Friday, December 19, 2014

Something I Read #9 — Jean Seznec

Something apropos to the time of the year appearing by happenstance in a book that has been long on my shelves and finally decided to read through: Jean Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (trans. Barbara F. Sessions, Princeton UP 1953, 1981; published under Bollingen Series XXXVIII). I'm not terribly far into the book, but I'm confident that if the title at all catches you you will enjoy the read.

It's a long excerpt; to keep it from being even longer I'm starting just a touch in the midst of things.

Such was the situation with which Christianity found itself confronted. In its intolerance of all the pagan cults, it is only natural that special hostility should have been shown to their most recent and lively embodiment – belief in powerful stellar divinities, with Helios as their king.

This hostility is in fact apparent from the very beginnings of Christianity: St. Paul reproaches the Galatians for continuing to observe "days and months and times and years" in the name of the "weak and beggarly elements" to which they desire again to be in bondage. Later, the apologists (here, incidentally, echoing the views of Philo of Alexandria) explain that it is a crime to deify the physical world – to worship the thing created instead of the creator. What seems to them particularly impious in the worship of the heavenly bodies, as well as a danger to morals, is that such worship implies a denial of all human liberty and can end only in a discouraging fatalism. At first sight, it would therefore seem that Christianity had nothing but cause to abhor pagan astrology and to oppose it.

In actual fact, however, something quite different took place. To begin with, Christianity itself contained astrological elements; too many traces of the Hellenistic and Oriental religions, too much philosophy and science, were intertwined at its very roots for it to be able to rid itself of them completely. Accordingly, not only did the mythological names for the days of he week survive in spite of a certain amount of protest and some timid attempts to substitute a Christian terminology, but we even see the Church of Rome herself, in the middle of the fourth century, officially fixing the twenty-fifth of December as the date of Christ's nativity – the same day which had marked the birth of the Sun in the pagan religions, since the yearly course of each new sun has its beginning then. Aurelian, in his day, had made the sun a god of the Empire. Later, the first Christian Emperor was to have himself represented in the likeness of the Sun God on a porphyry column in Constantinople.

Thus we see that astrology still had its partisans and believers among the Christians, while even its adversaries made important concessions. Tertullian, not without embarrassment, admits that astrology was valid up to the birth of Christ; now, however, one can no longer look to Saturn, Mars, and the other "dead" gods for knowledge of the future. Most devout Christians share the view of Origen: supported by texts from the Bible, they still believe in the power of the stars – although that power has certain limitations. The stars, they hold, cannot act in a manner contrary to the will of God; they may not force a man to sin. However, they do continue to function as signs through which the Deity announces His benevolent or threatening intent. Neither Lactantus nor St. Augustine, again, casts doubt upon the fact of stellar influence, but both believe that it can be overcome by man's free will and by the grace of God. In short, "since, according to the doctrine of predestination, man's eternal salvation or doom depends solely upon the will of God, many see in the compulsion exercised by the stars – an inevitable compulsion, which determines the moral life as well – merely another expression of this doctrine; at all events, God's omnipotence makes manifest its immutable decrees to man through the stars as intermediary."

Furthermore, even when the apologists and Fathers interpret astrology in this way – and even when they condemn it – they leave untouched the underlying belief in demons in which it is rooted. The existence of evil angels is an article of faith with them all, as it is for the Church; but the gods of pagan fable are now combined with the demons mentioned in the Bible in one confused rabble of malevolent spirits. "The things which they sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils and not to God," says Paul, speaking of the Gentiles. For centuries to come, preachers will still go about the countryside expelling "the demons Jupiter, Mercury," etc., from haunts where they have lingered. It is through the stars and through astrology that these demons often act. In former times, for man's temptation and perdition, they taught him to read the stars. Now, scattered through the air (aeria animalia, as St. Augustine says), they make use of the heavenly bodies to aid them in their evil dominion. After this, Augustine's anathema against "mathematicorum fallaces divinationes et impia deliamenta" ["the lying divinations and impious nonsense of the astrologers"] seems somewhat vain, especially since he elsewhere affirms the corporeal reality of the evil powers of heaven. On this point, the great Bishop is in agreement with the "magician" Apulius – with the difference that Apuleius admits the existence of friendly demons. And his arguments, aimed at destroying astrology as a religion, sometimes have the effect of reinstating and confirming it.

