The Definition of Astrology
They are wrong in the sense that they do not accurately reflect the way in which many astrologers conceptualize and subsequently define their own subject. This is often because definitions of astrology are written by people who have little or no familiarity with the subject, and thus they are written from an outsider’s perspective.
The purpose of this article, then, is to outline a definition of astrology that is broad enough to encompass all or most views of the subject by actual practitioners. I will then contrast this definition with some of the more common ones that exist today.
Astrology: A Definition
This is the definition of astrology that I would like to propose:
Astrology is the study of the correlation between celestial objects and earthly events.
That’s it. Now, one could argue that the definition is overly broad, but I would say that what it lacks in specificity it makes up for in accuracy. Here is why:
Most contemporary definitions of astrology assume that astrologers posit some sort of celestial force which exerts an influence over earthly events, in order to account for the things that certain astrological alignments are said to correlate with. The problem with this is that such definitions of astrology ignore a longstanding debate within the astrological community about whether the celestial objects used in astrology act as signs or causes of the things that they correlate with here on Earth.
In point of fact, I would say that the majority of modern western astrologers today hold the view that the movements of celestial objects such as planets and stars do in fact correlate with terrestrial events, but they do not cause those events to take place. Or in other words, celestial objects act as signs of events that they correlate with, but not causes.
This is usually conceptualized in terms of a modified version of Carl Jung’s theory of “synchronicity,” where there can be an acausal connection between objects or events in time that consists entirely of an equivalence in meaning or symbolism. So, for example, while an astrologer might say that having Mars in the 10th house of a natal chart could “indicate” or “signify” someone who has a career as an athlete or perhaps someone who is in the military, that does not necessarily mean that they think that Mars causes the person to have that career path. Rather, the planetary placements at the moment of a person’s birth simply reflect or symbolize different facets of their life and future.
Signs Versus Causes in the Astrological Tradition
Western astrology originated in Mesopotamia as a form of divination, and as a form of divination astrology was conceptualized as the attempt by the gods to communicate their intentions to humankind through celestial signs and omens. Even though celestial omens were thought to convey messages about the future, this does not necessarily mean that they were conceptualized as causing those future events to take place. Francesca Rochberg, one of the leading scholars in the field of Mesopotamian astrology today, explains
The relationship between x the phenomenon and y the predicted event has given rise to much discussion, the consensus being that the relationship is not causal, but more of the order of simple association or correlation. The omen statement would be interpreted therefore, not as x causes y, but rather, if x, (expect also) y. (Francesca Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pg. 58)
Later on in the astrological tradition, sometime during the late Hellenistic period, a new conceptualization of astrology which viewed the planets as efficient causes of earthly events was introduced. However the older sign-based conceptualization of astrology still persisted as an alternate or competing viewpoint, and this appears to have given rise to a debate within the astrological community. For example, in the 1st century CE Seneca acknowledged both positions during the course of making some brief remarks where he criticized the usefulness of astrology:
They [the stars] either actuate or signalize all that comes about in the universe. If every event is brought about by them, how is mere familiarity with a process which is unchangeable going to be of any help? If they are pointers to events, what difference does it make to be aware in advance of things you cannot escape? They are going to happen whether you know about them or not. (Seneca, Letters From a Stoic: Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics, 1969 (repr. 2004), letter LXXXVIII, pg.155.)
