The most sincere men in the fields of astrology and alchemy were neither fools nor charlatans. Roger Bacon was one, Albertus Magnus was another. Both were called sorcerers and magicians, and a third, whose personal life is almost unknown, managed to gather to himself all the tales of evil life and retribution which the imagination of the fifteenth century could produce. His name was Faust. In both the Goethe poem and the Rembrandt etching the symbol of the macrocosm figures largely beside the portrait of the man. These three, and all the other men who were great enough to become associated with the devil of earthly speculation, were the precursers of the new sciences. Alchemy and astrology were but two possible sciences not yet proved false.
Because they dealt with personal futures and fortunes, the men who went about prophesying were more open to temptation than other scientists who were otherwise neither better nor worse. There has never been any pecuniary gain for a prophet who told only the movements of the planets among the stars, as all astronomers can testify; but there were powerful patrons to pay a fortunate astrologer. In Rome the word of the soothsayers sent the market skyrocketing or dropped it with a bang. During the fifteenth century any evil report of France was sure to be well rewarded in England, and kings refused to go to war, except with the consent of the court astrologers--a custom which Sir Arthur Eddington in his radio talk to the English-Speaking Union suggested as highly desirable today!
From the time of Nebuchadnezzar "the magicians, the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers," had come and stood before the kings. Undoubtedly they knew what prophecy would bring the highest reward. But the most sincere and most reasonable of them had bases for all they said. There was a carefully thought out method in their madness. It was as if one of the side issues in the featherstitching of science had gone off and decided to become a pattern all by itself, with hardly a reference to the parent line. Astrology was a false science, but it proceeded scientifically.
Why it was so thoroughly believed, we cannot say; possibly because of the reason given by Henry IV of England centuries ago. "One of these days," he said, "I am going to die; and all the astrologers, who have been forecasting my death, will be proved right, and all the hundreds of things they have prophesied wrongly will be forgotten." That had a lot to do with the belief, but why it remains credible today is even more of a puzzle.
The movement of precession has separated the constellations and the signs so far that a man born on the twenty-first of March is, strictly speaking, under the constellation of Pisces. True, his sign is the sign of Aries, as the astrologers point out; but the sign is a manmade practical division which corresponds to absolutely nothing within the heavens themselves. Then too, with the proof that the Earth moves and is but one of the planets, men can no longer say that Earth and heaven are the two ultimate divisions of the universe, nor that the counterpart of each can be found in the other. Nevertheless some new discoveries in astronomy have been twisted ingeniously by the astrologers. "No wonder perfect results were not gained in the old days," an astrologer will tell you with apparent sincerity, "only five of the nine planets were known. With this supplementary knowledge our science would be perfect if only astrologers were in better agreement."