Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Choice, Chance, and the Actions of Others": A Religio-Scientific Interpretation of Free Will

First, imagine the conceivable dimensions of space geometrically: a line connecting two points is the first dimension - it has length but no width or depth. If we add a line branching from this original line, we have created the second dimension - on a plane, these two lines taken as a whole have length and width but no depth. Visualizing the third dimension is the easiest since we live in this dimension, but if we think of this dimension not as a third line on another plane, but as a fold connecting the two original lines, it will help us to imagine dimensions higher than the fourth. So, imagine that we cannot simply draw another line along another plane to give it depth. Now, imagine the third dimension, instead, as a fold of one of the original lines to meet the other line (like a two dimensional ant on the surface of a two dimensional newspaper, or Mario in one of the wrap around screens) being able to seemingly blink from one section to another if we were to fold those two points together. Still, with me? If we imagine the fourth dimension, time or duration, as another geometric line, then the fifth dimension is a line branching from our fourth dimensional line of time. There are infinitely many branches, all of which exist and represent all of the possible future available to us in this universe, but they are inaccessible to us, since we are bound by three dimensions. Getting to any of these branches requires only "choice , chance, and the actions of others", although we can only travel down one of these branches at any given moment. This is another way of saying that free will is our access point to the fifth dimension. We'll return to this notion at the end to demonstrate the conceptual possibility of viewing free will outside the realm of our own three dimensional universe. The implications of these amorphous suppositions have roots in both scientific and religious disciplines, and I wish to explore these in their totality.

I was prompted into deeper thinking about these topics recently because of four things: firstly, the recent posting of my graduate writing sample discusses the concept of free will in the historical context of astrology, witchcraft, the thought of Patristic writers and other pre-modern Christian theologians, and the writings of Shakespeare; secondly, a recent post by my friend Jason on the "implications of omnipotence" and the incompatibility of free will and an omnipotent God; thirdly, my recent, and almost unintentionally relevant, reading of two books on the topic: Science and Creation: A Search for Understanding by theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest John Polkinghorne and Freedom of Choice Affirmed by agnostic humanist philosopher Corliss Lamont; and fourthly, the previous video, linked here and above, which, quite frankly, was mind-boggling to me the first time I watched it, but which illustrates how to visualize dimensions higher than the fourth. This has profound implications for what we may call free will or the freedom of choice. Since I've already posted 15,000 words or so on the first section, we'll jump right into the blog post, books, and end by reconceptualizing the contents of the video within the context of free will.

In the discourse of the modern day discussion of free will vs. determinism, one must begin with the Church Fathers and Christian theologians of the Middle Ages. And, if we begin with the most influential of them all, Augustine, we immediately run into contradictory interpretations of the phenomenon. On the one hand, Augustine seems to deny free will, giving all power over the past, present, and future to God. He states that the number of saved souls is fixed, has been since the beginning of time, and that all are predestined to go either to heaven or hell. But Augustine, perhaps counterintuitively from a contemporary perspective, differentiates between determinism and predestination. The former is an absolute fixity in the future of the universe, which he denies, whereas the second only refers to the ultimate fate of individual souls, whose choices, freely made, determine their final location. The Catholic Church, which holds the existence of free will to be compatible with its doctrine, regards the writings of Augustine as affirming free will, in that he asserts that "any can be saved if they wish." Indeed, the Calvinist view of hard determinism would be diametrically opposed to the Catholic doctrine of free will beginning in the 16th century. The difference is merely in the perspective - our lack of knowledge as to our ultimate fate renders free will a reality, while from God's perspective, it is already known and decided. While contradictory, this nevertheless represents Augustine's and the Church's position, as Augustine constantly refers to free will as the ability of any person to accept Christ and thus be saved through grace. He says as much in his theological treatise "On Free Choice of the Will". The pre-determinism found in his writings is usually contextualized with the contemporary heresy of Pelagianism that Augustine was combating - Pelagius taught that humans could be saved of their own accord and did not need the saving grace of Christ, which Augustine rejected.

If free will is equivalent to freedom of choice, then perhaps the question lies in cause and effect. Here, however, the verdict, both philosophical and scientific, is still out. One of the earliest and most influential conceptions of cause and effect, is Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover," an imagined originator of the universe, defined as the original cause through which all existence may be termed an effect. Though the idea may seem similar to the concept of "God", it must be noted that Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover" was not anthropomorphic and did not play an active role in creation as the Judeo-Christian God did. Thus, it was originally considered incompatible with the creator God until the the great Scholastic Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas did Aristotle one better, or five better as it were. Aristotle had contended that the universe was eternal and had proposed the idea of a hypothetical "Unmoved Mover" as a necessary attribute of any universe that did have a temporal beginning. Aquinas, who as a Christian believed in a finite universe with a definite temporal beginning, took the "Unmoved Mover" concept as a given and as his starting point for his Quinquae Viae, or the Five Ways. The Five Ways, originally conceived as a rational approach to proving the existence of God, also contains major implications for the conflict between free will and determinism. Polkinghorne simplifies them thusly: "1) The existence of change...conclude[s] that there must be a first originator of change; 2) the existence of causation...conclude[s] that there must be a first cause; 3) the existence of coming to be and ceasing to be...conclude[s] that the world's actual continuance requires an unchanging ground of its existence; 4) the existence of gradations and qualities...conclude[s] that there must be one whose perfection is the ground for all partial qualities; 5) the existence of purpose in this world...conclude[s] the necessity of an intelligence directing it." (I plan on posting more on this later). A "first cause" equivalent to God implies a certain top-down control in the matter if we accept Aquinas' version of a "first cause" rather than Aristotle's, though I think Polkinghorne is right when he points out that Aquinas was more concerned with a "logical hierarchy" than a "temporal priority." This continues to muddy the argument and even though the official Catholic position is one of free will, the greatest writings on the matter do not shed any particularly coherent light on the issue.

