Astrology and the Science of the Concrete

Before I get into this blog post, I have to make a confession — I love listening to Coast to Coast AM . . . yes, that’s right, the radio show that’s about aliens. At least, that’s what it is known for. As a “lover of discourse,” I can’t resist the extensive dialogues that occur between the hosts, guests, and callers. In a way, this show performs more dialogical rhetoric than almost all other media outlets. It is also my weekly dose of ethnography.

Nancy Reagan created when it was rumored that she used astrology to advise Presidential policy.

Recently George Noory had a conversation with an eminent astrologer named Mark Lerner on September 7, 2010. Of course, most people associate astrology with TV scams like Miss Cleo from the 1990s or Nancy Reagan’s infamous involvement with astrology in the 1980s. Astrology has developed a reputation much like the Sophists, as represented in Aristotle’s rhetoric: “Words of ambiguous meaning are chiefly useful to enable the sophist to mislead hearers” (Book III). Or in Socrates’ description in Gorgias of sophists being obsessed by money, when professing to teach virtue. In fact, some scholars claim that early forms of astrology incorporated Aristotelian forms of argumentation within their systems of analysis (IEP). We might even associate some forms of astrology with esoteric cults who secretly hoard knowledge, as described by Andrew Buchner in his blog post “Down the Rabbit Hole.” As with the Sophists, astrologers are often seen as scam artists, and astrology, at best, is an entertaining distraction. But in this interview, Lerner is clearly working to build a stronger ethos around what he calls the “science of astrology.” In particular, he presents it as a “problem-solving” activity based in math that is like working a crossword puzzle, except much more complex.

According to Lerner, who is not a firm believer in quick or easy answers, astrology requires engaged dialogue between the client and practitioners. Lerner also seems to promote a more holistic view of astrology, which uses charts in conjunction with other knowledge obtained from his clients. For example, a lady called in asking what kind of planet alignments might block her ability to lose weight. Lerner explains that most often Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, can be the culprit. But he went on to explain that for further consultation, he would ask her about her eating habits and emotional state. This is a classic form of associative thinking that ties likenesses together in order to explain worldly events. To many people this will seem absurd, because eating habits and emotional states are likely the primary cause. One could say that wearing the color blue (or the orbit of Jupiter) influences someone’s weight, but the connection is arbitrary. Western logic does not allow for such arbitrary associations.

This reminds me of Sir George James Frazer’s theory of magic and religion, where magic is a primitive form of religion which makes associations between events using metaphor and allegory. Though the cause and effect is not “logically” connected, happenstance is bound to produce these associations. For example, in Leo Tolstoy’s short story Polikushka, a serf becomes a famous horse doctor, because he does random things to the horse and makes a complicated explanation, figuring the chances are good that the horse would get better. So everybody thought he was a brilliant doctor, when really he was just playing the odds. For Frazer, this is the essential definition of a Shaman, the prototype of the priest or pastor–and the ultimate sophist, as defined by Plato. It is no surprise that Tolstoy wrote such story, as he subscribed to a Christianity stripped of what he called superstition and nonsense. This generally represents a modernity theory that is universal and teleological, assuming that religion and superstition will be shed as a society becomes more rational and individualistic (Spohn 267). But as we move further into a post-modern world where such paradigms cannot explain everyday encounters with cultures organized largely around religion (or strange radio shows at two in the morning), we are in desperate need for new models or new ways of viewing modernity.

One new model that has recently been proposed by sociologist Wilfried Spohn revolves around the concepts of “multiple modernities” and a “comparative civilizational approach” (268). Instead of assuming that the Western model of modernization is universally applicable, Spohn presupposes “that western modernity is only one among other types of modernity evolving in the various civilizations of the world” (268). But the subculture of astrology suggests that there are likely multiple modernities even within what we view as the modern West. These modernities may be relying on what Levi-Strauss calls the “science of the concrete,” which has generally been devalued within Western culture. In his interview, Mark Lerner describes astrology very much in terms of a science that structures the world through concrete means.

A representation of the Greek zodiac from the archives of the Arkansas sky laboratory.

Mark Lerner asserts that doing astrology long enough will teach you how to structure the world, helping you see it in a new way. For Lerner, these forms of thinking are no less logical or valuable than what we would normally call science or philosophy. Ironically, a quick internet search will show that many astrologers name Plato as one predecessor of Western astrology, who carried astrology with him from his visits to the east (My Astrology Book). On the other hand, there is evidence that Plato looked down upon all forms of divination except those attained through madness (IEP). So as usual Plato is a mixed bag. Regardless, it is clear that Plato used the zodiac to think through philosophical problems, such in Laws, where he divides his perfect city into 12, according to the Greek pantheon (Book V). Even Socrates makes use of myths to think through issues, though we often read these within the binary of literal vs. fictional, stemming somewhat from modern modes of interpretation and discussions of Biblical narratives. But as noted by Johnson-Sheehan in “Rhetoric of Myth, Magic, and Conversion,” literacy in Ancient Greece created “a new class of people, namely philosophers, who used reason and empiricism as ways to study their society and critique their myths” (15). Magic, and concrete forms of thought like astrology, began to lose their credibility. Extrapolate that to today. Philosophers, or academics, rule the campus while astrologers are displaced into the wee hours of the night.

So laugh as we may at shows like Coast to Coast, taking into account other ways of constructing knowledge should be an important part of the academic study of rhetoric. Science uses the inductive method, along with a specific set of symbols, to make sense of the world. Christianity uses discourse and ritual. Astrology uses math and the planets to structure the world. What different things might we see if we were to take this system of thought seriously, even if we do not necessarily “believe” it. In this sense, whether or not there is actually a connection between the stars and the patterns of our lives is mostly irrelevant. What astrology does is help practitioners think through the problems of life . . . and therein lies its power.

Johnson-Sheehan. “Rhetoric of Myth, Magic, and Conversion: A Prolegomena to Ancient Irish Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review [No Volume/Issue] (2007): 233.

Spohn, W.C. “Multiple modernity, nationalism and religion: a global perspective.” Current Sociology 51.3 (2003): 265.

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