Checkout-counter astrology booklets will tell you that Leos are performers. They love to be on stage, they love to be the center of attention. Virgos are perfectionists, they want things to be just so. A Scorpio is intense, an Aquarian independent, a Cancer guarded but loving if you get past the shell. A Libra/Libra romance has a chance to work, since each will have an ability to see the other’s point of view. An Aries/Aries marriage, on the other hand, will be a never-ending struggle, a continuous butting of heads.
Scientifically minded people are driven crazy by such simplistic pigeon-holing of the human race. If only it were so simple! How easy life would be if there were only 12 kinds of people, and we could decide where our acquaintances fit into the picture by knowing their birthdays! And how horrible it would be to know that our characters and the shape of our lives were determined at birth by forces beyond our control – and worse, that this fated path is not even uniquely ours, but rather is the common lot of 1/12th of the human race.
Serious astrologers, of course, are driven no less crazy by the simplistic use of their art. A complete astrological chart is so much more than just one out of 12 sun-signs. The exact time and place of birth is used to construct a chart placing the Sun, Moon, and eight non-terrestrial planets (and perhaps some large asteroids as well) in their exact locations in the sky. Each of these bodies has a sign (the constellation that lies behind the body when we view it from Earth) and a house (a location relative to the horizon). Ten bodies, each falling into one of 12 signs and one of 12 houses: the number of possible types is far greater than the number of people in the world. Further, the bodies may have relationships with each other – oppositions, conjunctions, right angles, and so forth. The possible complexity is nearly infinite.
But does it work? The astrological typology may have enough states to account for the nearly infinite variety of human characters, but does it assign those states correctly? Checkout-counter astrology clearly does not work. One does not have to have a large stable of acquaintances in order to know a person who does not fit his sun-sign – a shy Leo, for example, or a happy-go-lucky Scorpio.
Serious astrologers are not blind, they meet such people too. It is an article of faith among them, however, that such mismatches between sun-sign and basic temperament can always be explained by something else in the person’s chart. That shy person might have the Sun in Leo, for example, but lying in the fourth house, which represents largely unconscious aspects of home life. The desire for attention might then be primarily unconscious, or it might manifest as a desire to get attention from a spouse or other members of a closely held inner circle, rather than as a desire for fame in general. Or the Sun might lie in conjunction with Saturn, the planet representing control and discipline. In such a case, the very intensity of the desire for attention might be so threatening to the person’s sense of control that he/she would discipline him/herself to avoid indulging the desire at all costs. These are simply examples off the top of my head, there are countless other ways to reconcile a Leo sun-sign with observed shyness.
People who schedule a session with a professional astrologer very often come away impressed. “I don’t understand why it works, but my chart says a lot about me,” is a typical comment. Causality (that troublesome “why it works”) is the obvious weak point in astrological theory. No one has a really convincing explanation of why the observed positions of planets at the moment of my birth should have anything to do with who I turn out to be. Moreover, there are simple thought experiments that should make any reasonable person skeptical: Two babies may be born almost simultaneously in the same hospital in adjacent birthing rooms. Are they fated to have the same life? It seems unlikely. There must be dozens or even hundreds of such “astrological twins” being born every day – why do we never hear about them?
Contemporary astrological authors account for such thought experiments by abandoning the idea of fate, which is an unpopular notion in American culture anyway. The modern interpretation is that the birth chart displays only the challenges and resources of a life. How the individual will use those resources to meet those challenges is still a matter of self-determination. The astrological twins are like two children who enter the same school on the same day: They are taught the same curriculum by the same teachers, but they do not necessarily learn the same things. “Astrological forces present us not with answers, but with questions,” writes astrologer Steven Forrest. “Astrology supplies the terrain. How we navigate it is our own business.”
So far, so good. By abandoning a fatalistic interpretation, and distancing ourselves from the idea that the planets cause us to be the way we are, we go a long way toward eliminating the a priori reasons why astrology can’t work. But does it? These philosophical adjustments also make empirical data much harder to gather. We can’t, for example, just give personality tests to a few hundred Tauruses to see whether they really are more stubborn than a randomly chosen control group. Instead we would have to find a way to test whether Tauruses are more likely to have issues of stubbornness play an important role at some point in their lives. A fair scientific test of the modern view of astrology is not impossible, but it would be difficult to design.
