A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and The Search for Our Destiny in Data
by Alexander Boxer

Reviewed: 27 April 2023 by

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view as pdf Kirk Little reviews Alexander Boxer's A Scheme of Heaven. Praised for its historical and technical insights, Kirk asks us to consider whether it really does justice to its subject matter, or has it missed the point of astrology entirely?

** The accompanying PDF file contains additional footnotes and references.

Publication details: W. W. Norton, New York, 2020; 319pp.
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Drop cap Alexander Boxer’s smart, attractive book is almost certain to frustrate the astrologically informed reader. The exact nature of their frustration may be encapsulated by the book’s subtitle, or rather how the author chooses to meet its promise. At the time of its publication, three years ago, it was greeted with breathless enthusiasm by the astrological press. In the Astrological Journal, Victor Olliver pondered whether “astrology is on the cusp of being intellectually fashionable again. Do I exaggerate? Just possibly a little…but no”. In the same issue, Ronnie Grishman quoted with approval John Carey of The Sunday Times of London: “Astrology’s infinite complexities are enthralling”. Moreover, “The Observer reviewer added to the cause for celebration: ‘Boxer sees a direct link between the algorithms used by ancient astrologers for drawing up horoscopes and making predictions, and those used today by companies and data analysts to anticipate our behaviour and life trajectory’”. Boxer’s status as a physicist – among that fraternity of the hardest of hard sciences – was responsible in part for all the excitement. While he has a PhD in physics, he describes himself as a data scientist. Unfortunately, Boxer’s historical approach is limited by his thralldom to scientific data, with his understanding of stats the sole prism through which all astrological acts are filtered and judged. With his professed “knowledge of both math and dead languages”, Boxer lacks an appreciation for the cultural and historical factors which are central to understanding such a protean subject as astrology. A close reading of this book reveals a rationalist critique of astrology threaded throughout his historical account, and no real search for anyone’s destiny.

Early on, Boxer acknowledges “Being frustrated in my search for a simple yet competent overview of astrology, I decided I might just as well write one myself”. Glibly, he states his interest stems from my “enchantment with any sufficiently musty book from the history of science that nudged me to investigate astrology in a more detailed way”. Neither of these statements can be taken at face value since there are many competent overviews of astrology and Boxer’s reading list is quite selective. However, they do provide a window on the author’s attitude towards his subject, and offer a sample of his authorial style, which can be faintly condescending, in that “we know better now” attitude adopted by many scientists discussing subjects considered beneath them.

All of which being said, Boxer is a genial and knowledgeable host; his matter-of-fact, informed approach appears to be aimed not at astrologers but at open-minded, mildly skeptical readers who know little about the subject. One imagines him impressing his dinner party friends with his smarts and easy manner. As a data scientist, Boxer is intent on schooling his reader in his empirical approach to all issues and along the way showing them where astrologers went wrong by ignoring the cumulative knowledge brought about by the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. Their wrong turn is a pity, he seems to say. Boxer understands and appreciates the efforts of ancient astrologers as the first real attempt to devise a grand encompassing theory of nearly everything. If only they had had the wise counsel, along with banks of computers, of data scientists like himself… It never crosses his mind that astrologers, both ancient and modern, might be after something else, and may be guided by philosophical assumptions at variance with those embedded in contemporary scientific thought.

That astrology is a failed science is a trope among more than a century of historians, who have held their noses whilst they documented its shortcomings, not to say astrology’s ridiculous claims. Boxer’s history is another in that long shelf of books, which look with disdain ranging from mild contempt to outraged astonishment that people ever believed such nonsense. In that scale, Boxer falls in the mild disdain range, since he seems to have a genuine affection for those historical astrologers who engaged in what he deems pattern matching. “We humans are pattern matching animals, and astrology is the universe’s grandest pattern matching game.”

When it comes to astrological history, Boxer engages in his own pattern matching by organizing the history of western astrology around eight cities ranging from Armarna, Egypt in 1332 BC, through Syracuse, Sicily 212 BC, to Rome 44 BC, Ultima, Thule 79 , Alexandria, Egypt 139, Bagdad 762, Mount Ventoux, France 1336, and ending with Herrevald Abbey, Denmark in 1572. He devotes a chapter to each city, each highlighted by “A Scheme of Heaven” (the phrase comes from William Lilly) or stereographic celestial map of a specific moment in history as if seen on an astrolabe. These images are visually striking, and for those not familiar with astrolabes they take some getting used to. Boxer is a patient tutor and helpfully provides a discussion on geocentric coordinate systems of astronomy. Beneath each celestial image, he provides a listing of the seven traditional planets, along with their zodiacal longitude, house placement, right ascension, azimuth, and other data points. Tellingly, he makes no attempt to interpret any of the horoscopes.

