C.S Lewis and why astrology still matters

You may have opened up your social media platform of choice one day to discover this bit of humor on your dashboard:
horoscope-for-the-week-stars-and-planets-will-not-affect-your-life-in-any-way

I laughed when I saw this ‘horoscope’ for the first time, but I also frowned. Why I laughed is obvious, but I will need to explain why I frowned.

Since the image is supposed to be humorous, let me begin with a lighthearted observation:

Scientifically speaking, the stars and planets actually do affect your life.

According to Newton’s law of universal gravitation, every particle in the universe attracts every other particle in the universe. In other wards, the particles which make up VY Canis Majoris have been tugging at you from the moment you were born, and are still tugging on you this moment.

Now, as I said at the start. This is merely a lighthearted observation. I don’t mean to say that because the stars and planets affect you through gravity, you can learn something about your destiny or the fate of mankind simply by observing their motion. Like you, I regard that as unscientific poppycock.

However, that’s where my real concern truly begins. Most people think they are above ‘astrological thinking’, simply because they don’t open the dailies to have a look at their weekly horoscope, and they don’t obsessively dig for the Zodiac sign of their significant others.

But in his work The Discarded Image, C.S Lewis gave some great insight into the reasoning behind astrology, and why it was once regarded as a useful practice by the Medievals.

As above, so below

As far as the Medievals were concerned, celestial bodies moved with an exact precision which admitted no idiosyncrasy. Lacking instruments to observe minute details about the stars or planets, the sky they observed seemed absolutely fixed, and never varied or changed in any way.

Of course, we know the Medievals were wrong on this point. We know that stars explode and collide, that new stars form, and that galaxies shift very slowly (on a scale of billions of years). But the Medievals didn’t know any of that, and they can’t be blamed for not knowing any of that. To them, outer space seemed like a fixed system, and this sort of perfection demanded a very rigorous, mathematical explanation.

Therefore, in Medieval scientific thinking, motion in the universe could be described from the top down, beginning with God who moved the Heavens, which in turn moved the planets and the stars. Lest anyone blame Christian Theology for this idea, we should recognize that the model was largely based on the thinking of Aristotle, who – in his De Caelo – tried to work out the origin of motion in a similar way.

Lewis puts it this way in Discarded Image,

All power, movement, and efficacy descend from God to the Primum Mobile and cause it to rotate; the exact kind of causality involved will be considered later. The rotation of the Primum Mobile causes that of the Stellatum, which causes that of the sphere of Saturn, and so on, down to the last moving sphere, that of the Moon.

This system, in turn, transmits motion to the Earth. Not that the Earth itself moves (of course, Medievals thought it was stationary), but things on the Earth move quite a bit. As such, the moon, along with all the other celestial bodies, exerted subtle affects on the Earth itself.

Besides movement, the spheres transmit (to the Earth) what are called Influences – the subject-matter of Astrology.

So it followed to the Medieval thinker that by understanding the motion of stars, planets and galaxies, one could also predict what would happen on Earth – calamity, the path of an individual’s life, and so on.

A modern kind of astrology

While it’s good to understand why people a long time ago believed what they believed, I worry that we are not careful enough to realize we aren’t so different. In our own age, we have of course discovered that the Universe is quite different from how the Medievals imagined it.

However, we may not be so different from the Medievals after all, at least when it comes to our general approach to understanding life.

While the Medievals thought ‘influence‘ began at the very top of the food chain and trickled down to human beings, we are rather inclined to believe the reverse. Because we have learned about DNA, molecules, quantum physics and biology, we might very well believe that ‘as below, so above‘.

As Richard Dawkins the eminent evolutionary biologist and atheist put it,

DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

The idea of human beings ‘dancing’ to the order prescribed to them by DNA is really no different from the Medieval idea that humans ‘dance’ to the motion of the stars, and as such, modern Science has put Christians in the same predicament that Astrology put the old Christians.

chromosome[1]

Yet Dawkins is no longer in vogue, and neither is pure determinism. Though there are still many sworn fatalists in the world, there are many more compatabilists. Beware, all the same. Old habits die hard, and astrological thinking can still be found in many forms. The atoms, molecules, DNA strands and chemicals of our body; our upbringings, social status, economic class and racial ‘privileges’ form constellations of stars and planets within us, and to them, many are prepared to pay the same homage as the Medievals did to the stars and planets without us.

