6.6. Isaac Newton and the decline of astrology


The separation between science and superstition was a process that lasted more than three centuries. The increasingly accepted mechanical theory of causality and the image of a tridimensional Universe, in which neither Earth nor the Sun is in its center, were the main causes of the decline of astrology. At the beginning of the 16th century the Polish Nicolaus Copernicus issued the heliocentric theory, but he was ignored. Then, the Italian Giordano Bruno dared to say that the Sun is only a star among an infinity of other stars, but the Inquisition burned him at the stake. Galileo Galilei reaffirmed heliocentrism and decisively contributed to the determinist and infinite conception of the Universe.791 Finally, the German Johannes Kepler believed that he discovered God’s universal geometrical plan; in Mysterium cosmographicum from 1596 and Harmonices mundi from 1619 he said that the geometrical figures were the primordial models of the Creator in the decoration of the entire world.792 The world was created after an intelligible plan that is accessible through the natural light of reason. The “heavenly physics” – as Kepler named it – is that part of mathematics which studies the divine architecture and the connection between the physical and spiritual layers of Creation. The Universe itself was believed to be an image of God, with the Sun corresponding to the Father, the stellar sphere corresponding to the Son, and the space between them corresponding to the Holy Spirit.793

By applying quantitative measurements to terrestrial and celestial phenomena, the elites began to make a distinction between science, superstition and pseudoscience. Indeed, in the 17th century the separation between the domains was far from clear: there was still not a clear distinction between astronomy and astrology, but there was a separation between astronomy (a part of mathematics within the liberal arts) and physics (a part of natural philosophy).

Even though, amid the manifestation of the Renaissance, an increasing number of ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

... a subsequent change of our point of view regarding God. The improvement of mathematical technique meant more precise observations and calculations, which contradicted the old conceptions. It was a period of scientific enthusiasm, saluted in a very original way by the Italian astrologer Giovanni Battista Hodierna. In Il nunzio del secolo cristallino from 1628 Hodierna copied the Joachimite theory of the ages and delimited six periods in human knowledge starting with the Creation. The first was the age of gold, followed by that of silver, copper and iron, in the end reaching the age of lead used in firearms. Almost begun, said Hodierna, was the age of crystal (or glass), when the telescope would help mankind understand the cosmos, and the microscope would allow the discovery of the molecular world. Hodierna foresaw a triumph of the human intellect in a new age of culture, an age in which knowledge would reach a level that would allow the human being to control all its negative impulses. This new age was going to be the biblical Millennium.800 And to a certain extent Hodierna was right: a new age was appearing on the horizon of time: it was not the Millennium, but the Age of Enlightenment.

No one best represents the Age of Enlightenment than Isaac Newton, currently portrayed as the father of modern science. His law of universal gravitation combined terrestrial and celestial mechanics, previously developed by Kepler and Galilei, in a great system that seemed to explain the entire Universe in mathematical formulas. Yet, Newton was also fascinated by the Bible and mysticism;801 one of his ambitions was to discover the philosopher’s stone – a material believed to have the property to transform any metal into gold and which can provide eternal youth.802 The English physicist used biblical exegesis to unlock the rational structure of the Universe and to prove that it is the product of the supreme architect, God. In Rules for interpreting the words & language in Scripture from 1704 he details the necessary conditions for an adequate interpretation of the Bible and describes his own attempts to extract scientific information from it. In fact, Newton aimed to discover a veritable biblical code, driven by the belief that information about the evolution of the Universe is hidden behind biblical formulations. For Newton, nature was a cryptogram set by the Almighty, a riddle of the past and future events divinely fore-ordained.803 Like Faulhaber, he considered himself to be one of the few people gifted with the necessary intelligence to decipher the hidden meanings of the holy texts – a belief most likely taken from Rosicrucianism.804 The eschatological approach is far from meeting the conditions of scientific research, but the English physicist advanced his discoveries as if they were the result of studies based on material evidence:

Prop. 1. The 2300 prophetick days did not commence before the rise of the little horn of the He Goat.

2. Those day [sic] did not commence a[f]ter the destruction of Jerusalem & ye Temple by the Romans A.[D.] 70.

3. The time times & half a time did not commence before the year 800 in wch the Popes supremacy commenced

4. They did not commence after the re[ig]ne of Gregory the 7th. 1084

5. The 1290 days did not commence b[e]fore the year 842.

6. They did not commence after the reigne of Pope Greg. 7th. 1084

7. The diffence [sic] between the 1290 & 1335 days are a parts of the seven weeks.

Therefore the 2300 years do not end before ye year 2132 nor after 2370. The time times & half time do n[o]t end before 2060 nor after [2344] The 1290 days do not begin [this should read: end] before 2090 nor after [2374].805

A second reference about the year 2060 is in An historical account of two notable corruptions of Scripture from 1754, published 27 years after his death:

So then the time times & half a time are 42 months or 1260 days or three years & an half, recconing twelve months to a yeare & 30 days to a month as was done in the Calendar of the primitive year. And the days of short lived Beasts being put for the years of lived [sic for “long lived”] kingdoms, the period of 1260 days, if dated from the complete conquest of the three kings A.C. 800, will end A.C. 2060. It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner.806

In addition to 2060, Newton also speculated regarding the years 2034 and 2132.807 In his eschatological scenario the last world empire from Daniel 2 would be the revived Roman Empire through the Holy Roman Empire. The revived Roman Empire would dominate the Christian world for a “week,” a period of seven times 360 days, or 2,520 days in total. At the middle of this week, in the 1,260th day, the Antichrist would desecrate the Third Temple in Jerusalem. Following the pattern day/year, Newton assumed that the revived Roman Empire would last 1,260 years beginning with 800 AD (the year when Charlemagne was crowned emperor). At the end of this period, in the year 2060 (800 + 1,260), the Antichrist would rise, closely followed by the coming of Christ. In reality, all the scenarios and prophecies related to the Holy Roman Empire collapsed after Napoleon Bonaparte forced its dissolution in 1806.

Apparently, Newton was an ordinary prophet. However, the purpose of his efforts was not to determine the moment of the end, but, on the contrary, to dismantle all the other apocalyptic prophecies. In An historical account... Newton expresses his repulsion toward those who claim to be prophets of the end:

This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fancifull men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, & by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail. Christ comes as a thief in the night, & it is not for us to know the times & seasons wch God hath put into his own breast.808

This is the time when the celestial events began to be the source of fewer and fewer astrological prophecies and of more and more scientific predictions. Newton was part of a new “species” of scholars, who have treated the end of the world from a scientific point of view. And, while Newton used science to discover biblical secrets, William Whiston, Jakob Bernoulli and others began to use mathematics, physics or astronomy to determine ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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