Towards a Post Modern Astrology- by Robert Hand

The following article is the (edited) transcript of a talk Robert Hand gave at the Astrological Conference 2005 of the British Astrological Association in York, UK, as posted on

RobertHandWhat is post-modern?

First of all I should define the term “post-modern”. Post-modernism as the term is usually used refers to a set of philosophical movements largely arising out of contemporary French philosophy featuring in particular the work of Jacques Derrida, post-structuralism and the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault.

This is not what I refer to, because something else has been going on in astrology. Astrology has never been part of the modern world and cannot have in the same way a post-modern period. I would actually suggest that astrology is ideally suited to be both pre-modern and post-modern in the French philosophical sense.

“Then, in the 18th century we had a very long break. Conventional historians refer to this as the Enlightenment. I prefer the term “Endarkenment,” based on what happened in astrology
– it almost died.”

But what I refer to instead is a very real historical phenomenon in astrology, which is this: we have astrology up until about 1700, which had certain consistent patterns, ideas and principles and which had a more or less a continuous tradition from something like – this date is extremely flexible – the fifth century B.C.E. Then, in the 18th century we had a very long break. Conventional historians refer to this as the Enlightenment. I prefer the term “Endarkenment,” based on what happened in astrology – it almost died. And then in the 19th century a revival began, which for most of the 19th century was a revival of a portion of the tradition that had nearly died in 1700.

But then with Alan Leo, and more recently people like Dane Rudhyar, and on another level people like the Hamburg School and Cosmobiology of Ebertin, a rather new kind of astrology began coming into existence, which it might be appropriate simply to call 20th century astrology, but I would like to call modern astrology. So what I am really going to be talking about is the question, what next?

The beginning of what I will call – for lack of a better term – post-modern astrology actually happened quite a few years ago now. Two people are largely responsible for this new beginning. They are in the United States: Robert Zoller, who began studying medieval astrology in the original Latin in the 1970’s, closely followed in this country [Great Britain] by the late Olivia Barclay, who began teaching her students horary directly from William Lilly’s text. In both cases what was being taught was a reborn pre-1700 or pre-modern astrology. They had tremendous impact. In the States this led to the movement of which I was a part – or am a part, but am no longer associated with the name – the project called Project Hindsight, of which I and Robert Zoller along with Robert Schmidt were founders. Subsequently Robert Zoller has gone his own way, and I have gone my own way, but the movement continues. There is also of course an extremely meaningful translation movement in Spain, and also one in Italy.

So the pre-1700, pre-modern type of astrology is coming back fairly rapidly. The influence these movements have had is not quite what you might expect. Yes, there are people – and I think I can say this without offering any insult – such as Robert Zoller, who are really trying to revive completely an intact pre-modern astrology, otherwise known as traditional astrology. However, since some people regard Alan Leo’s astrology as traditional astrology, pre-modern may be a clearer term for pre-1700 styles of astrology. My favorite image of Robert Zoller – and believe me, I don’t think he would object in my characterizing him this way – is that he would smile, sublimely rub his hands together and say: “The old ways are the good ways!”

Yet, what appears to be happening, and what I certainly align myself with, is not really a revival of traditional astrology. Rather it’s a healing of the break that occurred in the 18th century. We are not trying to do astrology exactly as it was done, rather we’re trying to recreate astrology as it would have been if it had never stopped being an active tradition. Understanding this point is very important, because it is often stated and believed that traditional astrology must not have been all that effective because it died out – almost. Surely, it is said by some, traditional astrology must have been terribly lacking, and therefore modern astrology represents an evolutionary improvement from it.

This is not the case. Traditional astrology died out for reasons that are much better described as socio-political than scientific. If you want an example of what I mean I refer you to Patrick Curry’s excellent work Prophecy and Power, where he describes the process of astrology’s near death in Britain. But I assure you, that process was not limited to Britain. So, we are not doing traditional astrology, we are healing the break that occurred in the 18th century.