Lacking empirical scientific studies, we are thrown back on those anecdotal claims that “my chart says a lot about me.” Watching a professional astrologer read your chart, watching them interpret the chart of some famous person, or talking to other people who have had their charts interpreted, it is hard not to be impressed. Even the parts of your chart that seem mysterious at first sight often start to make sense if you hold them in mind while you live your life. You’re likely to suddenly say, “Aha! That's how Mars conjunct Jupiter shows up in my personality.”
The more I think about this phenomenon, however, the more I think that it derives from the process of interpreting a chart, rather than the validity of astrological theory itself. The process, stated simply, is this: If the simple explanation works, accept it. If not, delve into the deeper levels of the chart. Suppose, for example, you are a Leo whose life is dominated by a quest for fame. Success! The simple interpretation of your chart works just fine, so why look deeper? The shy Leo, on the other hand, needs to consider houses and other planets in order to resolve the initial mystery of his sun-sign. Those houses and planets will either correspond to what he knows about himself, or they will open new mysteries to be explained by an even deeper reading of the chart.
But since the chart is infinitely complex, there is always a deeper level to which you can appeal. At some point, if you are persistent, you will inevitably arrive at an interpretation of your chart that matches what you know about yourself. It is not that the chart tells you about yourself, but rather that you encode your self-knowledge into an interpretation of your chart.
Psychological literature confronts us with a large number of archetypal stories: the abused child who becomes an abusive parent, the lone survivor who feels irrational guilt for the many who died, the oldest child who becomes a responsible but repressed overachiever, the person who denies his darkest fear by overcompensating – there are hundreds of such stories.
Applied superficially, these stories can become a fatalistic, cookie-cutter typology every bit as bad as checkout-counter astrology. Not every child of an alcoholic becomes an alcoholic, a teetotaler, a codependent, or any other predictable thing. Not everyone diagnosed with a fatal illness goes into denial. Some children of bitter divorces become admirably well adjusted.
Good psychologists, of course, do not apply these stories superficially. They are well aware of the existence of people whose lives contradict the archetypal patterns. It is an article of faith among them, however, that such contractions can be explained by something else in the individual’s history. The boy who lost his father at an early age may have found a strong male role model in a teacher, coach, or uncle. The girl raised in poverty may have experienced small generosities when she most needed them. The loss of a valued career may have led to the discovery of new talents and new opportunities, thereby increasing self-esteem rather than shattering it.
Under the guidance of a good psychologist, you can construct an interpretation of your personal history that gives great insight into your character, your challenges, your resources, and your path to growth. But we may apply the same skepticism to the Psychologist that we applied to the Astrologer: Is all that information really in a person’s history waiting to be discovered? Or is the personal history simply a complex medium into which we can encode our self-knowledge? Consider how the process of interpreting personal history resembles the process of interpreting the astrological chart: If the obvious story works, if it feels right, if it captures something important that you know about yourself – then accept it. If not, delve deeper into your story to find those mitigating circumstances that cause you to be atypical. Personal history, like the astrological chart, is infinitely complex. There are dozens of characters whose influence (in retrospect) can be perceived as key. Countless scenes may be declared to be either pivotal or inconsequential. The inconsequential scenes may even be forgotten, so that the editorial decision to excise them from the story is both irreversible and unrecorded. In the same way that my astrological chart could be used to describe a person very different from me, my personal history could be retold to explain how he came to be the way he is.
This is not to say that the Psychologist’s archetypal stories have no validity. (Many have been proved to be valid as statistical tendencies.) Nor am I claiming that there is nothing to learn from personal history. There is much to be said for the idea that the past has caused the present. I would, however, claim this: The history that we are able to know and understand is insufficient to determine who we are. If I find more in my personal history than the broad and simple outlines of my character, it is because I have encoded my self-knowledge (or my psychologist’s knowledge of me) into that story.
So far I have argued that neither the Astrologer nor the Psychologist is doing exactly what s/he appears to be doing. Both appear to be drawing a detailed portrait of my character from some objective source: the Astrologer from the Heavens, and the Psychologist from History. In each case, I claim, the portrait does not in fact come from the objective source. Instead, each practitioner works with me to interpret the objective source interactively. We interpret, check our interpretations against our combined intuitive knowledge of my character, and then interpret some more. We appear to be pulling information out of the source, but actually we are putting information into the interpretation. The interpretive cycle continues until we get an acceptably tight fit between our interpretation of the source and our knowledge of my character. With sufficient patience and effort, the process inevitably succeeds. But at the end of the process I have not obtained objective knowledge about myself. Instead, I have objectified the self-knowledge I already had, by representing it as an interpretation of something outside myself.