Science, however, is no clearer. Traditional Newtonian physics is fairly cut and dried. It is classically mechanistic: 1) a body at rest or in uniform motion stays in that state unless acted upon by an external force, 2) force equals mass times the acceleration of a given object (F=ma), and 3) for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. These are Newton's three laws of motion simplified, and these, in some ways, also seem to imply determinism. The late 18th century French physicist and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace used these physical laws to create his own thought experiment, oftentimes called "Laplace's demon", which posits that if a demon with unlimited calculating power were given the location and momentum of every atom in the universe, he could predict the entire future of that universe. Carried further, this suggests that, of course, no human (Hari Seldon aside) could ever have this knowledge considering our own intellectual limitations, but an infinitely superior being with such power could in fact have such knowledge. Laplace called this being a demon, but what is to stop us in our conceptual language from granting this ability to God? Again, is this not exactly the God described by the Calvinists? This is where the conflict between knowing the future and controlling the future comes into play, which Augustine and other Christians have explained simply as a difference in perception. But, we must push this idea even further. As it turns out, Newtonian physics only describes the universe in general macroscopic terms, and at very small sizes and very fast velocities, it does not describe reality accurately. The determinism of Laplace's demon is overturned by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which states that if one knows the location of a subatomic particle, one cannot know its precise momentum, and if one knows the momentum of a subatomic particle, its precise location is indeterminate. So much for a demon with a calculator knowing our future - he can never input both variables into his equation. Einstein famously mused, in regards to quantum mechanics, that "God does not play dice." By playing dice, though, quantum physics, at least in this respect, affirms a universe of free choice.

The truth of the matter remains murky, and even more recent scientific discoveries swing the pendulum back in the direction of determinism: certain electrons seem to be able to "communicate" with each other no matter the distance and in certain experiments involving these electrons, effects are quite capable of appearing before causes (according to some). Recent studies by neurobiologists and cognitive scientists in the realm of simple voluntary movement have shown that the brain is aware of the movements we are about to make before our conscious minds are. Chance is another conundrum. What we call chance, may not really be chance at all (though I don't suspect a coin flip in our universe will come up heads ninety-two times in a row) but "infinitely complex order." When odds are calculated in a coin flip, for example, one would say that the odds of a coin coming up heads is 1 in 2, all things being equal. In reality, all things are never equal, and variations in the weight of the coin, the strength and direction of the toss, which side it is on to begin with, how many times it bounces, etc. will have an effect on the outcome. Only the hypothetical continuation of the flip for all eternity will give a statistical average of 1 in 2. Chance is simply infinitely complex order, indistinguishable from what we may call chaos but which is not chaos. In other words, order and disorder are not mutually exclusive, but "disorder" is simply order so complex as to be unpredictable and thus equivalent to what we would call chance. Perhaps free will is this very form of "unpredictability", so complex at a universal scale, that only God Himself is capable of discerning the order from the disorder. The acausal connecting principle synchronicity, by this definition, could be defined as more than chance - it could be a pattern found in the apparent disorder of the universe, a glimpse at the infinite complexity of reality. In short, science is no clearer than religion is on this matter.

Justice is an entirely separate concern. If we ask the question "Do humans have free will?" and the answer is no, does this necessarily imply that the universe is unjust? Some critics point out, I believe with a fair amount of justification, the incompatibility of an omniscient and omnipotent God who nevertheless has endowed us with free will. If an all-knowing and all-powerful God, both established conditions for Christian belief, truly does exist, then His knowledge about the universe, the criticism goes, implies that your choice is really His choice (an effect that can trace itself all the way back to Aquinas' "First Cause" of Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover"), and this lack of control on our part is unjust. The traditional Christian rebuttal would be something to the effect of "God exists outside of time and space and thus His knowledge does not affect your will. All of eternity is a continual unified 'present' from God's perspective, whereas we are forced to perceive the universe temporally and spatially." Implicit in this argument is the fact that, as God exists outside of any conceptual framework we could ever attempt to comprehend, so too is His justice and judgment beyond our comprehension.

In closing, let us return to the thought experiment we began with. Beyond our perceivable three spatial dimensions and the fourth of time, superstring theory posits the existence of 10 dimensions (or 11 if time is included as a dimension rather than a "direction"). The fifth dimension, according to the geometric concept laid out in the opening paragraph, consists of branches extending out from the "line" of time. In the totality of the universe, the point from which we start "contains" all of three dimensional space starting with the big bang and the point where the line ends is the temporal and spatial end of the universe. But, since time is not fixed (at least from our three dimensional perspective), there are an infinite number of "branches" from this line that creates the fifth dimension (heat death, big crunch, etc.). A "folding" of this fifth dimensional line to meet another fifth dimensional line takes us into the sixth dimension, and this would be the equivalent of a warp or wormhole leading to another timeline within our own universe. Then, taking all these branches as a new geometric point (just as we did to the first three dimensions), we could term this "infinity", since every timeline that could possibly exist within our universe exists within this point. We can then draw a line from this infinity to entirely different infinities. How is this possible? Because the first "infinity point" contains only all possible timelines in our current universe and does not contain timelines from other universes (the "multiverse"), where the initial conditions following the big bang are different and create different physical laws (for example, another universe may have a light speed faster than ours or a boiling point of water higher than 100 Celsius or where gravity is stronger than the electro-magnetic force, etc.) Following the original premise, branches and folds produce the eighth and ninth dimensions, which, when collapsed into a point, creates the tenth dimension. No more lines can be drawn from here, since we have already exahausted "all possible timelines for all possible universes". Does this make sense? No, not really. . . just watch the video. It will be easier to understand it conceptually as opposed to reading an imperfect verbal description. So what's the point in describing all these dimensions? Because, according to this conceptualization of supersting theory's "higher dimensions," everything that exists beyond the fifth dimension is dependent upon "choice, chance, and the action of others" in order to exist. All of the possible future timelines (the fifth dimensional branches from our fourth dimensional "line" of time) require our active choice to occur. Or, put another way, the indeterminate nature of the future is simply another way of envisioning the necessity of choice. If we could picture an entity or being that exists in or beyond the 10th dimension, who would necessarily have access to the lower dimensions (as we have access to the second and first), does their knowledge of time, our future, all possible futures, and all possible other universes abrogate our own free will? At least in this respect, I'm not sure that knowledge equals control, even if creation is implied.

I find it telling that Corliss Lamont titled his book Freedom of Choice Affrimed rather than Confirmed. Confirmation presupposes objective knowledge about the subject, and this may prove impossible. This essay was not meant to prove free will valid or invalid, but to shed some light on a new way of thinking about the issue. However, I am certain I feel more confused after exploring this topic over the past week, than less. But when we open new doors we often find ourselves in rooms with completely new mental furniture. And this is never a bad thing.

Tout comprendre, c'est tout accepter. . .