Traditional Astrology

First of all: What is traditional astrology? Unfortunally, about the only general characterization I can make is that of defining it as astrology pre-1700. In this respect it is like most of the rest of History. I think if you do a quick calculation you will realize that most history happened before 1700 – billions and billions of years in fact. But, other than that it’s difficult to characterize. And we have to ask, “which traditional astrology?” Hellenistic/classical? Jyotish? Jyotish is a term I vastly prefer to vedic, first of all because it is the actual Indian term, and secondly because (I know I am going to get some arguments about this later) there is not all that much horoscopic astrology in the Vedas. Are we talking about Arabic astrology, or – as I prefer to call it – Persian-Arabic astrology, because it’s actually much more Persian than it is Arabic? Are we talking about Latin language medieval astrology, which is basically the same as Persian-Arabic? Or are we talking about early modern astrology – and I don’t mean Alan Leo? Early modern astrology actually consists of persons like Placidus, Morinus, Kepler, all of whom looked at the traditional astrology as they received it, and believed that reform was needed.

“We have not fully digested traditional astrologies – to use the proper term – we have not mastered the techniques.”

So which one are we talking about? I have bad news: all of them! We have not fully digested traditional astrologies – to use the proper term – we have not mastered the techniques. For example, the predictive techniques of hellenistic astrology, and even some of the predictive techniques of medieval astrology are still not widely used or experimented with. They may turn out to be not too useful; they may also turn out to be a major break-through. I do not really know, but until we have actually systematically examined them we don’t know.

Astrology in the 20th century

But this infusion of elements from the various traditions into the modern astrological tradition represents the essence of the change from modern to post-modern astrology. Some of us have been calling this traditional astrology neo-traditional, but that is really putting the emphasis in the wrong place. It is in the ordinary language sense of the term a post-modern astrology.
Okay! What do we do with the 20th century? This is where I will demonstrate conclusively that I am not a traditionalist: we keep it! We keep its best features. The single most important advance in 20th century astrology was the recognition that astrology actually could be used as a tool for human potential and self-actualization. There may be some of this in Jyotish, but there certainly is not any of it in Hellenistic, Arabic or Latin medieval. All three of those traditions were completely oriented towards dealing with everyday, mundane situations. But Dane Rudhyar in particular introduced a radically new way of thinking about astrology. Closely related to his astrology is the idea of psychological astrology. I do not share the contempt that many traditionalists feel for psychological astrology. I think it is extraordinarily important. My only criticism of it is that in the hands of some of it’s less competent practitioners it has been an extremely mushy sort of astrology where anything can be made to mean anything, depending on the emotional frame of mind of the client and the astrologer. The language of 20th century astrology as a language tends to be imprecise, vague, inarticulate and unclear. But the goals of 20th century astrology are absolutely commendable.

Why did the tradition – at least the branches of it I have mentioned – not deal with the issue of self-actualization. They did have the tools if they had had the philosophical reasons for doing it. The reason is very simple: In both the Islamic world and the Christian world there was something else that governed that process, namely religion, from which astrology was largely disconnected. Both Islamic and Christian astrologers had to constantly explain why astrology did not interfere with religion, did not impinge on the same issues, nor did it contradict religion; therefore it was okay. There is in fact in Western astrology an underground tradition of mitigation much as there is in Indian astrology, but it has always been an underground tradition. It is called magic. But we have had to pretend that we, as astrologers, are not connected to it in order to survive in what has been until recently a Christian world – or Islamic.

“Twentieth century astrology should be kept in so far as it works, makes sense and is clear enough to tell if it is working.”

So, 20th century astrology we keep, in so far as it speaks to the needs of modern humanity. Every astrology deals with the culture in which it lives, and if it doesn’t it’s irrelevant. Twentieth century astrology should be kept in so far as it works, makes sense and is clear enough to tell if it is working. To illustrate what I mean by “clear enough” (or rather not clear enough) here is a style of prediction (admittedly an absurd one) that illustrates the problem: “In the next year, events will happen.” Now you may laugh, but I have heard astrological predictions made that were just about that “clear.”

I also think there are some other tools from 20th century astrology that are well worth keeping, such as the use of mid-points, the 90-degree dial, and there are a number of schools that have contributed extremely valuable ideas too numerous to mention. Twentieth century astrology is not to be thrown out, but here is what it does need:

First of all, the question often arises: is traditional astrology – in any form – better than modern astrology? And of course the traditionalists immediately say: “Why, of course!” They say that it is more effective. This is probably true, but not for the reasons you may think. Hindu astrology, arabic astrology and medieval astrology, and for that matter hellenistic astrology, all have a much more elaborate language than 20th century astrology. Simply put: these languages, as languages, are more articulate; these early astrologies can say things clearly, and insofar as they can say things clearly you can tell whether what they say is true or not.

