Christian views on astrology

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An astrological wheel located in the main stained glass window of a Presbyterian Christian church found in Canada. The church was finished in 1889. The wheel is not complete, it only contains 8 of the 12 signs.

Christianity has generally been in opposition to astrology, but its popularity led to it being woven the Christian beliefs at some periods and in some populations.

From the start the Christian Church strongly opposed astrology. The Fathers energetically demanded the expulsion of the Chaldeans who did so much harm to the State and the citizens by employing a fantastic mysticism to play upon the ineradicable impulses of the common people, keeping their heathen conceptions alive and fostering a soul-perplexing cult which, with its fatalistic tendencies created difficulties in the discernment of right and wrong and weakened the moral foundations of all human conduct. There was no room in the early Christian Church for followers of this pseudo-science. The noted mathematician Aguila Ponticus was expelled from the Christian communion about the year 120, on account of his astrological heresies. The early Christians of Rome, therefore, regarded the astrological as their bitterest and, unfortunately, their too powerful enemies; and the astrologers probably did their part in stirring up the cruel persecutions of the Christians. As Christianity spread, the astrologers lost their influence and reputation, and gradually sank to the position of mere quacks. The conversion of Constantine the Great put an end to the importance of this so-called science, which for five hundred years had ruled the public life of Rome. In 321 Constantine issued an edict threatening all Chaldeans, Magi, and their followers with death. Astrology now disappeared for centuries from the Christian parts of Western Europe. Only the Arabic schools of learning, especially those in Spain after the Moors had conquered the Iberian peninsula, accepted this dubious inheritance from the wisdom of classic times, and among Arabs it became incentive to pure Astronomical research. Arabian and Jewish scholars were the representatives of astrology in the Middle Ages, while both Church and State in Christian countries rejected and persecuted this false doctrine and its heathen tendencies. Unfortunately, at the same time the development of astronomy was checked, excepting so far as it was needed to establish certain necessary astronomic principles and to calculate the date of Easter. Yet early Christian legend distinguished between astronomy and astrology by ascribing the introduction of the former to the good angels and to Abraham, while the latter was ascribed to Cham. In particular, St. Augustine ("De civitate Dei", VIII, xix, and in other places) fought against astrology and sought to prevent its amalgamation with pure natural science. Once more the East prepared a second period of prosperity for astrology. The Jews, very soon after they were driven into Western Europe, busied themselves with astrological questions, being stimulated thereto by Talmud. Jewish scholars had, moreover, a knowledge of the most important works of classic times on astrology and they became the teachers of the Arabs. These latter, after the rapid spread of Mohammedanism in Western Asia and North Africa, and their defeat in Western Europe by Charles Martel, began to develop a civilization of their own. The mystical books which appeared in Jewish literature after the time of the Talmud, that is, the books called the "Sefer Zohar" and the "Sefer Yezirah" (Book of Creation), are full of rules of divination dealing especially with astrological meanings and calculations. The high reputation of the Talmud and Cabbala among the Jews in the Middle Ages explains their fondness for astrological speculations; but at a very early date, it should be noted, they distinguished between astronomy, "the science of reading the stars", and astrology, "the science of divination".