Monday, April 20, 2009

These "Damnable Superstitions": Legal Double Standards and Cultural Reflections of Witchcraft and Judicial Astrology, ca. 1200-ca. 1600: Conclusion

Conclusions: Sapiens Homo Dominabitur Astris

Despite their separate historical origins, the philosophical underpinnings of both astrology and witchcraft most likely stem from the unique human affinity for desiring control when the most uncontrollable forces of nature exert their influences on human affairs. Witchcraft, following the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum and the inauguration of the witch hunts, became a specific legal category: it began with heresy, developed into a crime specific to female implementation of maleficent magic, and came to encapsulate a homogeneous legal classification. The importance for the persecutors was less in the act and more in the perpetrators of the act.
This was a battle that women could not win. Astrology had at least a tenuously established position in the history of Western science, and its removal from the discourse of medieval and early modern thought was not something anyone could do by simply passing a law. Astrology was part and parcel of much broader and more heterogeneous classifications—along with astronomy, astrologia encompassed the entirety of the study of the stars and it could not be dismantled piecemeal without damage being done to the whole. The important dichotomies were too difficult to disentangle and, in fact, were not disentangled until well into the early modern era. Certainly, astrology was denounced by patristic writers often appealing to weighty evidence from scripture, but it was always denounced for its contravening of free will rather than anything specific about the practice. One medieval dictum, attributed to Ptolemy, sums up the qualified acceptance of astrology by medieval Christian scholars: “Sapiens homo dominabitur astris: The wise man will be master of the stars.”[1] However, witchcraft was the particular persecution of one segment of society, and women were far easier to track and harass than those practicing forms of astrology. Astrology, in general, survived only so long as it was taken to be a science, and after new advances in physics and astronomy disproved most of its premises, it quietly faded from the Western consciousness as a serious academic discourse. Religious authorities, on the other hand, attempted to forcibly remove witchcraft. One could argue appealing to rational discourse that the manifestations of God and astrological processes worked in concert with each other, whereas witches were interpreted as working in concert with demons. Despite the fact that judicial astrology and witchcraft possessed striking practical similarities, the ultimate nature of their practices and the medieval and early modern visions of the cosmos saved the former and condemned the latter.

[1] Tester, A History of Western Astrology, p. 177. Though it can be found no where in Ptolemy's writings, this was quoted by dozens of medieval writers and Tester gives several specific examples that can be found in the works of Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Gerard of Cremona, and Robert Recorde to name but a few.

So, there's the paper. I hope those of you who stuck around for the whole thing enjoyed it. As I mentioned, I've been working on it off and on for literally four years and for the most part it has been a labor of love. This is a pretty good barometer of my intellectual and academic interests, and I hope to explore this topic further and much more in depth while in graduate school. I may try to post more on the topic in the future as well.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

These "Damnable Superstitions": Legal Double Standards and Cultural Reflections of Witchcraft and Judicial Astrology, ca. 1200-ca. 1600: Part 7

Cultural Reflections of Witchcraft and Judicial Astrology
in Elizabethan England

The demarcation between astrology and witchcraft not only in early modern intellectual circles but also in the culture as a whole poses a more difficult problem.
The key to this answer may lie in these divergent definitions of astrology and their aforementioned subdivisions. In sixteenth century England, for example, natural astrology would distance itself from the judicial branch and come to be known as astronomy. While natural astrology was certainly accepted by most Elizabethans, the judicial branch lost momentum, in many ways because of Elizabeth’s fragile claim to the throne early in her reign and the uncertainty of England’s future following her death. Elizabeth I never married and produced no natural heir, and the act of monarchical succession was an uneasy topic among the noblemen who could bear the brunt of any future wars involving a struggle among potential successors. Divination had been proclaimed illegal in 1541, but King Edward VI, whose court included an astrologer, repealed this law shortly thereafter. This law was again implemented verbatim in 1550 under Mary, Queen of Scots, and reinforced in 1563, five years into Elizabeth’s reign.[1] Even in the first version, witchcraft is clearly paired with astrological prophecy because both could have serious repercussions for the ultimate future of the monarch if they were to proclaim a certain negative future:

Where dyvers and sundry persones, making theyre foundacon by Prophecies,…have dyvised desecated and practiced to make folke thinke that by theyre untrew gessys it might be knowne what good or evyll things shulde come happen or be done, by or to such persones as have and had noble personages of whome suche fals Prophesies hathe or shulde herafter be set fourthe, wherby in tymes paste many noble men have suffered,…That if any persone prynte or wryte, or ells speake sing or declare to any other persone of the King or of any other persone, after the firste daye of Julie next coomyng, any such false Prophecies…thene everye such offence shalbe deamed Felonye,…[2]

It is necessary to note that neither astrology nor witchcraft is mentioned directly. Prophecy is proclaimed illegal, which, given the circumstance of the practice, could encompass either. The word “Felonye” in sixteenth century English did not necessarily constitute a crime carrying the death penalty.
Therefore, it is highly possible that offenses against this law were penalized differently depending on whether they were considered astrology or witchcraft or whether men or women committed them.

John Chamber, who thought so lowly of astrology that he put it in the same category with witchcraft as a “damnable superstition,” nevertheless preserved their traditional distinctions. While astrology was merely a form of false prophecy, it made no use of demons or devils and was thus not as abominable. Just as the opening of Elizabeth’s reign heralded laws against prophecy, so the last year of her reign renewed the discussion.
In his A Defence of Iudicial Astrologie (1603), Sir Christopher Heydon observed

Astrologie, being an arte…hath no more fellowship with the deuill, then heauen with hell. But that witches cannot be imitated in their deuillish profession, without all these former impieties…and as many inquisitors, as haue written of them, doe al testify with one consent, out of their confessions. And therefore the word of God it selfe, Exod. 22, doeth absolutely decree, That a witch shall not be suffered to liue.[3]

Heydon managed to distance astrological prophecy from witchcraft and equate God’s functioning in the world, as had generations of defenders before him, with “the free moderation both of the course and power of the Starres vnto God.”[4]
Chamber and Heydon may be seen as representatives of two sides of a very divided argument defined as realist versus occultist or science versus superstition. From the modern perspective, the irony is that astrology, an institution with a history as a science, was regarded as a “damnable superstition,” while witchcraft was considered a very valid and very dangerous reality. The great change occurring in sixteenth and early seventeenth century England was the swiftly shifting perception of judicial astrology. Just as natural astrology came to be closer to astronomy, judicial astrology came to be regarded as at best sheer nonsense and at worst comparable to witchcraft. This comparability had always been in the spirit of philosophical discourse rather than legality, but as judicial and natural astrology disconnected from one another and the blanket term astrologia, new niches of study, and thus legality, emerged.

