology that takes umbrage at being contradicted, at least as much as the Catholics (or, for that matter, the Lutherans) take umbrage at their own catechism being challenged.
The biggest challenge is expressed in the saying, Summa scientia nihil scire - "The height of science is to know nothing."
Q: Who said that?
It's a standard scholastic and Rosicrucian slogan.
Q: As I'm sure you know, that could be taken straight out of Zen.
Sure. Wisdom is wisdom, isn't it?
| This interview was recorded on 5th September 1998, and was originally published in The Traditional Astrologer, No. 19, January 2000. It was subsequently reprinted (in an edited and revised version) in The Mountain Astrologer, No.99, Oct/Nov 2001. The present version is the 2001 text, with two passages from the full text that were omitted from the Mountain Astrologer version restored.
has practised astrology since 1976. His other interests include Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. Astrology in the Year Zero
published in 2000, resulted from Garry's study of astrology - in particular, from his investigation of the philosophy and assumptions that underpin the subject. His articles and lectures have appeared under the aegis of groups including the Astrological Association of Great Britain, the Astrological Lodge, the Company of Astrologers, the Urania Trust, the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism, The Mountain Astrologer, and Ascella. He is currently working on a PhD about astrology and truth at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David.
Visit Garry's website at http://www.astrozero.co.uk/
Notes & References:
© Garry Phillipson, 2006 - all rights reserved.