Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Of Quacks and Quackery, part 2

quacks_and_quackeryby Revilo P. Oliver

THE LONG and involved history of astrology in the West began with the imputation of the doctrine from Asia in the Hellenistic Age, when the intellectual vigor of the Greeks, sapped by internecine wars, social catastrophes, and an influx of aliens was declining, but still sufficed to systematize and superficially rationalize the incoherent and inconsistent claims of the Oriental practitioners of the art. That made the doctrine seem scientific and respectable — and also made it lucrative.

Now, everyone knows that if you put a hunk of meat out of doors, it will soon teem with maggots; if you let fruit decay, it will soon be enveloped by a cloud of gnats; and if you countenance a superstition, swarms of parasites will appear, as if by magic, to batten on ignorance and gullibility. The Graeco-Roman world was soon lousy with horoscope peddlers called mathematici from their elaborate calculations, Chaldaei since they claimed to vend the”ancient wisdom” of the Semites who had taken over Babylon, and Magi, because they also claimed to be Zoroastrian priests. This rabble of charlatans, by the way, was as sleazy and contemptible as their competitors, the innumerable evangelists of numerous Asiatic and Egyptian gods, each of whom offered his own brand of salvation and eternal life through his travelling salesman.

The Roman government, though indifferent to the folly of the vulgar in its provinces, tried again and again to rid Rome and Italy of the pests by legislation and expulsions that were as effective as whisking flies from garbage. No intelligent Roman, so long as Romans survived among the alien and mongrel hordes to whom they stupidly gave citizenship and eventually their empire, had any respect for the astrological and eschatological vermin. But at the same time, Romans took astrological theory seriously, partly for want of better explanations of human variety and the strange vicissitudes of human fortune, and partly because there were astrologers who were well-educated, shrewd, and subtle men.

The respected astrologers of the ancient world, like the successful “psychics” on whom the press and boob-tubes today (for reasons best known to their owners) so constantly and lavishly bestow free advertising, were highly intelligent and sagacious observers of both human nature and contemporary events. And the greatest of them all was the famous Thrasyllus, whose well-known exploit may have profoundly modified subsequent history.

Tiberius was a hard-headed and realistic man, who naturally doubted the astrological theory, but after he had attained high distinction as an able military commander, he was subjected to various indignities by his stepfather, Augustus, and with probably justified resentment he went into retirement at Rhodes, then one of the intellectual capitals of the empire. He naturally made the acquaintance of the learned men there, including Thrasyllus, an Alexandrian scholar, probably of Greek ancestry, highly esteemed for his historical and literary erudition, and engaged in reviving the philosophy of Plato, whose works he collected and edited in the corpus that has come down to us.

Like many literary men, Thrasyllus had a tropism toward mystic speculations and eloquence about “spiritual values,” and he deplored the rigorously rational philosophy of the Academics, which is the basis of the methodology of modern science. The Academjcs rejected astrology, considering the evidence against it so conclusive as to make belief in it a superstition, equivalent to belief in the supernatural. That may have been the reason why Thrasyllus, who was learned in astrological lore, espoused astrology and practiced it. But he was also shrewd enough to estimate the contemporary political situation more accurately than did the politicians, and to see that Tiberius had an excellent chance to emerge from retirement and disgrace as the heir and successor of Augustus.

Some of the learned men at Rhodes were probably embarrassed by the presence of a Roman who, as Augustus’s stepson, was too eminent to be snubbed, but who, having incurred the displeasure of the world’s boss, was also the reason why politically prudent Romans avoided landing at Rhodes, lest they be seen in his compromising company.

Thrasyllus had no need to consult the stars to perceive an opportunity for himself. He attached himself to Tiberius and won his friendship with a real or simulated devotion that was most gratifying as tribute from a man of high intellectual distinction — a distinction, we must remember, that did not in the least depend on his astrological theories. Thrasyllus, furthermore, had no need to consult the stars before he privately assured Tiberius that the stars portended his accession to power.