Of course, it must be noted that Elizabeth’s court included an astrologer, and a successful and famous one at that. John Dee was not only a court astrologer for Elizabeth I but a polymath in general, whose library was the envy of many European scholars. To be sure, even with the growing skepticism of judicial astrology, the practice was relatively safe in England, provided that one was in the favor of the authorities. Dee most certainly was, having spent time in captivity at Hampton Court with Elizabeth, where he was known to have cast her horoscope positively. After her ascension to the throne, Dee even astrologically determined the most auspicious moment for her coronation to ensure a long and successful reign.[5] For obvious reasons, astrologers who cast horoscopes favorably tended to hold more sway and avoid illicit controversy.

Elizabeth’s successor James I, was less forgiving. In his own work, Daemonologie
, he discerns between the two concepts of natural and judicial astrology making many explicit references to the Bible. Here, he defines the natural branch as “knowing thereby the powers of simples, and sickenesses, the course of the seasons and the weather, being ruled by their influence; which part depending vpon the former [Astronomie], although it be not of it selfe a parte of Mathematicques [astrology]: yet it is not vnlawful, being moderatlie vsed,”[6] but his treatment of judicial astrology is overtly unforgiving:

The second part is to truste so much to their influences, as thereby to fore-tell what common-weales shall florish or decay: what, persones shall be fortunate or vnfortunate: what side shall winne in anie battell: What man shall obteine victorie at singular combate: What way, and of what age shall men die: What horse shall winne at matche-running…This parte now is vtterlie vnlawful to be trusted in, or practized amongst christians, as leaning to no ground of natural reason: & it is this part which I called before the deuils schole…in the Prophet Ieremie it is plainelie forbidden, to beleeue or hearken vnto them that Prophecies & fore-speakes by the course of the Planets & Starres.[7]

James I insisted that because the Bible forbade it, its practice should be unlawful.
He wrote this when he was the King of Scotland but reaffirmed it as King of England, passing laws prohibiting it. In only the second week of his reign in 1604, for example, the English Parliament made witchcraft a more harshly punishable offense—where it once carried the death penalty only in cases of murder, it was now punishable as a capital offense only if there was intent to harm or if the use of “evil spirits” was suspected.[8] This again was an extension of the crimen exeptum and did not bode well for English women of this period. Because of this double standard, the differentiation between the legality of astrology and the illegality of witchcraft was essentially arbitrary in terms of their intrinsic qualities, and even though certain forms of astrology were censured by various Western European medieval and early modern governments, the act of studying the influence of the stars on human affairs was generally tolerated for astrologers and denied for those accused of witchcraft.[9]

Despite astrology’s many denunciations from the Church Fathers and national secular authorities, the terminology and unconscious discourse of astrological belief persisted well into early modern times.
One outstanding example of its perseverance within popular culture and the unstated but razor thin line between it and the unacceptable offense of witchcraft is demonstrated by the ubiquity of both in the plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s use of astrological rhetoric in his plays in many ways seems to subconsciously reflect its popularity at the time, but his own faith in it cannot be construed simply by its conspicuousness in his plays. Most uses, in fact, are particular to and exemplary of his characters although, as the Shakespearean scholar Johnstone Parr has cited, there are over two hundred astrological allusions in his plays and all are eventually fulfilled.[10] There are many cases in which characters resign themselves to astrological fatalism or use the stars as an excuse for their extraordinary woe, but in all circumstances their belief in astrology as a science is taken for granted by the audience and never questioned. Witchcraft, however, as seen most explicitly in the play Macbeth, remains a plot point unalterably prejudged as evil by an early modern audience familiar with it only as a crime against nature, society, and God.

Much of the common public awareness of witchcraft is evident in the depiction of witches in plays such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth
. The witches in Macbeth are cast as hideous and villainous, in many ways as inhuman and unearthly as evil spirits, such as when Banquo comments that they are “So withered and so wild in their attire, / That [they] look not like th’inhabitants o’ th’earth / And yet are on’t” (1.3.40-42). Macbeth’s witches are surrounded by an aura of darkness and have an otherworldly quality to them. They describe themselves as “Weird sisters” (1.3.32), or women fused with fate and prone to sacrilegious acts or connected with the black arts, such as when Macbeth greets them “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags” (4.1.48)? For dramatic purposes the witches are almost inaccessible as actual human beings, seen more as material instruments of gloom, agents of demons, or a means of forecasting one’s demise. Macbeth’s is predicted just so, and it may be that this serves as a lesson to those who endeavor to “tempt fate,” as it were, rather than leave the functioning of the world in God’s hands.

The leader of Macbeth’s witches is Hecate. She is based on the Greek mythological figure representing both witchcraft and the crossroads, or the potential direction of the future.
Mythologically speaking, the relationship between witchcraft and the course of the future, an area obviously engaged by astrological horoscopy, was embodied in the same goddess. This tenuous link between astrological predetermination and the goddess of witchcraft is obvious in her own predilection to assert her power during the full moon. Those accused of being engaged in demonology and witchcraft commonly made reference to the moon as a source of power. Hecate’s association with the moon—in Aristotelian cosmology, the dividing line between the corruptible, changeable world and the immutable perfection of the heavens—links her both to the heavens, the realm of astrological phenomena, and the earth, where sinfulness and corruption prevail. She later chastises the witches in Macbeth for not consulting her before they interfered with his fate. Replying to the First Witch’s observation of her “angerly” disposition, Hecate states,

Have I not reason, bedlams as you are?
Saucy and overbold, how did you dare

To trade and traffic with Macbeth

In riddles and affairs of death,

And I, the mistress of your charms,

The close contriver of all harms,

Was never called to bear my part

Or show the glory of our art? (3.5.2-9)

Hecate specifically criticizes their foretelling of Macbeth’s doom, but this punition can hardly be taken seriously when it comes from the goddess of witchcraft and divination herself.
In terms of witchcraft, the act of divination is described here as an “art,” and without the mythological figure behind it, it is without merit. The act of looking to another supernatural force, such as this pagan goddess, would have been deemed heretical by an early modern Christian audience were it not recognized as depicting the witches as the wholly evil antagonists within the story arc. The metaphysical and meta-dramatic wall that this fiction provided removed all external judgment from the equation among Shakespearean audiences. While witchcraft focused on baseness and materiality, the practice of astrology made use of the exteriority of the heavenly spheres of God, even within the dominion of performance art.