Lewis notes about the opinion of the Medieval church on Astrology,

She fought against…astrological determinism. The doctrine of influences could be carried so far as to exclude free will. Against this determinism, as in later ages against other forms of determinism, theology had to make a defence. Aquinas treats the question very clearly. On the physical side the influence of the spheres is unquestioned. Celestial bodies affect terrestrial bodies, including those of men. And by affecting our bodies they can, but need not, affect our reason and our will. They can, because our higher faculties certainly receive something (accipiunt) from our lower. They need not, because any alteration of our imaginative power produced in this way generates, not a necessity, but only a propensity, to act thus or thus. The propensity can be resisted; hence the wise man will over-rule the stars.

I believe we can learn a valuable lesson from the struggles faced by the old theologians in light of an apparent scientific fact, which is now known to be hogwash. On the one hand, we cannot deny the influences which human beings receive from genes, sociological factors, hormones in the brain, etc. But on the other hand, we must never suppose that we ‘boil down’ to these things; that our whole nature and character are really exactly that of our influences.

We must recognize them for what they really are: influences, and not excuses, not causes, nor shackles nor laws.

Why everyone should plot before writing a book

Every NaNoWriMo, the Internet is aflame with the age old argument: should you plot your novel, or should you make it up as you go along? Most people have agreed on the generally civil principle that some people are better at plotting, while others are better at ‘panstering’, and it’s best to live and let live. “Whatever floats your boat,” as the saying goes.

That logic is perfectly fine if you want to write a novel, and have no special wish for it to be good. In fact, ‘freewriting‘ – or writing consistently for a period of time about absolutely nothing in particular – is highly recommended as a technique to improve your writing abilities, and loosen up the cogs of your brain to let thoughts flow more freely.

However, I would like to argue that everyone should plot their writing to a certain extent, at least when the goal is to create an interesting, readable work.

Now, let me explain. I’m not saying everyone should write in exactly the same way. Some people inevitably plan their works in much greater detail than others – they may carefully structure their work with the ‘snowflake method‘ or the ‘hero’s journey‘. Like Dostoevsky, they may fill a notebook full of character backgrounds, and like Tolkien, they may write out the histories of entire worlds before they ever start working on a story.

But I’m not saying all that is necessary. I’m not advocating any particular method, and I allow that some people flourish by ‘going with the flow’, while others find it a lot more productive to plan out every scene, character and line of dialogue before writing a book.

Nevertheless, I take it as a serious principle that every good story has a few key elements planned from the beginning.

What does Poe think?

Edgar Allen Poe did a good job of explaining this idea. Yes, that’s right, Edgar Allen Poe, the gloomy 19th century American writer with a big mustache who married his cousin and wrote a very famous poem about a raven. As weird as his works may have been, they were actually carefully planned, and before writing his poems, he planned them down to the last stanza.

In ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, Poe justified his own approach to writing like so:

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement [conclusion; final act] before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention. ¹

So according to Poe, you should always have the ending in mind when you write a book.

Personally, I like to plan my books according to the three act structure, which means that I always have at least the setup, confrontation and climax in mind when writing, and I think everyone could stand to benefit from having at least this skeletal structure before writing the very first scene in a novel or even a short story.

Pansters are quick to point out that over-planning can make a novel stuffy and calculated, and I tend to agree. But under-planning can make a novel rambling and directionless. Without any direction, the point of a book can be hard to discern, and your writing isn’t likely to catch readers’ attention. A novel with a lot of potential can turn out mediocre if it isn’t given any thought beforehand.

Wherever you lie on the spectrum between plotter and panster, before you start writing a novel, have something in mind, and preferably a few things. You’ll thank yourself later on, and so will your readers.

Have your own take on this discussion? Leave a comment! We’d love to hear your opinions.

 

How to deal with smug critics

The Medievals referred to Philosophy as the handmaiden of Theology. In their view, Theology was the more important of the two, because it laid down important incontrovertible truths, while Philosophy merely analyzed the secondary truths of nature. It wasn’t that the Medievals thought Philosophy was unimportant; they just realized its proper place.

The same sort of hierarchy applies to Literature and Literary Criticism.  

Literature provides the source material for Literary Criticism. This is sort of common sense, as most of us would rather read our favorite novels than books about our favorite novels.

But Literary Criticism is important, especially for the budding writer. It allows us to analyze books and tells us how they’re shaped. Literary Criticism is to Writing what Music Theory is to Musicians. It helps to deepen your understanding of your craft, beyond the knowledge gained from practicing it.

