Taking Back the Helm: Classical and Contemporary Views of the Ascendant in Western Astrology

Taking Back the Helm: Classical and Contemporary Views of the Ascendant in Western Astrology

“No man is a hero to his valet-de-chambre… not because the former is no hero, but because the latter is a valet.”—Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History.

The concept of the Ascendant is pivotal to Western Astrology, representing the Eastern horizon over which planets and stars step forth into visibility. It marks the boundary not only of heaven and earth, but also of the visible and the invisible, and it determines the first house (τόπος) and thus all the houses that follow from it. Yet, though the Ascendant has remained central to Astrology, its meaning has shifted with the times. Classical Astrology understood the first house as the helm, basis, and foundation, associating it with the native’s physical life (ζωή), body (σῶμα), spirit (πνεῦμα), and the soul (ψυχή).[1] In contrast, Contemporary Astrology dubs it “the house of the Self” and associates it with the persona we adopt to function in society. In this paper, I elucidate the nature of this distinction and explain it in terms of two contrasting ways of categorizing (i) the social world and (ii) Absolute Reality.

The first section explains classical and contemporary accounts of the Ascendant and highlights the differences between them. The next two sections then attempt to ground these differences in larger discrepancies between classical and contemporary worldviews. Section two shows how their divergent conceptions of society ground their different understandings of the first house. Section three then goes on to account for this difference through an even more fundamental disparity in their accounts of Absolute Reality.

Helm vs Self: Conceptualizing the First House

Hellenistic astrologers associated the first house with the native, since it was said to signify the native’s body, life, and soul and spirit as they concretely actualized themselves.[2] Thus, “in some sense, the first is the place of self, while the rest of the places represent others.”[3] Yet, this understanding of the self diverges from contemporary uses of the term. To see this, let’s examine a couple of key passages from Paulus and Rhetorius in which they set forth their accounts of the first house.

Paulus, a fourth century Hellenistic astrologer, defined the first house as follows:

“Of the twelve places which are handed down (λαμβανομένων) in relation to every nativity plan (ἀποτελεσματογραφία), the origin (ἀρχή) and foundation (πρωτοστάσιον) is the Horoskopos (ὡρόσκοπος), through which the All (παντᾶ) concretizing (συντείνοντα) the fortunes (πράγματα) of man is grasped (καταλαμβάνεται). For, the Horoskopos, is (καθέστηκεν) the giver (δοτήρ) of life (ζωῆς) and spirit (πνεύματος), whence it is called the ‘Helm’ (οἴαξ)… Only the star of Hermes, among all the stars, rejoices (χαίρει) in this place.”[4]

Paulus here claims that the hour marker, the Horoskopos, determines the rest of the houses handed down by it. It is thus the origin and foundation of the entire nativity. In giving life and spirit to man, the hour marker is the point wherein the All can be grasped as it concretizes itself as a particular person and life. And, because a determinate life and spirit is concretized at this point, the hour marker is identified with the helm, that part of a ship from which it is directed. And, because it is, in this manner, seen as the locus of responsibility, Mercury (Hermes), the mediating star associated with Reason, is said to rejoice therein.

Rhetorius, a later Hellenistic astrologer, gives a similar definition. He maintains:

“The first place is called the one concerning life (ὁ περὶ ζῳῆς); and on account of this [fact] it is so-called: because after the rising of the [house] of the Bad Daemon this very sign rises and after the passing of the climacteric it is examined closely (ἐξετάζεται) and the one engendering (τίκτουσα) and the fetus (βρέφος), and because they have both gone from dangers (κινδύνων) and darkness (σκότους) into the light (φῶς) and life (ζωὴν). And it is called Helm (οἴαξ), and we term it the ‘first house’ because the beginning (ἀρχὴ) of the investigation becomes known to the mathematicians from there; and also it is indicative of both spirit (πνεύματος) and basis (βάσεώς). The [star] of Hermes rejoices when it is present in this house because the spirited [being] (τὸ πνευματικὸν) was established (καθέστηκεν) through the logos (διὰ τοῦ λόγου).”[5]