While this use of witches as dreadful characters is expected, the power of astrological predetermination is used in a more neutral way, suggesting neither misdeeds nor illegality.
Several plays contain references to the power of the stars, perhaps most famously in Romeo and Juliet where the title couple receives the epigraph “star-crossed lovers.” A lesser-known quotation comes from The Winter’s Tale, when, upon the proclamation of her prison sentence, Hermione exclaims: “There’s some ill planet reigns: / I must be patient until the heavens look / With an aspect more favorable” (2.1.105-107). Here, the planets not only have influence over human affairs but are actually “reigning” over them. This is language we have seen more often used in the context of God’s power over history and individual events in a human life. King Lear offers one of the most unfavorable depictions of astrology in the entire Shakespearean canon. During his unraveling near the end of the play, after exhausting himself in allocation of fault for the sorry state of his former kingdom, Lear howls out bewailing his fate as if in submission to the universe: “It is the stars / The stars above us govern our conditions; / Else oneself mate and make could not beget/ Such different issues” (4.3.34-37). More subtly, but within the same stratum of reflection, Edmund rebukes astrology as a means of blaming one’s unfortunate state upon something other than oneself:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that…
we make guilty of our disasters the sun,

the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains

on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves,

and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in by a

divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of

whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the

charge of a star. My father compounded with my

mother under the dragon’s tail and my nativity was

under Ursa Major, so that it follows that I am rough and

lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am had the

maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my

bastardizing. (1.2.118-127)

Edmund clearly disregards his own supposed fate by actively seeking to change it.
This act of free will was crucial to Protestants in general, and despite the seemingly fatalistic attitude of many Shakespearean characters, the influence of the stars was generally viewed not necessarily as a fixed act, but as an influence to be overcome—just as historical Christian thinkers from Augustine to Albertus had said. As Cassius declares in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (1.2.140-141). England itself, by the time of the Stuart monarchy, was engaged in a tacit ideological battle—that of the Anglicans, for whom free will was of the utmost importance, and that of the emerging Puritans who, influenced by Calvinism, deferred to the power of God rather than free will. To accentuate the importance of this vital dialogue in pre-modern England, some scholars have suggested that Gloucester and his son Edmund represent the Elizabethan dichotomy of realist and occultist, like their real life counterparts John Chamber and Sir Christopher Heydon.[11] Gloucester symbolizes the pessimistic resignation inherent in those who take the predictions of astrology as the final word, and Edmund embodies the more brash and youthful exuberance of the succeeding generation, which feels that the world is its for the taking. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare constructs these characters as a father-son duo in which the father is incapable of “passing the torch” because Edmund is an illegitimate bastard son and because there exists no common ideological ground between them. A realist to the end, Edmund’s downfall can be construed as a reluctance to accept that which he cannot change, as is evident in his refusal to accept astrology, the absolute edifice of fixed unchangeability according to it critics.

Free will, and its link to astrology, is also addressed in Macbeth, where the concept of the witches’ foretelling of Macbeth’s future is related to prevailing over one’s own fate.
The witches prophesy that Macbeth will become king of Scotland, and Macbeth does not question the veracity of the witches’ prophecies but instead ponders his own role in them and whether or not he must be active for these premonitions to come true:

[Aside] This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,

Why hath it given me earnest of success

Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

Against the use of nature? (1.3.128-138)

Is direct action necessary to bring these prophecies to fruition, or are they somehow sewn into the fabric of time, unalterable, and thus as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun?
The witches provide the ominous human link between the will of the universe and the path of Macbeth’s individual future. In Macbeth’s first encounter with the witches, no prediction is advanced at all, simply the statement “All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter” (1.3.50). We may ask whether this is a testimonial of fact or if it is meant to fuel the fire of Macbeth’s ambition. If it is fact, then the question of free will becomes moot because Macbeth’s fate is written in stone, but if Macbeth must take action to fulfill these prophecies, then in retrospect we can never truly know if the witches’ forecast came true or if Macbeth took his future entirely into his own hands. This is the paradox always present in studying the effects of prophecy in the context of both witchcraft and astrology.

Perhaps the most famous lines typifying astrological notions in early modernity are those of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, a play set amidst the backdrop of the Trojan War.
Less related to the practicing of astrology or witchcraft than they are to the metaphysical concept of an interrelated cosmos where man and the universe are reflections of each other, these lines help to elucidate the special relationship between the microcosm and macrocosm:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center,
Observe degree, priority and place,

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office, and custom, all in line of order;

And therefore is the glorious planet Sol

In noble eminence, enthron’d and spher’d

Amidst the other, whose med’cinable eye

Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,

And posts, like the commandments of a king,

Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets

In evil mixture to discord wander,

What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,

What raging of the sea, shaking of the earth,

Commotion in the winds! Frights, changes, horrors,

Divert and crack, rend and deracinate,

The unity and married calm of states

Quite from this fixture! O, when degree is shak’d,

Which is the ladder to all high designs,

The enterprise is sick! How could communities,

Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,

Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,

The primogenity and due of birth,

Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,

But by degree, stand in authentic place?

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows. (1.3.85-110)[12]

In the worldview of the Elizabethans, as well as Western society in general before the Scientific Revolution, everything from plants and animals, elements and humors, body parts and professions, had their particular place within the hierarchy of created things.
A change in the status quo or the social stability of the Western world would cause uncontrollable havoc, Ulysses seems to say, and when applied to medieval and early modern views on witchcraft, we can see how the European patriarchy maintained their positions by continuing to denigrate women through a false mythology of devil worship and unnatural occult activities. It is as though even astrology, with its unstable claim to legitimacy, could be applied to the disparagement of women. The intimate relationship between man and the cosmos was a direct product of the fusing of ancient astrological notions and the Christian theological perspective, influenced by Platonism and Aristotelianism. While this standpoint could accommodate the practice of astrology, under certain circumstances, witchcraft had no such “natural place” in the hierarchy of being. This belief linked most astrological claims to the functioning of God in the material universe, and thus astrological rhetoric was employed in an uncontroversial way. Witchcraft never had such a luxury. Shakespeare’s utilization of astrology as a dramatic device employed both as an object of characters’ blame and praise could pass through the early modern audience without fear of backlash whereas his description of witches had to remain entirely wicked to be well received.

[1] Allen, Don Cameron, The Star-Crossed Renaissance: The Quarrel about Astrology and Its Influence in England, New York: Octagon Books, 1941, p. 102.

[2] Smith, Warren D, “The Elizabethan Rejection of Judicial Astrology and Shakespeare’s Practice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 9.2 (Spring, 1958), p. 162-163.

[3] Op. cit. A4r

[4] Ibid. A2v

[5] Bobrick, The Fated Sky: Astrology in History, p. 145.

[6] Op. cit. p. 14.

