Did You Know St. Hippolytus Refuted Astrology in the Third Century?

by Stacy A. Trasancos | December 10, 2014 12:01 am

Hippolytus Astrology[1]

Astrology has its roots in the astral omens of ancient Mesopotamia dating back to the third millennium before the birth of Christ.[1][2] The ancient Babylonians presumed astronomical observations of the configuration of celestial bodies gave them the ability to predict the future. These astral omens (omina) involved occultic beliefs that events in the natural world, such as lightening, cloud movements, and the behavior of certain animals, indicated good or bad fortune.

They also practiced divination, the predicting of physical or human events on earth by communicating with the gods through the stars, Sun, Moon, planets, and the configurations among the celestial bodies and Earth. Babylonian astrologers also tried to predict the course of an individual’s life using mathematical calculations overlaid on the positions of the celestial bodies relative to the Earth’s horizon at the time of a person’s birth.[2][3]

The history of astrology is not limited to the Babylonians of Mesopotamia. Every ancient culture held some form of a belief in astral omens, including China, India, Greece, and Egypt. These beliefs stemmed from a pantheistic or animistic world view, a view that the universe is eternally cycling, emanating from gods or that the universe is a god itself.[3][4] Fundamentally, a pantheistic world view is in conflict with the Biblical world view that the universe is created by God with order and predictability in the laws of nature and has an absolute beginning in time. Hence, astrology is in conflict with the Christian world view and this was the basis of St. Hippolytus’ refutation.

The Astrology of Hippolytus’ Time

Around the 3rd century B.C, Babylonians developed astrology as a mathematical correspondence between the macrocosm (a large order) and the microcosm (a small order). The practice and interpretation of astrology was transformed by the Greeks in Egypt during the latter half of the first millennium, around and up to the 3rd century A.D. during the Hellenistic period.[4][5] Astrologers were called mathematici or Chaldaei, though the term Chaldean had different meanings at different times. It first was in reference to the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, and then particularly the members of the Babylonian priesthood. It later became a professional term for those who claimed to foretell the future according to celestial configurations.[5][6]

The orbit of the Sun was divided into twelve equal parts, called Zodiacal signs, following the Babylonians who also cast horoscopes.[6][7] The Greeks developed their own version of astrology when such practices became in vogue for the intellectual class.[7][8] The practitioners believed that the positions of these bodies relative to the Earth were connected to human and earthly events affecting not only individuals but also groups of people and even nations.[8][9]

The ancient astral omens mixed well with the Greek physics and philosophy, particularly the deterministic Stoic view that the universe is a machine. The Stoics viewed the universe as a whole with interrelated parts, so they accepted the idea that the heavenly bodies were linked to the mundane bodies and that the gods transferred attributes through such channels.[9][10] Celestial bodies, to the Stoics, were in absolute regularity with earthly events down to the smallest detail, even if such details were too complex to be known. The mechanistic view of the universe fit with the art of astrology.

In Hellenistic philosophy, however, astrology was more mathematical than in Babylonian philosophy. The Greeks presupposed a geocentric universe in which the celestial bodies revolved in orbits around the Earth, in circles with finite radii. Aristotelian physics divided the terrestrial from the celestial, and thus considered separately linear motion and circular motion. Special relations were believed to exist between celestial bodies so that their configurations with motion on earth were involved in the generation and decay of fire, air, water, and earth. Platonic astrologers thought fire extended from earth to the celestial domain.[10][11]

Fate was a principal theme of astrology. Aristotelian philosophers proposed a solution to the determinism and fatalism of astrology by positing that the body is subject to a predetermined destiny but the immaterial soul is not because it is free. The early Christian scholars were, then, influenced by Hellenistic astrology, particularly among the Gnostic sects. Fully developed Gnostic thought in the 2nd century was indeed a challenge to the Church, which led to the polemic writings of St. Irenaeus and his disciple, St. Hippolytus of Rome.[11][12]

The Refutation of All Heresies

Hippolytus lived in the 3rd century. As an apologist, he was (among other things) concerned with Hellenistic astrology developed by the Greeks as it became mingled by heretics with Christian tenets. Hippolytus’ great work is a compendium of heretical doctrines, The Refutation of All Heresies, written sometime around A.D. 230.[12][13] His large work is a summary of the details of the doctrines of the Ionians, Pythagoreans, and the penetration of those doctrines with Babylonian, Persian, and Indian thought with the Hellenistic philosophy of the Greeks. It is comprised of ten books (books II and III are missing). In particular, he devoted Book IV to the refutation of astrology, as it was encountered in his lifetime.

