Pray God us keep from single vision and Newton's Sleep
- William Blake
Newton's scientific heirs still sleep pretty soundly when it comes to academic discourse about astrology and divination. Fortunately, this newest collection of papers from The University of Kent provides a nice wake up call for those still enjoying their slumbers. For astrologers, especially those of us who see our art as a form of divination, this volume is a welcome alternative to the shabby treatment our "wretched subject" has received in the past from the academy. Even better, these papers reveal that a divinatory attitude is not incompatible with rigorous thought or clear thinking about an elusive subject. The thoughtful essays in this beautifully produced book invite us to enlarge our philosophical understanding and to appreciate a broad spectrum of historical and cultural contexts for our divinatory practices. For those with eyes to see, some of these scholars succeed admirably in responding to Blake's heartfelt prayer.
Originating in the Seeing with Different Eyes conference held in Canterbury in late April 2006, the thirteen papers of this skillfully edited book represent a current range of scholarly opinion on the topic of divination. While most are written with academic caution---yes, they come with scads of footnotes---several rise to the challenge and lay down fascinating conceptual tracks and even some inspired theorizing. Certainly not all of the papers will be of equal interest to most astrologers, but those that are should justify the hefty price of admission. (Like many limited edition scholarly books, this volume is not cheap, however, its contents will not easily be found elsewhere.) While I would recommend this book to any reader seriously interested in gaining a greater understanding of divination, it is especially relevant to astrologers interested in understanding the philosophical ideas which have contributed to the divinatory perspective. I will focus on those papers which astrologers will find most pertinent to enlarging their worldview.
Though most of the essays make at least a nodding glance towards astrology, perhaps this book could have more accurately been subtitled "Essays in Divination and Astrology" since only five of the papers discuss the stellar art at any length. Fortunately, those that do offer much to enliven the astrologer's imagination. To be clear, astrologers looking for potent examples of divinatory astrology will be disappointed, since there is only one horoscope in the whole book-Ficino's natal chart-and nothing approaching a "how to" guide for divinatory astrology. Perhaps that is a bit like expecting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to provide exploded engine diagrams and wiring charts for motorbikes. However, for the philosophically curious, each of the papers presents something of interest to those intrigued by divinatory beliefs and practices.
The editors have thoughtfully arranged the book into five parts or "types" of "Eyes": Ancient, Religious, Musical, Astrological and Cultural. This works better for some parts than others and the reader needs to be prepared to get bounced around a bit in terms of the contributor's styles and attitudes towards divination. Part I: Ancient Eyes, the largest section and one which sets the tone for the entire volume illustrates this clearly. Peter Struck's historical romp through ancient beliefs about divination, "A World Full of Signs: Understanding Divination in Ancient Stoicism" makes a promising start and his mastery of ancient philosophy is obvious. However, his explanation of divinatory phenomena steers clear of the mysterious. Instead he engages in some wooly speculations concerning semiotics, neurophysiology and evolutionary biology to explain how some humans have developed a "divinatory mentality". Reducing the ineffable to biological constructs is one way to reduce metaphysical uncertainty, but it isn't terribly helpful for those who see divination as a purposeful activity. Unfortunately, any lingering doubts about Struck's stance are dispelled by this passage: "Divination provides a channel in which we can witness signals transmogrify into signs, but we are always haunted by the insecurity that sign producers may not be the divinities we wish them to be."(p. 18) This is hardly seeing with different eyes. But before we give up in despair, this same section contains two essays written by people who have obviously experienced something else. In other words, they inhabit a cosmos familiar to astrologers.
Crystal Addey's "Oracles, Dreams and Astrology in Iamblichus' De mysteriis" matches Struck's paper in terms of clarity and philosophical subtlety, yet it is written by someone who finds both meaning and purpose in a worldview which makes room for divination. (Perhaps being the granddaughter of John Addey, the Platonic astrologer and author of Harmonics in Astrology helps.) Her explanations of inspired and inductive categories of divination and their relation to theurgy or "divine work" provide a helpful philosophical map for the other chapters in this section and explain why Iamblichus and other Neo Platonic thinkers remain seminal for anyone seeking to understand divination.
Similarly, Gregory Shaw's Living "Light: Divine Embodiment in Western Philosophy" implicitly accepts the reality of divination and the Eleusinian mysteries. His paper lives up to its title by illuminating the connection between those ancient beliefs and contemporary practice. Though he never discusses astrology in his paper, astrologers can take comfort in the warning he issues to those who dismiss the phenomenon of divination:
Scholars in particular as custodian of our culture, are at a loss to explain how a Pythagorean and Platonist such as Iamblichus could diverge so radically from the path that we have come to identify with as our own. The solution has been either to reject him as an irrational and second-rate thinker or find ways of explaining how his theurgical teachings fit into our history.
