What was the model of the universe that Hellenistic and later Persian astrologers worked with?  And how did this influence the philosophy of astrology?


     The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) possessed a keen intelligence, which sought explanation to the largest mysteries Man observed. A student of Plato, he took his teacher’s ideas of the universe to devise his own working model.

To Aristotle, everything had to have an order, a place of its own within a system. His model was based on this philosophy and certainly did not reflect a “scientific” approach per se. However, his view of how the planets and stars affected the lot of Mankind served reasonably well for many people for centuries after its presentation. From Ptolemy to Guido Bonatti through to the Christian Church via Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle’s model was the cosmology of choice until Copernicus debunked it for good. From this it can be accepted that Aristotle and his ideas profoundly influenced astrology.                                                                                                            

 Aristotle’s cosmological order seems more than a little strange by today’s standards---we have become accustomed to a more rigorous system of theory matching observation. Although as Robert Zoller states:” the Hellenistic Greeks had pressed Aristotle into service in order to create a scientific astrology,” (i)  aberrations were noted; variations in the brightness and motion of the planets could not be accounted for until Ptolemy ‘tweaked’ Aristotle’s model some four hundred years later.

It seems truer that Aristotle observed the heavens with metaphysical eyes. He saw the circles upon circles each turn of the planets make, and watched the demi-circle of the Sun’s traverse from East to West. He watched the Moon endlessly make her own trip across the sky---looming, shrinking, shadowed, and then swelling again. Aristotle also took note of the seemingly unmoving Fixed Stars. Perhaps their fixity had once been a starting point for this model, perhaps not. But something had to account for all those circles, and something had to provide a meaning for their movement. But above all, the most daunting challenge was to explain Man’s place within this great order.

     Aristotle imagined a perfect cosmos beyond the Moon and her lunar sphere. As circles were thought the most perfect of all shapes, the heavens must have been constructed with a series of circles upon circles. By the time Aristotle was finished he had posited a total of 55 concentric spheres.

This high number was necessary in order to make the model more viable given the variations in the supposed constancy of perfection. With the Earth in the centre of this cosmos, all the other planets radiated out from it---from Earth and the sublunary sphere beneath the Moon came Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and then Saturn.

Beyond Saturn were the Fixed Stars. Lying outside of the Fixed Stars was what was called the Prime Mover. When the Church later appropriated this system the Prime Mover was taken to mean God. The existence of a prime mover was necessary in order for the planets to have begun moving in the first place. In the some way the Prime Mover sent out vibrations that in turn set each sphere moving against the next. Thus the system itself provided continuous energy for perpetual motion.

     There was one other requirement for the system. The crystalline spheres needed to rest on something that filled the space around and between the planets beyond the Moon. Aristotle postulated ether (not to be confused with the chemical substance of the same name) or quintessence (fifth element) as the divine substance through which the perfect circles of orbit passed.

The Moon was the division between the impure atmosphere of the Earth and the Divine Heavens. Somehow the Moon acted as a disturbing force, and energy travelling through its influence would be altered forever. The Earth was considered under the Moon in both spatial and influential terms. Mankind, also, fell naturally under this influence.

     In order for a soul to arrive on Earth, it was thought each one made the long journey from the Prime Mover through the medium of the immutable quintessence. As each soul passed by a planet in turn, it was imprinted with the characteristics of its archetype. Upon entering into the sublunary sphere, the soul was exposed to the element Fire, then Air, Water, and finally Earth. Thus one was imbued with all four elements.

However, the sublunar sphere mixed the elements of the descending soul in such a way that their essences were corrupted. This corruption was evidenced by the obvious travails of a human being living on Earth, through the mechanism of change. Above the Earth, above the Moon, there was no change. Perfection reigned.

     It should be noted once more that the uniform circular motion of the heavenly objects was one of cycles. And the cycles always returned to a starting point. Therefore, in this sense it was an unchanging Universe, one which reflected more on our Earthly existence than is immediately obvious. The cycles of the seasons, of human history, of birth and death (to name only the most influential) also return back to some sort ofrked beginning. The Zodiac of astrology fits very well into this philosophy of cycles. So, too, is the confluence of planets upon Man explained. From the Heavens we arrive, and to the Prime Mover our souls return. The elements reclaim their measure from the matter we leave behind---“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

     Aristotle invented a hierarchical universal model that managed to last for centuries. Whether this was more from luck than base ingenuity can be argued. His model is now scorned by the scientific community for holding back ‘real’ science,(ii) yet that had more to do with fear of challenging the power of the Church than its inherent failings. With all the comings and goings of astrology during those centuries, the popularity of Aristotle’s view might possibly have helped to keep astrology alive.
i   Robert Zoller “Liber Astronomiae”
ii Thomas Fowler, “Aristotle’s Astronomy” p.5
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