Over the last decade, there has been some notable research into the history of astrology. In particular, the three Roberts—Hand, Schmidt, and Zoller—have been translating ancient texts on Hellenistic and medieval astrology. Still others have been exploring Vedic traditions. While there has been some general excitement about the recovery of lost techniques that may prove to be a boon to modern astrologers, there has also been a resurgence of interest in the age-old controversy of fate versus free will. For the most part, traditional astrology placed a stronger emphasis on fate, whereas post-modern, psychological astrology places greater importance on free will.
I’d like to reframe the fate-versus-free will argument in terms of what I call “astro-fundamentalism.” Generic fundamentalism, of course, refers to a religious impulse characterized by rigid adherence to basic principles—fundamentals—as revealed from a sacred text that stands above criticism. Fundamentalism is typically the enemy of progress, secularism, education, democracy, and free thought. In the west, it arose at the turn of the century primarily in response to the growing awareness of world religions, the teaching of human evolution and, above all, the rise of biblical higher criticism. The last proved particularly troubling because it implied the absence of the supernatural and, thus, the purely human authorship of scripture.
Astrologically, fundamentalism operates in a similar way. For example, one frequently hears in Vedic circles that thousands of years ago astrology was bequeathed from perfect Masters, Rishis, or wise sages who had received it through direct revelation or divine inspiration. In this view, astrological knowledge was handed down from Guru to disciple and, over the centuries, gradually became a corrupted, attenuated version of an originally perfect system. Hellenistic astrology, which was the first natal astrology of the West, is similarly assumed to have arisen whole from the mind of a single individual in a flash of divine inspiration. Ancient omniscient masters knew all and we have only to follow their divinely inspired wisdom, as revealed in sacred texts, to be good astrologers.
If ancient astrology was originally whole and perfect, then it follows that there is no need to question it. Modern astrology is rendered superfluous. We have only to rediscover the techniques of our divinely inspired forbearers and apply them to our modern clients. Personally, I find this kind of thinking the equivalent of believing in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. Like other forms of fundamentalism, it is rigid, opposed to progress, and threatened by the concept of evolution. A corollary is the presumption that a given astrological configuration, whether in a natal chart, a transit, or a cross-aspect between two charts, has only one meaning, and this meaning is the same across all time, regardless of the age of the native, his or her culture, or his or her level of consciousness.
With astro-fundamentalism there is a tendency to presume that merely because a text is ancient it deserves our allegiance. Credibility is directly proportional to age; the more ancient a text the more likely it contains irrefutable truth. Noting my disdain for such reasoning, one of my friends jokingly referred to me as a “historical chauvinist.” In some respects, he’s right; I do tend to reason in the opposite direction: that the older a text (Vedic, Hellenistic, Medieval), the more we should hold it up to critical scrutiny. One only has to look at the history of science and religion to appreciate the human propensity for believing in things that later prove to be untrue. Entire libraries could be filled with evidence of our folly. Naïve faith in the omniscience of alleged gurus is especially dangerous. Let us not forget that only a few years ago the “divinely inspired” Marshall Applewhite convinced 38 true believers to commit mass suicide in preparation for a UFO that he insisted was coming to take them to “a higher plane.”
Far from being divinely inspired, the rigid, deterministic character of ancient astrology was a logical outgrowth of ancient life. The further back in time we go, the less people had real choice; that is, the more determined they were by the circumstances of their birth, their family, their culture, and the limited opportunities of their surroundings. More importantly, ancient astrologers were limited in their ability to record accurate birth times. The clock wasn’t invented until the 14th century and accurate clocks were not in use among the populace until the 18th century. Moreover, there was little if any concept of evolution prior to Darwin in the 19th century. As for psychological growth and development, that idea is as recent as the latter half of the 20th century.
Compounding the problem was the fact that ancient astrologers had no understanding of the intricacies of research methodologies or epistemology. In addition, there were comparatively few charts to study, and these took hours to calculate by hand. Forget about true ephemeredes or awareness of the outer planets. Unless one is prepared to believe that astrology was divinely channeled through some ancient guru, the idea of an accurate, comprehensive, psychologically and spiritually relevant early astrology borders on the preposterous.
