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The Stars We Are

How to Order by Richard Smoley

To begin with, three anecdotes:

* Twelve years ago, when my life was, if not stable, at least more or less manageable, I found myself suddenly plunged into terrible emotional upheaval that lasted for several years. It was intense enough that I remember the date quite clearly. But it was only several years later that I discovered that that was the week Pluto, the planet of upheaval and transformation, was entering my sun sign. (It was conjunct Saturn to boot.)

* Five years ago, when I took the job of editing GNOSIS, I was living in Tennessee. I had to sell my house before I left, and indeed had found a buyer. Soon before the closing date, I consulted an astrologer who happened to be visiting the area. He looked at my progressed chart and told me the sale of the house would be delayed for a couple of weeks.

This was disagreeable news, as for various reasons I was eager to leave. And as far as I knew there were no problems with the buyer, who was paying cash. But sure enough, a day or two before closing, the buyer called me up, saying he hadn't withdrawn the money out of his account in time and wouldn't be able to give me a cashier's check at closing. Would a personal check do?

As you know if you've ever bought or sold a house, this is not quite proper procedure. Nonetheless the man seemed honest, and of course I called his bank to see if the check would clear; the bank said it would. So I gritted my teeth and went ahead with it. The check did clear - but not until the date the astrologer had predicted.

* Shortly before this, when I was still looking for a job, I called a well-known esoteric publishing house. It was just an exploratory call; I hadn't even sent them my resume. But they were surprisingly receptive, and, somewhat to my astonishment, I found myself soon talking with someone high up in the company.

The conversation went well, down to questions like "What sort of money do you want?" Finally the subject meandered around to astrology. Asked what my sun sign was, I brightly responded that I was a Scorpio.

The phone went silent for a moment. Then the executive said, "I'm surprised you admitted that."

After that there was no more talk of my working for this company.

These tales more or less sum up the sublime and the ridiculous in astrology. It can furnish the most astounding insights and predictions; it can also serve as an excuse for some questionable conclusions.

For a long time we've toyed with the idea of putting together something on the Stars. Although this issue includes articles on a range of subjects from Graham Hancock's views on Atlantis and Egypt to Jay Kinney's thoughts on ETs, much of it deals with the study of the planets' effects on human life, generally known as astrology. Because of the vast amount of astrological writing available today, we haven't included a basic introduction to the subject. But we've also come to see that, as in so many areas, there is remarkably little that steers a middle course between the "skeptical inquirers" and people who accept astrology unquestioningly. The material here is an attempt to provide just such a middle ground.

First, though, it may be helpful to examine some basic controversies about astrology. They converge around two central issues: (1) Is astrology true? (2) If so, does it mean we don't have free will?

As you can see, these questions are separate; an answer to one doesn't in itself determine the answer to the other. Nonetheless the issues are often confounded. Our free will, real or fictitious, is precious to us, and many people don't like to think it's being taken away. The matter is further complicated by the question of whether the apparent determinism of astrology compromises God's free will. This question bothered the medieval Scholastics, for example, as well as Plotinus (whose rebuttal to astrology is discussed by Michael McNierney in this issue).

As insulting as it may seem to the dignity of both God and man, however, we must consider the question: is astrology true? Its persistence across so many regions and epochs attests to its value: otherwise why would people have studied it for so long? On the other hand, we can't take its validity for granted; perhaps it really is just a matter of folly and superstition.

These disputes might seem to pit the scientist against the esotericist. Not necessarily: the great astronomers Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler were also astrologers, while great esotericists like Plotinus and Pico della Mirandola indignantly denied that the planets could affect our behavior. (By the way, in this issue when we talk about the planets, we will use conventional astrological phrasing, which includes the sun and moon among them. We know the sun is really a star, but from the earth's point of view, the sun is a planet - a "wandering" heavenly body as opposed to the fixed stars beyond.)

When it comes to scientific evaluations of astrology, the pickings are slim. There is only one figure to my knowledge who has tried to evaluate astrology in anything like a scientific way: the French researcher Michel Gauquelin (1928-91). After scrutinizing thousands of birth charts, Gauquelin came to conclusions that discomfited both conventional scientists and astrologers. He discovered that prominent members of various professions did indeed tend to have certain planets in certain positions (what Gauquelin calls "plus zones"; see figure 1). Doctors often had Mars in these positions, while politicians had Jupiter, and writers, the moon. Control groups taken from the general population had no such correlation.

