Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: THE FUTILITY AND SUPERSTITION OF THE TRADITIONS OF ASTROLOGY. - The Triumph of the Cross
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
CHAPTER III.: THE FUTILITY AND SUPERSTITION OF THE TRADITIONS OF ASTROLOGY. - Girolamo Savonarola, The Triumph of the Cross 
The Triumph of the Cross, trans. from the Italian, edited, with an Introduction by the Very Rev. Father John Procter, S.T.L. With a frontispiece portrait of the author (London: Sands & Co., 1901).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE FUTILITY AND SUPERSTITION OF THE TRADITIONS OF ASTROLOGY.
Astrologers, who claim to be reputed philosophers, maintain that human affairs are governed by the heavens and the stars, making out the sky to be our god, thus imitating some of the ancients, who worshipped the sun and the stars. We will, therefore, with the plainest arguments, demonstrate their error, and show that the heavenly bodies are not the cause of the things which man performs by means of his understanding and his will. Superior things cannot be governed by their inferiors; hence, as the intellect is more perfect than any mere body, it cannot be governed by either heavenly or any other bodies.
Again, it has been proved by philosophers, that no body operates without movement. Consequently, immovable things, such as incorporeal substances, amongst which is the intellect, are not subject to bodies. Hence we see that the understanding, in proportion to its abstraction from the restlessness and activity of things corporeal, works with greater rapidity and greater perfection.
We know, likewise, that everything that is ruled or moved, whether by heavenly or earthly bodies, is physical, and subject to time. Now, our understanding transcends, in its operations, all bodies, and extends to immaterial things, and even to God. This it could not do by means of any physical force; for, no agent, in its operations, exceeds its nature. Hence, the power of the heavenly bodies cannot, strictly speaking, act upon our understanding, since the power of the understanding far surpasses that of the firmament.
Many believers in astrology, being hard pressed by this argument, try to evade the difficulty by saying, that the heavenly bodies are not the direct, but the indirect cause of the operations of our understanding. The intellect (they argue) makes use of sensitive powers, especially of imagination, memory, and thought, which are dependent on physical temperament; and, as our body, like all other composite bodies, is subject to the heavenly bodies, these heavenly bodies do, in a certain sense, influence our understanding. We all know, of course, that difference of mental endowment is the result of difference of temperament. But no one who reflects on the nature of the understanding or of free-will, can possibly believe, that the heavens can in any way influence our choice, or rule the course of human events. Everything that happens from the impression of the celestial bodies, happens naturally; being naturally subject to these bodies. Hence, if the operations of free-will were the result of the impression of these bodies, these operations would be natural and not voluntary, originating not from free-will, but from natural animal instinct. The absurdity of this opinion can be easily demonstrated.
First, we know that all things which act by natural instinct, proceed, if they be of the same nature, to the same end, by the same means, and in the same manner; just as all heavy things tend to their centre. But men, both in natural and artificial things, tend to different ends, using different means. Therefore, their operations are not natural, but voluntary. Secondly, natural operations are always, or almost always, well ordered; for nature very seldom errs; whereas human operations are not always free from error. Thirdly, natural operations, in so far as they are natural, do not vary;—thus, all swallows build their nests and feed their young in the same way; and sparrows, and every species of bird, follow their own specific method of carrying on these operations. But, human operations are so diverse, that we see scarcely two men who act alike; the reason being that man is guided, not by instinct, but by free-will. Again, did human choice depend on nature, virtue and vice must be imputed not to individuals but to nature; which view would destroy all idea of injustice, or of rational plan, or of a providence over human affairs. Since nature is governed by God and is immutable, man would necessarily be left to act according to his instinct. We can imagine what would then be the condition of human affairs.