Up to the time of the Crusades, Christian countries in general were spared any trouble from a degenerate astrology. Only natural astrology, the correctness of which the peasant thought he had recognized by experience secured a firm footing in spite of the prohibition of Church and State. But the gradually increasing influence of Arabic learning upon the civilization of the West, which reached its highest point at the time of the Crusades was unavoidably followed by the spread of the false theories of astrology. This was a natural result of the amalgamation of the teachings of pure astronomy with astrology at the Mohammedan seats of learning. The spread of astrology was also furthered by the Jewish scholars living in Christian lands, for they considered astrology as a necessary part of their cabalistic and Talmudic studies. The celebrated didactic poem "Imago Mundi", written by Gauthier of Metz in 1245, has a whole chapter on astrology. Pierre d'Ailly, the noted French theologian and astronomer, wrote several treatises on the subject. The public importance of astrology grew as the internal disorders of the Church increased and the papal and imperial power declined. Towards the close of the Middle Ages nearly every petty prince, as well as every ruler of importance, had his court astrologer upon whose ambiguous utterances the weal and the woe of the whole country often depended. Such a person was Angelo Catto, the astrologer of Louis XI of France. The revival of classical learning brought with it a second period of prosperity for astrology. Among the civilized peoples of the Renaissance period, so profoundly stirred by the all-prevailing religious, social and political ferment, the astrological teaching which had come to light with other treasures of ancient Hellenic learning found many ardent disciples. The romantic trend of the age and its highly cultivated sensuality were conditions which contributed to place this art in a position far higher than any it had attained in its former period of prosperity. The forerunners of Humanism busied themselves with astrology, and but few of them perceived the dangerous psychical effect of its teachings upon the masses. Towards the end of the thirteenth century the Florentines employed Guido Bonatti as their official astrologer, and, although Florence then stood alone in this respect, it was scarcely a hundred years later when astrology had entered in earnest upon its triumphant course, and a Cecco d'Ascoli was already its devoted adherent. In Petrarch's day the questionable activity of the astrologers at the Italian courts had made such progress that this clear-sighted Humanist (De remed. utr. fortm. I, iii, sqq; Epist. rer. famil., III; 8, etc.) again and again attacked astrology and its representatives with the keenest weapons of his wit, though without success, and even without any following except the weak objections of Villani and the still more ineffectual polemics of Salutato in his didactic poem "De fato et fortunâ". Emperors and popes became votaries of astrology—the Emperors Charles IV and V, and Popes Sixtus IV, Julius II, Leo X, and Paul III. When these rulers lived astrology was, so to say, the regulator of official life; it is a fact characteristic of the age, that at the papal and imperial courts ambassadors were not received in audience until the court astrologer had been consulted. Regiomontanus, the distinguished Bavarian mathematician, practised astrology, which from that time on assumed the character of the bread-winning profession, and as such was not beneath the dignity of so lofty an intellect as Kepler. Thus had astrology once more become the foster-mother of all astronomers. In the judgment of the men of the Renaissance—and this was the age of a Nicholas Copernicus—the most profound astronomical researches and theories were only profitable in so far as they aided in the development of astrology. Among the zealous patrons of the art were the Medici. Catharine de' Medici made astrology popular in France. She erected an astrological observatory for herself near Paris, and her court astrologer was the celebrated "magician" Michel de Notredame (Nostradamus) who in 1555 published his principal work on astrology—a work still regarded as authoritative among the followers of his art. Another well-known man was Lucas Gauricus, the court astrologer of' Popes Leo X and Clement VII, who published a large number of astrological treatises. ln Germany Johann Stöffler, professor of mathematics at Tübingen, Matthias Landenberg, and, above all, Philip Melanchthon were zealous and distinguished defenders of astrology. In Pico della Mirandola (Adversus Astrologos libri XII) and Paolo Toscanelli astrology encountered its first successful antagonists; later in the Renaissance Johann Fischart and the Franciscan Nas were among its opponents (Cf. Philognesius, Practicarum, Ingolstadt, 1571).

Gabotto's charming essay, "L'astrologia nel quattrocento" in "Rivisto di filosofia scientica", VIII, 378, sq., gives much information concerning astrology in the fifteenth century. A. Graf's "La fatalita nelle credenze del medio evo" (in "Nuovo Antologia", 3rd series, XXVIII, 201,sqq.) is also of value for astrology at the turning point of the Middle Ages. Some of the late Roman astrologers, among whom was probably Firmicus Maternus, thought to reform astrology by idealizing it and raising its moral tone. The same purpose animated Paolo Toscanelli, called Maistro Pagollo, a physician greatly respected for the piety of his life, who belonged to the learned and artistic circle which gathered around Brother Ambrosius Camaldulensis in the Monastery of the Angels. There were special professors of astrology, besides those for astronomy, at the Universities of Pavia, Bologna, and even at the Sapienza during the pontificate of Leo X, while at times these astrologers outranked the astronomers. The three intellectual centres of astrology in the most brilliant period of the Renaissance were Bologna, Milan, and Mantua. The work of J.A. Campanus, published at Rome in 1495, and often commented on, namely, "Oratio initio studii Perugiae habita" throws a clear light on the lack of comprehension shown by the Church Fathers in their attitude towards pagan fatalism. Among other things it is here said: "Quanquam Augustinus, sanctissimus ille vir quidem ac doctissimus, sed fortassis ad fidem religionemgue propensior, negat quicquam vel mali astrorum necessitate contingere".

