New York: W.W. Norton, 2020; 336 pp., hardcover, $28.95.
Alexander Boxer’s inaugural book, A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for our Destiny in Data, is the net result of a data scientist’s labor of obsession with astrology. In view of the fact that Boxer has a doctorate in physics and degrees in the history of science and classics, maybe it was in his stars, or at least his curriculum vitae, to write this book.
A Scheme of Heaven has much that both an astrology lover and a skeptic might find interesting: historical tidbits, breakdowns of key astrological definitions and terms, keen scientific references, loads of data and data analysis, and the author’s own reflections on his self-confessed fixation on the topic despite his own skepticism.
Boxer’s central argument is that regardless of whether astrology itself has any validity, the pursuit of knowledge about terrestrial affairs and personality inclinations from the movements of the heavens has led to meaningful developments in mathematics, cryptography, and other fields of science. In fact he cautions skeptics about underestimating astrology’s importance: “Nevertheless, and however well-meaning the motives, those who would amputate astrology from science’s history, or set it apart for ridicule, do nothing to preserve science or its history. On the contrary, they are being deeply unfaithful to both.”
Boxer, for the most part, follows his own advice. He never dismisses outright the thoughts of classical astrological authors and even expresses delight and wonder about their creativity and perspicacity, like in the Astronomica of Marcus Manilius, a Roman astrologer and poet of the first century CE. Even so, he is not quick to accept anything that these authors say on face value. He takes the astrological claims of several authors, including Manilius and thirteenth-century Italian astrologer Guido Bonatti, to task, on the basis of statistical examinations that use modern data. For instance, he explores whether Bonatti’s electional astrology aphorisms on buying and selling would hold up if they were converted into algorithms and then used to create an investment fund to match the Dow Jones performance from 1980 to 2018. (According to Boxer, they wouldn’t.) He does similar analyses of Bonatti’s caution not to initiate a trip while the moon is below the horizon and Manilius’ take on appropriate careers by sign.
It’s unsurprising that astrology doesn’t always fare well in Boxer’s statistical scrutiny, especially since statistical models like the oft-cited Gauquelin Mars effect, based on the research of French researcher Michel Gauquelin, haven’t been replicated with different data, according to Boxer. (Although several independent skeptical groups, to their own dismay, have duplicated those results.)
Nonetheless, the author looks at most of astrology’s history in an even-handed way. Since Boxer has come to astrology as an open-minded novice, he’s able to relay advanced astrological concepts in a concise, clear, and digestible fashion without complicated jargon. But that doesn’t keep him from getting lost in other weeds. If you’re not suitably versed in statistics or elements of advanced mathematics, be prepared to reread parts of his book. Similarly, there are a few times when the author veers off topic, such as piecing through the rarefied details of ancient and modern mapmaking as he discusses Ptolemy’s Almagest. Fortunately, those times don’t occur too often.
Nor does the author have much patience for a qualitative experience of astrology versus a quantitative one. Unfortunately, this is often a common problem when one tries to dissect astrology merely through dates and numbers. For instance, it’s odd that that he never collects firsthand data himself with a visit to an astrologer. Odder still is that despite his sweeping review of the literature of astrology’s history, with adequate testimony from classical astrologers themselves, he doesn’t engage any contemporary practitioners, other than a brief mention of astrologer and historian Nicholas Campion. If he had, he might avoided a few errors, like stating, “In the ancient debate as to the existence of free will, or of nature versus nurture, astrology has long just laughed, insisting upon an extreme form of cold, mathematical determinism.” This has never been true, as any astrologer conversant with Hellenistic astrology might have told him. Likewise, while weighing in on house systems, he states that only the Placidus astrological house system collapses at extreme terrestrial latitudes. (When in fact nearly all of them do.)
Sticking almost singularly to the hoarier voices of horoscopic astrology, Boxer, despite his book’s broad scope, has lamentably left his Scheme of Heaven adequate in one way yet incomplete in another.
Samuel F. Reynolds
Samuel F. Reynolds, a former skeptic, had a life-changing visit to an astrologer, and thirty years later, he consults and teaches astrology full-time. He also serves on a few astrology organizational boards. His site is UnlockAstrology.com.