Sophia Centre Review
Persian World History and the Covid Crisis
It’s no exaggeration to say that the current health and economic crisis is the first truly global crisis. Previous plagues, and even the two World Wars, never touched the whole planet. In this respect I noticed this letter on page 30 of The Times on 28 March 2020.
Sir, I read Oliver Chastney’s letter (Mar 27) on the international space station with interest. As a lifelong amateur astronomer I have recently observed Venus in the evening sky in the west after sunset. It is a truly magnificent site, the brightest I can remember. However, another current celestial phenomenon provides a resonance with our ancestors. Since Christmas, before dawn there has been a close proximity of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the eastern sky. I am sure that our ancestors would have taken this as a portent of doom, pestilence and plague.
Market Harborough, Leics.
This extremely rare triple conjunction prompted a fair bit of attention and some great photographs. I was struck by Hanneke Weitering’s image of the planets over New York on Space.com. Anyway, following Simon Dobson’s letter in The Times it was natural for me to go back and check the Persian astrologers, who originated the theory that major planetary conjunctions coincide with world-changing events. The Persians termed Mars, Jupiter and Saturn the superior planets because they were thought to be further away from the Earth than the Sun. As they also seemed to be the slowest moving of the seven known planets, they were also thought to be responsible primarily for historical changes. It was thought they heralded a complex series of historical shifts over periods ranging from the shortest of 20 years, when Jupiter and Saturn make their regular conjunctions by meeting at the same degree of the zodiac, to the longest of a thousand years.
The eighth century Jewish astrologer Masha’allah (c. 740–815 CE) has left us the earliest surviving account of this theory in his aptly named work ‘On the Roots of Revolutions’. On pages 305 he wrote,
know that the greatest things, and those to be marvelled at, happen from the conjunction of the superior planets. And this comes to be on account of the slowness of their motion. And if these three were joined in one bound or face, and the sun aspected them, they will signify the destruction of sects and kingdoms, and the changing of them (and)… prophecies.
In plain English this means that when Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are in a conjunction, as they are now, Persian cosmology predicts massive religious and political upheaval. Masha’allah was followed closely by Abu Ma'shar (787–886 CE), whose comprehensive summary of Persian astrological history is contained in his On the Great Conjunctions, a book whose purpose was made clear in its full title, The Book of Religions and Dynasties. Abu Ma’shar refined and elaborated Masha'allah’s work, and gave this account of conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn. In section 3.5 Abu Ma’shar wrote,
We say that when the conjunction of the two superior planets necessitate something in the changes of religions and dynasties, the changes of the Sharias and the Sunnas, the occurrence of important matters, the change of the kingdom, the death of kings and the kinds of occurrence of prophets, revelation, and miracles in religions and dynasties.
Abu Ma’shar’s concern was quite clearly with the Islamic world, but his wider brief was the history of the world. His theories entered medieval Europe, where they became a staple of medieval learning and were widely accepted down to the seventeenth century. This is what he wrote about Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in On Historical Astrology, 1.83:
Of natural movements, one is round the middle, to which corresponds the movement of the three superior planets, to whom belongs the indication of things which last a long time; … Saturn indicates religions and kingdoms and whatever lasts a long time; Jupiter observations of the laws, decrees and the like which are perfections of other things; Mars, wars and conquests and the like, which are, as it were, descents and lessenings of the end of things.
It follows that when all three come together the medieval political scientist would expect political and religious turbulence, with some added wars and invasions.
These ideas were taken up by Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), one of the greatest astronomers of western history. Kepler’s overwhelming concern was to understand how the universe works, and he was deeply interested in how what we know about the universe can be used to help the common good. And so he set out to reform astrology, arguing that the entire technical fabric of horoscope interpretation should be abandoned in favour of a slimmed down astrology which only used planetary cycles; in other words, things that could actually be observed and measured. The central methodology of Kepler’s reformed astrology was repetition. The principle was that, if a particular planetary configuration coincided with a certain kind of event, a similar event might be expected the next time that the same configuration, or a similar one, occurred. All Kepler’s crucial ideas are contained in thesis 71 of his ‘On the More Certain Fundamentals of Astrology’, which he composed in 1601. Looking back to the past he observed that the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris in 1572 took place when Mars was conjunct Saturn, while the castle at Eger in Hungary was captured by the Turks in 1596 (a highly significant event at the time, the region being part of the contested border between Christian and Islamic Europe) when Mars was opposed to Jupiter. He concluded that:
Experience shows that under these two conjunctions souls are generally stunned and frightened, or aroused in the expectation of revolts, and this fact is very significant for a multitude of people congregated in one place either for some undertaking or for destruction, as military experience testifies.
In Kepler’s political cosmology, certain planetary configurations, in particular those between Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, cause volatility in the collective psychology and indicate a possible risk of political violence. The mechanism was one in which the movements of the planets stir up the collective soul, and such disturbances then express themselves through political volatility, resulting in violent disturbance. In Kepler’s view, this information was of great importance to governments and that their policies should take it into account, specifically the likely consequences. Kepler suggested a combination of reform and repression, with reform being the first priority and repression a last resort.
It is preferable for peace and quiet to prevail, and sedition is feared, let meetings not be held in August and September, or let them be broken up, or better yet, let the causes exasperating people’s dispositions be taken quickly away, or by the introduction of some new deterrent, let their minds be changed.
Kepler was convinced that, while observing the repetition of planetary cycles could help anticipate future events, we are ourselves participants in an interconnected universe: ‘These remedies’, he wrote, ‘are always in our power, however things may happen, and nothing is absolutely predetermined’.
We can imagine Masha’allah, Abu Ma’shar and Kepler all getting together now, probably amazed that the triple conjunction is coinciding with a global crisis. At the very least they would be nodding wisely and wishing that they had been listened to. Masha’allah and Abu Ma’shar would doubtless stay out of politics, living as they did in an age when the Caliph’s word was law. Kepler, though, lived in a different age, when the first germs of the theory of a democratic, law-based, state were beginning to emerge. He believed that the purpose of watching the movement of planetary patterns was to manage our responses to the ebb and flow of political events. These days, the study of long-term cycles is usually divorced from correlation with planetary cycles (a divorce which took place not long after Kepler); for a brilliant summary of some recent work I refer readers to Laura Spinney’s review of Jack Goldstein’s and Peter Turchin’s work in The Guardian (work much reviled, I have to say, by academic historians, for whom cyclical approaches to history have been unfashionable since before the Second World War). Still, as we see with all the discussion about what should follow the Covid crisis, the questions remain much the same (will we return to business as normal, or while the economic landscape be changed forever). Whether planetary cycles are used or not, I like Kepler’s final words on the 1602 conjunctions: ‘let their minds be changed’. Which makes me wonder, ‘How will the Covid-19 crisis change our minds?’ And that is the precisely the question which so many people are asking now.
By Dr Nicholas Campion
Edited by Kathleen White
Reading and Links:
Nicholas Campion, ‘Johannes’ Kepler’s Political Cosmology, Psychological Astrology and the Archaeology of Knowledge in the Seventeenth Century’, Mediterranean Archaeology & Archaeometry (forthcoming).
Nicholas Campion, ‘Harmony and the Crisis in Early Modern Cosmology: the Political Astrology of Jean Bodin and Johannes Kepler’, in Astrology versus Anti-Astrology in Early Modern Europe: Changing Paradigms in the History of Knowledge, Ed. Charles Burnett and Ovanes Akopyan (London: Routledge, Society for Renaissance Studies series) (forthcoming).
Jack A. Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Oxford: Routledge 2016 ).
Johannes Kepler, ‘On the More Certain Fundamentals of Astrology’, Prague, 1601, trans. Mary Ann Rossi with notes by J. Bruce Brackenbridge, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 123, No. 2 (April 1979), pp. 85–163, Thesis 71.
E. S. Kennedy and B. L. Van der Waerden, ‘The World-Year of the Persians’, Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 83, No. 3 (Aug.–Sep. 1963), pp. 315–327.
E. S. Kennedy and David Pingree, The Astrological History of Masha'Allah (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).
Masha'allah, ‘On the Roots of Revolutions’, in Sahl and Masha’allah, Works, trans. Benjamin Dykes (Golden Valley, NM: Cazimi Press, 2008), pp. 299–314.
Abu Ma'shar, On Historical Astrology: The Book of Religions and Dynasties (On the Great Conjunctions), ed. and trans. Keiji Yamamoto and Charles Burnett, 2 Vols (Leiden: Brill, 2000).
Laura Spinney, ‘History as a giant data set: Calculating the patterns and cycles of the past could lead us to a better understanding of history. Could it also help us prevent a looming crisis?’, The Guardian 12 November 2019.
Peter Turchin, Historical Dynamics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).
Hanneke Weitering, ‘Saturn, Mars and Jupiter align over New York City in gorgeous night-sky photos’, Space.com, 31 March 2020.
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