Close Cozenage

David Wootton

  • Astrology and the 17th-Century Mind: William Lilly and the Language of the Stars by Ann Geneva
    Manchester, 298 pp, £40.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 7190 4154 6

William Lilly was the first to produce a major textbook of astrology in the English language, at a time when the truth of astrology was almost universally recognised. At their peak in the 1650s his almanacs sold up to 30,000 copies a year. From them he may only have netted a modest £70 a year (enough for a gentleman to live on), but they served to advertise his astrological practice, from which we have the surviving records of many thousands of consultations. Lilly advised the rich, famous and powerful; among his friends were leading scientists of the day. And he shaped the course of events. At the Restoration he had to counter the charge that the day the King was executed was chosen to conform to his prognostication. Through the key years of the Civil War he had forecast Parliamentary victory and royal defeat (he predicted victory at Naseby, the key battle of the war), and Royalists complained that his almanacs were worth several regiments to the Parliament. He had helped to ensure his prognostications came true, and had emerged victorious in his own war with the King’s astrologers. Briefly (before his failure to foresee the Restoration or the Fire of London cut his reputation down to size), Lilly seemed to embody the success of a new astrological science.

Lilly, though, was not the founder of a new era, but the last great practitioner of his art. In the post-Restoration years astrology suffered for its Civil War success. Charles II continued to seek guidance in the stars, but faith among the political and intellectual élite waned. The scientists did not pause to refute it, presumably because its dependence on a geocentric system appeared to render it irrelevant in an age of triumphant Copernicanism (although two of the three founders of the new astronomy, Brahe and Kepler, had themselves been practising astrologers, and Galileo was prepared to recognise some truth in this branch at least of the old science). Astrology never established itself in the universities. Soon after the Society of Astrologers was disbanded at the Restoration the Royal Society for the Advancement of Science was established. Although many members of the Royal Society believed in, and practised, astrology, its days of respectability were numbered.

If anyone was a great astrologer, Lilly was, and it is the great merit of Ann Geneva’s book that she asks straightforwardly what it was that Lilly was good at. Her reply is that contemporaries reckoned him an expert without equal in the casting of horoscopes, and that to understand his brilliance we must study his prognostications from the inside, as interpretations of the heavens. In making this claim she has powerful arguments on her side. Philosophers of science from Kuhn onwards seem to have undermined the belief that science is true because it is ‘objective’ and provides an accurate representation of reality. Facts are inextricably bound up in theories, we are told; scientific evidence is itself theory-dependent; and the difference between what comes to be regarded as good science and what as bad is often hard to discern without the benefit of hindsight. In this tradition, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have defended the first critics of Boyle’s famous air-pump experiments, which are supposed to have established the vacuum as a laboratory entity, on the grounds that their arguments were as good as any Boyle produced. So, if good science is hard to define, and progress hard to identify, why cannot we now have a sympathetic account of astrology which takes it seriously on its own terms? Such an account need not involve ‘belief’ in it, any more than a sympathetic account of Newton’s alchemical experiments need imply that the philosopher’s stone really exists, or admiration for Hobbes (Boyle’s chief critic) any reluctance to use a Vacu-Vin.

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