Last of all, there is one fundamentally important reason why astrology was by no means easily to be extirpated: it stood as an integral and essential element of culture. As we have seen, it had intimately invaded the science of the late pagan world – to such a degree, in fact, that it dominated all the natural sciences. Not only had astronomy fallen under its sway, but mineralogy, botany, zoology, physiology, and medicine as well. [. . . A]ll physical beings were thought of as related to the zodiac. [. . .]

Insofar as the Christian community was receptive to pagan culture, therefore, it could not neglect astrology. Now the Church Fathers were urged by two considerations to admit all these studies into the Christian curriculum – their concern that the Christian be in no way inferior to the non-Christian, and their sense of the need for a proper understanding of their own religion. For, as St. Augustine recognizes, knowledge of natural history and astronomy are essential to a right reading of Scripture and a true understanding of divine things."

[. . .]

Thus the Christian polemics of the first centuries concerning astrology did not, as might have been expected, result in simply relegating it. Instead, the Church to a certain extent came to terms with it, and even turned to it for support. (42-46)

One of my favorite intellectual events is when a book or a speaker takes two 2s that I have had about forever and a day and puts them together to make a 4, but not just any 4, a 4 that is so astoundingly obvious I am dumbfounded as to how I never put those two 2s together on my own up to that point. Greatly, my pleasure lies in that the event – and especially the experience of the event – speaks that new paths of understanding have been opened, far beyond what but those two 2s offered: many 2s were being connected. But that's another discussion.

Here, to get to the point, a simple realization. Of course, when the Mediterranean peoples of two millennia ago looked up into the night sky, they did not see physics: mass, matter, distance, burning stars, orbiting planets, rocks hurtling themselves into the atmosphere as the earth moved through their unfathomably huge cloud. Their vision of the sky was of their time and place, understood through the context of the beliefs of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Persians: lights of preternatural if not divine being, of divinely spiritual being. Lights that were themselves willing entities or were identified with such beings, beings that had influence over the world and its inhabitants. Their view of the sky was not astronomical, it was astrological

But, equally, their view of the night was not "astrological" as we use the word today. For their understanding of the sky was their "science", their factual explanation of that which arced over their heads. Though they looked to the sky and saw lights that were the embodiments of divine or preternatural entities (be they good or evil), and that understanding was their astronomy. Astronomy and astrology were at the time deeply interwoven, in a manner that probably almost assuredly cannot be understood – except in a clinical sense, not an experiential – by a person of this age.

But that does not mean that it does not inform our understanding of the time. As is the case with the Star of Bethlehem. When the story of the star was written, it was understood that such a star was a divine event – similar to the story as it is understood by many Christians today. The story was not of the magical appearance of some physical object in the sky, near enough to the planet so as to be able to mark with it position and brightness the location of Bethlehem. It was a divine event.

But it was yet an astronomical event. For there would be no fundamental difference – except for its timing and positioning – between that star and any other star. Lights appearing in the sky – comets and meteorites – were divine events; but so were the stars themselves. Saying it again, lights appearing the sky – comets and meteorites – were events of natural science. Just as there is a history of belief that comets are preternatural foretellers of disasters, so also is there a history of stars appearing briefly to mark positive events. (The story of the Star of Bethlehem was not made out of whole cloth.)

Which puts Christians who insist on reading the Bible as an historical/theoretic text rather than a spiritual/mythic text in something of a bind. You cannot take the incident out of its context. For it to be understood as it was meant to be understood requires there to be in that understanding and belief no small amount of astrology. And astronomy. Astrological astronomy. Astronology. And there's no way around it; not without without making it unbiblical.


For advanced study: Giordano Bruno applies here. I always wonder if the people who uphold Bruno as a "rationalist" scientist understand that his astronomy was astronological? (I wonder if Seznec brings him up. If he does I'll let you know.)

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