Augustus permitted the Romans, as our rulers permit the Americans, to amuse themselves with elections and enjoy excitement over a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but intelligent observers were not bemused by the sham. They knew (as we do not) where the real power lay, and if they thought about it, they saw that the deaths of two adolescents would leave Augustus with no feasible alternative but to make Tiberius his successor. The youngsters, Augustus’s grandsons, seem never to have been robust, and the elder, at least, may already have given evidence of the nervous or emotional instability that was in the end charitably attributed to mental alienation resulting from a comparatively slight wound. And what if the striplings did not die or exhibit an incompetence that would as effectively exclude them? A prediction of power for Tiberius could still prove a good gamble. Thrasyllus probably had perceptive correspondents at Rome who kept him informed of the covert struggle for power that was going on around the concealed throne.

The faction that was determined to keep Tiberius in disgrace at all costs centered about Tiberius’s wife, Julia, who was the daughter of Augustus and a very liberated young woman. Tiberius, whose prestige lay principally with the armies he had commanded, had few friends in the fashionable and political circles at Rome, but he had one who was worth a hundred, his mother, Livia, who was Augustus’s wife. It required no great prescience to foresee that the patient, prudent, and sagacious Livia would eventually ruin her reckless and libidinous younger rival — as, indeed, she did a few years later, when Julia, who mixed adulteries with political intrigues, was finally caught in a scandal that her father could not pretend to ignore, so that he had to send her into exile. Thrasyllus had everything to gain by putting his bets on Tiberius, and nothing to lose. If Tiberius remained in disgrace (or died), Thrasyllus would not be discredited, even if the prediction he had privately made became generally known; he could always think of a plausible explanation of his mistake: Tiberius had reported incorrectly the exact time of his nativity (a few minutes could make a great difference), or he had misunderstood some prognostication that Thrasyllus made for some particular project, or he had not acted promptly enough to take the tide of celestial favor at the full. (More than forty years later, Thrasyllus, grown rich and powerful, assured Tiberius that the stars guaranteed him another ten years of life, and when Tiberius died a few months later, a plausible explanation was ready and divulged by Thrasyllus’s son and heir to his astromantic racket.)

To be sure, if Tiberius lived and events eventually convinced him that the stars or their interpreter had lied, he would doubtless feel resentful, but Thrasyllus would have only to catch the first ship out of Rhodes to put himself beyond the power of a man without governmental authority. Thrasyllus was taking a modicum of risk for a good chance of enormous, of incalculable profits.

Tiberius, no doubt, liked Thrasyllus personally and responded to subtle flattery by an eminent scholar, but thirty-two years of experience as the stepson of the master of the world and twenty years in positions of delegated power had taught him cynicism about human nature, and he was a ruthless man. There is no reason to doubt the well-known story that he tested both the “science” and the sincerity of his new friend. He permitted Thrasyllus to expound in detail what the planets foretold and to involve him in inquiries and discussions that could have been interpreted as treason, for he had arranged for a prompt and fatal accident to Thrasyllus, should he decide that the man was a spy or a fraud. After hearing what the stars were going to do for him, Tiberius asked, doubtless in a casual and off-hand manner, whether ThrasylIus had consulted his own horoscope and calculated the catarchic aspects that day to ascertain his own immediate future.

Tiberius, we may be sure, did not know, as indeed most men do not know today, that while a man can control his features and voice sufficiently to deceive most others, a skilled and subtle observer can deduce his state of mind from minute and unconscious changes in his lineaments, glances, intonation, and breathing, and we may be certain that Thrasyllus had mastered the art that modern “mind readers” exhibit on the stage and modern “psychics” use to dazzle their customers. He pretended to make the long and involved calculations necessary to determine astral influences on him, covertly watching Tiberius and doubtless noting his reaction to pertinent comments, and then he pretended to be terrified by a discovery that his fate hung in the balance at that very moment.