The first sort of objection that opponents of literary criticism make is that it’s snobbish or elitist. This is the probably one of the worst objections that one can hurl at literary criticism since it’s one that most of the people who use it face regularly. If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.

If you’re thinking about writing a book (unless said book is a trashy romance novel or legal fiction), you’re already more snobbish than 95% of the population. There’s no use in doing things halfway.

Why we hate critics

There is, however, a rational reason behind this reaction. Most of us have watched a movie, or read a book, feeling amazed and awed by the sheer brilliance of it. We then proceeded to log onto the internet to see what others thought about the thing we thought was brilliant, and lo and behold, the first article we read is something written by a self-important literary critic who goes on to make mincemeat of our precious masterpiece. It leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

Who do they think they are? That book/movie was good! The critic is just a cold, grumpy intellect. On the other hand, we get the spirit of things.

Fortunately enough, pop culture has granted us an excellent illustration of this principle only in the last few weeks. The premiere of the long anticipated Suicide Squad by Warner Bros. ushered in a tremendous amount of negative feedback from film critics, while many moviegoers found it enjoyable. This clash between popular and professional opinions culminated in a well publicized petition to shut down review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and the petition is (at the time of writing) at 22,304 supporters.

suicide

But this sort of reaction throws out the baby with the bathwater. Literary Criticism is no more the villain in this situation than Philosophy is when we’re confronted with Postmodernism or Materialism. Just because bad Literary Criticism exists does not mean we should abandon the subject entirely. By studying literary criticism, not only can you improve your writing skills, but you’ll also gain proper tools to understand why that critic you hated was so wrong. Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.

Literary Criticism can be a vehicle of smugness, but it can also be an effective weapon against it.

Instead of trying to silence the voices of professional critics who despised Suicide Squad, loyal patrons of the film should have been prepared to argue why the critics attacking it were wrong in their assessment. Likewise, if your own writing is being attacked by others, you should be prepared to listen. If you are acquainted with good criticism, you should be prepared to counter bad criticism.

Another objection to learning literary criticism, which is pretty reasonable, usually goes something like this: “But, honestly dude, I’m not trying to write some great literary work. I just want my novel to be fun. Why should I study literary criticism?”

Because honestly, to write really good pulp fiction, a writer should usually have one foot in the literary. At least get your feet wet. The reason why fiction like Firefly, Warhammer or Star Wars is so dang good is that the writers usually know their literature and literary criticism.

That being said, it does take more than just lit theory to write decent lit theory. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

Now, if you aren’t quite the literary type, I suggest you tackle some of the great works of literature before you start tackling literary criticism. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a great place to start. If you are the literary type, but still sort of vague on what criticism’s all about, try Matthew Arnold’s The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.

It’s public domain, so like all things both worthy and unworthy, you can find it on the Internet.

Study Guide to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

This article was originally posted to my personal Tumblr blog, and proved to be very popular. It has been updated over time, and will continue to be updated in the future according to constructive feedback.

For those who wish to attain a good understanding of philosophy, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (or SEP) is an incredible and highly recommended resource.

One minor caveat to the SEP, however, is that no ordered guide exists within the encyclopedia itself to peruse its contents. I have therefore taken it upon myself to structure the guide with a chronological ordering of major Western philosophers through the 20th century, and I have also included links to associated schools of thought.

Unfortunately, the SEP is not totally comprehensive. Some philosophers do not have direct entries available in the SEP. Therefore, I have also included links to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) where no equivalent SEP links can be obtained.  IEP links are italicized, like so.

The Pre-Socratics

Classical Philosophy

Ancient Non-Socratic Schools of Philosophy

Sophism

Skepticism

Epicureanism

Hedonism

Stoicism

Neoplatonism

Medieval Philosophy

Scholasticism

Renaissance Philosophers

Islamic Philosophers

Jewish Philosopher(s)

Early Modern Philosophy (it isn’t medieval, but it also isn’t modern)

See also Rationalism vs. Empircism

Rationalism

Empiricism

Non-Aligned (Not strictly empiricist or rationalist)

19th Century Philosophy

German Idealism

Marxism

  • Karl Marx (of course he gets his own category)

British Empiricism

American Philosophy

European Philosophers

20th Century Philosophy

(Characterized by two large and competing traditions that neither IEP nor SEP can succinctly describe)

Analytical Philosophers

Continental Philosophers