Old Lilly's almanac

Astrology and the Seventeenth-Century Mind
June 21, 1996

In her new examination of astrology in 17th-century England, Ann Geneva suggests that the high status enjoyed for 1,000 years by astrology, an ancient "theory of everything", and its catastrophic decline by the end of the century, is easier to understand if we view astrology as "a symbolic language system functioning within a diminished though not yet discredited Neo-Platonic approach".

Keith Thomas's pioneering study (1971) attributed that decline to scientific and technological as well as sociological developments. Decline did not spell the death of astrology. Bernard Capp showed (1979) that almanacs were printed in huge quantities well into the next two centuries. Patrick Curry (1989) linked the decline to a great early-modern divide splitting elite from plebeian culture and saw the labouring poor, in thumbing through almanacs, affirming the rhythms of natural time against a clock time, oriented to a new labour discipline.

While acknowledging the leap in understanding brought by these historical explorations, Geneva contends that by seeing astrology as a "symbolic language" we can locate it within the contemporary passion for encrypting and decoding, stretching from shorthand to alchemy and Biblical prophecy. It also makes it possible to relate it to the movement for language reform. Within a Christianised Neo-Platonic tradition, it meant recovering the "language of Paradise" known to Adam and lost after the Fall, in which names encapsulated the essences of things. To pioneers of a new science words were linked to things by convention and language reform aimed at substituting a simple and "sober" terminology, inspired by the symbolical language of maths, in place of the heady language of wild Puritan sectaries. The notion of re-establishing a correct and timeless language, demanding only to be decoded correctly, gave way to one of manmade links between words and things, assessed in terms of its scientific and communicational effectiveness.

Most of the book is a detailed study of the enciphering and decoding practice of the most famous of the century's astrologers, William Lilly. By placing his practice within a long tradition, inherited from ancient Babylonian, Hellenistic, Islamic and medieval culture-worlds, Geneva illuminates much that has escaped previous scholars. Most have accepted Lilly's later protestations of neutrality in the developing struggle between king and parliament. She argues that Lilly was early convinced that the violent death of Charles I was preordained, and encoded that prophecy in ciphers which contemporaries would have understood. That may have given men courage to commit regicide, or at least softened the horror such a deed inspired in the general populace. Her detailed knowledge of technical astrology enables her to pinpoint astrological allusions in poems by Dryden and Milton, in Laud's address to the 16 Parliament and in Clarendon's advocacy of the Act of Indemnity at the Restoration, and to illustrate widespread metaphorical use of astrology.

Her attribution of the decline of astrology to a dismantling of the Neo-Platonic world view is oversimple. Astrology had adapted itself to many different philosophies in the course of a long development, and that included Aristotelian scholasticism. The resulting tension was reflected in such 14th-century scholastic thinkers as Nicole Oresme and Henry of Hesse. At the Renaissance, it was rejected by some of those wanting a purer Aristotelianism. But, Pomponazzi provided a radically refashioned Aristotelian naturalism based on astral determinism. Renaissance renovators of Neo-Platonism found astral determinism uncongenial, and Pico launched a devastating attack on astrology. Their underlying motive was not to jettison astral influences but to make them amenable to human manipulation, as in Paracelsus's "two-way astrology". The rejection both of "purified" Aristotelianism and the Neo-Platonic currents provided an incentive for those who began to articulate a mechanical-mathematical world-view which was to sweep away the "symbolic language of astrology" from elite culture.

P. M. Rattansi is professor of the history and philosophy of science, University College London.

Astrology and the Seventeenth-Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars

Author - Ann Geneva
ISBN - 0 7190 4154 6
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 298

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