Ever since the astrologers turned their science to the pecuniary benefit of the individual, there have been men to fight against them.
Bitter and sarcastic Isaiah hurled his diatribe against the woman of Babylon:
"Stand now with thine enchantments, and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to profit, if so be thou mayest prevail.
"Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.
"Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them."
In vain Isaiah prophesied destruction; in vain Cicero's eloquence was showered upon the Roman senate; in vain, centuries later, Savonarola harangued the congregations of Florence. Where threatened disaster would not prevail, neither would scholarship nor theology. Then in the end of 1707, Dean Jonathan Swift took up the cause.
Under the title, "Predictions for the year 1708, by Isaac Bickerstaff Esq.", Swift published a satire on the Almanack-makers, in which he made bold to say:
"My first prediction is but a trifle, yet I will mention it to shew how ignorant those sottish pretenders to astrology are in their own concerns; it relates to Partridge the Almanackmaker. I have consulted the star of his nativity by my own rules and find that he will infallibly die upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging fever; therefore advise him to consider of it, and settle his affairs in time."
This terrible prediction was answered by a person of quality who resented the frolic which Mr. Bickerstaff had had at the expense of all and sundry, gave instances of many people who had died by mere force of suggestion, and ventured a prophecy on his own account:
"For though I am no astrologer I may venture to say that Isaac Bickerstaff Esquire is now dead, and died just at the time his predictions were ready for press; that he dropped out of a cloud about nine days ago, and, in about four hours after, mounted up thither like a vapour."
To this sally Swift took no notice, but he proceeded to pen a "Letter to a Person of Honor" by an unknown friend, recounting the sad death of Mr. Partridge, who (he said) died not at the hour foretold, but a good four hours earlier on the same day.
The whole thing was too much for Partridge, who was still very much alive. With the help of a friend he issued a letter in his almanack for 1709, complaining that he could not open the window without finding the sexton outside, nor walk down the street without being hounded by coffin-makers. He was certain that the whole thing was a popish plot of international scope, and that through his side all learning was threatened.
To which tirade, Swift, alias Isaac Bickerstaff, replied:
"Mr. Partridge has been lately pleased to treat me after a very rough manner. To call a man a fool and a villain, an impudent fellow, only for differing from him in a point merely speculative, is, in my humble opinion, a very improper style for a person of his education. . . . I wish Mr. Partridge knew the thoughts which foreign universities have conceived of his ungenerous proceedings with me; but I am too tender of his reputation to publish them to the world."
This noble example of consideration was followed by five different proofs of Partridge's death beginning with the statement that over a thousand men had looked at Partridge's almanack and cried out, "No man alive could write such stuff as this!" and ending with the objection that the continued publication of the almanack was no proof, for several men "do yearly publish their almanacks, and they have been dead since before the revolution."
"When the end of the year had verified all my predictions, out comes Mr. Partridge's almanack, disputing the point of his death; so that I am employed, like the general who was forced to kill his enemies twice over, whom a necromancer had raised to life. If Mr. Partridge has practised the same experiment upon himself and be again alive, long may he continue so; that does not in the least contradict my veracity."
What sermons and harangues and logic had failed to do, this satire of Jonathan Swift's accomplished. No one in England dared to consult the astrologers for fear of ridicule. It had very nearly laughed them off the face of the Earth.