The Nature of Astrology: History, Philosophy, and the Science of Self-Organizing Systems
A review of new book by Bruce Scofield (Inner Traditions, 2022)
Toward the beginning of Bruce Scofield's new book, he tells an emblematic story. In the wake of the US Great Depression, the Hoover administration tapped an economist named Edward R. Dewey to determine the causes of the financial debacle. Dewey took a multi-disciplinary approach to studying cycles in nature and business and led the Foundation for the Study of Cycles. When the Foundation eventually went defunct and its archives were opened to the public, it came to light that this very mainstream economist had suggested that the movements of the planets were a possible cause of some of the cycles he had observed. Dewey was accused of "doing astrology." To defend himself, he publicly stated that the premises of astrology are absurd and that actually investigating it would ruin one's scientific reputation. But according to people Scofield has met who knew the man, Dewey's remarks were merely a cover-up. Astrology was one of the bodies of knowledge that Dewey and his foundation had considered pertinent to understanding natural and human cycles.
The point of the story is that the entrenched "fear and loathing" directed toward the subject of astrology has prevented scientists and scholars from actually studying it -- and the rest of humanity from fully benefitting from it.
The point of this book is to show that while nature itself proves many of the claims of astrology; and that while science, philosophy, and even religion have often overlapped with it, the discrediting of astrology as a legitimate subject has had a long and complicated history. Scofield defines astrology as "a multi-millennial project that explores and measures" how the solar system environment impacts earthly systems. Astrology may have the potential to revolutionize our scientific understanding of how nature works. Yet, we seem far from that now.
This book is a capstone of Scofield's 50+ years history as an astrologer and a geoscientist. He exemplifies how to be both.
Part 1 is about science and includes a sweeping history of the rise of Western astrology in Mesopotamia, with parallel developments in India, China, and Mesoamerica. The discovery of the Enuma Anu Enlil tablets, with information dating back to as early as the 17th century B.C.E., shows that by about 1900 to 1600 BCE, astrology was a "systematic, specialized, and descriptive body of knowledge." For example, it was known at least that early that the phases of Venus's synodic cycles with the Sun had various influences on terrestrial phenomena such as rainfall, food supply, wars, and the affairs of kings.
Astrology originated as -- and continues to be -- the "result of a sustained multi-millennia empirical approach of noting correlations between astronomical and terrestrial phenomena, and not the projection of a theory onto the phenomena." This is not to say that astrology can explain everything. Scofield emphasizes that whether one is talking about the astrology of natural phenomena, or the judicial astrology about people and human events, "the subject matter of both branches of astrology appears to be limited to self-organizing systems."
Self-organizing systems, ranging from a single cell to a plant to an animal or human, are ephemeral and can make adjustments over time to maintain homeostasis. What astrology proposes to explain are processes that are in a constant state of change.
The most basic ways in which "life internalizes the sky," as Scofield puts it, are the diurnal cycles of day and night, and the annual progression of day length, across the seasons, called photoperiodism. When Hellenistic astrologers eventually formalized a system, they made explicit five categories of data: planets, aspects, symmetries, houses, and the zodiac. At the most basic level of human observations of sky-earth relationships, the Sun's annual cycle is symbolized by the zodiac, and the diurnal cycle is reflected in the houses. An astrological chart is a snapshot of a moment in time. Scofield calls it a "time slice" of the sky. Aspects are the angular relationships between the Sun, Moon, and the "wanderers," the planets. Each moving body symbolizes certain themes and concepts. In a concise table, Scofield shows the fundamental functions of gender polarity, behavior, actions, weather patterns, and metals associated with each of the seven traditional planets. All of the correspondences have remained remarkably consistent over the history of astrology. They grew out of Stoicism, which "may have been the most widely-embraced philosophical tradition in the ancient Hellenistic and Roman worlds." The Stoics believed the cosmos to be an orderly, intelligent, living being unto itself. Astrology was the method to study and know it.
Among astrology's sub-disciplines, perhaps the most enduring has been weather forecasting. It came to be called astrometeorology by the time of the Renaissance, though its origins are to be found in the weather omens of Mesopotamia, later formalized in Hellenistic times into an organized methodology. What kept astrological weather forecasting alive in popular culture was the publication of astrological almanacs, dating back as early as the 15th century.
In his long and detailed chapter on the history of astrometeorology, Scofield emphasizes the work of one particular scientist, John Goad (1616-1687). Goad was a contemporary of numerous contributors to the Scientific Revolution. In his 500-page tome Astro-Meteorologica, based on 30 years of weather data, Goad set out to test relationships between weather and planetary transits, with an emphasis on aspects, not signs, "turn[ing] astrology into a phase analysis of vectors (rays) from planets conversing on the Earth." Ultimately, Goad's study yielded few consistent effects from any single planetary combination because there are usually several planetary combinations in effect at any time. Still, Goad's work set a standard for scientific testing.
