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Rise and Fall of Prognostic Astrology in Early Modern Protestantism

Rise and Fall of Prognostic Astrology in Early Modern Protestantism


Historians of science and historians of religion have noticed that Western cultural history on one hand shows an amazing continuity of astrological traditions and practices but on the other hand, that astrology has always been subject to profound changes resulting from their entanglement with changing religious, social, political and scientific situations. Today I would like to introduce to you first, the prime of astrology in the era of Renaissance and Reformation with its new orientation to the future - a prime which was disputed at the same time. Second, the decline of its scientific and theological reputation after the Thirty Years’ War despite of respectable attempts of reformation - a decline, however, that replaced astrology by a seemingly more rational form of coping with the contingencies of the time coming.

Rise and demise of serious astrology between Renaissance and Enlightenment is a historical phenomenon that can be observed all over Europe. It is particularly interesting in Protestant states, whose first decades are characterized by heavy political, social and religious tensions and turmoils. Already the late 15th Century looked expectantly but also uncertain towards future, the Reformation built up an extremely intense and ambivalent expectation of what it would bring about. There were two forms of re-orientation of every-day life and also in political decisions, one primarily cosmological, one primarily historical. The cosmological pattern provided an astronomy-based astrology, existing since ancient cultures; it was a method to relate regular and irregular, striking phenomena in the sky to earthly and human affairs and to qualify them in their meaning or predict their future course. The historical pattern was also an old one, which however has become very strange to modern mentality but very common to the late ancient, medieval and early modern societies. It was the apocalyptic view of world history, stemming from prophetical, mostly biblical literature In this view, the present time is a step towards the catastrophic end of the existing world, and here astrology is the method to interpret historical and astronomic events in relation to the apocalyptic time-order.

Both forms of astrological prognostication aim at the same: they tell us, were we stand, what might happen, and how we can adjust to or even benefit from the good and the bad to come. But their bases were very different: astronomy, and history. Now the most interesting thing in Early Modern thought is that both patterns of prognostication were combined and intertwined in many ways; in consequence, the affirmation of astrology and the critique of astrology does not reveal immediately the respective motifs. In the following I will describe the complex syndrome called "astrology” more in historical detail and identify the motifs of the judgments pro and contra astrology in a world of deep changes of religious and scientific scholarship. And because most of you are probably rather familiar with the development of astronomy in the early period of modern culture, I should begin with what probably is less familiar to you: the apocalyptic basis of astrology.

The interpretation of the presence as the final phase of salvation history

The self-description of the human experience of time in pre-modern Europe, shaped by Christianity, is reciprocally correlated with the interpretation of the course of time as a story of loss and of restitution. World and time comprised the loss of original harmony of man with nature and their Creator, unthreatened by any unforeseeable future; and the recovery of that harmony by successive divine intervention and human response to these interventions, implemented as belief and morality. Planetary cycles were replaced by a linear historical process under the title "Paradise Lost - Paradise regained "to say it with John Milton, or "education of the human race", to say it with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

Although the experiences of cyclical time, of course, never became just irrelevant, they were classified as cosmical regularities and subordinated to the religious concept of the history of salvation. Life-determining cyclical phenomena were no longer mythically ambivalent, but their creator and sustainer could change them irregularly and perform a miracle, as they were passed down numerous times in the Bible. In the early modern time, besides terrestrial events such as floods, earthquakes or monsters, celestial phenomena like the big conjunctions of planets and comets were dramatic events that meant something, i.e. by means of which God wanted to say something to people and move them to better their lives. Of all the

21 comets of the 16th and 17th Century, we know scholarly reports and astronomical representations of comets, but also popular pamphlets that interpret those appearances as divine admonitions and place them in the interpretation context of the history of salvation.

