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Stoicism and Astrology
by Robert Zoller

(From the NCGR Journal - Winter 1987-1988 (Philosophy Issue))

Stoicism was, perhaps, the major philosophical force in the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aureius, reputed to have been a Wise Man (in the Stoic sense of the term) was himself a Stoic and may have been the clearest example of a real "Philosopher King" to have arisen in western history. Like much else, the Romans had been exposed to stoic Philosophy by their contact with the Greeks. In many ways, the story of Stoicism is a story of how Semitic (in this case, Phoenician) and Indo-European philosophical influences merged to produce a highly sophisticated and elevating system of thought that, in many ways, profoundly influences our civilization today. As astrologers, our interest is particularly attracted by the fact that astrology was quickly accepted by and assimilated into Stoic Philosophy from the time of its introduction to Greece in the 2nd century BC.

Zeno of Citium (in Asia Minor) , b. ca. 336 BC, was the originator of Stoicism. The philosophy he founded took its name from the fact that he expounded it from the porch (Greek "stoa") of a temple in Athens. Zeno had shown an interest in philosophy as a child and his father Mnaseas, a Phoenician merchant who traded extensively with the Greeks, encouraged his interest by returning from a business trip to Athens with several of the writings of the most eminent Socratic Philosophers. Zeno devoured these and, in his 30th year, set off for Athens to learn first hand all that the Greeks could teach him.

His first teacher was Crates the Cynic. Crates and his disciples were followers of Antisthenes (c 380 BC) who, like Plato had been a follower of Socrates. Like Socrates, Antisthenes taught that speculative philosophy was unproductive of real Good. One had to live philosophically. Unlike Socrates, Antisthenes stressed the idea of extreme simplicity of living. He and his followers violated the most basic notions of cleanliness and decency and lived an extremely austere life, wearing filthy clothes, eating raw meat and assailing with insults all those who approached them. They seem to have lived like some oriental fakirs and renunciates in India still do. The contemporary Greeks, however, viewed their outer behavior with disgust and called them dog- like, hence the name Cynic (from the Greek word for dog).

Zeno agreed with the theory but not the practice of Cynic Philosophy so, despite Crates' efforts to keep him (including an attempted kidnapping), Zeno commenced a period of study with all the other teachers in Athens, eventually framing his own teaching on the basis of all he had learned.

Central to the Stoic system of ethics was the view that what was truly Good and Virtuous was of an order entirely distinct from ordinary things and unique. To be virtuous was to be happy. "Good" was an absolute term applicable only to moral perfection. Only the Good had effects of which a wise man could approve. Everything else normally called good was in reality only morally indifferent. Wealth, health, beauty, intelligence, etc. could all be used to commit wicked acts. To have Virtue, however, was different. If one had Virtue, one was Wise and always did Good things.

Bad meant morally imperfect. Most things called bad in ordinary language, were really morally indifferent as well. Ugliness, poverty, ill repute, etc. could all be the impulses which lead to virtuous actions.

It was not the case that knowledge of what is truly Good was sufficient, however. One had to act appropriately in life. Right Action was a matter of choice between morally indifferent things. While it was true that one could be happy under the worst conditions (we must assume that the Cynics had demonstrated this), happiness was not ensured by merely avoiding life. One had to act, and act appropriately. Wisdom showed that avoidance of responsibilities was as effective a cause of unhappiness as wicked behavior. Therefore one must make decisions regarding how to meet life's exigencies even though in so doing one is acting (or not) on things which are in themselves neither good nor bad. Will you work for wealth or accept poverty? Will you marry or remain a bachelor? The Stoic believed that none of these things could, in themselves, make one happy, yet it was important to consciously choose which path one would tread on the basis of one's own individual nature and act appropriately on the path. In general, health, wealth and beauty would be preferred to ugliness, poverty and sickness. Virtue consists in the effort to cultivate what is of relative value and avoid what is not, while simultaneously remembering that externals are never the cause of happiness, and to cultivate an understanding of God's Plan. To the Stoics, happiness consisted in having the right mental attitude toward the world of externals. To have the right intention was enough. External conditions could obstruct success. Happiness comes from within. When one acts according to one's duty and position in life in a manner consistent with Nature, one achieves Happiness. This is because God's Reason (Logos, plan, explanation, pattern, etc.) is also Man's. If man thinks correctly he will recognize that his Reason and God's are the same and his perception of the external world will line up with his perception of the internal world. No one can do this for him. The Stoic believed in Self Reliance. His happiness was dependent on his actions and thought alone.

At the same time the Stoic believed in Fate. God was in all and ordered all in a rational and beneficial manner. The rational man accepted his Fate as part of God's Plan since he knew that God, being Good, always worked for the well being of all that is. At times when it appeared that this was at odds to the well being of a group or an individual the Stoic believed that the appropriate thing to do was to accept what appeared to be of unworth for him. To do otherwise was vain anyway. God's Plan always prevailed. Seneca, the Stoic poet sang:
"Lead me, father, ruler of high heaven Where you have wished; Obedience
knows no stay...
Fate leads the willing, drags the recusant"
Fighting one's fate was not noble. It was ignorant. Wisdom was achieved in always doing that which was appropriate. When the man's judgment could be relied upon to always do and say the right thing he was Wise. The welfare of the whole was usually placed first. In those cases where the individual's nature brought him into conflict with the Whole it was appropriate for him to act according to his nature even if that was different than what he was supposed to do in spite of the fact that he would reap ill repute and unworth as a result. This was seen as his Fate - to be met not avoided.