“One of the strangely backhanded compliments I used to
pay to the Cosmobiology of the Ebertin system was that I liked it because it is one of the few systems of astrology where I
could tell when it was not working.”

One of the strangely backhanded compliments I used to pay to the Cosmobiology of the Ebertin system was that I liked it because it is one of the few systems of astrology where I could tell when it was not working. I am going to make what some may think a rather outrageous statement which has been contradicted by others a number of times during this Conference: I have not ever cast a chart that was wrong that worked better than the one that was right. I am not saying it cannot happen, but it has never happened to me. And the reason is that I have always placed great stress on the articulation of the astrological language, so that I could tell if the statement I was making was right or wrong. I remember a lecture by Geoffrey Dean in which he was lecturing on a chart that was supposed to be the chart of Petula Clark, – Geoffrey does not remember this incident but I do – with a very close conjunction of Mars and Neptune. Geoffrey spouted modernistic astrological garbage about the unselfish, altruistic nature of this person and so on. I said to myself, “This is crazy, this chart can’t possibly be right.” And then after he had the entire audience convinced, he announced that it was the chart of Charles Manson. By way of a side-note, the astro-carto-graphic map of Charles Manson had the line of that Mars-Neptune-conjunction passing through the deserts just to the east of Los Angeles. So when he finally admitted that it was Charles Manson I said to myself, “I knew it couldn’t be Petula Clark!” They were born a year apart on the same date. So that is why he was able to suck everybody in. But the problem was that he was taking advantage of the inarticulate nature of much modern 20th century astrological language. This must change! The object of self-actualization, psychological exploration, or even enlightenment, through astrology is a perfectly noble goal, a noble task. But it must be done in a clear language, or it will of no use at all, except as entertainment, which I suppose some will believe is perfectly fine.

Modern astrology has had one really tragic flaw in addition to its inarticulate language: its complete lack of a philosophical foundation rooted in any coherent philosophical or spiritual tradition of the world, except in the case of Jyotish. Jyotish does have a coherent philosophical and spiritual background derived from the religions of India. For those of you that are not aware of it, Western astrology (by which I really mean Middle Eastern astrology, we just happen to be practising the Western branch of it) also has a firm foundation in philosophy derived from persons with names such as Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plotinus and has roots in other philosophies that we cannot attribute to any actual person, such as the philosophies of Hermes. We have to go back to these philosophies (as I will hope to demonstrate in part tomorrow) because all modern Western philosophy – with the possible and likely exception of phenomenology – is born out of an idea-set that occurs after the West made a fork on the road of philosophy which rendered astrology inherently impossible.

“Modern astrology has had one really tragic
flaw in addition to its inarticulate language: its complete lack of aphilosophical foundation rooted in any coherent philosophical or spiritual tradition of the world.”

So we have to go back to the philosophies in which astrology is not inherently impossible, reestablish the roots, modernize our understanding of those philosophies, and bring them forward into the 20th century or 21st century. We have a brilliant example of this in the work of late John Addey whose astrology was rooted firmly in Neoplatonism but pointed toward a radical new kind of astrology. But we do not want to use 19th century mystical “philosophies” such as those of Mme. Blavatsky, Alice Bailey and so forth, in part because they are not in fact foundational philosophies. What they taught was a modernized and obscured form of Neoplatonism. I am not saying their works are of no value, but for philosophy let us go back to the real thing.

Alfred North Whitehead may also be a philosopher who has something to say to us, but until I can get him to say something to me that I truly understand – those of you that have tried to read Whitehead will know what I mean – I cannot tell what he may have to offer.

Astrology lacks a theoretical foundation

The reason for having proper philosophical foundations is that it actually leads to the creation of, in some form, what scientists keep telling us astrology lacks: a theoretical foundation. Now you have to understand that a theoretical foundation does not necessarily need to be correct at the outset. It needs to be correctable. Astrological theory, even based on a reconnection with ancient philosophy, will not be a theory that science will recognize as theory, but it will in fact function as a scientific theory. It just will not function according to the scientific paradigm – any scientific paradigm, at least any paradigm constituted according to the larger meta-paradigm of modern science.