Like many a dupe of shrewd soothsayers today, Tiberius was convinced: The stars must have told Thrasyllus what would happen to him, if Tiberius gave a nod to the slave who was prepared to make certain that Thrasyllus slipped while walking back along a narrow path above a cliff. Here, at last, was a science of the future! Tiberius took Thrasyllus with him when, to the astonishment of many who had deemed him a political has-been, he was recalled to Rome by Augustus in A.D. 2, and if he had any faint and lingering doubts, they vanished when he became the destined successor of Augustus two years later.

He made Thrasyllus a Roman citizen, gave him as wife an Oriental princess of mixed Greek and Persian ancestry, and eventually raised their progeny to such social standing that Thrasyllus’s granddaughter became the wife of a man who attained such power that she was able to use him to make her paramour, Caligula, the successor of Tiberius. Tiberius made the scholar, who clearly had a wisdom beyond that of other men, his closest and most trusted friend, his infallible adviser throughout his long reign. We can only conjecture how many of Tiberius’s decisions were influenced or even determined by what the stars told the sage who knew their secrets, but for a very plausible list of Thrasyllus’s accomplishments, see Frederick H. Cramer’s Astrology in Roman Law and Politics.

What is certain is that Thrasyllus’s success made astrology a science in the Roman world. Although the long series of civil wars had consumed, for three generations, much of the best blood of Rome and irremediably impaired the race intellectually and morally as well as genetically, with a corresponding increase in religiosity even among the depleted and adulterated upper classes, the prevailing attitude toward astrology before the return of Tiberius to Rome varied from provisional acceptance to scepticism, but after A.D 4 that attitude, as Professor Cramer declares, “gave way to unquestioning faith in the irrevocable fate of men and institutions” as portended by the stars.

The success of Thrasyllus’s shrewd gamble seemed an empirical demonstration that astrology was a science, and the prestige bestowed upon him by the man who was now destined to be Augustus’s successor made the “science” irresistibly fashionable. The new faith, however, was not entirely uncritical at first, and some modern writers show incomprehension when they accuse Tiberius of hypocrisy or inconsistency because he, after he attained supreme power, expelled astrologers from Rome. His contemporaries saw no such inconsistency. Since Cornelius Scipio Hispanus in the second century B.C., Roman magistrates had from time to time tried to check the constant decline of public morality by running out of the city the astrologers, Jews, and other aliens who were battening on the ignorance or the vices of the lower classes and spreading their corruption even higher. These attempts had always been futile, but when Tiberius tried again, his expulsion of astrologers, like his deportation of Jews, was an exercise of his police powers to which no Roman took exception. The astrologers whom he drove from the city were quacks and swindlers who preyed on ignorance and superstition and extracted from their dupes an income that was precarious or lavish in proportion to their cunning. There was no conceivable comparison between them and Thrasyllus, a distinguished and disinterested scholar, who would never cast a horoscope for filthy lucre. He was not a social parasite; he was a gentleman whose vast learning had enabled him to plumb the secrets of the universe, a scientist who had given unquestionable proof of his ability. It was only reasonable that Tiberius should rely on (and enrich) Thrasyllus while making another attempt to purge the Eternal City of her parasites. These creatures, needless to say, crawled back into the city almost at once, and the quacks adroitly used the expulsion to enhance their own prestige by alleging that the wicked rulers wanted to keep the populace ignorant of the future.

During the two centuries that followed the triumph of Thrasyllus, the dwindling Romans were replaced by their former subjects and slaves, by untutored barbarians, and by subtle Orientals of alien race and mentality, and the grotesque and degrading superstitions of the Orient progressively spread the wildest irrationality. But astrology survived the competition of the various soteric cults with their mystic claims to provide a preternatural salvation for their adherents; and the mystery-mongers had, sooner or later, to make compromises with the pseudoscience, which thus survived all the vicissitudes of history down to our own century.

