Astrology and the Renaissance

For the sake of simplicity, it would be tempting to say that this paper on astrology in the Renaissance begins with Petrarch (1304-1374) and ends with Shakespeare (1564-1616). Petrarch, “the first man of the Renaissance,” was no fan of astrology and railed against its fatalistic leanings. “Leave free the paths of truth and life… these globes of fire cannot be guides for us… Illuminated by these rays, we have no need of these swindling astrologers and lying prophets who empty the coffers of their credulous followers of gold, who deafen their ears with nonsense, corrupt judgment with their errors, and disturb our present life and make people sad with false fears of the future.” By contrast, Shakespeare’s work some 250 years later gave the world the term “star-crossed lovers” and would have the murder of two young princes at the hands of an evil king attributed to a bad opposition aspect. This evidence in literature suggests a radical turnaround in public opinion of astrology, but what caused this?

It is important to note from the outset that the changes brought forth in the Renaissance had a myriad of manifestations. As Richard Tarnas points out in The Passion of the Western Mind, “the phenomenon of the Renaissance lay as much in the sheer diversity of its expressions as in their unprecedented quality.” The Renaissance did not just express itself through literature alone (or at the same time or place for that matter) but through art, theology, the burgeoning of scientia and the discovery of new lands on earth as likewise a new perspective on the heavens. Therefore, it will be asserted, it is particularly important that commentary on the learning climate prior to the Renaissance is investigated in order to establish a point of contrast.

When reflecting on the Renaissance and its glories in art, music and literature–and astrology–it is important to bear in mind that the remarkable changes of this era took place against the backdrop of the plague, war, religious strife, economic depression, the Inquisition and ecclesiastical conspiracies. Over this broad expanse, in this fascinating period of history, an attempt will be made to determine the renewed interest in and development of astrology during the Renaissance.

The Twin Stars: A Shift from Aristotle to Plato

The discovery and translation of ancient texts has been an instigator of major transitions in history, particularly the works of Plato and Aristotle. In his book, The Sleepwalkers, Arthur Koestler commented on the influence and popularity of these Greek thinkers. “Insofar as their influence on the future is concerned,” Koestler wrote, “Plato and Aristotle should rather be called twin stars with a single centre of gravity, which circle round each other and alternate in casting their light on the generations that succeed them.” Each would have his turn to enjoy being “in fashion” whilst the other went out of style. According to Koestler, Plato would reign supreme until the 12th century, then Aristotle’s work would be re-discovered and after two centuries, when the world’s thinkers tired of Aristotle’s rhetoric, Plato would re-emerge in a different guise. In the period up to the emergence of the Renaissance, it was Aristotle’s star that shone and though it may be difficult to believe given modern Christianity’s lack of approval for astrology, it was a scholastic theologian who united Aristotle, Church doctrine and astrology.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) seemed to have been at the right place at the right time with the right things to say. Arab scholarship and the eventual translation of Aristotle’s work into Medieval Latin meant a revival for Aristotelian thought during Aquinas’ lifetime. These works of Aristotle became an important project for this Dominican monk, a pupil of Albert Magnus (1206-1280), himself an Aristotelian translator. Tarnas pointed out that “Aquinas converted Aristotle to Christianity and baptised him.” The rise of Aristotelian thought during Medieval times benefited astrology because of its view that “everything that happens in the sub-lunary world is caused and governed by the motions of the heavenly spheres.” Brahe’s discoveries invalidated the notion of a separate and distinct “sub-lunary world.” But there still remained the attunement of heavenly bodies to the earth and therefore having a greater influence to life on earth. Both astrology and alchemy used these same methods of Aristotelian logic, only they were not bound by academic pedantry nor completely subject to the dogma of the Church: classical astrology, often linked to medical studies and codified by Ptolemy, was taught in universities. Surely, it may have been thought, their influences would be greater.