Unlike Irenaeus, Hippolytus thought the conceptual “vagaries” of the heretics were an elaboration or distortion more than a serious intellectual achievement. Such sentiment is reflected in his writing. For instance, he titled Chapter 12 of Book IV, “Waste of Mental Energy in the Systems of the Astrologers.”[13][14] In this chapter, Hippolytus “grieved” that Ptolemy had not been born earlier to tell the ones who built the Tower of Babel just how far away the heavens were, by Ptolemy’s calculations, so as to have spared them the futile effort. He thought both the ancient Babylonians and the followers of Ptolemy wasted mental energies, but noted at least Ptolemy, in such a circumstance as found in the building of the Tower of Babel, would not have been completely useless if he could have stopped them. “O, pride of vain-toiling soul, and incredible belief, that Ptolemy should be considered pre-eminently wise among those [the ones who tried to construct a tower to heaven] who have cultivated similar wisdom!”[14][15]

Because it is directly related to his rejection of astrology, Hippolytus’ rejection of pantheism in general should first be noted. He condemned Democritus’ duality of principles, from which his cosmology was derived.[15][16] Democritus conferred with Indians and Egyptian priests, and with astrologers and magi in Babylon. From these consultations, Democritus thought existing things are continually moved in the vacuum and, thus, that worlds are infinite. This is the fundamental idea behind the Greek conception of the Aeon, or the eternally cycling, eminent universe.

Such a view is in direct contradiction with Christian doctrine and the Bible which hold, based on Divine Revelation, that the world has an absolute beginning in time. The pantheistic mindset is one of resolve. Either a man is born soaring at the top of the cosmic, eternally revolving wheel or despairing at the bottom of the cycle. Either way, he can do nothing to change it. Of this fatalism, Hippolytus wrote, “This philosopher turned all things into ridicule, as if all the concerns of humanity were deserving of laughter.”[16][17]

The Refutation of Astrology

Hippolytus was a man with a scientific mind. He could have ignored astrology or dismissed it as absurd, but he did not want to overlook any “figment” devised by the prominent Greek philosophers.[17][18] He wanted to expose the “secret mysteries” and “vagaries of astrologers.”[18][19] He thought it was important to explain the details before attempting to refute an idea, an approach apparent in the full compendium of his work.[19][20]

In Book IV, Hippolytus charged first that astrological doctrine is meant to deceive.

But now, lest any one suppose the opinions propounded by the Chaldeans respecting astrological doctrine to be trustworthy and secure, we shall not hesitate to furnish a brief refutation respecting these, establishing that the futile art is calculated both to deceive and blind the soul indulging in vain expectations, rather than to profit it. And we urge our case with these, not according to any experience of the art, but from knowledge based on practical principles.[20][21]

He then showed why the art of astrology was, to use his words, vain-toiling, practically impossible, and folly. The impossibility lies in the way the Babylonians and Greeks computed the horoscope, and it is not so different from modern day scientific refutations.

The Chaldean astrologers thought the stars exerted influence on humanity and the Earth. The mapped out triangles and quadrangles derived from Pythagorean teaching and based on the idea of core numbers (also known as numerology). This data correlated to the mapped out positions of stars and, thus the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The astrologers used the time and place of birth of an individual to compute these numbers of significance using Pythagorean theory, and then correlate numbers to signs of the Zodiac.