The falsity of astrological theory had been scientifically and conclusively demonstrated by the Academics in the second century B.C., and the continuing vogue of astrology among educated men thereafter, including the success of Thrasyllus, merely proved that people hastening from one catastrophe to another were becoming increasingly impatient of the cool lucidity of reason. Except in the darkest ages of ignorance and superstition, there were men who rationally rejected the astrological theory as incompatible with observed phenomena, but, as we remarked above, there remained one phenomenon which, being unexplained, could be interpreted as possible evidence of some stellar influence, i.e., the determination of human character, to which some of the more reasonable Stoics had limited the claims of astrology in antiquity.

That last feeble support of the doctrine was demolished by the Mendelian discovery of the physiological mechanism of genetics, which determines human heredity, and since that time astrology has been only a preposterous superstition for which no argument could be offered or entertained by rational men.

The growing vogue of this patently absurd superstition today is certainly proof of a morbid and obsessive yearning to believe in the impossible, and I fear that it cannot be entirely explained as a consequence of the intensive effort in our schools to keep our people ignorant of the scientifically and indubitably established facts of genetics by ramming into the minds of children poisonous lies about the equality of races in the hope that our race can be reduced to a pullulant mass of mindless mongrels.

The incidence and propagation of superstition is one of the primary phenomena of human societies of which a rational sociology must take account. Some of the factors are obvious. The tribal instinct, which made possible the evolution of the several human species and is an ineradicable part of our nature, requires the members of an effective social unity, large or small, to wear the same type of clothing with only slight variations to satisfy the need to affirm individuality, and to hold approximately the same opinions so that cooperation between the members of the society will be possible. The great utility of religion as a national bond was recognized in even the earliest civilizations, and nations that find their unity endangered by the presence of aliens in considerable number normally insist on a common faith with particular vehemence and even with violence. That explains, of course, innumerable historical events, such as the prosecution of Socrates in an Athens weakened by its meteques, Augustus’s strenuous efforts to revive the traditional religion in a Rome that was being subverted by its freedmen and resident aliens, the Inquisition in a Spain that was crawling with Marranos and Moriscos, and the compromise finally reached in Germany between Protestantism and Catholicism in the agreement that the religion of a population must be that of its sovereign.

A distinct, though marginally related, factor is the inclination of all men to assume the truth of what is generally believed by their contemporaries, which is usually what children have impressed on their minds in their formative years, when their mentalities may be easily distorted, as is perceived by both Catholics and modern “Liberals,” who, for their own purposes, insist on inculcating their doctrines in primary schools.

In ages in which a population or, at least, the educated part of it affirms a belief in astrology or witchcraft or democracy, for example, it requires an extraordinarily powerful intellect to investigate for itself the basis of such universal assumptions. Even the best minds, if occupied in a particular field of study, will be inclined not to divert their energies to critical appraisal of the idola theatri that do not directly impinge on their own studies.

Reginald Scott particularly interested himself in witchcraft and saw that the belief in it was compounded from the impostures of magicians, who used prestidigitation and various mechanical and chemical devices to perform miracles and exploit gullible persons, and the hallucinations of weak or defective minds intoxicated by their own imaginations. His Discoverie of Witchcraft was, of course, burned by hangmen in 1584. Many of his equally intelligent contemporaries, however, impressed by the appearance of scholarship in such works as the Malleus maleficarum and other treatises, acquiesced in the superstition because they were unwilling to take time from other studies to investigate for themselves or because they kept their rational doubts to themselves rather than endanger their own positions and involve themselves in endless debate and probably persecution by denouncing epidemic folly. For much the same reasons, many men of scholarly or scientific attainments today acquiesce in the superstitions of “Liberalism,” either to avoid troubling their minds with a question irrelevant to their main interests or to avoid wasting their time and endangering their positions by debating with emotionally aroused fanatics.

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Source: Instauration magazine, September 1978

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