Here Rhetorius identifies the first house with life, the generation and birth of the native, and the passing from danger and darkness to light. Such danger and darkness can be thought to signify not only the risk of miscarriage and hiddenness in the womb, but also indeterminacy. Things cannot be differentiated from each other in the dark, and such an undifferentiated state is chaotic and, hence, dangerous. The turning from darkness to light, can thus be conceived as a rendering determinate of what was once indeterminate. And it is this determinacy that allows astrologers (whom Rhetorius here calls “mathematicians”) to grasp the subject matter of the native’s life. It is in this sense that the hour marker constitutes the beginning and basis of the chart. And, like Paulus, Rhetorius identifies this place with the helm from which the ship of life is steered, and claims that Mercury (Hermes) rejoices in it. But, unlike Paulus, Rhetorius provides an explanation for Mercury’s rejoicing. Mercury, the star of Reason and mediation, rejoices here because the first house is the place where spirited being is created through the logos.

In the Hellenistic tradition, the first house is thus identified with the determinate being of the native. It is the native’s birth, body, soul, and spirit. This determinacy grounds the rest of the houses–the rest of the native’s world–as their beginning, basis, and support. Likewise, this conception of the native as a determinate spirit is formulated in terms of Reason and responsibility. The native’s determinate spirit is the helm from which he navigates the course set down by reason, and is thus the place where Mercury, the god of Reason, rejoices.

This association of the helm with reason would have been familiar in the ancient word. Plato, for example, made such a comparison when defending his idea of the philosopher king in The Republic. Through the character of Socrates, Plato likened the rule of a state to the navigation of a ship, and argued that a ship’s captain should be selected on the basis of his knowledge of navigation, not his ability to charm his audience (488a-e).[6] A ship’s captain should thus be selected on the basis of reason, i.e. on his knowledge of the craft of navigation,[7] and, in taking on this role is made responsible for guiding the ship to its intended destination.

This classical conception of the first house, stands in stark contrast to contemporary characterizations. Modern astrologers dub the first house “the house of the Self”, associating it with the sign of Aries as it’s so-called “natural ruler.”[8] According to these astrologers, the first house signifies “what I am to myself and project to others”[9], “surface personality, how we assert and initiate, how others see us initially (first impression),”[10] “general temperament, likes and dislikes, personality traits, appearance, mannerisms, and how you project your personality.”[11] And, because of its association with one’s outward appearance to others, it also signifies the mask one wears to conceal one’s “Authentic Self” from others.  For example, Steven Forrest, in his popular introduction to astrology, The Inner Sky, defines the first house as follows:

“Each of us is a web of contradictory feelings. We are haunted by memories and premonitions. We are tantalized by dreams. We love. We fear. We create. We know the tragedy of life….To function effectively in the world, we must simplify ourselves. We must translate all the richness of the psyche into streamlined form. That translation may be a pale reflection of what we really are. But there is no choice. However two-dimensional it seems in comparison with our true self, life requires that we have a personality—a personality is always a role we play, always less than what we truly are. A personality is always a mask.

            The first house symbolizes our optimal mask, the outer expression that best serves our inner needs.”[12]

In contrast to classical astrologers, who took the soul to be determinate, and, in being so rendered, delivered from the realm of danger and darkness to the kingdom of light, Forrest identifies “our true self” and “psyche” with something essentially indeterminate, “a web of contradictory feelings.” And rather than associating spirit with Reason and responsibility, he imprisons it in the chaotic world of feeling. Because the soul is now conceived as essentially chaotic, the order imposed upon it by the first house will be seen as both limiting and falsifying. Because living in the world requires that we translate the “richness” of indeterminate feeling into “streamlined form”, the persona that results will be a “two dimensional” “mask” that is “a pale reflection of what we really are”.

April Kent provides a similar account in her more recent introduction to astrology, The Essential Guide to Practical Astrology. In it, she defines the ascendant as follows:

“[The first house] describes your sense of personal identity, your assertiveness, and how you go about getting what you want. The Ascendant symbolizes the way you handle the world. It’s the welcome mat at your door, the receptionist that limits the world’s outside contact with you, and your personal body guard. The sign on the Ascendant, as well as its ruling planet, tell us a great deal about what we’ll experience when we shake your hand, knock on your door, ask you out on a date, pick a fight with you, or interview you for a job. The Ascendant may or may not reflect much about who you really are inside; it’s essentially a Halloween costume you wear year-round.”[13]

Though Kent’s observation that the ascendent indicates our way of being in the world–how one shakes hands, opens doors, responds to romance, fights, and promotes oneself–is consistent with the classical view, her conception of the relation between these determinate ways of being and the Self conflicts with the classical account. For, she, living in the modern world, considers one’s determinate modes of being in the world to be fundamentally distinct from the Self. Rather than being actualized through its determinations (ψυχῆς ἐνεργήματα),[14] the Self is now seen as something fundamentally at odds with them. You and your doormat, your receptionist, and your bodyguard are fundamentally distinct. And, as a result, the determinate modes of being represented by the Ascendant are necessarily falsifying, constituting the “Halloween costume you wear year-round.”