The originating principle, and, as it were, foundation, of the entire art, is fixing the horoscope. For from this are derived the rest of the cardinal points, as well as the declinations and ascensions, the triangles and squares, and the configurations of the stars in accordance with these; and from all these the predictions are taken.[21][22]

From cataloging past correlations between star positions and time and place of birth, predictions were made about future events and personality traits of an individual.[22][23] Hippolytus noted that these interpretations and predictions were absurdities.[23][24] The foundation of the art of astrology is the fixing of the horoscope, but horoscopes, he said, cannot be discoverable.[24][25] He gave his reasons, and they were more or less three-fold, depending on how one organizes them.

First, the position of the planets and stars relative to each other and to Earth is literally a matter of perspective for the person standing in one spot on Earth conducting the observations and measurements.[25][26] The positions of the celestial bodies appear differently by location.

Hippolytus knew, as did the astrologers, that the planets moved in orbital motion. He listed the various calculations of the size of the Earth, the distance from Earth to the Moon, the Moon to the Sun, and from the Sun to the planets to demonstrate the variation and uncertainty.

But the diameter of Earth is 80, 108 stadii; and the perimeter of Earth, 250, 543 stadii; and the distance also from the surface of the Earth to the lunar circle, Aristarchus the Samian computes at 8, 000, 178 stadii, but Apollonius 5, 000, 000, whereas Archimedes computes it at 5, 544, 1300. And from the lunar to solar circle, (according to the last authority,) are 50, 262, 065 stadii; and from this to the circle of Venus, 20, 272, 065 stadii; and from this to the circle of Mercury, 50, 817, 165 stadii; and from this to the circle of Mars, 40, 541, 108 stadii; and from this to the circle of Jupiter, 20, 275, 065 stadii; and from this to the circle of Saturn, 40, 372, 065 stadii; and from this to the Zodiac and the furthest periphery, 20, 082, 005 stadii.[26][27]

The astrological predictions were said to be based on astronomical “harmony” in that there was a doubling and a tripling of distances between the bodies, but the numbers he listed are too varied to support this basic claim. This alone renders the art vain-toiling, but he went on.[27][28]

Second, he noted that even granting that the horoscope could be fixed by the celestial bodies, the computation requires that the time and place of birth for the individual to be known exactly, and not only that, but from that exact birth time, the time of conception is sometimes computed too.[28][29] However, the Chaldeans failed to define the exact criteria for completion of birth. Is the exact time of birth when the membranes break? Is it when the head emerges? Is it when the last foot is out? Or is it when the baby is fully separated? Furthermore, it is also impossible to calculate the time of conception because there is so much variability in the process, as it was then understood, among women and because the process of conception is, as they well knew, not fully understood.[29][30] How could the inputs for the computations be known with any accuracy? They cannot.

In addition to this point, Hippolytus also remarked on the method of reporting births. The customary method for important persons having the horoscopes determined of their children was for a messenger to sit beside the woman and strike a metallic rim “at the time of parturition.”[30][31] The Chaldean sitting in an elevated place then contemplated the stars to record the rising zodiacal sign. Sometimes the message was relayed from one person to the next if the Chaldean was farther away. So the method for recording birth time was highly variable. There is also variation in the time it takes a Chaldean to make the observation and measurement. Hippolytus even noted that it takes time for the sound of the clanging metallic rim to travel; and that from the appearance of the horizon the rising star will appear differently, as previously noted.

Punctilious though these fine points may be, Hippolytus was correct, and he displayed his scientific aptitude. If the divination of horoscopes rested on accuracy and precision, a fundamental inability to observe and measure with accuracy and precision renders the analytical method, as he said, practically impossible.