In the Renaissance, religion, also, was subordinated to the dictation of astrology. The hypothesis of an astrological epoch of the world for each religion was widely believed by Italian astrologers of the time, who obtained the theory from Arabo-Judaic sources. Thus it was said that the conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn permitted the rise of the Hebrew faith; that of Jupiter with Mars, the appearance of the Chaldaic religion; of Jupiter with the sun, the Egyptian religion; of Jupiter with Venus, Mohammedanism; and of Jupiter with Mercury, Christianity. At some future day the religion of Antichrist was to appear upon the conjunction of Jupiter with the moon. Extraordinary examples of the glorification of astrology in Italy during the Renaissance are the frescoes painted by Miretto in the Sala della Ragione at Pavia, and the frescoes in Borso's summer palace at Florence. Petrarch, as well, notwithstanding his public antagonism to astrology, was not, until his prime, entirely free from its taint. In this connection his relations with the famous astrologer, Mayno de Mayneri, are significant (Cf. Rajna, Giorn. stor., X, 101, sq.).

Even the victorious progress of the Copernican system could not at once destroy confidence in astrology. The greatest astronomers were still obliged to devote their time to making astrological predictions at princely courts for the sake of gain; Tycho Brahe made such calculations for the Emperor Rudolph II, and Kepler himself, the most distinguished astronomer of the age, was the imperial court astrologer. Kepler was also obliged to cast horoscopes for Wallenstein, who later came completely under the influence of the alchemist and astrologer Giambattista Zenno of Genoa, the Seni of Schiller's "Wallenstein". The influence of the Copernican theory, the war of enlightened minds against pseudo-prophetic wisdom and the increasing perception of the moral and psychical damage wrought by astrological humbug at last brought about a decline in the fortunes of astrology, and that precisely in Wallenstein's time. At the same period astrological tracts were stil being written by the most celebrated of English astrologers, William Lilly of Diseworth, Leicestershire, who received a pension of 100 pounds from Cromwell's council of state, and who, in spite of some awkward incidents, had no little political influence with Charles II. Among his works was a frequently republished "Christian Astrology". Shakespeare (in King Lear) and Milton were acquainted with and advocated astrological theories, and Robert Fludd was a representative of the art at the royal court. Francis Bacon, it is true, sought to win adherents for a purified and reformed astrology in order to destroy the existing form of the art. It was Jonathan Swift who in his clever satire, "Prediction for the Year 1708 by Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq", which deserves to be read even at the present day, gave the deathblow to the belief of English society in astrology. The last astrologer of importance on the Continent was Jean-Baptiste Marin, who issued "Astrologia Gallica" (1661). The greatly misunderstood Swiss naturalist Theophrastus Paracelsus was an opponent of astrology, and not its advocate, as was formerly inferred from writings erroneously attributed to him. The rapid growth of experimental investigation in the natural sciences in those countries which had been almost ruined, socially and politically; by the Thirty Years' War completely banished the astrological parasites from society. Once more astrology fell to the level of a vulgar superstition, cutting a sorry figure among the classes that still had faith in the occult arts. The peasant held fast to his belief in natural astrologist and to this belief the progress of the art of printing and the spread of popular education contributed largely. For not only were there disseminated among the rural poor "farmer's almanacs", which contained information substantiated by the peasant's own experience, but the printing-presses also supplied the peasant with a great mass of cheap and easily understood books containing much fantastic astrological nonsense.

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 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Astrology". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. 

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