But, to return to our first proposition. Since the understanding exceeds, in its operations, all bodies, the will exceeds them likewise; because its love and desire aspire even to God. Therefore, the will cannot be subject to any physical power. Further, as means are proportioned to their end; and as the last end of man exceeds any corporeal thing; the operations of the understanding and of the will, by means of which man attains his end, transcend all bodies; nor are they subject to the influence of the heavenly bodies. And, although our bodies are subject to celestial bodies, and are, by the impressions made on us by them, inclined to do what is contrary to right reason; we have, nevertheless, so much power to resist this inclination, that our operations may be said to be subject, not to the heavens, but to our free-will. Thus, as the firmament is not, strictly speaking, the cause of our actions, it cannot be called our God. For God is the First Cause, who does all things, and acts in all things.
Some, however, maintain that the heavenly bodies are animate. They, therefore, hold that, although of themselves they do not move our understanding and free-will, these faculties are, nevertheless, influenced by the soul which vivifies the heavens. The following arguments will easily demonstrate the fallacy of this opinion:—
First, it is futile to use an instrument which is not adapted to produce a desired effect. It has already been proved that the power of the heavens is not able to influence the understanding and free-will. It is futile, therefore, to say that the heavenly bodies, as instruments of the soul which animates the firmament, act upon our understanding. Secondly, the soul of the heavens cannot by means of its instruments, the celestial bodies, affect immediately or directly, the intellect or will, because corporeal influences cannot immediately act upon what is spiritual. But the power of the heavenly bodies may, certainly, affect our physical temperament, and by means of it may influence our imagination and interior sense. These activities, in their turn, may represent to our understanding some advantage to be sought, or peril to be avoided. But no one is obliged to heed these phantasies. We are always free to think, or not to think of what we choose; and experience proves that man is master of his actions. Therefore, it is unreasonable to say that the stars and the firmament, or the soul which animates them, is God. For God is He who immediately gives being and operation to all things; it is He who moves our understanding and free-will; although in moving it He always respects our liberty, because He moves all things in a way that is adapted to their nature. Therefore, all worship given to the heavens, or to the stars, or to the soul of the firmament, is empty and dangerous. These bodies are created for the service of man; and no one ought to worship that which is meant to be his servant. Hence, we see the folly of astrologers who assign to the heavens the government of human affairs, and pretend to direct men by observation of the stars.
But, even in these modern times, there are some nominal Christians, who, under certain disguises, try to uphold the fallacies of astrology. They say, for instance, that although free-will is, by its nature, subject, not to the heavens, but to God; nevertheless, since the sensitive part of our nature—by which almost all men are ruled—is subject to astral influences, they are able by means of the stars to foretell many future events; the more so, that God governs human affairs by means of the stars, as secondary causes. So far, indeed, does the father of lies lead them astray, that they delude men into trusting more to the stars than to God, and they are able to persuade them to undertake nothing without first consulting the heavens.
This system of astrological divination so little deserves the name of science, or of art, that the best philosophers have judged it unworthy of notice, and have passed it over in silence. Both Plato and Aristotle ignore it. The latter proves, in many places, that we can have no knowledge of the things to which astrology professes to furnish a clue. For, future events, which may or may not take place, cannot be known in themselves, as they as yet possess no being; nor can they be foreseen in their cause, since they have no definite or determinate cause, but only such as is uncertain and wholly undetermined.
But, granted that man could arrive at some knowledge of the future, he certainly could not attain to it by looking at the heavens, as the universal cause of inferior things. Certainly no knowledge of particular effects can be attained by the contemplation of a general cause, but only by the investigation of proximate and particular causes. Physicians do not try to discover the causes of sickness by means of the stars, nor do they endeavour to cure by an astrolabe; they study, rather, to find out the special predisposing causes of illness, and the physical temperament of their patient. Nothing, therefore, can be more foolish than to attempt to investigate, by the mere contemplation of the stars and planets, future events, which will arise from the free-will of individuals and from particular causes.