Nature was "physis" a word meaning process of growth. We would say evolution. Nature and God were the two ultimate principles. God was Logos or order, reason, pattern. God and Nature were inextricably bound up together. The World had a Fate. At the end of time it would burst into a Conflagration. Eventually the Fire would die down to Air, finally to a Watery condition in which the seed for the next cycle of manifestation would be. A new Cosmos would arise from this in which all the actions and all the actors of the previous cycle would once again manifest and commit the same acts:

Good or Bad. The cycle repeats itself eternally.

All things in the cosmos have their own Natures or Physis which require that they manifest and be such as they are. This is true of man as well. Thus, in practice, the Stoic found that it was of central importance to know his own nature and the natures of those around him in order to act appropriately. This is where astrology came in. Astrologers argued (and demonstrated) that there was no more efficient and reliable means of ascertaining one's nature (and, hence, Fate) than by astrology. Even the Fate of the world was represented in the Zodiac which the Stoic came to see as an expression of God's Word (Logos) or Plan. The story of the Conflagration, followed by the Air, followed by the watery state with the seed giving rise to the New Cosmos was shown in the sky by the signs Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Aries. The exaltation of Mars in Capricorn, the tenth sign (following 9 signs of manifestation) is the conflagration. Aquarius is the airy State, Pisces the Watery State with the Seed. Modern psychological astrologers will be reminded of the role of the twelfth sign and the twelfth house as the "collective unconscious" wherein lie the seeds or archetypes of our actions. Aries, the First sign (clearly designated as such in the Stoic poet Manilius' astrological poem) is the New Cosmos.

How can men be held responsible for their actions (the Stoics did hold this view) if everything is preordained? Chrysipus, a later Stoic, illustrated the answer by comparing what happens when someone gives a push to a cylinder at rest at the top of a slope. It roles down, but the cause of its rolling is not merely the push. That is just the antecedent cause. The determining cause is the cylindrical nature of the cylinder - its roundness. The same antecedent cause applied to a cubic solid at the top of a slope would not have the same result. The cube's squareness would be the determining cause of its stability. Likewise with a man. The exterior world gives rise to presentations, but the reaction to any presentation depends upon the condition of the man's psyche. The presentation is the antecedent cause of his action, but since the determining cause is found in his psyche, the action is attributable to him. But to say that an action is attributable to him is not to say that he could have acted otherwise. The rolling of the cylinder is due to its nature. Given the same conditions it will always act that way. So too with men. This idea is less absurd than it may appear.

A teacher of mathematics, for instance, who knows that the side and diagonal of a rectangle are incommensurable, will teach that to his pupils if the occasion arises; he will not teach them that they are commensurable. (Were he to do so it would be because he had ulterior motives beyond teaching mathematics. In that case he would not be by nature a mathematician but some other kind of complex being.) But once it is admitted that some actions are predetermined by the makeup of the person who performs them, it is difficult to argue that any are not so determined. Inability to predict whether the mathematician will go home after school and watch television may be due to nothing more than inadequate knowledge of his psyche.

How did the individual nature of a man's psyche arise? Chrysipus held that external conditions impressed upon us those factors which define our Fate. These externals are themselves produced by (and are indeed indistinguishable from) the World's Fate. We cannot fail to note that this line of reasoning is by no means novel to us. Both in the fields of psychology and in physics, there are many scientists who tend toward or fully espouse similar deterministic doctrines. In fact, the Stoic teaching of cyclicity and conflagration finds its modern equivalent in the cosmological model of the oscillating universe presently held by most astrophysicists. Indeed, from the point of view of Quantum Mechanics and the New Physics, it is hard to find much to disagree with in this ancient system of thought. Both systems hold that man's body, and much if not all that befalls it, arise due to inexorable physical laws operating on the subatomic, atomic and molecular levels of matter, and are acting on the substance of all matter. Since man is, physically, a part of the world, he is subject to the same laws.

The Stoics held that God permeated and controlled all things by his Logos or Plan. This Plan was the pattern of all life. Recent developments in Physics do point to an inherently geometrical ordering of matter on the subatomic level which is reflected up into the levels of higher complexity such as the atomic, molecular and organic structures. There is even, in the Many Worlds Hypothesis, a parallel to the Stoic Interpenetration Theory. According to the Many Worlds Theory (in connection with the so-called "Bootstrap" Theory) the process of observation of the subatomic level of matter/energy alters the structure of that level. As, statistically, all possibilities exist simultaneously each in its own world, yet remain somehow connected, an intelligent being (such as man) altering the structure of matter through observation in this realm also alters the structure of all other realms simultaneously. The Stoics saw the Interpenetration Theory as a way of explaining God's Immanent Presence and Rulership of the World. The modern theories mentioned above seem to imply a similar possibility, for if many worlds exist (as the theory states) and are interconnected so that an alteration in one causes alterations in the others, may not an intelligent being in another realm (perhaps God?) effect such a change there, resulting in a simultaneous change here?

What all this could mean for astrology is hard to say. What is clear is that the Stoics held that the Evolutional Pattern of the Individual was discernable from his/her natal figure (the individual modification of the macrocosmic Zodiac) just as the Fate of the world was declared by the Zodiac itself. Practical Stoicism (if we may be permitted to denominate it such) consisted of living a life consistent with Nature, avoiding emotional extremes which would cloud the reason, discriminating appropriate actions from those which led to unworth and ultimately acquiring wisdom. Freedom from irrational excess, total faith in the inherent rationality of life and a willingness to persist in Right Action in a self-reliant way were the hallmarks of the Stoic Philosopher. Certainly these are vaules which can be beneficially incorporated into the modern practice of astrological counseling to the profit of both astrologer and client.
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