I suspect that modern astrologers are likely interpreting the ascendant through Jung’s account of the persona. For he too defined the persona as a false mask behind which the real individual hides. He notes, for example, that:

“This arbitrary segment of collective psyche—often fashioned with considerable pains—I have called the persona. The term persona is really a very appropriate expression for this, for originally it meant the mask once worn by actors to indicate the role they played…. It is, as its name implies, only a mask that feigns individuality, making others and oneself believe that one is individual, whereas one is simply acting a role through which the collective psyche speaks.”[15]

And again,

“When we analyze the persona we strip off the mask, and discover that what seemed to be individual is at bottom collective; in other words, that the persona was only a mask of the collective psyche. Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be…. The persona is a semblance, a two-dimensional reality.”[16]

Here we appear to have the source for the idea that the persona is a mere mask fabricated to survive in society. Though the persona pretends to be individual, it is, in fact, collective, and thus cannot adequately express one’s “Authentic Self”.  

In modern astrology, the Ascendant thus suffers a radical shift in meaning. Rather than understanding the determinations of the soul as essentially belonging to it, they are instead construed as necessary falsifications. This shift can even be seen in the planets associated with the first house. Rather than Mercury, the rational mediator between worlds, modern astrologers assign Mars to the first house. And, by associating it with the sign of Aries, they tie it to brute instinct and the will to power rather than reason and responsibility.

In the next two sections I will examine the broader revolution in worldview that necessitates the Ascendant’s shift in the meaning.

Differing Life-Worlds

Classical astrology was practiced at a time when the world was not yet disenchanted. People believed in an unseen spiritual order that grounded the natural and social orders. Aeneas, for example, could travel to the underworld and learn his destiny, and the destiny of Rome, from the spirit of his father.

“Others, I have no doubt, will forge the bronze to breathe with suppler lines, draw from the block of marble features quick with life, plead their cases better, chart with their rods the stars that climb the sky and foretell the times they rise. But you, Roman, remember rule with all your power the peoples of the earth—these will be your arts: to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace, to spare the defeated, break the proud in war.”[17]

Such an exhortation, though strange to us, would have made sense in the ancient world. For they believed that nature was an ordered and meaningful whole. The human task was thus to recreate in the social order what was already implicit in nature. The sculptor takes stones and brings out the beautiful forms within them, the astrologer observes the heavens and sets forth the laws governing their movement, and the lawgiver hands down just laws, laws grounded in nature, to establish a peaceful society.

Thus, to the classical mind, the spiritual dimension permeated all of reality. Indeed, the social order existed only in light of that deeper spiritual order. As the philosopher Julius Evola observed:

“Every traditional civilization is characterized by the presence of beings who, by virtue of their innate or acquired superiority over the human condition, embody within the temporal order the living and efficacious presence of a power that comes from above. One of these types of beings is the pontifex, according to the inner meaning of the word and according to the original value of the function that he exercised. Pontifex means ‘builder of bridges,’ or of ‘paths’ (pons, in ancient times, also meant ‘path’) connecting the natural and the supernatural dimensions. Moreover, the pontifex was traditionally identified with the king (rex). Servius, a late fourth-century commentator on Virgil’s works, reports: ‘the custom of our ancestors was that the king should also be pontifex and priest.’ A saying of the Nordic tradition reads: ‘May our leader be our bridge.’ Thus, real monarchs were the steadfast personification of the life ‘beyond ordinary life.’ Beneficial spiritual influences used to radiate upon the world of mortal beings from the mere presence of such men, from their ‘pontifical’ mediation, from the power of the rites that were rendered efficacious by their power, and from the institutions of which they were the center. These influences permeated people’s thoughts, intentions, and actions, order every aspect of their lives and constituting a fit foundation for luminous, spiritual realizations. These influences also made propitious the general conditions for prosperity, health, and ‘good fortune.’”[18]

The mundane and spiritual realms thus joined in the classical world, being bridged by sages and the rites they conveyed. And, because of this bridging, people could realize their “luminous, spiritual” aspirations and a establish a solid foundation for their physical wellbeing.  