The steep rise of astrology from the expertise of astronomers to a knowledge of orientation coveted by many (and well-paid by the wealthy) is closely connected with the crisis-ridden religious, economic and political developments in the decades around 1500. The Reformation meant an enormous intensification of time experience and reinforced emotionally inflamed and socially mobilizing expectations that the redemptive return of Christ and the catastrophic end of the world was now imminent. Signs of this end were e.g. the deadly threat of Christian Europe by the Ottoman expansion, or the emerging religious division of Europe. In this sense Martin Luther called himself "prophet of Germany", interpreting the "Turks" and the "Pope" as the secular and the spiritual "Antichrist”, i.e. as characters of the eschatological drama that would very soon be ended for Christians by the "dear Last Day”. There were earlier prognoses maintaining that the time of the universe would amount to 6000 years; now things compressed to a dramatic scenario of the end of the world, which had grown old. As an important form of coping with future now appeared the prophecy of the dawning end-times.

The apocalyptic-based prophecies, however, made readily use of astronomy- based prognoses. This was quite commonly accepted: Supralunary phenomena and sublunary events including history were regarded to happen in different zones but in one physical world. In consequence, the improvements of astronomical observation, calculation and precise prediction since e.g. the Ephemirides of Johannes Regiomontanus were integrated in apocalyptic prognostication, going far beyond the predictions and prognoses of the annual calendars now in print and the individual horoscopes drawn the educated and the rich. Well informed astronomers within the Reformation acted with explicitly prophetic claim. I only mention the mathematician and chronologist Johannes Carion with his Prognosticatio (1521) of a deluge for 1524, and the friend of Luther and Melanchthon, the mathematician and pastor Michael Stifel who predicted the return of Christ on 19th October 1533 at 8’clock and who was therefore temporarily arrested, of course. The combination of both sources of astrology was not limited to German Protestantism, as you recognize by the French physician Nostradamus, whose horoscopes were indeed often erroneously calculated, whose dark political prophecies could nevertheless be sold in the whole of Europe. In short: Astrology of combined patterns processed by the mass media in the early 16th Century became the hermeneutics of doomsday - and of the days still remaining.

Pro and Contra Astrology in academic discourses

Before analyzing the academic the academic discourses on astrology I should not forget to mention that astrology in the Early Modern era was not only a theoretical issue, be it the more astronomical or the more apocalyptic or the mixture of both. Divinatory practices of all sort were at least as important as serious horoscopes or political prognoses. To some extent, there were coalitions of users and supporters. Popular divination and mantic, however, went mostly its own way apart from intellectual reflection. Although, for instance, chiromancy appealed on astrological hermeneutics of astronomical data, there are no official documents proving their acceptance. Often those practices went out of hand in illiterate environments and in warlike devastated regions in superstitious arts of magic. Frequent secular bans and ecclesiastical visitations could only very superficially discipline this until the 18th Century (and even now we encounter a huge and profitable astrological market).

The political Prognostication based mainly on apocalyptic prophesies held a very strong position, particularly in Lutheran Protestantism nearly until the end of the 17th Century. Political crises and political and military actions against Protestant states regularly resulted in theological discussions and popular apocalyptic tracts They warned of dangers imminent and polemicized against political propaganda, e.g. of Jesuits and Calvinists in the advance of the Thirty Years War. In 1630 such literature legitimized the entry of Gustav Adolph of Sweden in the war in Central Europe. After 1650, however, the expectation of a cosmic catastrophe faded more and more, and the apocalyptic time-order lost its orienting plausibility. The apocalyptic worldview was gradually replaced a new form of coping with the future, chiliasm. Originally chiliasm was part of apocalypticism, namely the expectation of an empire of the righteous and pious Christians lasting 1.000 years immediately after or even before the epiphany of Christ (Apoc. 20); "chiliasm” od "millenarism” refers to those 1.000 years. There had been attempts to establish such an empire already

23 during the Reformation, e.g. the Peasants’ War 1525 or the Anabaptist Kingdom of MQnster (1535). The Puritan Revolution Cromwell’s in England (1642/60) explicitly sought to establish the 1.000 years reign of the pious on earth.