It is tempting at this point to let skepticism devolve into cynicism. If the Astrologer and the Psychologist are not doing what they claim to be doing, then they are frauds and what they do has no value. This cynical view goes too far. It ignores the numberless people who feel they have gained important self-knowledge by discussing their life stories with a psychologist, or their charts with an astrologer. Could they be correct in their assessment of value, even if they are misguided as to the source of that value? What value could there be in objectifying self-knowledge?
The value, I think, is analogous to the value of writing a calculation on paper rather than trying to do it in your head. It is analogous to making a diagram of a project or writing a to-do list. My mind may contain hundreds of competing plans and desires, but when I make a to-do list I objectify those motivations. By treating the to-do list as a persisting external object, rather than as a mere projection of my ever-changing intentions, a new level of processing becomes possible. I can sort the tasks, prioritize them, make schedules and budgets, and develop some confidence that the tasks will eventually get done.
So long as my self-knowledge stays inside my head, I can be myself, but I cannot work on myself. If I am to consider my character as a whole – and not get lost in the ever-shifting ups and downs of mood, emotion, and situation – I must be able to look on my character as if it were a persisting external object. Even more, if I am to imagine improvements on myself, ways of life that I have never experienced, I require a malleable self-image with which I can interact. This is the fundamental service performed by both the Astrologer and the Psychologist: they supply me with a medium into which I can sculpt such a self-image, a medium which embodies an appropriate compromise between persistence and malleability.
It is hard to appreciate just how important such a self-image is until you imagine life without one. How, for example, would you tell a new friend about yourself without relating your history in the context of well known types of life stories? The man on a first date who says “I just came out of a nasty divorce” has spoken volumes. Apparently a statement about history, it is also (more importantly) an announcement of current emotional state and possible future reactions. How long would it take to communicate all this information without reference to history? (Among people who know astrology, a statement like “Pluto is transiting my natal Venus” is similarly evocative.)
Objectifying my self-knowledge in a medium like history or astrology also connects me with the folk wisdom that has been encoded into these systems. By choosing to incorporate an archetypal story or astrological interpretation into my self image, I declare my membership in a human community and open myself to the wisdom of that community. Declaring yourself to be a survivor of incest, for example, does more than point to a wound or complex of wounds; it also identifies you with all the people who have overcome such wounds to achieve wholeness.
If the Astrologer and the Psychologist drop their questionable claims to identify the causes of our characters, how then can they describe themselves and what they do? Each teaches a powerful language for describing human character. By using this language, we can quickly and efficiently describe ourselves to others. Even more important, we can describe ourselves to ourselves, and so connect ourselves with the collective wisdom and experience of those who have shared this self description. Using this language and this wisdom, we can construct and describe a practical, realistic path to healing and growth.
Notice that none of this depends on assumptions about causality. If Mars does not force us to be warlike or parental criticism does not force us to have low self-esteem, the value of the system is undiminished. The Astrologer and the Psychologist continue to give us useful languages for description, even if we discount their claims of causality.
The fundamental weakness of astrology as a system for self description and personal transformation is that it is out of step with a long-standing trend toward the unification of knowledge. Ever since the ancient Greek philosopher Thales declared that water is the fundamental substance of the universe, western thinkers have sought to have a unified structure for knowledge. Astrology defies this trend, because it fits so badly with astronomy and physics.
It is worthwhile to note that our western expectation of unity is not itself universal. Among ancient peoples, one story might describe the origin of the tribe and another the origin of the world. If they contradicted each other, what of it? After the first human child Cain kills the second child Abel and is banished to wander the Earth, he is afraid some stranger will kill him. What strangers? Hesiod’s Theogony relates of story of the creation of mankind in the age of Zeus, but other Greek myths tell of a time when people lived under the reign of Zeus’ father Kronos. Any sizable collection of tribal tales and legends will provide contradictions aplenty. Surely ancient peoples were not too stupid to notice the contradictions that leap out at us; they just weren’t bothered by them. If stories served different purposes and answered different questions, why did they have to agree?
In the West unification has been a long process. Disorganized collections of gods and spirits became pantheons, and ultimately the pantheons each became the servants of a single ruler. Monotheism gave us the possibility of imagining the God’s-eye-view, the ultimate in objectivity. And now, in the last few centuries of the second millennium after Christ, we envision History as the union of all true stories. History is the story of all peoples in all times and all places. We may take this notion for granted, but few in times past could have even conceived of such a thing.