I’m all for “unity in diversity” in astrology; that is, tolerance and respect for divergent views, but not at the expense of critical thinking, research, and attempts to improve our discipline. Of course we should strive to understand and accept the beliefs of others; yet, we must also make a choice as to whether we support those beliefs through our direct involvement and participation.
In a recent ISAR Newsletter, Nick Campion provided a historical perspective on the question of fate versus free will. Hellenistic astrology, he explained, held that a person’s life and character was wholly determined by the position of the planets at the moment of birth. Early Christianity rejected this view, as they argued that the soul must be free to make moral choices and therefore is not wholly determined by the chart. The question remains: Is there something in the individual—an X factor, a soul, a capacity for free will—that is not determined by the birth chart? Some may argue that the issue is incapable of being resolved. However, I think the question can be answered by examining the consequences of the two belief-systems: (1) the determinism and fatalism of astro-fundamentalism, versus (2) the growth oriented, evolutionary perspective of post-modern, psychological astrology.
Innumerable studies in psychology have shown that neurotic persons are precisely the ones who tend to hold a deterministic outlook on life. They seek to blame something else for their difficulties—their parents, their childhood environment, their associates, or (we might presume) their astrological charts. However, as Rollo May (1967) pointed out nearly forty years ago, it is a presupposition in virtually all psychotherapy that the individual must sooner or later accept responsibility for himself or his suffering will not abate. Therefore determinism, which excuses him from responsibility, works in the end directly against his regaining mental health.
In her book, Positive Illusions (1989), Shelly Taylor cited study after study that confirmed how belief in personal control, in the power of will, and in one’s ability to bring about a positive change in one’s circumstances, no matter how trying or tragic, was the hallmark of mental health. A positive, optimistic belief in personal agency enabled people to thrive, to prosper, to grow, to heal, to succeed, and be happy. Conversely, a negative, pessimistic outlook that presumed one’s fate to be determined by circumstances beyond one’s control was the surest route to despair, defeat, sickness, and failure.
In short, belief in fatalism leads to neurosis and suffering, whereas belief in personal agency leads to wellness and happiness. The latter actually seems to be more in accord with the way the Universe is constructed. For example, evolutionary biology makes clear that the rule of nature is grow or die (Land, 1986). If living organisms, from human to amoeba, are not able to learn, to adapt, and evolve, they perish from this earth. It is a unique discovery of late 20th century science that there is an arrow of time and that arrow points irreversibly toward greater awareness and complexity of organization; that is, physical and biological systems have an inherent tendency to evolve into more complex states. Also, there is an inescapable indeterminacy at work in the Universe. Living systems are in many ways free and unpredictable, even at a subatomic level. They evolve by adapting to circumstances that are generated by their own actions. Increasing degrees of freedom is the apparent gift of evolution. The more evolved the organism, the more free and self-determining it becomes.
To presume that all is fated is to plunge the rapier into the deepest part of one’s own soul. It is to deny the most fundamental of human capacities: our ability to create, to make something of our selves. To presume that all is fated is also to deny our ability to learn from the consequences of our choices. It is to deny our capacity to change and grow and evolve. Is this not the purpose of karma, to learn? No one who has been in successful psychotherapy, or who has worked with clients in psychotherapy, can deny the human capacity for change. Too often I have seen people shift from a negative, fearful, bitter orientation to one that is positive, hopeful, and loving. Inner changes seem inevitably to be accompanied by corresponding changes in outer circumstance. Are we to presume that even changes such as these, which in every sense appear to be a consequence of courageous human effort, are merely fated?