Chiliasm as a philosophical and theological theory deduced from an exegesis of the Book of St. John’s Revelation was developed by the Anglican Joseph Mede (1627) and the German Calvinist Johann Heinrich Alsted (1627), after all by the famous Cambridge Platonists and the German Lutheran lawyer and promotor of Kabbala, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1670). On occasion of the last "Turkish threat” in 1683 we can observe some attempts to restore the apocalyptic time-order, though including some chiliastic modifications. In 1684 Caspar Heunisch of Schweinfurt published a chronotactical exegesis of St. John’s Revelation, which tried to make plausible again the "time-order” based on Daniel's scheme of the sequence of four world-monarchies. In terms of arithmetics his analysis of moon-years and sun- years hidden in the apocalyptic figures between 144.000 and 2 is most elegant - unfortunately it does no longer provide the imminent end of the world. His fairly detailed forecast of the political and ecclesiastical changes to that end placed in the fifth time-circle expects another sixth and a seventh time-circle and assumes a "better state” of the Church stretching not over 1000 but over 280 years only. Thus, the end of the world according to Heunisch should be dated to the year Anno Christi 2398 - still some years to go!

It seems very surprising that astronomy-based prognostication in Protestant Europe met both active supporters and strong opponents. Even if there was no rejection of astrology in an index of forbidden books, as in Roman Catholicism at the Council of Trent in 1564 (DH 1859), Luther and John Calvin uncompromisingly disapproved of the prognostic astrology, the astrologia judiciaria (divinatrix) as it had been called since ancient times, as superstitious and even support of magical practices. However, this rejection did not concern the so-called "natural astrology", i.e. the relationship of the human microcosm with the macrocosm and its influence on the former, but that did not imply any supernatural interpretation. Accordingly, the sermons that followed all comet apparitions of the 16th and 17th Century avoided to mix the physical and the religious perspective. Often such sermons provided a part that explained the religious significance of the comet, and another part that described its physical nature. The latter, depending on the educational level of the preacher, passed on the current knowledge about comets to the lay people. As to Luther I should mention that he also had personal reasons for his rejection of prognostic astrology. Twice he published the Prognosticatio of the imperial court astrologer Johannes Lichtenberger of the year 1488, which had predicted a prophetic reformer of the church; but the Roman side could as well interpret it as plausible against Luther. In his own horoscope Luther quoted for his birth not 1483 but 1484, the year of the Great Conjunction and a solar eclipse in the sign of Lion - the year Lichtenberger had started from. The Italian astrologer Luca Gaurico Even interpreted also this horoscope to the disadvantage of the legitimacy of Luther; he had even requested Melanchthon concerning the nativity of Luther, because Melanchthon was known to be an outstanding humanist scholar and an excellent astrologer.

"For this one thing is certain: Valuable and truthful is the science of astrology, it is a crown of the human race and all its wisdom is a testimony of God.” Thus Melanchthon wrote in his Oratio de dignitate astrologiae of 1535. Despite of all the ironic criticism of Luther, Melanchthon made the young Wittenberg University a center of astrology. His academic reforms excluded the Aristotelian metaphysics from the curriculum, but retained astrology as part of the quadrivium and at that elaborated its Hellenistic and Arab tradition (Ptolemaios, Tetrabiblos; Abu Maschar, De magnis coniunctionibus) in the context of physics and astronomy, mathematics and medicine. His students, who occupied the mathematical chair (Erasmus Reinhold, Georg Joachim Rheticus,) the chairs of natural philosophy (Paul Eber), and the chair of medicine (Caspar Peucer), supported his intention. His physics textbook of 1534 extensively dealt with astrology as part of astronomy and cosmology. The revised version of 1549, which was to be used for decades, abridged astrology and linked it up to the theory of motion, while astronomy was written anew and incorporated the research done by Copernicus (Rheticus had worked with Copernicus for two years and had published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in Nuremberg in 1543).