The philosopher and poet Novalis makes a similar observation when he contrasts medieval Christendom with modern Europe. Whereas the former had a common spiritual center capable of uniting different groups of people, the latter had none. It was disenchanted, and thus dominated by merely political ambition. Because Christendom rooted social reality in a deeper spiritual reality, “one great common interest bound together the most distant provinces.” And, the rulers in this society, because they judged their actions sub specie aeternitatis, were “the experienced helmsmen on the great unknown sea, under whose protection all storms could be made light of, and one could be confident of a safe arrival and landing on the shore of a world that was truly a fatherland.”[19]

But, argues Novalis, with the rise of modernity, this spiritual vision was lost, and Christendom gave way Europe. Criticism of Catholic dogma soon grew into a resentment towards Christianity as such which festered into a hatred of all religions, and a new inverted “philosophy” emerged that sought to cleanse the world of all traces of nobility. Novalis explains:

“The product of the modern way of thinking was called philosophy, and it was held to embrace everything that was opposed to the old way, principally therefore every objection to religion. What was first personal hatred of the Catholic faith gradually turned into hatred of the Bible, of the Christian faith and finally even of religion. Still more-hatred of religion extended itself very naturally and consequentially to all the objects of enthusiasm, made heretics of imagination and feeling, rectitude and love of art, the past and the future, it managed to place mankind at the head of a series of natural beings, and turned the infinite creative music of the universe into the uniform clattering of a monstrous mill, driven by the stream of chance and floating on it, a mill of itself without builder or miller and really a true perpetuum mobile, a mill grinding itself.”[20]

And again,

“These members were tirelessly engaged in cleansing nature, the earth, human souls, and learning of poetry, rooting out every trace of the sacred, spoiling the memory of all uplifting incidents and people by sarcastic remarks, and stripping the world of all bright ornament.”[21]

Modern astrology’s conception of the Ascendant makes sense in such a world stripped of transcendence. For, how could a soul actualize its true nature in the world, if the world was merely unthinking matter bereft of all value? All of the soul’s determinations would have to be merely physical and thus fail to express what the soul essentially is, viz. spiritual being. After the world was disenchanted, the bridges burned, and the bridge builders forgotten, the worldly actualization of the soul became unthinkable. Religion, deriving from the Latin word religare, means to bind back.[22] But, if the spiritual and natural worlds are essentially unbridgeable, as they are believed to be in modernity, then religion becomes impossible. It too must thus be disenchanted and reduced to political power (e.g. as the opiate of the masses). In such a world, if the soul is to find sustenance, it cannot look the to wasteland outside it, but must rather turn within: One must be spiritual, not religious.

Differing Metaphysics of the Absolute

The transformation of the meaning of the Ascendant thus follows from the banishment of spirit from nature and society. Yet, I contend, there is an even deeper reason for the change, one rooted in our conception of Absolute Reality.

Platonism was a familiar model for understanding the Absolute in the ancient world. According to the Platonist, the unseen world is more real than the seen, the latter being a mere shadow or reflection of the former. The unseen world was taken to consist of forms constituting the intelligible essences of things. A painting, for example, is beautiful because it participates in the form of Beauty. The forms are thus conceived as (i) essentially determinate, (ii) rationally ordered. And because beings in the material world participate in the forms, it is possible to ascend back to the invisible world through its visible traces.

