“…there are four great collective sociological presuppositions in the modern world…that man’s aim in life is happiness, that man is naturally good, that history develops in endless progress, and that everything is matter.”
–Jacques Ellul, Propaganda (1965)
We modern people imbibe these four assumptions with our mother’s milk and they remain with us our entire lives. Part of their appeal is that they are often true, but by no means always. Ellul’s presuppositions are seductive because they are an integral part of the fabric of our lives, a background hum that we rarely notice, let alone question. Unquestioned assumptions can wreak havoc on our lives and our astrology.
- “The aim of life is happiness.” Is that true? I recently read Magic and Mystery in Tibet, a 100-year old travelogue whose author met countless people whose goal was to achieve enlightenment and avoid a future rebirth. Their express goal was not to feel happiness, or indeed anything else, only to step off the wheel of samsara. Another example: a medieval European chiefly strove to live a holy life and attain eternal salvation. Happiness as the chief aim of one’s existence is historically unique and by no means universal – we cannot make assumptions about the “one true aim of life” for anyone. Lesson for astrologers: Do not suppose that everyone you meet has the same life goals, and even happiness has many different faces, not all seemingly happy.
- “Humans are naturally good.” Should we assume that everyone wants to do the right thing? Or that people always act in their own best interests? Human nature simply is. Returning to the medieval European worldview, humans are naturally flawed and liberally sprinkled with Original Sin, requiring salvation to be made whole and good. The Gnostics assert that any embodied being is fundamentally evil. The Zoroastrians see us as measured equally in good and evil, caught between the forces of light and darkness that tug at our hearts. All of these belief systems describe humanity as it ever was, so which one is true? The answer is that there is no one right answer. Lesson for astrologers: learn to see people as they are, without a moralistic lens.
- “History develops in endless progress.” If we measure progress by life expectancy, we have periods of increase followed by decrease. Do we measure progress by knowledge? The very definition of progress requires us to make assumptions. The West today has widespread literacy but record low numbers of people with a classical humanist education considered essential only 100 years ago. Is that progress? The ancient Greeks once lost their entire system of writing for about three centuries. Perhaps history is more of an irregular wave, and we would do well to remember this. Lesson for astrologers: More is not necessarily better. Value quality over quantity.
- “Everything is matter.” This view is unique to the 20th and 21st centuries; human history has been based on the premise that matter is only part of the world we see. Many traditions view the material level as the lowest and most corruptible of the worlds. Astrology operates in a non-material space, and its mechanism has never been – and never will be – explained by materialistic theory. Lesson for astrologers: That which is most valuable is often intangible.