And let me explain why: The contemporary scientific paradigm, with exception of a few areas of quantum physics, largely ignores the role of consciousness in the Universe. Putting it in its boldest form: Life and consciousness, according to the prevailing version of the modern scientific paradigm are epiphenomena of the laws of inanimate nature. An epiphenomenon is a superficial, second level prenomenon, not central to the whole system. In other words, we are trivial and unimportant, the world is essentially meaningless, and it is just grinding off to a stupid, meaningless, pointless end.

Of course, you have to ask the question: “Meaningless” to whom? You can’t have meaninglessness until there is somebody to whom something is meaningless. Unfortunately, when the 19th century threw God out of science, they made the whole meaningful/meaningless issue undefineable, irrelevant and academic. We are, according to one modern “scientific” writer, like bacteria living on a dust particle in a sneeze. That was someone’s description of life in the Big Bang. We are said to live on a planet that goes around a minor star in a minor galaxy in an infinitely huge Universe. To whom are we minor? If there is no aliveness in the Universe, to whom are we unimportant, and since when was sheer magnitude the criterion of excellence? Billions and billions of stars, the late Carl Sagan used to say, as if putting zeroes after a one made things more significant and more meaningful.

“In my humble opinion astrology makes no sense unless we postulate that life, mind and consciousness are central to the functioning of the Universe, and precede, in some
meaningfull way, matter and energy, or at least are coeval
with, that is to say, coeternal with them.”

In my humble opinion (which means: “arrogant statement follows”) astrology makes no sense unless we postulate that life, mind and consciousness are central to the functioning of the Universe, and precede, in some meaningfull way, matter and energy, or at least are coeval with, that is to say, coeternal with them. Something is talking to us, and things that talk must be alive and conscious. The idea that life and consciousness are epiphenomenal is the exact reverse of the astrological world view. This is why we are heretics. And by all means, let us remain so!

But I think many astrologers do not draw out the logical implications of what they do. They are astrologers when they are in the counselling room, and they are 21st-century-ordinary-every-day-mechanist-materialists when they do anything else – I find that this true less and less as time goes on, which is most gratifying. But we have to recognize, yes indeed, that astrology, and the metaphysics of science – also known as scientism – are indeed incompatible. Thank God!

Now another aspect of the new kind of astrology: I totally, absolutely and overwhelmingly reject any form of astro-fundamentalism. We can leave that for certain insane fanatics in the Jewish, Islamic and Christian religious comunities. There is no ancient astrology that must be completely recovered because it, alone, is completely, absolutely and positively true for all time. We recover them to the best of our ability, so we can learn from them, but they are not necessarily “truer” than what we do. Our ancestors were human beings, just like us. Do I think that astrology came as the result of a divine revelation in the biblical sense? Maybe in some other sense yes, but not in that narrow biblical sense. It was not revealed whole, entire, perfect and complete to anyone at any time. It may be complete and perfect eventually, but only because we have done the work of uncovering the revelation. But it is probably never going to happen quite that way. I just do not want to exclude the possibility.

Balancing modernist and traditionalist attitudes

So we need to strike a balance between the modernist’s attitude and the traditionalist’s attitude. By the way, I just want to make one thing clear: If I seem to be taking a slam at the only at certain members of the Jyotish/Vedic community in talking about astrological fundamentalism, believe me, I am not. There are also Lilly fundamentalists, Hellenistic fundamentalists, Arabic fundamentalists… You take any system, as long as it isn’t modern, and you will find somebody who believes in it as a fundamentalist, or – to use a term more fashionable in religious circles – a literalist, one who believes that the books are literally and completely true.

The modernist attitude believes that only the most recent work is any good, and the traditionalist attitude thinks that anything modern is hopelessly flawed and corrupt. Without qualification – these positions are both wrong. And if you disagree with me, fine. But that is my position, take it or leave it! (I have a Scorpio Moon).