[7] Ibid. p. 14-15. In this passage, King James I makes reference to the prophet Jeremiah, which probably refers to Jeremiah 23:9-22, in which Jeremiah is troubled over the moral reproach of the current priests and prophets of Israel. Verses 10 and 11 state, “Their course is evil and their might is not right. Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the Lord.” Verse 16: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds [probably in reference to dream interpretation], not from the mouth of the Lord.’” Verse 21: “I did not send the prophets yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.” It may also refer to Jeremiah 10:2-3, which states: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false.” In any case, King James I rejected astrology on Biblical grounds because he viewed astrology as a form of false prophesy, or those who trusted their own faculties of reason over faith in revealed scripture which, as we have seen, could be utilized to denounce astrology.

[8] Barstow, Witchcraze, p. 39

[9] Smith, “The Elizabethan Rejection of Judicial Astrology and Shakespeare’s Practice,” p. 159.

[10] Bobrick, The Fated Sky: Astrology in History, p. 182.

[11] Allen, The Star Crossed Renaissance, p. 167 and 178.

[12] For clarification on this concept, insofar as it has modern psychological implications, see Gustav Jahoda’s work The Psychology of Superstition, Baltimore: Pelican Books, 1969, p. 120-125. He gives a wonderful explanation of the psychology of superstitious behavior in modern times and its ancestor in occult sciences and archetypal representations in the arts and sciences from the Middle Ages and pre-Scientific Revolution times, as well as a succinct Jungian analysis of the Elizabethan worldview.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

These "Damnable Superstitions": Legal Double Standards and Cultural Reflections of Witchcraft and Judicial Astrology, ca. 1200-ca. 1600: Part 6

Important Dichotomies: Astronomia v. Astrologia,
Judicial v. Natural, and Microcosm v. Macrocosm

By the time of the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in the late fifteenth century, astrology had undergone a number of important changes, but the terminology used to describe its practice had remained relatively static despite being somewhat imprecise. The Greeks of the fourth and third centuries
B.C.E. used the term astrologia to describe both the study of the movements of the heavens and the use of those movements to foretell future events. Astronomia, the origin of the English word astronomy, was rare in antiquity, and there was no clear attempt to distinguish them until Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (ca. 630). Isidore defined astronomia as the study of the movements of the heavens and the naming of the stars and planets, while astrologia was divided into the physical study of the stars and planets, which seemed to remain fairly indistinct from astronomia, and the superstitious study, which he referred to as mathematici. The term mathematici would continue to indicate those who prophesied by the stars well into the early modern era.[1] But these distinctions were not hard and fast and medieval scholars of astrology did not always adhere to these divisions. Theodore Otto Wedel describes at least two different instances during astrology’s rediscovery in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—one by William of Conches and the other by Roger Bacon—of an inversion of these definitions.[2] The division of the science into a physical and superstitious branch, more easily definable, returned under new dichotomous terms following its renaissance: natural astrology and judicial astrology. Like astronomia, the natural branch of astrology dealt with the physical influences the sun, moon, planets, and stars exerted upon the earth and the material world such as the change of the seasons, the prediction of eclipses, the position and path of the planetary orbits, meteor showers, the coming of comets, and so on. Judicial astrology studied the physical influence that the heavenly bodies and the cosmos exerted over people, including the prognostication of major historical events, the foretelling of horoscopes, the determination of propitious moments, and the like.[3] The study of all events associated with the heavens fell into the realm of astrology which, until Newton, embodied both the study of the celestial objects themselves and their effect on the world below. During the Scientific Revolution, the natural form of astrology slowly distanced itself from the judicial and became what we now recognize as astronomy. It was not until Galilean observational astronomy and Newtonian physics came to replace the hegemony of Aristotelian cosmology that judicial astrology fell into irreparable disrepute. In any case, the point is that well into the Middle Ages, astronomy and astrology were considered two sides of the same coin, one a part of the other, usually under the umbrella term of astrologia.

Some early Christians were emphatic about the science of astrology, albeit the natural version, since it took a careful observation of the heavens to calculate the lengths of canonical hours of prayer and to fix the dates of religious festivals, church holidays, and most importantly, Easter.
The bitter debate over how to reckon the anniversary of the Resurrection led to one of the earliest Church schisms—the Eastern Church following the more traditional Jewish lunar calendar, which meant Easter would not be observed on Sunday every year, and the Roman Church asserting that it was essential that Easter occur on a Sunday. The Council of Nicaea (325) considered the establishment of the official date of Easter one of its top priorities.[4] The real question here is to what extent these early Christians divided the judicial branch of astrology (astrologia or mathematici) from the natural (astronomia) or if these divisions were even recognized at all at this time.

One answer comes from the early medieval bishop Gregory of Tours (
A.D. 538-94). Gaul at this time had only recently come under the control of the Franks and other Germanic tribes filling into the lands formerly occupied by the Roman Empire. Therefore, while Gregory was a Christian in an established bishopric, many of the recently converted Christians still practiced their new religion in much the same manner as they had practiced their tribal rituals, and pagan traditions persisted in this way. In his work De Cursu Stellarum (On the Course of the Stars) Gregory promulgated an astronomy that he intended to use practically to the benefit of his monastery, such as calculating the appropriate canonical hours of prayer as well as demonstrating the lengths of days and nights based on his own scrutiny of the sun and the moon. While there is no evidence that Gregory understood the mathematics involved in Ptolemaic-Aristotelian cosmology, he delivered some descriptions of the early medieval Christian attitude toward the practice of astrology. Firstly, in his work, Gregory never concedes to the stars the powers generally reserved for God alone, namely dominion over the cosmos and actions within history. He even goes so far as to remove traditional Greco-Roman, Germanic, and Celtic names from certain constellations that may confer onto them divinity and suggest a tolerance toward their worship by the recently converted pagans. Here, as with Moses’ invective against idolatry, the careful Christian penchant for not confusing Creator with creation is evident[5]

Gregory’s influence echoed in the region well into the seventh century, when Eligius, Bishop of Noyon from 641 to 660 decreed it illegal to address the sun or moon by the title of “Lord”, thereby putting into practice the removal of astrological elements from common rhetoric, which began by the simple removal of names from constellations.
However, this general rhetoric endured among lay people as well as scholars. The common Christian intolerance of pagan practices was a simple way for the Christian authorities, with a tenuous hold on power during the gradual dissolution of the Roman Empire, to assert their political control and syncretize acceptable Germanic practices with Christian ones. It is interesting to note that in De Cursu Stellarum Gregory himself employs a pagan-style personification of the heavenly bodies. In a diagram of the sun and moon, an image of a bearded figure similar to contemporary depictions of Christ, stands in place of the sun while a female figure, crowned with a crescent stands in place of the moon. Despite claiming to be free from the ancient astrological superstition, the discourse and archetypal imaging in Christian writing maintained its astrological roots.[6]