Plato articulates this kind of erotic ascent in the Symposium, where he sets forth, through the character of Diotima, a method by which to rise from the material world to the intelligible. He uses the example of beauty. Diotima notes that one begins by falling in love and devoting oneself to a particular beautiful body. But one then learns that there are many different beautiful bodies, and comes to love all of them. Next, one realizes that the soul is more beautiful than the body, and thus comes to love the laws and customs responsible for forming people’s characters and shaping their souls in beautiful ways. One will then come to see that laws and customs are rendered beautiful by their adherence to general intellectual laws, and so come to love all kinds of knowledge and wisdom. And, finally, Diotima claims that, when intellectually immersed this “sea of beauty”, one will catch sight of the form of Beauty itself. She explains:

“The man who has been thus far guided in matters of Love, who has beheld beautiful things in the right order and correctly, is coming now to the goal of Loving: all of a sudden he will catch sight of something wonderfully beautiful in its nature; that, Socrates, is the reason for all his earlier labors: First, it always is and neither comes to be nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes. Second, it is not beautiful this way and ugly that way, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in relation to one thing and ugly in relation to another; nor is it beautiful here but ugly there, as it would be if it were beautiful for some people and ugly for others. Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in  an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that, in such a way that when those others come to be or pass away, this does not become the least bit smaller or greater nor suffer any change.”[23]

Here Diotima characterizes the form of Beauty, and thereby the forms in general, in terms of two key features. First, it eternally is. It exists in the realm of Being, not Becoming, and so does not change. Second, it is essentially one and determinate. The Form of Beauty is itself absolutely Beautiful. As that which grounds all the beautiful beings that participate in it, the form of Beauty must be beautiful. And, as a result, it must rule out all that contradicts it. It cannot, for example, exemplify ugliness, hideousness, or deformity. Just as it is impossible for triangle to exemplify the property of having four angles, so too is it impossible for the Form of Beauty to exemplify ugliness. It is not merely beautiful in one aspect, but not in another. Rather, it is the one determinate Beauty that grounds all beautiful things.

This characterization of the spiritual realm was retained even after Christianity came to dominate the imagination of the West. We can see it, for example, in the definition of God used in what came to be called the ontological argument. This argument moves from a consideration of the nature of God, to the claim that God exists. St. Anselm initially formulated the argument by conceiving of God as “something than which nothing greater can be thought”, and Descartes would later understand the divine nature as “a supremely perfect being.”[24] Generally stated, the argument asks us to contemplate the idea of God, and consider what it entails. For example, suppose I follow Anselm and consider “something than which nothing greater can be thought.”[25] Such a being would need to have all the great making properties that we usually associate with a God, for example, it must be all knowing, all loving, perfectly good, all powerful, etc. For, if God were to lack one of these properties, we could conceive of a being, let’s call it God* which had all of God’s properties and the one that God lacked. God* would thus be greater than God. But this would prove to be a performative contradiction, since, if God is a being of which none greater can be conceived, we have now conceived of a being greater than the being of which none greater can be conceived. Now, consider existence. Again, suppose that God has all great making properties except for existence, and that God* has all of those properties and also exists. God* would be greater than God. Yet, this would again be a performative contradiction, since you would have conceived of something greater than that which none greater can be conceived.

This is an interesting and complicated argument, and one which, in my opinion, is ultimately successful. Yet I won’t go into the details of the argument here. All I want to point out is that this view presupposes that the divine nature is determinate and rationally graspable. If it were not, the argument couldn’t even get started, for one could attribute all kinds of contradictory properties to God. God might be omniscient and also ignorant, existing and non-existing, good and evil, etc. And, as a result, one is left with a picture of Absolute Reality that the Platonist could agree to. For example, Anselm’s prayer to God looks much like what a Platonist could say about the Form of the Good.

“Therefore, O Lord, You alone are what You are, and You are who You are. For anything having parts distinct from its whole, and anything in which there is something mutable, is not altogether what it is. And what (1) began to exist from not-being, (2) can be thought not to exist, (3) returns to not being unless it exists through something else, (4) has a past which it no longer is, and (5) has a future which it not yet is—this does not exist in the proper and unqualified sense [of ‘existing’]. But You are what You are, because whatever You once or in any respect are, this You are always and as a whole. And in a proper and unqualified sense You are who You are, because You have neither a past nor a future, but only a present, and because You cannot be thought not to exist. And You are life and light and wisdom and blessedness and eternity and many such good things. Nevertheless, You are the only one supreme good, altogether sufficient unto Yourself, needing no one [else] but needed by all [other] things in order to exist and to fare well.”[26]