In this way, the art practised by the Chaldeans will be shown to be unstable. Should any one, however, allege that, by questions put to him who inquires from the Chaldeans, the birth can be ascertained, not even by this plan is it possible to arrive at the precise period. For if, supposing any such attention on their part in reference to their art to be on record, even these do not attain— as we have proved— unto accuracy either, how, we ask, can an unsophisticated individual comprehend precisely the time of parturition, in order that the Chaldean acquiring the requisite information from this person may set the horoscope correctly?[31][32]

Third, he noted the logical error of the predictions themselves and the impossibility of connecting the correlations of the celestial body positions to actual events or traits in a person’s life. Many people may be born throughout the world in each minute, but there is no way to follow each life, or even enough of them, to know whether the astrological predictions are correct.[32][33] Not only, as already argued, would the stars be observed from varying directions at different places in the world, but also “those who have been born at the same time do not spend the same life.”[33][34] Some are made kings and some are made slaves. Did every child born at the same time as Alexander the Macedonian live the life of Alexander the Macedonian? Was there more than one such as Plato?

These refutations may seem inept in the 21st century because a modern astrologer might counter that horoscopes are not intended to lay out such details of a person’s life, but only to advise paths one might take. However, this was not the case in Hippolytus’ time. Such exacting predictions were made and taken seriously. For instance, one born under the “barb of Sagittarius’ arrow” was predicted to meet a violent death, but, as Hippolytus pointed out, “how was it that so many myriads of the Barbarians that fought with the Greeks and Marathon or Salamis were simultaneously slaughtered?” They did not have the same horoscope (i.e. exact time and place of birth), but they all met the same fate nonetheless.

Last, in the same line of refutation in this final point, Hippolytus argued against the Great Year. In the beginning of his refutation of astrology, Hippolytus already fundamentally rejects astrology because it is based on the pantheistic idea of an eternally cycling, deterministic universe, but he also ends this part of his refutation by returning to the doctrine of the Great Year to make a finer point. The doctrine holds that with each renewal of the Great Year, through a time of seven thousand seven hundred and seventy seven years, the stars all return to their same positions. How then, he asked, “will human observation for one birth be able to harmonize with so many ages?”[34][35] The Chaldeans had no written record of the days nearly eight millennia before their time, nor can any person living at any time hope to be around eight millennia in the future to compare data points. To think this is possible is, as he said, pure folly.

Hippolytus went on to discuss the specifics of each astronomical Zodiac sign, giving the details, down to the shape of the eyebrow, nostril, and chin and the nature and life course of each person born under it. He also analyzed the mathematics of Pythagoras as it was used in astrology. Then he recounted the symbols of creatures and spirits used to label the Zodiac signs with animals. He successfully demonstrated that the whole system is meaningless, but the force of his refutation rested on the first principals highlighted in this paper: 1) The view of the stars varies by place; 2) The exact time of birth cannot be known or communicated; and 3) There is no way to collect either correlative or causative data. Hence, astrology is nothing more than “vain-toiling,” “practical absurdity,” and “folly.”[35][36]

Hippolytus’ purpose in The Refutation of All Heresies was not to refute Babylonian and Greek beliefs per se. His purpose was to refute the heresies of the Gentile philosophers who tried to reconcile non-Christian orthodoxy of ancient cultures with Christian doctrine. He accused the ones who did this, knowing the absurdity and deception of the art of astrology, as committing absurdity and deception themselves.

Since, however, we have determined to omit none of the opinions advanced by Gentile philosophers, on account of the notorious knavery of the heretics, let us see what they also say who have attempted to propound doctrines concerning magnitudes—who, observing the fruitless labour of the majority (of speculators), where each after a different fashion coined his own falsehoods and attained celebrity, have ventured to make some greater assertion, in order that they might be highly magnified by those who mightily extol their contemptible lies.[36][37]

Some six years after writing The Refutations of All Heresies, records indicated that Hippolytus achieved martyrdom in A.D. 236. St. Hippolytus of Rome is considered a Father of the Church.[37][38] He is sometimes referred to as the Origen of the West.[38][39]

Relevance to Modern Times

Although he lived in the third century, Hippolytus’ refutation of astrology is relevant today. He rejected doctrines incompatible with the Christian Creed and, in doing so, he also rejected faulty science and superstition.