The method of Scholasticism, after the twelfth century, also offered another weapon in defense of astrological practice. For example, an anonymous Scholastic writing at the turn of the thirteenth century wrote, “we do not believe either in the deity of either the stars or the planets, nor do we worship them, but we believe in and worship their Creator, the omnipotent God.
However, we do believe that the omnipotent God endowed the planets with the power that the ancients supposed came from the stars themselves.”[7] Medieval Scholastics such as Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200-1280), while he admitted the authority of the stars, reaffirmed, like Augustine, “that man’s freedom was his very power to resist that influence.”[8] That said, even the great Albertus was quite liberal in his interpretation of astrology as a science and its enmeshing with Christian doctrine. Albertus, a noted natural philosopher and Scholastic instrumental in the effort to square Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy, maintained that the heavens were always the most important feature in all of natural philosophy since they were the pinnacle of the material universe and that, as God had made man in the “image of the greater world” (imago mundi), they were also highest in the cosmic hierarchy. Man, in other words, was subject to the heavens from a physical standpoint. This had been conceded by thinkers from Augustine to Gregory of Tours to Institoris and Sprenger. In his Summa Theologiae, Albertus examined the sixth day of creation and God’s command that “the earth bring forth the living creatures according to their kinds” (Genesis 1:24). Displaying his skill at religio-scientific compromise, Albertus questioned how the earth could be given the power to bring forth the animals when Christian astrologers had stated that that power lay in the heavens. In fact, the entire Christian philosophy of the relationship between heaven and earth had placed all power in the former or at least reasoned that God’s role in material creation was direct. Albertus ascertained that while the material principle created by God was in the earth, the realm of matter, the “active principle” or the original causation was astrologically determined by the heavens, as it was the residence of God.[9] According to him, God had built into the universe the faculty of creation and had endowed the material itself with the ability to “bring forth” earthly creations.

The influential Italian Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) preserved this view into the early Renaissance, and he references Albertus’ reconciliation of free will and astrological signs.
Matter, Ficino says, can be manipulated based on its creation at “propitious times” and the influence of the stars can be “stored” in talismans, charms, and the like. In this way, astrologers could explore the link between the stellar effect on the material world and its relationship with human activity in a scientific manner. In Ficino’s De Vita Coelitus Comparanda (On Obtaining Life from the Heavens), he discusses this association:

One attributes a quality of a somewhat miraculous kind to the astrological images made of metals and stones. The use of talismans does not contravene free will. Albert the Great, in his Speculum, says that free will is not limited by choice of a propitious time; but, rather, by holding in contempt the choice of a propitious time for beginning a great venture, one gives no proof of freedom: on the contrary one only overturns free will.[10]

Ficino argues, with deference to Albertus, that free will is overturned just as much by not
choosing a propitious moment as it is by choosing one; for if one allows the moment to pass, one may be resigned to an unfortunate fate. According to Ficino, free will is surrendered when one does not take advantage of the signs.

The integral medieval and Renaissance belief in the macrocosm-microcosm scheme also influenced astrological thought and lent some credence to the belief that astrology and the working of God were interrelated.
Essentially, because man was created in the image of the greater world, it seemed only logical that he was also influenced by it. Put another way, the universe could be understood better if it were anthropomorphized and man could be understood better if he were cosmologized. The Hierarchy of the Heavenly Spheres and the Great Chain of Being, depicting the hand of God holding the hand of Nature who in turn held the hand of Man, were important in the evolution of astrological thought in that it lent credibility to the Christian astrologers’ belief that the role of the stars and God were in some way related.[11] Although some scholars have viewed this concept as too simplistic to yield any real knowledge about medieval outlooks on the physical world, the assumptions of astrology and the recurrence of the microcosm-macrocosm correspondence are too analogous to disregard entirely. For example, the microcosm-macrocosm scheme of comprehending the universe was employed to clarify various scientific theories during the years leading up to the Scientific Revolution. Alchemists appealed to this when elaborating upon their belief that individual metals had specific stellar correspondences.[12] Paracelsus, one of the precursors to the modern physician, described the body in terms of a “small universe” and discussed “action at a distance” as one potential reason for sickness in man. And the English anatomist William Harvey, the first proponent of a closed circulatory system for the carrying of blood, professed a union between the notion of circulating blood and the revolution of the planets, calling “the heart…the beginning of life; the sun of the microcosm, even as the sun in his turn might well be designated the heart of the universe.”[13]

Some, in justifying astrology, went so far as to say that all matter, whether animate or inanimate, could fall under the sway of the stars.
Lynn Thorndike, in his influential essay on the situation of astrology within the medieval worldview, stresses that many in the Middle Ages believed that since “living bodies are more highly organized than inanimate things; they also deviate less from the norm and are more closely related to celestial nature than are other material bodies.”[14] This is a reworking of the traditional medieval and Renaissance belief in the microcosm-macrocosm relationship. Living bodies, as the most highly systematized forms of matter, were highest on the sublunar hierarchy; and the stars, the fixed firmament and furthest sphere beyond the planets, were the closest one could get to God without actually leaving the material world behind and entering the incomprehensible metaphysical kingdom of heaven. The soul, of which free will could be considered an aspect, was ultimately separate from, although dependent upon until death, the corporeal matter of the body. Thorndike again:

By their quality of complexion they participate by analogy in the principle of celestial life. That celestial principle has more power over the matter of the body than the body’s own corporal form has. Hence the influence of the stars has more effect upon animate creatures than their corporal nature has, and moves them to forms which are not of the elements, nor are their compounds consequences of the elements, but the celestial force works in them not one but many impressions, none of which their corporal nature could effect.[15]

[1] Tester, A History of Western Astrology, p. 19 and 123 and Wedel, Medieval Attitude toward Astrology, p. 27. I have found no appropriate English translation of the relevant passages from Isodore’s Etymologiae. The Latin text of 3.27 reads: De differentia Astronomiae et Astrologiae. Inter Astronomiam autem et Astrologiam aliquid differt. Nam Astronomia caeli conversionem, ortus, obitus motusque siderum continet, vel qua ex causa ita vocentur. Astrologia vero partim naturalis, partim superstitiosa est. 2 Naturalis, dum exequitur solis et lunae cursus, vel stellarum certas temporum stationes. Superstitiosa vero est illa quam mathematici sequuntur, qui in stellis auguriantur, quique etiam duodecim caeli signa per singula animae vel corporis membra disponunt, siderumque cursu nativitates hominum et mores praedicare conantur. From*.html#24

[2] Wedel, Medieval Attitude toward Astrology, p. 61.