This is an interesting and potentially fruitful way to examine what he identifies as key moments in astrology’s history. Or would be, if he were not continually interrupting the historical narrative with distracting discussions prompted by his data analytic tendencies. Thus, in his perceptive discussion of the Roman astrologer Manilius, he notes his Astronomica “presents an astrology emerging from obscurity remarkably complete and fully formed”. Rather than explore this rich history of how the signs acquired their symbolic associations, Boxer confidently states “it’s pretty clear that the qualities ascribed to people born under a given zodiac sign were, at least originally, simply the qualities associated with the sign itself. Thus, Aries are timid like sheep, Tauri are hardworking like bulls, and Pisces have a love of the sea”. This statement will surprise any astrologer who reads it, but more importantly, it is weak history. By contrast, consider this passage from Peter Whitfield’s Astrology: A History:

These treatises, by Marcus Manilius and Vettius Valens, were written in the first century AD, but were evidently based on a mature body of teachings, and probably written on sources now lost. There are also the anonymous texts of uncertain date, but belonging in this period, known as the hermetic writings, which deal on a mystical level with astrology, and also with Platonic philosophy, magic and alchemy. In all these sources, we find a form of astrology which makes use of mathematical calculation and a technical language quite different from the proto-astrology of Babylonia. This language is often obscure or confused, but some of its general principles are clearly recognizable, for they still underpin the astrology of today.

As for Manilius:

Astronomica is in many places a difficult work, not least because it is written in verse; why should a treatise on astrology be written in verse? This has to be understood in the context of Latin literature. Virgil wrote a poetic treatise on agriculture, the Georgics, and in De rerum natura, Lucretius versified the scientific ideas of his day. Verse was thus a didactic medium, and it was part of the literary challenge to embody such alien material in poetry.

Placed in his historical context, we can better appreciate Manilius’ contribution to astrology. Equally important, we see his interpretations of the twelve signs as a reflection of various influences – hermeticism, magic, alchemy, Platonic philosophy, along with anonymous texts. Instead of the absurd, simplistic associations Boxer supplies, Whitfield notes:

If a planned programme of research had ever taken place to establish the consequences of certain celestial positions – in modern terms a statistical analysis – then no record of it has survived anywhere in astrological literature. What has survived is a body of rules or axioms, which foretell the probable results of various celestial positions, what we may expect if a planet is in a certain sign, house or aspect.

Rather than concern himself with such matters, Boxer spends pages discussing the statistical validity of signs. To that end, he compiles the sun signs of all 113 US Supreme Court Justices to date and provides a histogram of their distribution. Not surprisingly, he finds no support for Libra “which both in ancient times and today is associated with lawyers and judges”. Lest anyone doubt his scientific bona fides, he illustrates his computations with worked-out equations for Pearson’s chi-squared tests. Anticipating a critique that his sample size is too small, Boxer repeats the performance with a histogram of 7417 professional hockey players, but here with the intention of discussing a statistical phenomenon known as relative age effect. The reader is left with the conclusion that poor Manilius, with his skewed sample size and lack of statistical sophistication was off on a fool’s errand.

This substitution of data analysis for history is repeated in another chapter, where Boxer supersedes his discussion of Ptolemy’s “astral geography” by testing the validity of that astrologer’s “claim that attitudes toward homosexuality are distributed along a geographic gradient running northwest to southeast.” Using data compiled from the Spartacus International Gay Guide, more specifically their Gay Travel Index for 2017, which rates countries along fourteen different categories, Boxer plots their single cumulative score using a statistical method called linear regression. It broadly supports Ptolemy’s theory, but Boxer notes “correlation does not equal causation”; furthermore, since attitudes towards homosexuality have shifted since Victorian times, “were figure 5.7 to be redrawn with data from 150 years ago, therefore, it’s altogether likely that the best-fit regression line would have entirely the opposite slope.” In other words, it’s a statistical fluke which can’t be trusted. Such digressions, creative and even amusing though they may be, are not history.