Thus, to the classical mind, the divine nature was essentially one, rational, and determinate. Because God is supremely Good, He cannot be evil. Because supremely Wise, He cannot be ignorant. And, because He is supremely powerful, He cannot be weak. Yet, it is just such an indeterminate and contradictory account of the divine nature that modern spiritualism preaches. Carl Jung presents the most sophisticated version of this neo-spiritualist position. According to Jung, the unseen world consists not in a rational hierarchy of forms as Plato contended, but in the collective unconscious, something essentially indeterminate and irrational. Following his mentor Freud, Jung posits the existence of an unconscious mind, but unlike his mentor, he does not confine the unconscious to the personal unconscious, but maintains that there is a collective unconscious shared by all humans. Yet, like the Freudian unconscious, the collective unconscious remains essentially irrational. Though it directs the conscious personality “like a figure on a chess board [pushed about] by an invisible player”,[27] it has no “deliberate and concerted plan”, no “general teleological plan”, and does not “strive to realize certain definite ends”.[28] Rather, it operates only as an indistinct “urge towards self-realization.”[29]

He likens this unseen realm to undifferentiated dark waters. These waters, he claims, are “not a figure of speech, but is a living symbol of the dark psyche.”[30] What structure it does have comes through what he calls the archetypes, “the a priori and formal conditions of apperception that are based on instincts.”[31] Yet these are themselves metaphorical and essentially indeterminate. Jung maintains:

“An archetypal content expresses itself, first and foremost, in metaphors. If such a content should speak of the sun and identify with it the lion, the king, the hoard of gold guarded by the dragon, or the power that makes for the life and health of man, it is neither the one thing nor the other, but the unknown third thing that finds more or less adequate expression in all these similes, yet –to the perpetual vexation of the intellect—remains unknown and not to be fitted into a formula.”[32]

The unseen world, then, is not something that can be grasped by the intellect, since it lacks determinate rational structure. Furthermore, in light of this fact, the collective unconscious is fundamentally amoral. It wants, “both good and bad. These categories do not exist in the elfin realm. Bodily life as well as psychic life have the impudence to get along much better without conventional morality, and they often remain the healthier for it.”[33]

Morality, claims Jung, is essentially arbitrary[34] and “rests entirely on the moral sense of the individual and freedom necessary for this.”[35] It is thus not a defining feature of the Absolute as it is in the classical worldview. Indeed, Jung claims that in the realm of spirit, opposites are conjoined in syzygy. Good and evil (conceived as a positive existence and not a mere privation of good) exist together.[36] Christ and the Devil need each other.[37]

We thus have an account of Absolute Reality fundamentally opposed to the classical view. For, the collective unconscious is indeterminate rather than determinate, and amoral and irrational rather than rational and moral. Hence, though Jung argues for a return to the spiritual realm, the realm he presents is diametrically opposed to the one presented by the classical worldview. One of Jung’s early childhood visions illustrates this contrast and elucidates the fundamental character of his thought. When Jung was a child he was consumed with anxiety about possibly blaspheming the Holy Spirit and being cast into hell as a result. While he was obsessing over this issue, he came to see a vision. He recounts it as follows:

“I gathered all my courage, as though I were about to leap forthwith into hell-fire, and let the thought come. I saw before me the cathedral, the blue sky. God sits on His golden throne, high above the world and from under the throne an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls of the cathedral asunder.”[38]

This shit throwing, cathedral smashing god is perhaps Jung’s clearest depiction of the collective unconscious, since his later theories retain the essentially desecratory character of his childhood vision. For example, when he promotes the idea of a modern imitatio Christi, the ideal life he presents is one that “runs counter to the forces of the past”, where one acts as “a kind of mad Bolshevist” who deserves the cross.[39]

Given such a Jungian view of the Absolute, the modern account of the Ascendant begins to make sense. For it is impossible for the Authentic Self, the Jungian conjunction of opposites between the collective unconscious and the ego, to be rendered determinate in a life. Jung maintains:

“It transcends our powers of imagination to form a clear picture of what we are as a Self, for in this operation the part would have to comprehend the whole. There is little hope of our ever being able to reach even approximate consciousness of the Self, since how ever much we may make conscious there will always exist an indeterminate and indeterminable amount of unconscious material which belongs to the totality of the Self. Hence the Self will always remain a superordinate quality.”[40]

Because one part of the Self embraces the collective unconscious, a realm that is essentially “indeterminate and indeterminable”, the Self cannot be known. And, because the Absolute is inherently chaotic, being both light and dark, good and evil, beautiful and deformed, it cannot express itself through concrete determinations. Hence, the classical idea of “actualizations of the soul”[41] employed by traditional astrologers would be unthinkable to the Jungian. And conversely, the Jungian picture of Absolute, would, to the classical mind, have been seen as something infernal.