The point here is that Melanchthon took astrology for good biblical thought and good rational thought - in full accordance with Renaissance-Platonists like Marsilio Ficino and Girolamo Cardano. Melanchthon drew horoscopes, too, for princes or for his own children. He attached particular importance to astrology in contrast to the belief in fate. Just as he fought against the "Epicurean" doctrine of universal randomness of all events, he tried all his life to prove the "Stoic" fatum as irrational and destructive. Astrology was a strong argument against fatalism, because the celestial phenomena were a sign of divine providence, but not the cause of human happiness or misery. Indeed he assumed an influence of the heavenly motions on man, but only a physical one, as was also insinuated by the contemporaneous humoral medicine; that didn’t abolish the free will of man, that is, his moral responsibility.

The most important areas of application of astrology for Melanchthon were medicine, which he was well familiar with, and history, which he highly esteemed and extensively fostered as stage for exemplary human condition. In this respect he was particularly close to Cardano, who compared famous horoscopes in a collection published in 1538 and examined them on grounds of historical experience. In this sense, Melanchthon was an empirically oriented astrologer, and vice versa Cardano also dealt with astrological hermeneutics. Both achieved their results by requisite judgment (ingenium), i.e. by inserting given astronomical data into patterns of qualitative understanding, i.e. into cultural patterns. This "humanistic” astrology understood itself as a scientific avant-garde until the early 17th and nurtured a church-tolerated, politically even desirable horoscopical practice. Political theory emerging in the late 16th Century always contained a discussion of the relationship of stellar constellations and political upheaval; by the way not only in the eyes of Protestant, but also of Catholic lawyers and politicians, although astrology in Jesuit academies was excluded from the philosophical curriculum (ratio studiorum philosophiae).

Philosophical and theological rejection of astronomy-based astrology

4.1 Political theory, however, was one of the intellectual activities that contributed at least to the weakening of astrology. For political authors analyzed mainly human circumstances and conditions of action, which, as experience shows, are not only determined by reason, but even more by affects and desires. Therefore, it was important to calculate the probability of future developments in the view of the agents to instruct political wisdom with this forecast. In this psychological context, astrology already appeared like a method of self-deception based on empirical selection, as was said by Michel de Montaigne, for example. The political utopias of that time set a normatively defined future against the poor presence and looked down

26 on the pragmatically calculated political wisdom. On their side, however, they didn’t do anything with astrology since they relied on authoritarian education policy.

Often, the delegitimization of astrology in the 17th Century is explained with the development of a new natural science, working with experimental empiricism and mathematics. This is correct only at a later stage. This can clearly be seen in the astronomer Johannes Kepler. He was Lutheran, representing at the same time humanistic-platonic paradigm. So he remained an active astrologer, but tried to reform astrology in terms of mathematics. Even though, for example, he considered horoscopes for the Emperor as politically dangerous, he drew up horoscopes and annual prognostications on the basis of his reform. In his astrological writings he opposed against the "stargazer’s superstition ", but his heliocentric Astronomia Nova and Harmonia Mundi remained the (improved) basis of a predictive astrology - and of course, remained physico-theologically committed, like Melanchthon.

In the years after 1600, however, in Protestant universities a change of scientific paradigm took place, referring primarily to the methodology that had been taught at the University of Padua, prominently by Jacopo Zabarella. The change passed the Melanchthon’s model of science in favor of an analytical-demonstrative model, driven effectively forward not only by a new theory of knowledge but also in natural philosophy. The textbooks of Melanchthon and of Ramistic dialectics were replaced by Aristotelian paradigms, including metaphysics; in natural philosophy the most pronounced opponent of the astrologer Cardano, Julius Caesar Scaliger, became a popular reference. Furthermore, theology actively took part in that shift of scientific paradigm, although spiritually dedicated groups linked up with neoplatonic or even paracelsian ideas rejected the theologia accurata, as it was called now but not successful in the mainstream. The leading Protestant theologian of that time, Johann Gerhard of Jena, in his Loci theologici (1610/1625) harshly rejected the astrology of Albertus Magnus and Cardano, referring to Augustin, Pico della Mirandula Luther and Scaliger. With the latter he rejected the assumption that the time of death of a person could be predicted from his nativity.