In the 2nd century CE Claudius Ptolemy tried to re-conceptualize astrology as an Aristotelian natural science, explaining the “effects” of the planets and stars on humanity as a resulting from the effluence of varying levels of heat and moisture. Ptolemy was essentially trying to reject the earlier sign-based conceptualization of astrology in order to bring the subject more into line with some of the prevailing scientific trends of his day. And he was largely successful. To a certain extent Ptolemy’s causal conceptualization of astrology became the dominant paradigm during the Middle Ages. This did not end all debate over the subject though. For example, in the 5th century Hephaistio of Thebes opened his astrological textbook with an allusion to the different conceptualizations, perhaps acknowledging that the debate was still ongoing:
Our aim here, O most excellent of friends Athanasios, is, God willing, to set forth this handbook as something that can be quite easily followed; it contains some commentary and an essay that has come to us about what was said by the ancients concerning the stars, whether signifying or causing or even in some other fashion encircling and turning everything here under the Moon with their figures relative to each other and to the earth… (Hephaistio of Thebes, Apotelesmatics, Book I, Preface: 1, trans. Robert Schmidt, The Golden Hind Press, Berkeley Springs, WV, 1994, pg. 1)
While Ptolemy’s causal conceptualization of astrology came to be the dominant one in the Medieval period, some tensions between the different viewpoints persisted in the astrological tradition all the way into the modern period, when the debate was fully revived again.
Modern Views on the Astrological Mechanism
Astrology was reconstituted in the 20th century within the context of psychology and character analysis, rather than the concrete prediction of external events. Carl Jung was one of the main influences on the psychological models that were incorporated into astrology during this period, and one of the things that came along with this was his theory of synchronicity.
Jung called synchronicity an “acausal connecting principle,” and many psychological astrologers adopted a modified version of his theory in order to explain how the planets in a person’s birth chart could represent the native’s psyche or their character without necessarily being the cause of the native developing those traits. In his seminal 1936 work The Astrology of Personality the astrologer Dane Rudhyar explicitly rejected the notion that “the planets or stars actually influence individual beings by the fact of their sending to earth radio-like waves, or rays…” He goes on to say that even if some sort of rays were discovered which did have an effect on biological processes
…this would in no way prove the usual findings of astrology … but this would solve only a fragment of the problems involved in the sum total of astrological ideas. (Dane Rudhyar, The Astrology of Personality, Lucis Publishing Co., 1936, pgs. 43-44)
Rudhyar’s argument was essentially that even if some sort of celestial force is discovered which influences terrestrial life in a way that accounts for some astrological assumptions, this still probably wouldn’t account for the vast majority of what astrologers claim that astrology is capable of, as many of these assertions only make sense within the context of a sign-based conceptualization. A more elaborate version of this argument was put forward more recently by Geoffrey Cornelius in his influential 1994 book The Moment of Astrology.
While it is certainly true that not all modern astrologers adopted acausal views of astrology, many of the major astrological authors of the 20th and early 21st century did, to the extent that it once again became a major viewpoint amongst practitioners. An example of this conceptualization can be seen in remarks made in 1978 by the influential psychological astrologer Liz Greene:
The positions of the heavens at a particular moment in time, by reflecting the qualities of that moment, also reflect the qualities of anything born at that moment, whether it be an individual, a city, an idea, a company or a marriage. One does not cause the other; they are synchronous, and mirror each other. (Liz Greene, Relating: An Astrological Guide to Living with Others on a Small Planet, Weiser, 1978, pg. 24)
More recently, Richard Tarnas outlined the following position in his notable 2006 book Cosmos and Psyche:
In the perspective I am suggesting here, reflecting the dominant trend in contemporary astrological theory, the planets do not “cause” specific events any more than the hands on a clock “cause” a specific time. Rather, the planetary positions are indicative of the cosmic state or archetypal dynamics at that time. (Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, Viking Press, 2006, pg. 77)
Notice that Tarnas not only explicitly rejects the notion of a causal mechanism underlying astrology, but he presents this as the dominant conceptualization of the subject in the astrological community at this point in time. Surely any contemporary definition of astrology would have to take this into account. But do they? Let’s take a look.
Contemporary Definitions of Astrology
What follows are some contemporary definitions of astrology by sources outside of the astrological community. I have emphasized certain words in the definitions with bold lettering in order to demonstrate the prevalence of the causal conceptualization of astrology in virtually all of these definitions.
The study that assumes and attempts to interpret the influence of the heavenly bodies on human affairs.