Aquinas was confident and clear about the influences of the stars as they were perceived at this time: “The majority of men… are governed by their passions, which are dependent upon bodily appetites; in these the influence of the stars is clearly felt. Few indeed are the wise who are capable of resisting their animal instincts.” In other words, there was a direct correlation between what happened in heaven and what happened on earth. Aquinas added the important and memorable words:

“Astrologers, consequently, are able to foretell the truth in the majority of cases, especially when they undertake general predictions. In particular predictions, they do not attain certainty, for nothing prevents a man from resisting the dictates of his lower faculties. Wherefore the astrologers themselves are wont to say that ‘the wise man rules the stars’ forasmuch, namely, as he rules his own passions.”
Thus he sidesteps the quandry that would bother the humanists to come in the next century: the idea of free will.

Even with Aquinas’ support, this is not to say the Church was supportive of all facets of astrology: there were fairly clear limits. Medical astrology was acceptable, whereas enquiring too deeply into the future might be considered as treading on God’s toes. Aquinas, for the time being, had carefully reconciled astrology/astronomy and the Church giving the proviso of free will rather than absolute determinism.

As the Renaissance dawned, there can be little doubt that astrology had re-emerged despite being mocked almost simultaneously in three very different cultures. In addition to Petrarch’s comments, the Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) condemned astrologie astrology as “all guesswork and conjectures based upon the (assumed existence of) astral influence and a resulting conditioning of the air.” The Frenchman Nicholas Oresme, in 1370, wrote “Many princes and magnates, moved by hurtful curiosity, attempt with vain arts to seek out hidden things and to investigate the future.” For these men (including Petrarch), astrology placed the overwhelming temptation in front of man to discover his future. Having established astrology’s existence before the Renaissance, the question of how it grew in popularity despite being so soundly condemned remains.

A hint lies in a connection made between heaven and earth in a more metaphorical sense. Aquinas had pointed out that there existed a ‘principle of continuity’ (as it later came to be called) that connected the highest Beings to the lowest of life forms and further down to the realms of Lucifer, elements of the orthodox doctrines of the Catholic Church. This was associated with a shift from other worldly asceticism to seeing life as affirmative and hence worthy of study. We can see this new view reflected in Dante’s (1265-1321) La Divina Commedia with man at the centre of an Aristotelian universe, balanced between heaven and hell in a moral drama of Christianity. It should be noted that Aristotle’s–as well as Dante’s and Aquinas’–universe was geocentric, a premise which would, of course, eventually be disproved. Dante’s popular work demonstrates how the “common” man of the time saw astronomy and theology as inextricably conjoined–and, in a clear break in clerical tradition, it was written in a vernacular language even the most illiterate of that time might appreciate. Thus, what had been once only available to the upper classes or clergy had become available to the general public.

Tarnas pointed out that whilst Dante’s work culminated and summed up the Medieval era, Petrarch “looked forward to and impelled a future age, bringing a rebirth of culture, creativity, and human greatness.” Petrarch, according to Tarnas, was motivated by a new spirit yet inspired by the ancients to create a greater glory still with man himself as the centre of God’s creation. Petrarch’s ideal was a learned piety and he called for the recollection of Europe’s classical heritage through literature.

Even whilst the plague raged, the notion that life should be enjoyed rather than merely studied was evident in the work of Giovanni Boccaccio in The Decameron (1353). Boccaccio wrote about how life really was, rather than how the Church considered it ought to be lived. The uncertainty of daily survival created a general mood of morbidity, influencing people to “live for the moment”. It would seem not even Petrarch was immune to this new way of looking at life. In 1336, Petrarch climbed Mount Ventoux, which rises to more than six thousand feet, beyond Vaucluse for the sheer pleasure of it. He read St Augustine’s Confessions at the summit and reflected that his climb was merely an allegory of aspiration towards a better life. In his experience, we can perhaps understand why he was reluctant to accept being limited by a fate or destiny and to refuse to see himself “so inconsequential relative to God, the Church, or nature.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *