Chrissy Philp MA CAA History of Astrology Prize Winning Essay

By Jessica Heim

I was asked to write a short article for the Sophia Centre newsletter, talking a bit about my thoughts and experience writing my essay for the History of Astrology module. In July I learned I'd won the Chrissy Philp MA Cultural Astronomy and Astrology History of Astrology prize. So here is a brief overview of my paper and some insights into my choice of topic.

This essay was titled, 'The Astrological Reforms of Marsilio Ficino and Johannes Kepler.' Though a Catholic priest, Ficino (1433 - 1499) was fascinated with ideas in the works of Plato and the Neo-Platonists. His translation of the works of such authors into Latin was of pivotal importance in the development of Renaissance thought. Also a physician, Ficino was interested in the application of astrological and musical ideas from the Greeks to the healing of body and soul.

History of Astrology

Andrea Di Piero Ferrucci, Marsilio Ficino, sculpture, 1521, Cathedral of S. Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In On Obtaining Life from the Heavens, Ficino observes the importance of utilizing astrological influences when making medicines. He notes, 'For I have found by long and repeated experience that medicines of this kind are as different from other medicines made without astrological election as wine is from water.' [1] Ficino's use of rituals for healing involving specific combinations of appropriate music and celestial influences can be seen as a form of sympathetic magic, in which, via sympathetic resonance with these influences, healing can take place. Thus Ficino's goals in his astrological reforms were to better understand and work with the influences of the heavenly bodies in order to improve the health and well-being of individuals down here on earth.

Johannes Kepler, (1571 - 1630), also a devout Christian, similarly believed that astrology needed improvements, but Kepler's reforms were more extreme, as he sought to radically alter the entire format for understanding celestial influences. As he described it, his goal was to 'throw away the nonsense and keep the hard kernel.' [2] This meant to cease the study of the zodiac and houses, and instead, focus upon aspects and other geometrical components of astrology. In addition to the aspects already in use, Kepler added three new ones: the quintile of 72 degrees, the biquintile of 36 degrees, and the sesquiquadrature of 135 degrees. Geometry was of paramount importance in Kepler's understanding of the influences of the heavenly bodies upon earth. Unlike Ficino, Kepler's primary astrological interests were not of the application of astrology to the individual so much as its use in the management of the state. Rulers would be wise to understand the astrological influences upon their subjects, as, if the influences might aggravate unrest, the rulers could take action. Kepler describes such a solution: 'let the causes exasperating people's dispositions be taken quickly away, or by the introduction of some new deterrent, let their minds be changed.' [3] So for Kepler, the goal of his astrological reforms was to improve astrology's predictive ability, so then action could be taken to maintain peace and order.

History of Astrology

Unknown artist, Johannes Kepler, copy of a lost original painting from 1610, Kremsmünster Abbey, Krems, Germany. Image: European Space Agency.

Though they had differing approaches to their astrological reforms, there were commonalities in Ficino and Kepler's attitudes toward astrology. Both men saw that as a result of their reforms, greater insight into the mind of the Creator (as a result of a better understanding his universe) was possible. Similarly, both men believed that, though the planets certainly influenced humans, particular consequences were not necessarily inevitable, as if people clearly understood the astrological implications of the motions of these bodies, they could then take action to counter any undesirable effects. Though the means by which they sought to respond to celestial influences differed, both Ficino and Kepler believed that by reforming astrology, people's lives could be improved.

I chose to research and write about the astrological reforms of these two men for several reasons. Both struck me as fascinating, complex characters. Ficino was a Catholic priest, yet he was interested in the practice of what could be described as 'pagan' sorts of rituals and ways of thinking about the heavens. Kepler is known in modern astronomy for his three laws of planetary motion and made important advances in the understanding of the motions of orbiting bodies in the solar system, yet he also sought to understand the ways in which the geometry of the planets created a sort of heavenly harmony in space, an idea generally scoffed at by today's scientists.

I was also drawn to learn more about Ficino and Kepler, as some of their ideas are on topics which pertain to my own life. As a musician (one of my undergraduate degrees was in music and I teach piano lessons), I am always intrigued by the myriad ways people have incorporated music into their lives, particularly in relation to healing or as a component of their cosmologies. Thus I was excited to have the opportunity to learn more about the musical dimensions of both men's ideas about the workings of the heavens. As a planetarium educator (I give presentations to school children and the general public about astronomy and the night sky) I periodically encounter the rather ubiquitous distaste for astrology found in the astronomical community. It always strikes me as odd how so many scientists pride themselves on the objectivity of science and the universal applicability of such knowledge to the material world, yet their animosity towards astrology often results in rather skewed historical accounts of key figures in the history of science. While it is understandable that the work of such individuals that is most pertinent to the discipline of modern astronomy would be of primary concern, the accounts I read in astronomy textbooks and similar literature tend to cherry pick the ideas which conform to what is considered acceptable in today's scientific views, essentially remaking these individuals in the image of modern scientists. Where their 'non-scientific' ideas are discussed, it is often with extreme bias, such as in David Love's recent book on Kepler's contributions to astronomy, in which Love mentions 'the 'unfortunate fact' that Kepler 'had a deep and enduring belief in astrology.' [4] Thus part of the impetus for my choice of topic in this essay was my desire to learn more about some of Kepler's thinking on subjects which are either omitted or treated with much brevity and bias in many of the sources I come across working in an astronomical field. As Anthony Aveni argues, 'If we disregard the metaphysical side of our ancestors' outlook, and focus only on those aspects of their astronomy that closely resemble our own . . . then I think we may be missing an important part of humanity's outlook on the universe.' [5] By uncovering the astrological context underpinning much of Ficino and Kepler's work, a fuller picture of these men's lives and ideas can be obtained.

1. Marsilio Ficino, On Obtaining Life from the Heavens, trans by Angela Voss, in Marsilio Ficino, Western Esoteric Masters Series (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2006), p. 109.
2. Kepler to Maestlin, 15 March 1598, letter 89, 1. 177, KGW 13, p. 184, cited in J.V. Field, Kepler's Geometrical Cosmology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 127.
3. Johannes Kepler, 'On the More Certain Fundamentals of Astrology', (Prague: 1601), trans. by Mary Ann Rossi with notes by J. Bruce Brackenridge, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 123(2) (1979), Thesis 71, p. 104.
4. David K. Love, Kepler and the Universe: How One Man Revolutionized Astronomy (New York: Prometheus Books, 2015), p. 118.
5. Anthony F. Aveni, Ancient Astronomers (Washington D.C., Smithsonian Books, 1993), p. 164.

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