Gauquelin went on to examine character traits, and here too he found that the same planetary positions were associated with certain personality traits. These types would not be unfamiliar to the astrologer. People with Saturn in Gauquelin's plus zones tend to be "cold, conscientious, discreet, and introverted," while those with Venus in a plus zone are generally "affable, beloved, charming, polite, and seductive."

Gauquelin's findings don't entirely vindicate conventional astrology. Like Kepler, whom he venerated, Gauquelin had no use for the conventional twelve-house system, nor could he find any correlations of careers or personality types with the sun, Mercury, or the planets beyond Saturn. Even more confusingly, the "Gauquelin effect" disappeared in cases of cesarean or induced births. Why? "It is a mystery," Gauquelin admitted.

Gauquelin's results are impressive, and the dishonesty and mendacity shown by various "skeptical inquirers" in distorting his results shows how much respect this clique really has for scientific objectivity. If Gauquelin has a fault as a thinker, it is perhaps the very forgivable one of viewing his results as conclusive when in a sense they are preliminary. Though some other researchers have vindicated his findings, I suspect Gauquelin's work is not the culmination but rather the beginning of a truly impartial look at the effects of the heavenly bodies on human destiny.

I also suspect that the inquiry will need to take several directions. There will have to be quantitative studies like Gauquelin's (if, as Rene Guenon claimed, this is the "reign of quantity," we might as well go for it). But it may also be necessary to unearth old astrological texts to find out what the ancients really taught. As Robert Hand says in this issue, ancient astrology was quite a different thing from what is practiced today - and in some ways it was much more sophisticated. Much of this may well need to be rediscovered and reintegrated.

Let's grant for the moment, however, that astrology has some truth to it and turn to the second question: What does this imply about our free will? Are we free agents, or are we just small objects bouncing around like pinballs in a cheesy arcade machine? For that matter, is God a free agent? Or, having set up the rules of the cosmic game, is he himself bound by them? (P.D. Ouspensky told a story whose punch line is "Even God Almighty himself can't beat the ace of trumps with an ordinary deuce!")

To begin with ourselves: if the planets affect our behavior and our character, they must influence our thoughts and feelings. You can see why this is threatening. Usually we're identified with our inner states; they are, as far as we're concerned, who we are. To believe that these most precious and intimate aspects of ourselves are really nothing more than side-effects of the wanderings of some objects of rock and gas can be quite irksome.

Maybe we can look at this matter from another angle. We exist in corporeal bodies: they hunger and thirst, feel weariness and cold. They're subject to physical laws like gravity and the laws of thermodynamics. We can't override these laws, but are we enslaved by them?

To a certain extent, of course we are: just remember what kind of mood you were in last time you missed a meal or lost a few hours' sleep. At the same time, however, most of us have managed to create a certain amount of distance from our bodies. If today's pseudo-savants denounce this as a form of dualism, it nonetheless has certain advantages. We are able to keep from completely identifying with bodily impulses. We don't automatically grab each piece of chocolate cake we see, nor do we grope attractive members of the opposite sex on the streets (at least most of us don't).

Even the most sophisticated of us, on the other hand, rarely have the same distance from thoughts and feelings. We can't step back from an intense emotion or a fascinating idea and observe it with distance and detachment We are identified with these inner states.

But let's go back to one of the core meanings of esotericism. This word is bandied about so often (in this journal as much as anywhere) that we sometimes lose sight of one of its principal meanings. The word comes from the Greek eiswterw (eisotero), which simply means "further in." One aspect - in some ways the most important aspect - of esoteric work is to go "further into" oneself. An early stage is to detach oneself from the impulses of the body, whether it's a matter of eating an extra helping of dessert or fidgeting during meditation.

Another stage is to take a still deeper stance "further in" one's being. Here one becomes what the yogis call the "silent witness," observing thoughts and feelings as they arise, again without becoming identified with them. In this way we begin to have free will in a true sense of the word. But if we are shackled to every impulse, positive or negative, we have no free will, whether these impulses are governed by planets, hormones, or blood sugar levels.

Here, I think, lies one of astrology's uses. It makes us more aware of influences on our internal lives, just as conventional science makes us aware of influences on our physical bodies. Armed with this knowledge, we can go "further in," seeing ourselves in a clearer light and taking measures to counteract our own whims, moods, and defects. If these ideas insult our sense of autonomy, at least they absolve us of a certain measure of guilt for our faults.