It is argued still that astrology shares some traits with modern science.[39][40] To the extent that astrology is a collection of data and correlations, it is said to be objective and value-free, operating according to articulated rules and data that are consistent and universally valid, that can be tabulated. Even so, a body of empiricism that cannot be causally linked to reality does not stand for truth, no matter how ancient the practice. Modern astrology is a development of Hellenistic astrology, which was a development of Babylonian astrology, but the techniques have not changed much since then, into the Renaissance, and to current times.[40][41] Both modern astrology and classical astrology cast horoscopes, and as such, predict the fate of individuals.

This doctrine is also incompatible with the doctrine of free will, which is directly contrary to Christian dogma guarded by the Catholic Church. Just as Hippolytus did, the scientific community today does not consider astrology a science, but rather a pseudoscience.[41][42] It is still considered a superstition. The Church has never accepted the doctrines of astrology, even though individual Christian scholars have tried to find some of its practice acceptable, itself another interesting story full of twists and turns.

Suffice it to say, in closing, that since the beginning of the Church and even before in Biblical times, those who held a firm belief in a transcendental Creator, a creation out of nothing, an absolute beginning in time, the rationality of the universe, and the free will and intellect of the human person made in the image and likeness of God have rejected pantheism and its logical offspring such as astrology. This is but part of the story of how Christianity nurtured and guarded the truth that, on a mundane scale, led to the birth of modern science, and on the supernatural scale, is the grand purpose and destiny of all Creation.


End Notes

[1][43] Ulla Kock-Westenholz, Mesopotamian Astrology: An Introduction to Babylonian and Assyrian Celestial Divination (Copenhagen: The Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies Museum Tusculanum Press, 1995), Foreword
[2][44] Ulla Kock-Westenholz, p. 13.
[3][45] David Pingree, “Astrology,” Encyclopædia Britannica (2014), http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/39971/astrology Accessed on December 2, 2014.
[4][46] Ulla Kock-Westenholz, Foreword.
[5][47] Ernest Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), “Astrology, Astral Religion, and Fate.”
[6][48] David Pingree, “Astrology,” Encyclopædia Britannica.
[7][49] Ernest Ferguson, “Astrology, Astral Religion, and Fate.”
[8][50] David Pingree, “Astrology,” Encyclopædia Britannica.
[9][51] Ernest Ferguson, “Astrology, Astral Religion, and Fate.”
[10][52] David Pingree, “Astrology,” Encyclopædia Britannica.
[11][53] Ferguson, “Gnosticism, Heretic Literature, and Chaldean Oracles.”
[12][54] Stanley Jaki, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to An Oscillating Universe (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986), p. 166.
[13][55] Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, Translated by J. H. MacMahon, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 5, Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1886), Book IV, Chapter 12.
[14][56] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 12.
[15][57] Hippolytus, Book VIII, Chapters 1 and 2.
[16][58] Stanley Jaki, p. 167.
[17][59] Hippolytus, The Proemium.
[18][60] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 11.
[19][61] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 1.
[20][62] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 2.
[21][63] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 3.
[22][64] Francesca Rochberg, Babylonian Horoscopes: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 88, Part 1 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1998), p. 17.
[23][65] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 7.
[24][66] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 3.
[25][67] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 8.
[26][68] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 8.
[27][69] He actually gave the refutation regarding birth and conception before the refutation regarding the calculations of distances and horoscopes.
[28][70] Ulla Kock-Westenholz, p. 167.
[29][71] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapters 3 and 4. The exact time of birth and conception are still not exactly defined even today.
[30][72] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 4.
[31][73] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 5.
[32][74] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 5.
[33][75] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 5.
[34][76] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 7.
[35][77] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 50.
[36][78] Hippolytus, Book IV, Chapter 7.
[37][79] Johann Peter Kirsch, “St. Hippolytus of Rome, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910, New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07360c.htm. Accessed on December 5, 2014.
[38][80] Stanley Jaki, p. 167.
[39][81] Ulla Kock-Westenholz, p. 13.
[40][82] Ulla Kock-Westenholz, p. 20.
[41][83] David Pingree, “Astrology,” Encyclopædia Britannica.

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