Nor are they meant to be. Such sidebars support Boxer’s broader purpose for including them: to let his readers know there is no scientific support for astrology. One might think that Boxer, as a data scientist would have been quite taken with the forty-year project of Michel and Francoise Gauquelin, who compiled statistical studies of various professions and demonstrated strong correlations between outstanding behavior in some professions with certain planets rising or culminating, most famously in the Mars Effect and athletes. Boxer dispenses with their achievement in little more than a paragraph, but his footnotes reveal the source of his negative assessment: Geoffrey Dean’s Tests of Astrology: A Critical Review of Hundreds of Studies, where Boxer uncritically accepts his contention “that birth records in Europe pre-1950 were widely fudged to give a more auspicious day and hour”. Yet, Boxer’s charge of fudging is not supported by his footnote referencing Dean’s book: Tests (6.9.15: Conclusion)

For nearly forty years, contrary to what skeptics claimed, the Gauquelins had been right. They had found an apparent connection with five planets that was replicable by others. Recorded birth times did tend to relate to the heavens, thus creating mind-boggling puzzles that to date seem clearly linked only to social effects, but which need tests with new data before we can be sure.

Setting aside the unlikely thought that the Gauquelin’s engaged in such scientific shenanigans, Boxer’s embrace of Dean’s accusation betrays his philosophical hand and demonstrates his inherent bias. If the data supports astrology, it must be spurious. Here Boxer isn’t focusing on data, but on a presupposition that explains away the data.

More importantly, there is a recurring point about his approach: data doesn’t interpret itself. Boxer’s claims to scientific objectivity raise significant philosophical issues about the nature of truth. According to the philosopher and astrologer Garry Phillipson, “it’s all right talking about correspondence to ‘facts’ but human analysis and contextualization is necessarily involved in determining what will count as a ‘fact’”. Boxer’s philosophical naivety has serious implications for how he understands astrology’s past and present.

Boxer has no interest in whether or how the scientific testing of astrology may have affected the practice of mid to late-20th-century astrologers. Indeed, he comes into his own in a chapter entitled 'Big Astrology', in which he surveys mid to late-20th-century empirical studies and seems to take a certain glee in reporting their null findings. Omitted from his survey is the work of the American psychologist and astrologer Vernon Clark, who demonstrated that astrologers could match horoscopes to individual profiles. This omission is characteristic, since it concerns the practice of astrology, not some large-scale study involving big data. Whilst he chides the 186 scientists who denounced astrology in September 1975 in The Humanist magazine by noting philosopher Paul Feyerabend’s point, that it closely matched “the wording of the Catholic Church’s fifteenth-century condemnation of witchcraft”, in the end, he supports Carl Sagan’s views on scientific wonder and the importance of not amputating astrology from science’s history. After all, it is “the universe’s grandest pattern matching game”.

What Boxer can’t seem to fathom is how such “pattern matching” could lead to insights into human behavior, let alone human wisdom. He confidently informs us that “Astrologers were the quants and data scientists of their day”. Boxer’s characterization of astrologers as quants feels like one of those trendy tags which supposedly enable his readers to grasp the essence of his subject. It doesn’t. This misreading and simplification of the various roles which astrologers have historically played is characteristic of his approach. Boxer’s use of the past tense suggests he has difficulty imagining astrologers still practice within contemporary culture, even though he admits they do. Indeed, when “I went out and got my horoscope read”, he did not sit for a reading with an astrologer, but “ordered a slick-looking, personalized, thirty-page astrological report”. This choice helped him maintain his “data in, data out” approach, since “the only information my astral guide for that afternoon needed from me was the day, time, and city of my birth, along with my name, my gender, and my sexual orientation”. His choice is revealing, since it ensured he was receiving a computer generated report filled with generic insights into his character.

In his view, astrological insights are derived solely from the mathematical properties of a horoscope, not an active imaginal process of negotiating the symbols of the horoscope with the particulars of the client’s situation. True to his rationalist credo, Boxer intones “Because, as with exploring the world, so too with data: all too often, you find only what you are looking for”. What he is looking for is a safe way to dispose of his discomfort in the face of a subject he doesn’t quite grasp.