Beginning when he was working on his PhD at the University of Massachusetts, Scofield spent years testing a hypothesis that temperatures drop depending on the geocentric alignments of the Sun and Saturn, at least regionally. Cognizant that one planetary pair can't really be isolated from all the other changing configurations of the planets, he nevertheless found a predictable drop in temperatures at a particular point of the Sun-Saturn opposition. He demonstrated that there's a wide-open field for scientific testing of astrologers' long-held claims correlating planetary alignments and the weather.
Up until the 17th century, astrology was such a rigorous discipline that those practicing it were called by "interchangeable names: astronomer, astrologer, or mathematician." By the late 17th century, though, few scientists were interested in astrometeorology. Its decline paralleled the decline of judicial astrology.
"What was it," Scofield asks, "that happened between roughly 1500 and 1700 in Western Europe that resulted in the near extinguishing of a subject that, while always controversial to some extent, had such an impressive historical pedigree?" The commonly understood answer is that the Scientific Revolution brought a "triumph of rationalism over superstition, [which] proved astrology to be nonsense." But that's hardly an adequate explanation. In thinking about the downfall of astrology, Scofield realized early in his studies that "astrology's change in status ... was not a simple matter" and that only multiple strands of different kinds of history, when woven together, could tell a plausible story of its decline."
Part 2 of The Nature of Astrology tells that story and ought to be required reading for astrology students. In this major chunk of the book, Scofield gives us a thorough -- and yet, from a reader's standpoint, manageable -- rendition of how complicated astrology's decline actually was. We need to know how and why our field's reputation fell from grace if we ever hope to repair it.
The rise of reductionist science played a major role, not just because the dominant intellectual ideology became ostensibly rational, but also because the Scientific Revolution produced a brain drain. Members of the intelligentsia who might otherwise have continued to build astrology as a testable subject instead moved on to other scientific projects.
The Church, of course, played a major role in discrediting astrology. This story is also complicated. Initially, the Church was acquiescent toward astrology in regard to the physical body and nature, reserving its hostility for judicial astrology with its conundrum of fate versus freedom. During the times of the Black Death, astrology even thrived as the plague raised questions about fate and free will that the Church could not really answer. Yet ultimately, Christian theology depends on a belief that individuals freely choose between sin and salvation. Religious authorities attacked astrology using mostly two arguments. One is that humans should not pry into God's secrets. The other is that planets can't override human free will.
One of the fiercest critiques of astrology came from the Renaissance humanist philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Scofield includes a humorous chart commenting on a list of della Mirandola's arguments, such as that astrologers disagree among themselves (true); that astrology is not founded on reason (false); and that astrologers are fakes who corrupt society (some do).
But it wasn't just attacks from clergy and rationalist scientists that did astrology in. Some of the trouble came from astrologers' own overreaching. With the mass popularity of almanacs, some less-than-scrupulous astrologers went wild with outlandish predictions, increasing their own notoriety, lining their own pockets, and making astrology look ridiculous.
In Part 3, Scofield proposes what can be done to make astrology thrive in the future. He addresses two related issues: How can astrology become a reliable subject of research? And how can astrologers become more professional and less of an "outsider" social group?
There are many research problems, not limited to lack of major institutional support and funding. Scientific testing of astrological claims is difficult because of the constantly changing cosmic environment. This requires large sample sizes like those used by the Gauquelins in their famous studies of relationships between natal chart placements and people's chosen professions. Most of the currently published research, though, is anecdotal. Few astrologers are interested in rigorous testing. While the emphasis on counseling individual clients has sustained astrology as a practice -- keeping it alive despite centuries of attacks -- counseling practice has not advanced a causal, explanatory theory for how astrology works.
Scofield laments that in recent decades, astrologers seem to have bypassed the question of how astrology works by instead framing it metaphysically as a matter of divination. That's a non-explanation, as far as Scofield's concerned. It unburdens astrologers from a need to develop a causal theory and "it is also a way to keep astrology secure in its own subuniverse."
While millions of people are now following some version of astrology online, Scofield estimates that in the United States, there are only about 100,000 people -- mostly amateurs -- who self-identify as astrologers. Of these, about 20,000 practice astrology, and only about one-quarter of them are able to make a full-time living from it. With such a tiny cohort of practitioners, what hope is there to move astrology from its status as a marginalized sub-culture to something more similar to other professions?
Part 3 of this book promises to ruffle some feathers. Scofield calls for increased testing of astrology's claims; certifications based on coherent professional standards to protect the public from what he calls the "free-for-all" of self-promoting "unregulated practitioners"; and a focus on making astrology more than a counseling practice.
Reading his proposals from the vantage point of 2023, it all sounds like a long shot. But given the centuries of astrology's retreats and resurgences, maybe it's not. Scofield concludes that astrology "has survived, has protected its history, and has evolved. That is an accomplishment in itself."
As is Bruce Scofield's new book. I don't mean to exaggerate when I say that he has given us a masterpiece.
Editor's note: Readers may enjoy Chris Brennan's interview with Bruce Scofield on The Astrology Podcast (January 29, 2023).
Sara R. Diamond, Ph.D., J.D., has practiced law in the San Francisco Bay area for 19 years. Before that, she was a University of California, Berkeley-trained sociologist and an author of four books about US politics. She is currently completing Astrology University's 4-year certification program.