Post-modern astrology must recognize that astrology is a learned art. Not a learned art with one syllable, but a learned art, with ‘learned’ in two-syllables. And while we invite the enthusiast and the amateur to participate, it also has to be recognized the amateur astrologer will have a role similar to amateur scientists – far from irrelevant, but working in a limited way. Astrology is no more entertainment than psychology. Which is to say that both can create entertaining diversions, but that is neither their purpose nor their value.

To that end, as I am sure many are quite aware, there has begun a movement towards the creation of academic institutions within astrology. One of these is Kepler College. It teaches within a genuine liberal arts program that happens to be – this is the unofficial motto of the school – filtered “through the lens of astrology,” but it is a liberal arts degree nonetheless. What do I teach there? I teach ancient history, medieval history and Latin. But of course, the Latin is not all Cicero. We read John of Seville in the course, and people like him. (We do not read Manilius, because nobody can read Manilius.) Here in Britain there is of course the Bath Spa curriculum, the Southampton program, the University of Canterbury program, and there are probably others that I am not aware of.

But this is a thrilling development, because we have got to the point where the next level of astrology must be carried on in environments similar to that of universities, where there are conferences held among professionals in the field, who report work that is very important, but which is too technical or esoteric (in the original meaning of the word) for a general astrological conference. For example, we have the varied styles of medieval primary directions, their origin, significance, application and so forth, definitely a subject of interest only to specialists.

Just to give you one idea of something I have noticed, I am convinced that Masha Allah or the work attributed to him is of two people, because there are two different kinds of astrology going on, but I have not figured out how to rigorously document this yet. This is not the sort of topic that I think would draw a very large crowd at even an AA conference, and the AA conferences are a good deal more sophisticated than many other conferences.

“The “Astrology and Your Pet” aspect of astrology has been going on for quite a long time, and I do not suggest that it should cease.”

The alternative? At Astrolabe, the company that I used to work with, we had a cartoon on the wall which showed a rather generously endowed, portly woman standing behind a lectern with a very stern and severe expression on her face, saying: “We will not rest until astrology has found it’s proper place in Academia”, and on the wall behind her is a sign that says: “Next Week: Astrology and Your Pet”.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that, but these are two different aspects of astrology. The “Astrology and Your Pet” aspect of astrology has been going on for quite a long time, and I do not suggest that it should cease. I am now in my fourth year of graduate school, so I am beginning to get a sense of what goes on in Academia that is good and useful to the further evolution of astrology. For the most part we do not yet have that, but we are getting it. So this academization, if I can make a word, the making of astrology more academic, is an extremely important step.

At this point I have to make a very important statement about this process. We are not trying to make astrology respectable. We are trying to force astrology to get its internal act together. That is not the same thing. We will not convince academics that we belong in academia because we say so; it is not even clear that we will ever be integrated with academia. It does not matter. It is for ourselves, not for our respectability, but for the efficacy of our art. We will be more effective if we do these things. We need international libraries of astrology texts, either in book form or online. We need to find all those old astrological journals rotting away on our shelves, scan them and make them available to researchers.

“We are not trying to make astrology respectable. We are
trying to force astrology to get its internal act together.
That is not the same thing.”

I do not know how many of you are aware of this, but on the internet there is something called “Early English Books Online”. Every book printed in England before 1700 that has survived is in that data base. You can read them or download them, as you choose. We need that exact same thing in astrology. We need all these journals, all the old texts, everything to be accessible to researchers. At the moment a great deal of astrology is on the verge to disappearing for all time. We need modern researchers documenting what happened in the 20th century, who said what, what they meant, explicating their ideas, talking about their lives, we need to preserve all of this. Ironically, the most endangered single part of the history of astrology is the history of 20th century astrology. It is right on the verge of being forgotten already. So this is why this increasing movement toward academia is required, not so that we can be respectable, but for our own use.

Here is the key point: we will have succeeded in creating post-modern astrology to the degree that our astrology is completely continuous, historically, with all the astrologies of the past. It does not mean we use all their techniques, does not mean we use all their elements, but that we can at some point refer to our tradition as a completely restored and continuous tradition. Post-modern astrology will not simply be going back to William Lilly, or to Bonatti, or to Vettius Valens, Vahara Mihira, or any one you can chose. But they will be in there, their works will be known, evaluated and employed where appropriate. And appropriateness will be determined in terms of our modern needs – excuse me – post-modern needs.

