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Astrology, Patriarchy and Postmodernism

Copyright 1999 by Bill Sheeran. All Rights Reserved.

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From a Platonic point of view, celestial movements were considered the perfect example of uniform motion, absolutely orderly, predictable, and unchanging within a permanent cosmos. Astrology was the expression of a temporal bridge between the ideal and harmonious planetary spheres and the phenomenal world of discord and cyclic change here on earth. It was a "rational" means of revealing the hidden order underlying the imperfect world of illusory appearances and change perceived through our deceptive senses [9].

According to the perceptions of Newtonian physics, nature and the cosmos are machine-like - totally determined physical systems which are understandable using the logic and methodology of mathematics and science. We only have to find out what the Laws are to bring Plato's ideal cosmos into light.

The cosmological models may have changed in the wake of the Copernican Revolution, but the essential message stayed the same - the cosmos is stable and orderly. As a consequence, astrology and science thus share one striking feature in common. They are both predictive disciplines; because orderliness implies predictability. On the other hand, the natural world of the senses is anything but orderly. For both astrology and science, Nature is the realm of chaos, the perceived enemy of cosmos. Revealing the hidden order amidst the chaos was the goal, and Reason was the tool for the job (combined in the Modern era with experimentation). Whether dressed in the garb of astrological or scientific logic, the goal was the shared.

Patriarchy and Order
It has been argued by Riane Eisler (among others) that patriarchy rose to prominence at the expense of pre-patriarchal culture from about 4,000B.C.E. onwards [10]. What was once a "partnership" society (agricultural, goddess worshipping, and in partnership with nature) was gradually replaced by a "dominator" society (more warlike, god worshipping and dedicated to dominating and controlling nature). By the time Babylon began to flourish, the newer patriarchal mindset was firmly entrenched and the striving for order and predictability to the exclusion of chaos and the unpredictable assumed significance. The goal of dominating Nature and exploiting her resources (still a key aspect of science and technology) unfolded. This is represented in the myths from the time. In the period of transition between matrifocal and patriarchal culture, the Babylonian story of the defeat of Tiamat (representing the forces of chaos and the unpredictable) by Marduk (representing the forces of order and the predictable) assumed its form. Apart from reflecting the emerging supremacy of patriarchy, this myth could also be interpreted as mirroring a deep seated psychological preference for order, born out of an existential fear or anxiety in the face of the wild forces of Nature. It is not unreasonable to suggest that this anxiety is a consequence of the human capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness. As described in the biblical myth of the Fall, we are chronically aware of mortality, suffering, the possibility of illness, the threat posed by elemental forces, etc., none of which induces a sense of ease. The notion that this might generate an anticipatory consciousness with a view to avoiding such possibilities is reasonable. I would suggest that astrology and science are both legacies from this drive. The self-reflective aspects of consciousness not only fostered an existential anxiety, but also facilitated experientially based learning. The project of exploiting nature's resources, of imposing order on her, slowly gathered momentum, complementing the urge to anticipate the future. One could argue that an amplifiying feedback loop between these two consequences of self-consciousness contributed significantly to the eventual emergence of patriarchy.

What I am suggesting here is that contemporary astrology and science, for all their differences, are branches on the same tree, one which has its roots in patriarchy. Both emphasise order, structure and predictability, and both feel uncomfortable with the unpredictable and the unfathomable. Whether it is astrology or science (or for that matter western religion), the underlying motive is shared - salvation from the forces of chaos. They describe differing approaches to conceptualising the desire for order. Ultimately the quest is the same - the alleviation of existential anxiety through the identification of universal and absolute principles which act in a "law-like" predictable fashion. When the cultural bifurcation happened in the 16th and 17th centuries, to whatever extent astrology was a primary vehicle for predicting and attuning to cosmic law and order, in her demise she surrendered her baton to classical science.

Separation from Nature
Astrology gave primacy to celestial movements - the heavens above were the paragon of perfection, the residence of the deities, while the realm of life was one of corruption and decay. What we do not have here is an equality between above and below. Nature was seen in a negative light. Although Modern philosophy and science brought the focus back down to earth, putting the human back in the centre, the consequence has paradoxically been an even greater alienation from Nature. It became an "object" - inert, lifeless matter to be tamed, conquered, exploited, etc. The unpredictability evident in the natural world was seen as aberrant, and merely in need of clarification. The rational abstractions of the laws of physics, the DNA code, or astrological patterns provide the keys to clarity.

In recent times, it has become increasingly clear that the unpredictability in the natural world may be innate. The paradigm of clockwork predictability has virtually disintegrated. The concept of an orderly, stable and predictable cosmos which has reflected the desires of humanity for over 3000 years no longer holds water. This is appropriately represented by the changing perceptions of the solar system from Ptolemy to the present (Fig 1)

Fig.1 The changing perception of the solar system
Ptolemy earth-centred perfect stable predictable pre-modern
Copernicus sun-centred perfect stable predictable pre-modern/modern
Galileo (11) sun-centred imperfect stable predictable modern
Newton (12) sun-centred imperfect stable? predictable? modern
Einstein (13) no centre imperfect stable? predictable? modern/post-modern
Hubble (14) no centre imperfect expanding predictable? modern/post-modern
1998 (15) no centre imperfect expanding? unpredictable post-modern

Today, stars die just like humans. Instability, unpredictability, and decay are as much a feature of the cosmos as they are of life on Earth. As below, so above. This new sense of equality born out of science cracks Platonic idealism wide open, and by a kind of ironic default reinstates Nature to a position equivalent to that which it held in pre-patriarchal days. One of partnership. At least this would seem to be the implication, one which is given support by the emergence for the first time of a conscious environmental awareness focused on care and protection rather than dominance and exploitation. We are living through a radical change in the cognitive landscape of our culture, the reverberations of which will affect astrology as much as anything else.

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[9] Time in History, G.J.Whitrow Oxford University Press, England, 1989, pp 41-42  back

[10] The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, Harper & Row, New York, 1987  back

[11] The use of the telescope rapidly made clear that the solar system did not conform to the Platonic ideal of perfection.  back

[12] In the wake of the discovery of Newton's laws of motion, much effort was expended trying to mathematically prove that the solar system was stable, and therefore predictable. This proved to be impossible. See Newton's Clock: Chaos in the Solar System, Ivars Peterson, W.H.Freeman & Co. New York 1993, pp 143-169  back

[13] Einstein's theories raise questions about privileged positions such as fixed centres.  back

[14] Hubble demonstrated that the universe was expanding  back

[15] The solar system exhibits chaotic dynamics over long time frames. See Newton's Clock: Chaos in the Solar System, chapter 11 pp247-270  back