The unification of history (and of science, which provides the laws by which history functions) has given us enormous benefits. Advances in one field of thought quickly ripple through to all the other fields, and our unified knowledge is more easily taught, maintained, and extended than the chaotic collections of old tribal stories. But we pay a price for these benefits: we must discard whatever cannot be brought into the union.
Astrology is hard for us to accept not because it doesn’t work, but because it doesn’t fit. By basing its personal descriptions on personal histories, psychology does fit. This is its fundamental advantage over astrology.
Power tends to corrupt, and as history gains the power to trump all other stories, the temptation to corrupt history increases. When glasnost ended the Soviet government’s control of the telling of history, the government itself soon collapsed. In the United States, bitter political battles are fought over the interpretation of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution. Christian fundamentalists need to teach Genesis’ creation story as history because otherwise (they fear) the story will be abandoned as valueless. Because history has become the vehicle for the unification of knowledge, any religion or political theory that contradicts history must conquer history if it is to survive.
The same forces are at work on the personal level. If we find our characters in our personal histories, then we need to control the telling of our histories if we are to achieve autonomy. The temptation to corrupt our telling of personal history, to edit or over-interpret our stories for the purposes of self description and self-expression, is considerable.
Imagine, for example, a woman who accurately sees that her character has a great many of the traits associated with an adult child of alcoholic parents – even though her parents actually only drank occasionally, and rarely to excess. The causes of her character, if they are historical at all, are lost in depths of history too subtle and complex for our understanding. Memory nonetheless contains scenes of parental drinking and even perhaps of drunkenness. This woman would undoubtedly experience a great temptation to over-interpret these memories. She might pick them out as typical rather than exceptional. She might conclude that as a child she overlooked the symptoms of drunkenness on many other occasions. Father’s temper and Mother’s mood swings are fit into the new pattern, which begins to take on the authority of established fact. Now imagine the strained family dinners that result, and the unnecessary distance this woman would put between her parents and their grandchildren.
In short, the use of history as a medium for self description, as the clay out of which personal myth is shaped, begins to interfere with the other uses of history. Personal history becomes overloaded with more meaning than it carry legitimately carry. And just as the unity of history enables advances to propagate from one area of knowledge to another, so to do the corruptions of history propagate from one area of life to another.
The fundamental problem with personal history as a medium of self description is that my history does not really belong to me; I share it with everyone close to me. As we each try to read more into the story than it can support, we create unnecessary conflicts and power struggles. In extreme cases, the need to control personal history may isolate a person from any deep human connection. Any long-standing acquaintance is a rival for interpretive power, and so becomes a threat to autonomy. (This is one reason why the psychological viewpoint first took root in large cities where anonymity is possible. In small towns, as in tribes, your history is a story that is told about you. You don’t control it.)
Paradoxically, it is the very disconnectedness of astrology from the rest of life that provides the Astrologer’s greatest advantage over the Psychologist. My chart belongs to me in a way that my history does not. As I interpret my chart and you interpret yours, we do not contradict or implicate each other. I may attribute my low self esteem either to the mistakes of my parents or to an unfortunate placement of the planet Jupiter – but I do not have to spend Christmas with Jupiter, and I am not expecting it to baby-sit my two-year-old.
Much can be learned from personal history, but the lessons should only be pushed so far. There are many questions to which a responsible historian can only answer “I don’t know.” In our efforts to know ourselves and transform ourselves, however, we need to construct a self-image more complex and detailed than our personal histories can justify. Whether we go to the Astrologer or to the Psychologist (or to someone else entirely), at some point the construction of a self-image becomes an exercise in creative imagination.
History is a poor medium for creative imagination, precisely because it is so central to our understanding of the world we live in. The characters of our personal histories are more than just the forces that shaped us, they are the people with whom we share our lives. Coaxing more insight out of our stories than they can legitimately give puts us in unnecessary conflict with the people who could and should be our greatest sources of satisfaction.
We might hope someday to find a perfect medium for self-description, self-expression, and self-transformation. We might hope for an astrology founded in science, or a psychology that can meet our demand for detail and complexity without corrupting history or turning our relationships into power struggles. We might hope for some other medium entirely, one that is complex and verifiable while leaving ample room for our creative imaginations to do their transformative work.
I know of no such medium and do not expect to find one. And yet, I
believe that the imperfections in our tools to not justify casting
them aside. Instead, I hold, we need to master their uses as well as
their limitations, and learn to apply them with honesty, humility,