Esmé L. K. Partridge
Astrology: From a Sacred Science to a Trapping of Individualism
Self-published on Medium.
It comes as no revelation that the astrology of Twitter and Instagram has come a long way from its traditional forms. In the sphere of popular culture, it is subjected to a variety of timely issues; its plausibility in the face of modern science; whether its despisers suffer from ‘toxic masculinity’; and, most recently, its compatibility with queerness. All of these, whether consciously or not, evaluate astrology’s place in modernity.
There is one aspect of its status in contemporary culture, however, which is rarely addressed in such discourse. Namely, that it has undergone a drastic transition in recent years from a holistic means of understanding the interconnectivity of the universe, to yet another tool for inspecting the self— in concomitance, of course, with the West’s reigning ideology of individualism.
Following in the footsteps of capitalised forms of meditation and other so-called spiritual trends that have gained popularity since the 1960s, astrology today has become both disenchanted and appropriated for the interrogation of the individual personality — in fact, the App Co-Star, perhaps the most popular form of contemporary astrology, explicitly markets itself as being ‘hyper-personalised’.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the self-awareness that this inspires, the fact that this now almost exclusively constitutes what astrology is in the modern context is representative of a much broader cultural shift. Namely, the turning away from viewing humanity and its surrounding nature as an interconnected whole, in favour of looking only inwards at the self. Astrology’s original proposal of a cosmic equilibrium between the terrestrial and celestial — encapsulated in the famous Hermetic axiom, ‘as above so below’ — has now become offset, weighed down by the pressures of identity-formation and the need to consolidate selfhood.
Even when astrology was used predominantly for practical means — determining the best times for farming, electing kings, or even performing ritual sacrifices — it was accompanied by an underlying philosophy of oneness. The drawing of connections between planetary motions and worldly affairs, no matter how pseudoscientific these might seem today, rested upon the general premise that certain patterns are omnipresent throughout all levels of nature — not too dissimilar to the Confucian concept of Lī, the essence attributed to the recurring formations of physical geography, plants, and human societies.
Such a notion is illustrated particularly vividly in The Zohar, the primary text of Jewish Kabbalah. Here it is written that each star is designated to ‘care’ for every tree and plant on earth, invigorating nature with heavenly light — not even the smallest blade of grass is without celestial guardianship of this nature. Al-Kindi, the early Islamic philosopher, described a similar process of celestial bodies emitting ‘stellar rays’ which influence the qualities of the four elements and, in turn, the events in the world. He viewed the planets as ‘proximate agents’ for God’s affairs in the Earth, comparing their function to the bow of an archer who is shooting an arrow; they are a necessary instrument through which God, the archer, is able to actualise his influence, the arrow, on all worldly affairs, from the meteorological to the personal.
Regardless of whether one believes in the legitimacy of such theories — and, indeed, the feasibility of astrology has been much disputed within religious traditions themselves — the general point remains: throughout a myriad of different traditions across different centuries, astrology offered a mechanism through which the microcosm and the macrocosm could be reconciled. By doing so, it offered a vision of wholeness; instead of interrogating circumstances from the inside, it looked outward, beyond the limited scope of the human understanding and into the heavens.
Of course, natal astrology — the specific application of these movements to the individual personhood that is most prevalent on social media today — has virtually always existed. However, its original usage was practical, and limited almost exclusively to the birth charts of potential kings and prophets. The Buddha, for example, wasn’t prescribed an astrological reading out of a self-gratifying curiosity to learn of how his Mars in Aries might affect his love-life, nor was Alexander the Great’s horoscope produced in an elaborate Persian manuscript so that he could decipher his ‘attachment style’ from his Venus placements. Rather, such natal horoscopes were produced for the knowledge and understanding of those who surrounded them. Though natal horoscopes have always concerned individuals, they were not designed to be applied individualistically.
I should clarify that this is not to declare that natal astrology in the popular sphere is a wholly negative development; one ought to avoid ruthlessly criticising what may merely be some harmless fun. Moreover, some amount of self-reflection is necessary and highly beneficial for personal development. In this regard, I do not wish suggest that all astrology revert to its traditional forms and that we worship the planets or keep track of their alignments to determine the optimal time for sacrificing a calf.
However, reflecting on the history of astrology does serve to illustrate quite the extent that the cultural pre-occupation with selfhood has come to dominate a system that once imposed worldview of a different sentiment entirely. Astrology’s original vision of a interconnected cosmos, in which the individual is only a minor counterpart, has become lost in favour of its reduction to an expression of the already widespread infatuation with the individual self as an isolated entity.
What was responsible for this shift? The 1960s counterculture movements are the most likely candidate; this was the era when alternative spiritual movements were blossoming and, simultaneously, a growing interest in popular psychology was emerging. Both of these phenomena occupying the same cultural space led to a fascination with both ‘spiritual’ belief systems and the self’s inner workings that resided in the Jungian unconscious mind and its oneiric symbolism (which Jung often self-consciously borrowed from spiritual concepts that were in vogue at the time, such as the Mandala).
It is particularly interesting to note that, contrary to earlier spiritually-informed psychological theories which tended to be tripartite (proposing that each human consists of a physical nature, a mundane psyche and a spiritual consciousness), Jung’s theory conglomerated the psyche and the spiritual consciousness into one faculty. This, perhaps, served as a license to overlap the mystical aesthetics of astrology with emotions related to worldly situations and bodily drives such as love, jealousy and other common themes which the signs of the zodiac are applied to. It is potentially as a result of this confounding that the 60s and 70s saw the soaring popularity of the personal horoscope; an innovation which served both cultural appeals of New Age spirituality and the growing interest in personal psychology, merging the two in a way more personalised than ever before.
Moving into the present era, the dynamics of popular astrology have shifted even further away from the spiritual domain, succumbing instead to the potent force of individualism. In a culture which is almost dogmatically empiricist — committed to the legacy of the European enlightenment and its disregard for that which lies beyond the boundaries of scientific measurement — it is no longer socially acceptable to posit the existence of celestial guardianship or ‘stellar rays’. Though, of course, this does not stop people from believing that the stars and planets do influence the world — and, statistically, many people do — it does prevent such ideas from becoming genuinely embraced as legitimate metaphysical theories. As a result, astrology, now with no hope of accounting for a collective vision of the universe, is now left in the hands of the individual, and from here on the individual becomes its only real concern.
Such has become amplified by the impact of capitalism. In an economy that pushes us into ‘building our brand’ and sculpting our own personalities into unique selling points, the self is once again put to centre-stage. This, in conjunction (to borrow some astrological jargon) with the persisting cultural obsession with psychoanalysis and its insistence that we delve into every nook and cranny of the subconscious, leads to the elevated importance of not only the self as an ontologically undisputed principle, but of the necessity for it to be comprehensively understood. Though, of course, to read a personal horoscope one has to some extent believe there is truth in astrology, in essence it has simply ceased to offer a wider philosophy beyond its relevance to the individual. Thus, the Libra Scales of balance that astrology proposed, between the ‘above’ and ‘below’, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, have fallen into a state of imbalance.
As with many other popular spiritual systems that have ebbed and flowed in Western culture over the past fifty years, astrology’s content has become subject to the same Weberian disenchantment that has come to dominate virtually every aspect of society. A sacred science that once served to map the interconnectivity of the universe as a whole has been profaned and manipulated to serve something as self-gratifying as the ‘hyper-personalised’ inspection of one’s own identity; a condition which finds itself to be almost perfectly analogical of the state of the Western world today.