The divination of the supposed influences of the stars and planets on human affairs and terrestrial events by their positions and aspects.
The study of the movements and relative positions of celestial bodies interpreted as having an influence on human affairs and the natural world.
One of the interesting side effects of the prevalence of the causal conceptualization of astrology in the typical definitions of the subject is that this definition also becomes widely used in skeptical literature on astrology. This is problematic since it results in a number of straw man arguments on the part of skeptics, where virtually all of their arguments are based on disputing the notion that the planets can have any causal effect on human life, even though this isn’t necessarily what most astrologers claim, as demonstrated above.
This makes some of their arguments rather weak and easy to dismiss, since it basically becomes the case where they are setting up and knocking down their own definition of astrology, without checking to see if it actually matches with what the astrologers are saying. This is part of a broader issue I’ve noticed with the modern skeptical movement and mentioned in previous articles, where a typical skeptic will seldom take the time to develop more than a passing familiarity with astrology, and so they are usually forced to rely on questionable arguments that have been repeated by other skeptics for decades. At some point I expect the skeptical community to pick up on this discrepancy between the definition that they usually give for astrology and the one that astrologers tend to use for themselves, but until then, here are some typical definitions of astrology from skeptics:
Astrology, in its traditional form, is a type of divination based on the theory that the positions and movements of celestial bodies (stars, planets [except the one you are born on or those in other solar systems], Sun, and Moon) at the time of birth profoundly influence a person’s life. … Correlation does not prove causality, but it is good enough for most astrologers. … According to some astrologers, the data support the hypothesis that there is a causal connection between heavenly bodies and human events.
Phil Plait’s definition of astrology (he is the former president of the James Randi Educational Foundation):
What is astrology? That question is tough, actually. There are lots of flavors of astrology. Sun sign, Vedic, archetypal, natal, Horary… the different kinds of astrology seem to outnumber the stars in the sky. Some of the claims they make are inherently contradictory (some say the moment of birth is important, others say it’s the month, etc.), but they all operate under a very broad working assumption: there is some sort of force from the heavens that influences us here on Earth. There are lots of different attributions for this force (some say gravity, some say electromagnetism, some say a force that cannot be measured), but it all boils down to the planets and stars having an effect on people.
Notice the discrepancy here between Plait’s definition of astrology and the definitions given by the astrologers mentioned above, Tarnas and Greene. He actually goes on for a while on this topic, explaining at great length why astrology cannot operate through any known force. Now, to a certain extent this is actually necessary, since there are a number of astrologers who believe that astrology works through some known or unknown force. But in all of his extensive criticisms of astrology the other widespread conceptualization of it is never mentioned. As far as I can tell, most skeptics aren’t aware of it.
From a certain perspective one might argue that since even most mainstream dictionaries only mention the causal conceptualization of astrology in their definitions of the subject, the skeptics can’t really be faulted for doing the same. I’m not sure that this is necessarily true though, because the dictionaries can only be faulted for having an incomplete definition, whereas the skeptics tend to portray themselves as authorities on the subject who are knowledgeable enough about it to be able to say definitely that there is nothing to it. Now, I actually know that most skeptics are good people who have good intentions in their skeptical endeavors, but there is something deeply disturbing about what I’ve just pointed out. How can a group of people set themselves up as authorities on a subject when they haven’t even studied it enough to write an accurate definition of it?
Towards a More Accurate Definition of Astrology
Some of the public misconceptions about astrology stem from poor definitions of the subject. In order for any definition of astrology to be correct, it needs to be properly inclusive of the spectrum of different viewpoints that exist about the subject within the field.
What I hope to have demonstrated in this article is that one of the persistent definitions of astrology by astrologers themselves is the belief that celestial phenomena can act as signs or omens for terrestrial events without necessarily acting as causes. The correlation itself is what is significant, and no underlying cause is necessarily implied or required. When defining and discussing the subject of astrology in the future, this viewpoint needs to be recognized and taken into account.