These are powerful words for anyone (such as most astrologers at some point) who have had the soundness of their intellect questioned as a result of their belief in astrology. Shaw suggests a third approach: to "engage Iamblichus' thought in a more immediate and primitive way, one that is consistent with his vision." (p. 64) His essay eludes easy description due to the multi-leveled nature of Iamblichus' ideas, but Shaw's assured, yet accessible prose stirs the desire of the reader to know more about Neo-Platonic thought and theurgic rituals.
Three other essays, not surprisingly all written by Kent scholars are recommended reading for any astrologers interested in the most current thinking about their discipline's status as a divinatory art. Geoffrey Cornelius' "From Primitive Mentality to Haecceity: The Unique Case in Astrology and Divination" takes up the theme of "primitive" mentality, but unlike Shaw, the author is intent on demonstrating the relevance of far flung ideas to the experiences of anyone making an astrological interpretation. As its unwieldy title suggests, Cornelius is corralling some unlikely intellectual horses, most notably the scholastic theology of John Duns Scotus and the armchair speculations of the anthropologist Lucien Levy Bruhl. What, one wonders can Bruhl's notion of participation mystique have in common with this 14th century theologian's notion of haecceity or "this-ness"? And how does either of them contribute to an understanding of astrology? This tightly argued essay repays close reading (and rereading) since it reveals Cornelius' stunning ability to make powerful conceptual connections between apparently unrelated systems of thought. For those interested in astrology as divination, this is hands down the most satisfying paper in the collection and will greatly interest those who wonder how Cornelius has enlarged upon the views expressed in his foundational book The Moment of Astrology.
Angela Voss' "'The Power of a Melancholy Humour': Divination and Divine Tears" knits a lovely tapestry of Renaissance music, medicine, Neoplatonic philosophy and astrology. She reminds us that this was an era in which the expression of each discipline was often informed by the others, much to their mutual benefit. Here, the theme of melancholy is explored through "physiological, mythological, astrological, magical and metaphysical contexts." (p. 143) To anyone weary of modern astrological readings of Saturn's limitations and blockages, the profound and nuanced understanding which Ficino and his contemporaries bring to this planet will be a bracing tonic indeed. More important, Voss' style - interdisciplinary in the finest sense of the word - coupled with her divinatory attitude act as powerful catalysts by transforming her historical recreation into a timely reminder of the therapeutic powers of music including its potential to act as a spiritual vehicle. Of course, it helps that Voss is herself an accomplished musician who has participated in the revival of Orphic hymns. For those who revel in the beauty and multi-faceted quality of astrological symbolism, this paper provides the most satisfying experience of the entire volume.
Garry Phillipson's "Theurgy, Divination and Theravadan Buddhism" reveals that his six years as a Buddhist monk were well spent, since it provides ample evidence that his study of that tradition has given him sturdy metaphysical scaffolding for his astrological thinking. By comparing the teachings of Buddha with western notions of theurgy, he is able to demonstrate that eastern ideas of divination are profoundly relevant to western forms, including astrology. For those unfamiliar with the teachings of the Pali Canon, Phillipson is a sure guide; his lucid style and extensive bibliography indicate his firm command of the tradition. His discussion of the five mental actions called nivarana (hindrances) faced by a meditator is worth pondering by astrologers, especially "skeptical doubt", whose spiritual antidote is "sustained application of mind". Though this paper is not explicitly astrological, he makes a number of fascinating connections between Buddhist epistemology and the ethics of astrological interpretation. In one passage, he links the Buddhist notion of ethical action (skillful kamma) with both the fourth century astrologer Firmicus Maternus ("shape yourself in the image and likeness of divinity") and that icon of horary astrology William Lilly (…the more holy thou art, the more neer to God, the purer judgment thou shall give…") Such cross cultural references remind us, that as astrologers our attitude toward the divine is central to the nature of the work we do. After all, no fewer than five court astrologers predicted that Siddhartha Gotama would become either a Buddha or universal monarch.
It would be remiss to not acknowledge some of the other papers, since their wide scope lend this collection intellectual heft, though admittedly, most are written from an 'etic' or outsider perspective. They range from historical studies of Ben Jonson's 17th century masques to an anthropologist's recent experience with Mayan diviners to the Enochian Chess of the Golden Dawn in the early 20th century. Marilynn Lawrence's "A Phenomenological Approach to Astrology at the End of Metaphysics" approaches her topic not from the usual perspective of the philosophy of science, but from a Heideggerian standpoint, which she thinks provides "a type of phenomenology that would be most applicable for questioning astrology." (p. 216) Dennis Tedlock's "Mind, Body and Cosmos in Mayan Divination" discusses the complex divinatory calendar used by diviners in that tradition and then draws the reader into his first hand experience with Don Mateo, a chuchqajaw, as they attempt to answer who killed his pig. Their participation mystique reminded this reader of Carlos Castenada's experiences with Don Juan, where the line between subjective experience and objective truth is never clear. But then again, that would remind us why divination - being the culturally ubiquitous phenomenon it is - remains such a fascinating subject and why this book should become part of every thinking astrologer's library.