Now I could make a long list of things I think might like to change technically-speaking in astrology, but I have to agree with Geoffrey Cornelius in his talk yesterday that improved technique in the way it is usually understood is not what we are trying to do here. In chemistry, for example, if you use the wrong technique in analysing an unknown substance, you will not find out what the substance is. Technique in chemistry is an absolutely necessary set of procedures designed to achieve a particular result. But technique in astrology is actually the articulation of language not merely a set or proper procedures.

Let me give you a concrete example. If you pick up any traditional astrology book that is at all influenced by Ptolemy, you will find that it poses a collection of questions to be answered. Is the nativity viable? That is to say, is the entity born in this nativity going to live? What is the wealth and rank of the parents? What about brothers and sisters? What about money, career, children? All of these constitute a standard set of what I refer to as the Ptolemaic questions.

These Ptolemaic questions use very definite techniques for answering the questions. But the issue here is not whether these techniques are “correct,” the issue is whether these techniques are clearly articulated. Some of these questions we will not choose to ask, for example, we will probably continue not to say too much about the nature and manner of one’s death. We might, however, become a bit more articulate about saying: these are the areas of our life you will have to watch out for, that are dangerous and maybe in these times you will have to watch out for them. But I have demonstrated to my satisfaction one thing about this and similar things in astrology. They are, to use the philosophical term, contingent. The moment of your death has not yet been written unless it is to occur very soon due to circumstances that are not any longer changeable. All of us could have a number of times in which we might die. But in the ancient world things that can be prevented now could not be prevented then. So we will look times that may be dangerous, not times of death, or whatever. But the issue here is, what do we do to answer a question, and is an answer to the question clear enough so that we can tell if it is right or wrong?

Fate versus free will

There is the wonderful problem of fate versus free will. I actually have arrived at an answer to this, which I will briefly outline. I found the answer in one of the Stobaeus fragments of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which Hermes is talking to his disciple Tat, as the name is usually transliterated. Tat asks: “Tell me again about fate, providence and necessity”. And Hermes after much intermediate material ends up with the statement along the lines of, “Fate concerns the body, necessity concerns that part of the mind that works only with the body, and providence is concerned with the mind that is fully conscious.”

What they made clear in this statement is there is no one such thing as fate. There is a fate that is due to our being material beings of a certain species. No matter how hard you try, no amount of free will will ever convert you to a dog or a cat in this life time. You cannot fly without a plane – unless (perhaps) you are a certain kind of meditator – you cannot walk through walls without a door, you cannot see through walls without a window, you are limited by natural law. That is the fundamental meaning of fate in ancient Greek philosophy. It is physical law.

Then there is the really big part of fate; there is the fate due to ignorance, called necessity. We get ourselves caught up in situations where we simply cannot conceive of an alternative, because we have all these considerations about what must be so and what must not be so, and we are determined by the consequences of past decisions and current stupidities. That is most of what our fate consists of. It has nothing to do with the planets!

“Post-modern astrology will not be a fatalistic fortune-telling astrology, it will be an astrology of enlightenment,
self-realization, self-actualization and consciousness,
that just happens to include all of the rest of astrology.”

And then finally there is the other fate that is absolutely irrevocable, called providence. You have no choice but to be who you are. Your choice is to be who you are at the highest possible level or not. And I would go so far as to say that who you really are preexists who you are at the present moment, and it is pulling you forward to itself, and that pull is inevitable. Your getting all the way there, becoming a fully realized being, is not inevitable. Circumstances, accidents and of course the ever-present stupidity, or unconsciousness – whatever you want to call it – will all in varying degrees prevent us from getting to that perfect self-realization. But it is not written in the stars whether we will, or will not, ever be fully realized. What is written in the stars is how to do it – if we could but read the chart from that point of view.

This is one of the things the 20th century has taught us, but the 20th century has been a little weak on how to do it. Whereas, I have found techniques in Greek and Medieval astrology that actually suggest how it can be done, how it can be read in the chart. Post-modern astrology will not be a fatalistic fortune-telling astrology, it will be an astrology of enlightenment, self-realization, self-actualization and consciousness, that just happens to include all of the rest of astrology.

We evaluate, we judge, and we integrate. That is what I see coming.

Thank you very much.

Copyright by Robert Hand 2006