When in doubt about the subject of your inquiry, it is seldom helpful to engage in name calling. In his discussion of the use of Jupiter/Saturn conjunctions by al Kindi and others, Boxer deems those who “insist on seeing connections that simply aren’t there…a sign of insanity. Astrology likes to hover on the boundary ... presenting endless layers of planetary patterns, many of which are perfectly real while others are positively paranoid”. Those who don’t share his views are “just nuts”. In discussing Bonatti’s horary astrology, he comforts his readers by assuring them: “I think I speak for most twenty-first-century readers when I say that as a means of forecasting the future it sounds totally nuts”. Leaving aside Dr. Boxer’s competence to assess the mental health status of historical, not to say contemporary astrologers, it betrays a mindset unwilling to understand practices which fall outside of his comfort zone. He reads ancient languages and has scientific training, so how can he be wrong?

For all his erudition, Boxer doesn’t have the faintest idea how to interpret a horoscope. At least he admits as much: “For my own part, I make no pretense to astrological mastery”. And this omission, consistent with his training and approach as a data scientist, means he does not grasp astrology as a lived experience for both astrologers and those they serve. This mindset circumscribes his history. As was said of the American historian Anthony Grafton in his celebrated study of Girolamo Cardano, “…it is reasonable to suggest that just as the historian of music had better not be tone deaf, and the historian of art would be well advised to enjoy looking at paintings, the historian of astrology needs to have a genuine applied experience in the art of divination and symbolic interpretation, to have any hope of an authentic appreciation of a character such as Cardano, living and breathing in a world of signs and omens and the imaginative cosmos of astrology”. In short, Dr. Boxer, like Dr. Grafton is astrologically tone deaf. Because he seems incapable of interpreting symbols, he can’t imagine it is something worth doing. He confidently informs his reader that “all the operations of astrology are nothing more than the assertion of a linkage in time” and asks:

What defines a moment? Astrologically speaking, this moment is different from another moment because the cosmic influences you are receiving right now are different from the cosmic influences you would receive at a different time, or indeed at a different place.

In a chapter section entitled ‘The Astrology Machine’ he discusses the role of the astrolabe in assisting with the casting of early horoscopes. He notes how “developments in astronomy were, to an extent that’s too easily dismissed, frequently motivated by the technological demands of astrology”. Yet for all his talk of moments and machines, nowhere does he acknowledge Cornelius’ Moment of Astrology (1994/2003) which interrogates the status of astrology in the wake of its scientific take down during the second half of the 20th century and reaffirms the primacy of the act of interpretation as the true moment of astrology. Thus, Boxer’s formulation of astrology is exactly that described by Cornelius as “the machine of destiny”, a model most astrologers disavow in theory, if not practice. But aligning astrology with divination, omens and singular interpretations is not amenable to the statistical data approach Boxer embraces.

Certainly, at some point, Boxer was bitten by the astrology bug and even shares his experience of his astrological time twin, a high school classmate born eight minutes later than him in the same Tucson hospital and who studied physics and math as he did. Other than a few biographical similarities, there is no attempt to look beyond those few data points to see what this might possibly mean for them. Since he conveniently provides his horoscope, we astrologers quickly zoom in on his Mercury/Uranus opposition and five planets in earth signs to see what might symbolically suggest both an unconventional mind and an ingrained skepticism about whatever he encounters. We arrive at such judgments not through data sifting, but through grasping symbolism and imagining what it might mean. As any practicing astrologer could tell you, the essence of astrology is not to be found in “data”.

One finishes Boxer’s book not feeling they have experienced astrology’s broad historical sweep, nor sampled its many philosophical expressions. They are left with his narrow vision of astrology, framed by skepticism and rationalism. Equally, one does not leave its pages thinking the author was in search of his, or anybody’s destiny. He seemed to know where he was going from the start.

New astro-text (available for purchase):

Griffin Touching Theft

Kirk LittleKirk Little has been an astrologer for over forty years and has a long-standing interest in the historical and philosophical aspects of astrology. He is the author of Defining the Moment: Geoffrey Cornelius and the Development of the Divinatory Perspective and Spellbound: The Astrological Imagination of Washington Irving (Culture and Cosmos, Vol. 17 No. 1), as well as a number of articles and book reviews in the Astrological Journal as well as here at Skyscript.

Kirk has a degree in American history and a Master’s degree in social work. For the past 30-odd years, he has worked as a psychiatric social worker in a variety of clinical settings.

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© Published online May 2023.