the Age of Pisces: what is it?

In W. W. Tarn’s 1927 classic, Hellenistic Civilisation, which I recently reviewed in this blog, one of the things condemned by the author in his inventory of the philosophies and religions of that age (ca. 320 BC to 30 BC) was the rise in popularity of astrology. He saw it as arising from Babylonia’s ancient practice of star-worship. The belief that there was a correspondence between what happened in the heavens and what happened on Earth, combined with the observation that the movements of the stars could be determined in advance by the intelligent, gave rise to the idea of Fate, which Tarn called

one of the most terrible doctrines which ever oppressed humanity . . .

He goes on to say

By the first century Fate was in a fair way to oust the more kindly Fortune as the arbiter of men’s lives. Later, probably under Stoic influence, some were to welcome Fate as an escape from the caprices of Fortune and the deceptions of Hope; but to the majority Fate was the negation of freedom, an impossible tyranny, and the pressure on men’s minds would have become unbearable but for certain ways of escape. . . .

Tarn laments that astrology “killed” astronomy in the 1st century BC; and astronomy was not to recover until the time of Copernicus and the rise of modern science. In the meantime people’s superstitious need to learn about their own private fates would tie up intellectual capacity that could otherwise have been spent learning more about the objective world.

Many commentators before Tarn and after him have shared his disgust at the refusal of this ancient superstition to die. I recall years ago reading about how a large number of prominent scientists had prepared a declaration that astrology was a nonscience and an erroneous view of the world. The story was being told by the noted astronomer Carl Sagan, who said that he himself had refused to sign the document, not, as he put it, because he thought there was any validity whatsoever in astrology, but because the document itself was authoritarian, and not evidence-based. I admired his integrity in this refusal.

As I recall, that anecdote occurs in Intelligent Life in the Universe, which Sagan cowrote with the Russian astronomer I. S. Shklovskii, and which I read when I was about 17. By that time my own views on astrology were starting to change, or were about to do so. As a teenage would-be scientist I had no use for it; but by the time I was 20 I had started to study it myself. Before long I had learned how to cast horoscopes, and over the years I have studied how to interpret them. My personal astrological library runs to about 50 volumes. In the 1980s I studied briefly with Brian Giles, a prominent Vancouver astrologer. I have to assume that W. W. Tarn and Carl Sagan, had they known me, would have been disappointed in me. What had happened? How could a rational young man turn to a bunch of superstitious hocus-pocus, not merely as an object of study, but as something that he took seriously—something that he, well, believed in?

The question is interesting on its own, but it has special relevance for the author of a work that is called The Age of Pisces. For me the Age of Pisces, the astrological age that is now drawing to a close, is no mere poetic allusion; in some way it denotes something real. The exact nature of that reality, though, is not easy to pin down.

Two or three of the books in my astrology library are works by Michel Gauquelin, a French researcher who investigated astrology using the mathematical tools of statistics and probability. Making use of France’s extensive records of vital statistics going back to the French Revolution, he established criteria for determining whether people’s lives matched the data in their horoscopes in measurable ways, and looked at a lot of data. He found that there was a significant correlation between certain planetary placements in individual horoscopes and, for example, people’s professions. Although many have challenged Gauquelin’s methods and conclusions, to me it seemed beyond doubt that he had shown that there was indeed a correlation between planetary placements and people’s lives.

For my part, while I found this interesting, it was a relatively minor point compared to the deeper question, why is there a correlation? If there is validity to astrology, what is the cause of it?

I remember putting this question to my teacher, Brian Giles. He thought that there is indeed a physical influence that comes to us from the planets and stars. He thought that scientists dismissed this because these influences are so small. “They see one force and they put it together with another force,” he said, laying one finger alongside another in demonstration, “and they see one is bigger than the other, and that’s it, the small one doesn’t count!” The quality of the force in question needs to be taken into consideration.

I wasn’t happy with this explanation. I was with the boring scientists on this one. I didn’t think that a physical, quantitative explanation would be the answer. But what else was there? And if a prominent practicing astrologer didn’t know, who would?

As far as I know, even among astrologers there is no generally accepted explanation for why astrology works. My theory is probably as good as anyone’s. I won’t go into it fully here, but the core of it is that multiple meanings are inherent in reality. Just as the ancient Alexandrian grammarians developed a system of literary analysis that examined a poem according to four separate aspects, namely the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogic, so can the real, physical world be examined according to these same aspects. I believe that a poem—which means any creative literary work—affects us because of its resemblance to reality; so if a poem has these four aspects, then so does reality. Astrology is a reading of the heavens mainly on an allegorical or symbolic level. It works to the extent that our ability to read and understand symbols works. As for what this implies about reality itself and its nature, well, it implies a lot; but let’s leave that for now.

So: The Age of Pisces. In my own poem it’s a poetic image; but it’s more than that. It’s something objectively real. Anyway, it’s as real as anything else that we call real. It was born at about the same time as Jesus Christ, and it is in its dying years today. It’s been quite an age, wouldn’t you agree?

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