By Carlin Romano
Inquirer Book Critic
The Fated Sky
Astrology in History
By Benson Bobrick
Simon & Schuster. 369 pp. $26
With journalistic pundits discredited lately as too often on the take, shouldn't we approach this New Year's window of prognostication from another angle?
Didn't the planetary maps of Regiomontanus aid Columbus?
"Astrology is the oldest of the occult sciences," explains independent historian Benson Bobrick in The Fated Sky, his robust, fact-filled account of the subject, but "is also the origin of science itself," with progeny as diverse as astronomy and botany.
Do you think astrology survives mainly as a jobs program for suburban women columnists, a quick way to check whether "good things, or possibly bad things," will happen this week?
Think again. Bobrick, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based writer whose previous books include absorbing chronicles of such subjects as subways and stuttering, may not be in earnest here, but neither is his tongue in cheek.
Astrology, Bobrick asserts, "is an applied science, insofar as it is based on astronomy; an exact science, insofar as its judgments are based on mathematical calculations; and an empirical science, insofar as its deductions are based on data gathered over the course of time."
The method is "a horoscope, which is a map or diagram of the heavens cast for a particular moment of time... . The idea at the heart of astrology is that the pattern of a person's life... corresponds to the planetary pattern at the moment of his birth."
Where does astrology fit with science today? "Astronomy," Bobrick writes, "studies the heavenly bodies in order to formulate the natural laws that govern them and to understand how the physical structure of the universe evolved."
Astrology, by contrast, "describes the influence of those bodies upon human character and life. Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reputedly remarked, 'Astrology is astronomy brought down to earth and applied to the affairs of men.' "
The Emerson quote betokens Bobrick's method and his overriding message: Astrology - science or pseudoscience in its various aspects - boasts a serious history, as well as supportive blurbs from many illustrious thinkers. Popes, emperors and caliphs bet their lives on it, and great European universities established chairs in it. (They weren't stellar for nothing.)
Bobrick's energetic history, in short, does not stem from pandering to polls that show 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in astrology. It grew from recognition of astrology's "impact on history and on the history of ideas."
"Whether [astrology] is true or not may be subject to debate," Bobrick states early on. "But the belief that it is has proved to have enduring power."
The Fated Sky thus evolves into a rich feast of astrological lore, stretching back to the practice's Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek origins, and sideways to debates over "the Star of Bethlehem" and Catholic theology's swings between condemnation and co-option.
Some stories are priceless. Who can't divine the workings of stage-mother fate in the tale of Agrippina, Nero's mother? When Balbillus, the Roman court astronomer, warned mom that her son would kill her someday, Agrippina exclaimed, "Oh, let him kill me so long as he gets to rule!"
Bobrick's equal-time provisions for critics of astrology also guarantee that The Fated Sky is no campaign bio. Cicero famously raised logical problems that influenced subsequent naysayers such as St. Augustine.
Why do twins have different destinies, Cicero asked, despite being born under the same constellation? Could it be true, Cicero wondered, that all who suffered the same fate, such as Romans who perished at Hannibal's hands in 216 B.C, were "born under the same star"?
Yet, Bobrick shows, astrologers countered such challenges with resourceful answers, leading even magisterial synthesizers of Western thought such as St. Thomas Aquinas to integrate astrology into Christianity. (Aquinas finessed the task by arguing that stars sway the body, but not man's soul, thus leaving free will intact.)
As Bobrick shines light on his subject, the only warning here (based on reading of pages, not charts) is that the author - one hopes for reasons of puckishness - laces astrological explanations throughout his text.
So, for instance, Bobrick confides, when noting the birth of Augustus, "His Sun was conjunct his ascendant in Libra; his fifth-house Capricorn Moon was waxing and moving toward Jupiter, which was exalted in the tenth."
Say what? Though Bobrick ritually follows such sentences with normal prose, a few bouts of "astrologese" and you're ready to knock the wizard's cap off the author's head.
Control the reflex. The Fated Sky offers a cast of thousands, star coverage that shames People and US Weekly with its nuanced intellectual bent.
"If astrology is dead and buried," Bobrick advises, "its grave is as unquiet as that of Columbus, and as indeterminate as his tomb."
Rams, goats, scorpions and other potential readers - enter here.