What we have, then, at the root of the dispute between two concepts of the Ascendant in Western Astrology, is a contrast between two radically different visions of the Absolute. On the one hand, we have the classical conception of the spiritual realm as a world of Absolute Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, flowing from that of which none greater can be conceived. And, because the unseen world flows from this supremely perfect being, it constitutes the fundamentally rational and moral order by which our empirical world must be evaluated. And, on the other hand, we have the modern conception of the Absolute as the dark waters of the collective unconscious, something which embraces opposites, and so is fundamentally irrational. For the modern spiritualist, the unseen realm is both beautiful and revolting, both good and evil, and both true and false. As a result, it cannot set the standards to which our empirical world must answer. Instead, the individual must invent his or her own values.

We are therefore confronted with a fundamental choice between two conflicting visions of spiritual reality. Though classical and contemporary astrologers would both agree in criticizing modern materialism, the spiritual worlds they offer are fundamentally at odds with each other. And, so, the choice between these two approaches to astrology will ultimately depend upon the metaphysical framework one adopts. In short, it will turn on the age old task of discerning between spirits.

[The Image used in the thumbnail of this blogpost is a 3rd century Roman mosaic of Odysseus among the Sirens and is in the public domain. It can be found here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mosa%C3%AFque_d%27Ulysse_et_les_sir%C3%A8nes.jpg ]

[1] Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology, 353-354.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 353.

[4] Paulus, Introductory Matters, 24. Trans. Schmidt but significantly modified by me.

[5] Rhetorius, Compendium, 57.  Trans. Holden but modified by me.

[6] For a more detailed explanation of Plato’s argument see http://premieretat.com/republic-5-6-philosopher-kings/ and https://www.bitchute.com/video/BtUULhOsoqMC/

[7] A knowledge which renders him “good at steering” (κυβερνητικός).

[8] The Only Astrology Book You’ll Ever Need, Joanna Woolfolk

[9] https://askastrology.com/astrology/astrology-houses/first/ citing Oken.

[10] https://askastrology.com/astrology/astrology-houses/first/ citing Perry.

[11] Kris Brandt Riske, Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Astrology, 150.

[12] Stephen Forrest, The Inner Sky. It’s important to note that ancient philosophers were well acquainted with the contradictions and chaos of the soul. But they argued that this chaos was not something for which we should strive. It was, rather, the mark of degenerate souls such as those of tyrants. See http://premieretat.com/platos-republic-books-8-9-degradation-of-soul/ and https://www.bitchute.com/video/Sy5W0Kl5gsuJ/

[13] April Kent, The Essential Guide to Practical Astrology, 149.

[14] Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology, 354.

[15] Jung, “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious” in Collected Works VII, para 245

[16] Jung, “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious” in Collected Works VII, para 246.

[17] Virgil, Aeneid, VI. Trans. Fagels.

[18] Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, 7.

[19] Novalis, “Christendom or Europe” in Philosophical Writings, trans. Stoljar, 137.

[20] Novalis, “Christendom”, 144.

[21] Novalis, “Christendom”, 144.

[22] See Lewis and Short Latin Lexicon entry “religo”.

[23] Plato, Symposium, 211a-b, trans. Cooper.

[24] Descartes, Meditations, V.

[25] Anselm, Proslogion, II. Trans. Hopkins and Richardson.

[26] Anselm Proslogion, XXII.

[27] Jung, “The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious” in Collected Works VII, para. 251.

[28] Ibid., para. 291.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Jung, “The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious” in Collected Works IX.I, para 33.

[31] Jung, “Concerning the Archetypes, with Special Reference to the Anima Concept” in Collected Works IX.I, para 136.

[32] Jung, “Psychology of the Child Archetype” in Collected Works IX.I, para 267.

[33] Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious” in Collected Works IX.I, para 59.

[34] Jung, “The Structure of the Unconscious” in Collected Works VII para 450.