So do the planets affect us? As we've seen, the scientific evidence is ambiguous. If studies like Gauquelin's suggest there is some relationship between the movements of the planets and events on earth, they don't go far toward showing how it works - another area for future study. Personally I suspect that if we knew how much the planets affect our lives, we would either go mad or take ourselves a lot less seriously. But perhaps you are not entirely convinced of this. How can you verify it?

It's no good waiting for the scientists. They are busy people and may not get around to telling us in our lifetimes. (Let's face it: astrology is not a high priority on most scientists' lists.) And in the end what would it mean if they did prove it? Would you believe something just because Carl Sagan told you to?

Yet some kind of verification is, I believe, tremendously important. Researchers like Gauquelin and Robert Hand will, we can hope, pursue their studies and sharpen our collective knowledge of astrology. But most of us lack the time and expertise to follow their example. Is there some way of investigating astrology for ourselves?

Cherry Gilchrist's article in this issue points to one answer. Most of us are in no position to evaluate huge quantities of statistics. But we can follow planetary aspects and movements and see how they play out in our daily lives. This takes some work and study - if only a matter of mastering some basic astrological principles - but it's within the grasp of most people aspiring to an esoteric path. In fact it's easier than ever today with the vast quantity of astrological software available. We don't even have to be good at math anymore.

Such an approach has two advantages. In the first place, as we've seen, it becomes a matter of understanding these principles for yourself. Once you do that, nobody can take your knowledge from you. In the second place, the elusiveness of proof for astrology suggests that planetary influences play themselves out in different ways for different people; some astrological influences may not even make themselves felt at all in your life. By pursuing your own inquiries, you'll know what effect the planets have on you.

As for the mechanism by which astrology works, that too remains unclear. (For that matter, the notion of just what constitutes cause and effect is a lot murkier than we usually suspect.) In the end we must come back to the ancient doctrine of correspondences, which says that the structure of the human being, inner and outer, recapitulates the structure of the cosmos as a whole. There are many ways of understanding this idea; I will set one out here. It is a geocentric picture, but then our lives on earth are geocentric.

On the ground level - literally - is the earth. In terms of the human entity, this is the physical body, which arises out of the earth and returns to it when we die.

On the next level are the planets, which correspond to, and perhaps govern, our thoughts and emotions: Mercury corresponding to communication and the ordinary intelligence; Venus to sex and physical love; Mars to aggression and domination. This is the stuff of our psyches, and it's what astrology - at least the astrology of the natal chart - professes to tell us about. The most obvious place to witness this level is in our dreams at night.

Above that is the level of the fixed stars. In the course of an individual lifetime, they are changeless and immovable. It's only over many lifetimes that they can be seen to shift slowly in what's known as the precession of the equinoxes. In our own being this is the level of the spirit; to all appearances fixed and unchangeable, this "silent watcher" grants us access to the great cosmic rhythms that transcend the limits of a single life.

Beyond the realm of the fixed stars is the level of principle, the great cosmic laws which, though they cannot be directly perceived in ordinary reality, yet underlie it and give it life. One could call this the level of the divine. Not much can be said about it here. It is known only through sacred texts and the revelations of great prophets, or perhaps it is unveiled to us for a moment or two in our lives. In the human being it is the Self, which is identical to the Divine Self.

How does this divine will make itself known throughout the cosmos? One could say that it is normally through the chain of command outlined above. At the same time the divine can override this sequence, operating directly in a lower order of existence (for example, the earth); this is what we experience as the miraculous. As some teachings indicate, the miraculous is simply the laws of a higher order operating in a lower order. (There is nothing particularly miraculous about flying in a dream, for example, but if you could fly under your own power in the waking state, you'd very likely think of it as a miracle.)

By such a view, the divine will retains all freedom to operate; the cosmic chain of being represents nothing more than its most customary and familiar form of functioning.

Beyond all these levels is the realm of the unseen and unknown, the primordial nothing out of which all things, including us, arise. If we can conceive of this at all, it is only negatively, in the form of endless, empty space, or the soundless out of which all sounds come.

Here, then, is a brief picture of man and the cosmos. It corresponds to many of the systems discussed in this issue. And in this scheme the stars and planets play a major role. If we live in and among them, they also live in us. Coming to know them is not simply a matter of understanding formulae in physics texts, but coming to see and acknowledge the great cosmic forces that operate in our most ordinary thoughts and desires. It's not often that we can catch a glimpse of them in operation, but if we do it may point a way toward inner freedom.

(c) copyright 1995 by Richard Smoley

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