[3] Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992, p. 274. For the purposes of this study, I have attempted to refer to “astrology” as the general term used to describe the study of the stars in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and early modern times before the Scientific Revolution. This includes both judicial astrology and natural astrology. Natural astrology and astronomy can be used interchangeably when they refer only to the study of the stars without regards to the influences they pose on human decision making, fate, and free will.

[4]Boorstin, The Discoverers, p. 8-10

[5] McCluskey, Stephen C. “Early Christian Astronomy,” The Scientific Enterprise in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. ed. Michael H. Shank, readings from Isis (first published 1990, 81: 9-22). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 150-151

[6] Ibid., p. 153. See also Marie-Louise von Franz. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and Psychology. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1980. She discusses the archetypal reasons for the equation of Christ, as the central Christian figure, with the sun, which is the most important heavenly body. The moon, she says, is the anima to Christ’s animus and these two supremely significant heavenly bodies represent the masculine/feminine duality found in most polytheistic religions but strangely absent or possibly repressed in Christianity. Perhaps Gregory was compensating in his artistic depiction for that lack of psychological depth.

[7] Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, p. 277.

[8] Boorstin, The Discoverers, p. 24.

[9] Thorndike, “The True Place of Astrology in Western Science, Isis, p. 241.

[10] Ficino, Marsilio, Vita Coelitus Comparanda, quoted in Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, p. 142.

[11]Debus, Allen G. Man and Nature in the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978, p. 12. See also Fludd, Robert. Utrisque Cosmi Historia. Plate 17 Integrae Naturae Speculum Artistique Imago. 1617-1619.

[12] See again Marie-Louise von Franz’s Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Based on a series of lectures covering Greek, Arabic, and medieval Latin alchemical theory, this book illuminates the psyche of the alchemist and the archetypal projections used by alchemists to explain, among other things, the microcosm-macrocosm relation inherent in medieval science.

[13]Debus, Man and Nature in the Renaissance, p. 27, 69-70. Closely related to the microcosm-macrocosm analogy was that of the Platonic doctrine of the incarnation of souls. Before Ptolemaic-Aristotelian cosmology replaced it, Neo-Platonism held a much greater sway on Christian thought with its more idealistic focus on the otherworldly and with less reliance on physical evidence to corroborate its theories. It molded the new Christianity especially in the second through fourth centuries after Christ (sometimes referred to as Middle Platonism) with the writings of Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Philo of Alexandria, and others, and it was extremely influential with Augustine of Hippo, no admirer of astrology, who, as we have seen, laid the foundation for Christian writers of the next several centuries. Neo-Platonism resurfaced in the early Renaissance with figures such as Dante, Petrarch, Leon Battista Alberti, and Marsilio Ficino who allowed some of the doctrines of astrology to be reincorporated into Christianity on the basis of this new philosophical context. In the Platonic system, the soul descended from the heavens; through all the celestial spheres, thus picking up their influences, which later manifested themselves to greater and lesser degrees in the individual; and into a newborn body in which it was confined until death. As the proper place for the soul was in connection with God, the soul spent its entire earthly life longing to rejoin its creator. It is easy to see why Neo-Platonic Christians latched onto these concepts. It is also easy to see why, within this milieu, Neo-Platonic Christian astrologers were given more fodder to feed their quarrel with astrological skeptics. Ficino, who himself ran an “academy” on the Platonic model in Careggi at the villa given him by Cosimo de’ Medici, wrote of the direct relationship between planetary influences and the soul:

Souls descend into the bodies of the Milky Way through the constellation of Cancer, enveloping themselves in a celestial and luminous veil which they put on to enter the terrestrial bodies. For nature demands that the very pure soul be united with the very impure body only through the intermediary of a pure veil, which, being less pure than the soul and purer than the body, is considered by the Platonists to be a very convenient means of uniting the soul with the terrestrial body. It is due to that descent that the souls and bodies of the Planets confirm and reinforce, in our Souls and our bodies respectively, the seven gifts originally bestowed upon us by God. The same function is performed by the [seven] categories of the demons, intermediaries between the celestial gods and men. The gift of contemplation is strengthened by Saturn by means of the Saturnian Demons. The power of the government and empire is strengthened by Jupiter and through the ministry of the Jovian Demons; similarly, Mars through the Martians foster the soul’s courage. The Sun, with the help of the Solar Demons, fosters the clarity of the senses and opinions that makes divination possible; Venus, through the Venereans, incites Love. Mercury, through the Mercurials, awakens the capacity for interpretation and expression. Finally, the Moon, through the lunar demons, increases procreation. (Ficino, De Amore [On Love] Book IV, Chapter 4, quoted in Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, p. 42 and 44. Couliano also describes Ficino’s inspiration for this scheme of the soul’s descent as being based on the Commentary on the Dream of Scipio by the Latin Neo-Platonist Macrobius, which in turn was inspired by a treatise by the third century Greek-Syrian Neo-Platonist Porphyry.)

This statement is a direct integration of the Christian model of the incarnation of the human soul with the astrological implication of the descent of the soul from heaven to earth—a traversal that required passing through the heavenly spheres. Apart from the overt pagan element involved in assigning features to the stars that corresponded directly to their mythical deific counterparts, the mention of demons instantly smacks of heresy. It is also interesting that the “lunar demons” corresponded to procreation because everything below the moon was defined by its ability to be born and die and because of the fact that witches were often known to appeal to the moon in their incantations, thus furthering the connection between demonology and the feminine. Somehow, this style of discussion remained intact as an academic discourse, despite the fact that Ficino was attacked by many of his contemporaries, notably Pico della Mirandola. Demons played a crucial role in the prosecution and persecution of witches, and the very fact that Ficino was able to so nonchalantly mention them goes a long way towards flaunting the virtual double standard to which astrologers and witches were held. Ficino even had the bravado to discover the birth date of Pope Innocent VIII in order to cast his horoscope favorably as restitution for not denouncing Ficino’s astrological practices! (Culiano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, p. 56) This seems even more telling if we consider that it was Innocent VIII whose Papal Bull graced the opening of the Malleus Maleficarum, and many have held this Pope at least partially responsible for the inauguration of the witch craze. By his actions, he seems to have been at least implicitly tolerable of astrology, while actively seeking justice against witches.

[14]Thorndike, “The True Place of Astrology in Western Science”, Isis, p. 241