[35] Jung, “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious” in Collected Works VII, para 240.

[36] Ibid., para 289.

[37] “Psychologically the case is clear, since the dogmatic figure of Christ is so sublime and spotless that everything else turns dark beside it. It is, in fact, so one-sidedly perfect that it demands a psychic compliment to restore the balance.” Jung, “Christ, The Symbol of the Self” in Collected Works, IX.II, para 77.

[38] Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 39.

[39] Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

[40] Jung, “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious” in Collected Works VII, para 274.

[41] Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology, 354.

3 Replies to “Taking Back the Helm: Classical and Contemporary Views of the Ascendant in Western Astrology”

  1. Peter,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your Nightlight Astrology presentation today. In regards to the ascendant, as you state above, “in some sense, the first is the place of self, while the rest of the places represent others.”[3] Yet, this understanding of the self diverges from contemporary uses of the term.” For instance, we have self-realization which I understand as spiritual recognition and we have self-actualization which I understand as healthy ego development (ideally, they dovetail). Are both 1st house significations?

    1. Hi Brian,
      Thanks for the message and for listening to my Nightlight Astrology talk! That’s a good question about where self-realization and self-actualization would fall within the various conceptualizations of the first house. Here are some initial thoughts: 1) If we define self-realization as you do as “spiritual recognition”, then it might not be something that shows up in the chart at all. If it’s an apprehending of the unconditioned qua unconditioned, it won’t be articulated in terms of any of the conditions of this life. Or, another way of thinking of it, is that “spiritual recognition” doesn’t show up anywhere in particular in the chart because it can show up anywhere. One can see God in oneself, but also in the other people one is related to, one’s family, etc. for any possible signification in the chart. 2) In popular culture I’m not sure that people have the kind of elevated spiritual conception of self-realization that you do. Oftentimes, I get the sense that it’s just one more iteration of the commodified self. 3) If we took the idea of “self-realization” literally, understanding it as the determinations of a particular incarnate life, body, soul, etc. then it would fit with the classical view. But then “self-realization” wouldn’t be a fancy term anymore, but would be entailed by being any incarnate being whatsoever. 4) I have concerns about Maslow’s conception of Self-Actualization that are similar to those I have about Jung’s concepts of the Self. Take, for example, his famous idea of the hierarchy of needs. It’s often represented as a pyramid with physiological needs at the bottom, followed by safety, love and belonging, esteem, and then, finally at the small point at the top, is self-actualization. This presupposes the modern view that things evolve out from the physical. You need to meet your basic physiological needs, be safe from danger, have loving relations with others, have self-esteem, etc. before you can self-actualize. Self-actualization, on this view, is thus ultimately grounded in the physiological level. This would conflict with the classical view. Consider Jesus as an example. He’s taken to be a spiritual hero, but his being an examplar occurs precisely because he was physiologically deprived, rejected by his society, etc. but still held true to his spiritual mission. And I think this holds for other classical spiritual and moral heroes as well. They don’t go around first securing material resources in order to become sages. As Hoelderlin observes, “where the danger grows, there also grows the saving power”. And I think we can see the modern perspective at play even in Maslow’s early life (just as we did in Jung). In one of his undergraduate essays, he criticizes Emerson for being too mystical and poetic, and then declares that he himself has had a mystical experience and that: “At the moment of the mystic experience, we see wonderful possibilities and inscrutable depths in mankind…. Why not ascribe [the wonders of the experience] to man himself? Instead of deducing from the mystic experience the essential helplessness and smallness of man… can we not round out a larger, more wonderful conception of the greatness of the human species and the wonderful vistas of progress just faintly glimpsed against the future.”

  2. I appreciate your response. “If it’s an apprehending of the unconditioned qua unconditioned, it won’t be articulated in terms of any of the conditions of this life” is settles that question of location brilliantly. Reminds me of a line in a poem by Balyani, “I know the Lord through the Lord…”

    My bit about ego development is my modern astrological inclination for the need to deal with psychological conditioning as best as possible; that is, one can have spiritual insight and still behave like an asshole as evidenced in my own biography and on a regular basis in spiritual circles. Astrology and the pivotal ascendant can be a great aid in psychological analysis. For instance, based on cursory investigations of friends’ and family members’ charts houses and planets in aversion to the ascendant are significant but not usually obvious.

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