Astrologers say that different virtues and properties reside in different parts of the heavens. The absurdity of this pretension shows the folly of their other superstitions. The very greatest philosophers, who, certainly, were far wiser and better informed than astrologers, have never discovered in the firmament, the virtue claimed for it by astrologers. The astrologers further affirm that this virtue or property acts upon the earth by means of the moon and of the motion of the firmament, and that the variety of things caused upon earth proceeds, primarily, from the diversity of light and from the motions of the spheres and of the stars; and, secondarily, from the variety of the dispositions of matter and of particular agents. Hence, according to their opinion, if we wish to foretell future events, it does not suffice to know the varieties of light and of motion in the heavens; we must also understand the disposition of matter, and the nature of particular agents, without which the celestial bodies cannot act. But, since, for reasons before stated, we could not, even if we had this knowledge, arrive at any certainty as to the future—especially as to events which depend on free-will—how can we be likely to gain such certainty, merely by gazing at the stars?
But, even if we assume with astrologers, that Divine properties reside in the heavens, this does not prove that their astrology is not foolish. For such properties can be nothing but the universal causes of the things which take place on earth. For, as the stars and planets are more remote from earth than are the elements, and as the elements are universal causes of terrestrial things, the celestial bodies must be causes even more universal. Now, we cannot, merely by understanding the generative force of animated beings in general, know the mode of reproduction peculiar to particular species of animated life—such as animals or plants. Still less can we arrive at such knowledge merely by contemplating the heavens.
But although it is an absurdity, let us concede to astrologers, that the virtue of the astral bodies is more particular than that of the elements. Their divination would still remain an idle folly; for our senses, (which are the fount of our knowledge), can never investigate anything so far remote from them as the forces of the heavens. The greatest philosophers have never discovered these forces. We cannot understand the properties even of many things which we handle every day; and how can astrologers, who cannot compare either in mental capacity or in learning with philosophers, pretend to analyse the powers of the stars? But, even if they did understand these powers, they would have no reason to boast of their idle superstitions. For the particular causes, existing under heaven, cannot have been created in vain, since nothing has been made without a purpose. If, then, there reside in the firmament certain particular forces, e.g., one destined to reproduce mankind, another to reproduce oxen, etc., we should have to say, that sublunary particular causes exist, only for the purpose of disposing matter for the reception of the form impressed on them by astral forces. Therefore, for the purposes of divination, an astrologer could not be satisfied by the mere contemplation of the heavens. The heavenly bodies impress different forms upon matter, according to its varying disposition; and if matter be not duly prepared, it is incapable of receiving a form. And, as there may be many obstacles to the fitting preparation of matter, an astrologer could not gain any sure knowledge of particular things by merely gazing at the skies. For instance, let us suppose that the force contained in one particular star is adapted to produce grapes from a vine. We cannot, by merely gazing at the star, calculate the crop which that vine will bear; for, many things may hinder its fertility. It may be, for example, planted in unsuitable soil; it may be cut down; cattle may browse on it; or some other star may injure it, by causing either drought or too heavy rains. By merely looking at the sky we cannot know which of these, and many similar accidents, may occur. And if we can arrive at no more certain conclusion than this, about purely natural things, how much less can we trust our judgment upon those points which depend on the endless variations of free-will?
Therefore, when we consider the false principles on which astrology is based, and the mutable nature of man’s desires and will, we shall see very clearly that the conduct of human affairs does not depend on the stars, and that it is an absurdity to try to direct man’s lives by studying the heavens.
But, it is not our intention to argue at any greater length against such folly. We will rest content with having proved that any religion, that ever has been, or ever shall be invented, for the worship of the stars and other heavenly bodies, is meaningless and superstitious. Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, whose sublimity of intelligence and wealth of learning must be numbered among the great works of God and of nature, has, in his book of disputations, so subtly confuted and completely demolished the pretensions of astrologers to powers of divination, that any one who reads his treatise intelligently, and does not then despise astrology, deserves to be considered an unreasonable man. In order, furthermore, to convince every one of the folly of astrologers, I also have composed and published, in the vulgar tongue,1 a work in confutation of their doctrine. Therefore, let whosoever desires it read these books, and he will see how great a folly it is to devote time to such a superstition, or to trust in it.
[1 ]i.e., in Italian. It was published in Florence in the year 1495. Afterwards a Latin edition, Contra Astrologiam Divinatricem lib. iii., was printed.—Editor.