Although theology at that time was very influential, astrological practice did not end at once. For both theology and philosophy remained committed to physico- theology, i.e. the cognition of the creator through the order of the created world and of natural processes; and most natural philosophers supported this view and actively contributed to it, down to Isaac Newton or Leonhard Euler. The modification of Ptolemaic cosmology by Tycho Brahe, in which the earth was still at the center of the world, was an option throughout the century, and even the change to Copernican cosmology did not exclude astrology as cultural paradigm. Therefore, horoscopes were generated with medical and political intention for many further decades. Nevertheless, astrology lost its scientific reputation by 1680 - way before Isaac Newton's Principia of 1687. Further attempts to reform astrology and to separate it from superstitious soothsaying were done in England and Germany, but in vain.

If time allows, I would like to mention Abdias Trew, professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Nuremberg in Altdorf until 1669, famous as an outstanding astronomical observer. He had once studied mathematics, philosophy, physics and theology at Wittenberg, a main place of opposition against superstitious astrology. In the wake of Kepler’s reform he tried to separate astrology (and his own prognostical calenders) even more clearly from esotericism still implied in Pythagorean-Platonic cosmology; and he held back concerning apocalyptic-base prognostication, despite of the great comet 1664/6 with its "apocalyptic" number 666. In his method, "to consider and interpret the course of heaven by mathematical calculations and measuring", he measured real ascendents etc., but did not apply qualitative interpretations. Thus, metaphors like the signs of the zodiac, the division into four times three "houses", the so-called Trutina Hermetis by means of which the time of conception was determined, or the death forecast due to "violent" stars or planet direction through Mars or Saturn. What, then, remained? First, the personal horoscope that finds specific "tendencies" that do not necessitate anybody. Second, the meteorology with statements of more or less feasibility; last but not least endured the medicine, for which Trew formulated astrological advice in all areas, e.g. for the time of medication.

Trew’s follower on the chair of physics, Johann Christoph Sturm, was the first to introduce mathematized experimental physics into a university and to see off the traditonial notion of empiricism which was always hermeneutically open. Sturm, occasionally praised Trew’s criticism of speculative prognostication, but pointed out laconically in 1680 that no serious astronomer would carry on with astrology. Astrology as such now migrated to syncretistic esotericism. Especially now, to name three processes of history of science, the Copernican system prevailed, the

Cartesian privileging of thinking against the correlation of micro-and macrocosm was accepted, and the canonicity of the Bible also for the "book of nature” was hermeneutically retricted and soon destructed from the historical-critical perspective.

The changes occurring in the small Altdorf are an episode in the Crise de la conscience Europeenne, as Paul Hazard called it. In the course of this cultural crises the failure of reputable astrology was compensated with a different strategy of coping with contingency. It is Chiliasm, moving from religious to a secular mentality. This functional Chiliasm left its position in the apocalyptic-religious scenario and no longer associates the signs of the times with an end of the world. It expects ‘only’ an open future as the field of progress, the progres perpetuel, as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz called it programmatically. Thus, the future belongs to science-based technological and political practice, a practice that is motivated by a secular millenarianism of progress.

Leibniz, however, had no illusions about the contingent character of this future, which would show processes of acceleration and of shortage of time. The Theodicee (1710) expresses still in religious language that we do not know in detail the will of God, which as such infallibly comes to its end. We must assume each given reality as being in accordance with that will, i.e. accept it as good, and we must align our further actions with the alleged will of God, which means: We must act according to rules, which we are by reason and religion entitled to ascribe to the creator of the best of all possible worlds. Thus a syndrom of maximum realism and maximum optimism enters the psycho-economical function, which astrology occupied before. How stable this link was can be checked with the sceptical Immanuel Kant. Even in the often absurd course of human affairs Kant finds a plan of Nature for the perfection of the human race in history, because "Philosophy can also have its chiliasm; but such one to whose induction its idea though only from far can become conducive itself and therefore is nothing less but enthusiastic.” (Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbQrgerlicher Absicht, 1784). Not enthusiastic?! I doubt whether the master projects of a new perfect world, the American Dream and the Communist Ideal, have been free of enthusiastic, para-religious chiliasm. УДК 284.1

Walter Sparn