And if they are not fated, if they are a product, at least in part, of heroic human effort, what does this imply about the astrological chart? What does it imply about my friend, Susan, who has Sun conjunct Moon in Capricorn in the 12th exactly square Neptune in the 8th. Susan married two highly successful men, both of whom lied, betrayed, and cheated on her throughout her marriages. At the end of her second marriage she was so depressed and discouraged that she was on the brink of suicide. After a successful experience in psychotherapy, however, Susan rebounded and utterly changed her life. Following her second divorce, which left her quite wealthy, she is now the executor of a charity in which she gives away $200,000 a year of her own money to women who are suffering from lack of opportunity. Susan is one of the most sensible, loving, and genuinely happy people I know. She has taken her seriously stressed 12th house Capricorn planets and transformed herself from depressed victim to executive savior. Clearly, she is living out her chart on a higher level. Is this fate? Or is her fate a product of her capacity to learn, to adapt, and to evolve?
Certainly, I could not have predicted what Susan was to eventually make of herself. Would I have helped Susan if I told her that with Sun conjunct Moon in the 12th square Neptune she is fated to experience perpetual loss, grief, and betrayal? In fact, there were several equally possible outcomes to this Capricornian configuration. She might have ended up a tragic suicide, psychotically depressed, a ruthless drug dealer, a snobby alcoholic, a bag lady with a bossy attitude, a conservative prison warden, a callous Nurse Ratched, or a successful executive in charge of a charity that gives disadvantaged woman a chance to better themselves. Of course, there are other possibilities, too. It seems the more we know about astrology the more difficult it becomes to predict specific outcomes. The best I could have done is pointed her toward a higher, more integrated expression of her chart and thereby given her something to shoot for. As it is, she did it on her own.
All of this is to say that I believe fatalism is not only destructive to our clients, it is also destructive to our field—to the entire profession of astrology—because it poisons people’s attitude toward what we do. Many otherwise intelligent people are prejudiced against astrology precisely because it seems to imply and support a fatalistic attitude. We have enough problems without shooting ourselves in the foot with the poison dart of fatalism.
In a recent letter to the ISAR Newsletter, Jean Lall, who is an excellent psychotherapist and astrologer, addressed the issue of fate versus free will. I particularly resonated with Jean’s exhortation that we strive to find a “position that avoids the hubris of thinking that everything is fated and astrology can foretell it all, and the equal and opposite inflation of thinking that we astrologers can help our clients master the planets and conquer fate.”
I think this nicely captures the paradox of the human condition: we are creatures of fate, yet have the power to choose. There are, indeed, certain “givens” within the astrological chart that constitute a fate; yet, there is equally the opportunity for working within those parameters to create a higher, more integrated, and more self-actualized expression of what we inherently are. It seems to me that what is important about an event is not the event itself, but what it means; that is, the event’s purpose or significance with regard to our potential growth as spiritual beings.
In the same Newsletter that contained Jean’s thoughts, a Vedic astrologer claimed that “in the ancient days” astrologers were “divinely inspired,” whereas today’s astrologers are relatively ignorant. Actually, I would suggest the situation is precisely the reverse. The rigid, narrow, fatalistic pronouncements of ancient astrologers are not testimony to their enlightenment, but to their ignorance. This is not to blame ancient astrologers, for they were inescapably a product of their times. The point is this: the more uncomfortable one is with the inherent uncertainty of the birthchart (and the indeterminacy of the human being it symbolizes), the more one is likely to presume a certainty where none exists.
To be a good astrologer, it is at least as important to know what cannot be known as to know what can. When counseling clients, my guiding value is to empower them, not to take their power away by presuming to know who they should marry, where they should live, or what career they should have. Many people are seeking help from astrologers precisely because they have lost contact with their own “inner sight,” their own divinity. This is not something we want to reinforce with the “help” we give. In my opinion, authentic helping entails putting clients back in touch with their own source of knowing. We don’t want to make them dependent on us by claiming that the authority of the cosmos has been “given” to us by ancient astrological gurus.
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Land, G. (1986). Grow or die: The unifying principle of transformation. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
May, R. (1967). The Art of Counseling. New York: Abingdon Press.
Taylor, S. (1989). Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and The Healthy Mind. New York: Basic Books.