“They do not compel” William Lilly, Astral Determinism and Free Will

William Lilly’s portrait, now housed in the Ashmolean Museum, shows him standing by a window, holding pen and paper. The sheet of paper has the words Etatis 45 written on it, indicating Lilly’s age at the time of the painting. It also contains a blank horary chart with the words non cogunt (they do not compel) written in its centre, which, of course, refers to the stars. The picture was painted in 1646 and later given to Ashmole, probably in 1652.

Shortly after the painting was finished, in 1647, Lilly published Christian Astrology. The book’s frontispiece, which is based on Lilly’s portrait, again shows amongst other things a square chart with the words non cogunt written on it. It therefore has to be seen as themotto for Lilly’s ‘Introduction’, as he fondly called his book, but also for his view of judicial astrology itself.

Some of Lilly’s more outspoken but most likely not so well educated contemporaries were much in favour of astral determinism; they believed in an unchangeable fate which could be predicted by the stars. We only need to take a look at the front cover of Elias Ashmole’stranslation of Fasciculus Chemicus. In the middle of the page, we see a statue of Ashmole, whose head is hidden behind his birth chart. Reason for this is that he published his translation under the anagrammatic pseudonym James Hassole. What is important for us here is that the words Astra regunt homines (the stars rule men) are written in the centre of the nativity, which stands in stark contrast to Lilly.

It is a well-known fact amongst historians of astrology that the astrologers’ belief in astral determinism brought them into endless conflicts with the clergy, who, in turn condemned judicial astrology as a whole. Most famously, it was Thomas Aquinas, who believed that astral causation, rather than leading to determinism, necessarily has to be followed by free will. Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon argued along similar lines. In her Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy, Liana Saif quotes Bacon, who writes:

“Ptolemy also and Aristotle, Avicenna, Messehalac, Hali, and Albumazar […] do not maintain that there is an absolute necessity in things below due to the influence of the heavens, because free will is not subject to the things of nature.” 1

It would be easy to think now that Lilly’s motto (non cogunt), as well as the choice of title for his magnum opus, Christian Astrology, was only lip service he paid to avoid censorship and endless criticism. But this is not the case at all, as will become clear. To understandLilly’s motivation, we have to keep in mind that he was a Neoplatonist. He firmly believed in the Anima Mundi and was familiar with the work of the Italian humanist philosopher and priest Marsilio Ficino. Ficino translated all of Plato’s dialogues into Latin. He also wrote numerous commentaries, but his most important and systematic work was Platonic Theology. Nowadays, astrologers, hermeticists and magicians are also particularly interested in Ficino’s Three Books on Life, wherein Ficino provides a theoretical framework for and also practical examples of astrological magic. Lilly gives a beautiful statement in his Annus Tenebrosus, showing his deep fondness of Ficino’s philosophy:

“And Ficinus, that excellent learned Priest, saith […] many accidents are signified or foreseen by the Stars, which are not done in Heaven. And again […] many things are foretold by means of the Heavenly bodies, as it were by signe, not by causes […].”2

Neither does Lilly offer a justification, nor does he provide a detailed explanation for the prominent placement of his non cogunt. The potential student has to read between the lines to work out what Lilly’s thoughts on the subject were, but what he basically tells us is this. Determinism can be found in the nature of the individual and in the events caused by their reaction to circumstances. Lilly also thinks that such situations can be avoided and thus changed by the individual. So, the apparent pre-destiny of life only lies within the character of each person. If they would only be willing to put in some effort, than pre-destiny could be, at least, flexible. All of this shows that, in Lilly’s view, astral determinism and free will were not mutually exclusive.

The Greeks already suggested a similar concept, as Dorian Greenbaum shows in her book about the Daimon in Hellenistic Astrology. She shows how heimarmene (fate) and pronoia (providence) are connected. She writes that:

“[…] Though all is contained in fate (in that fate itself is a container), not everything ‘conforms to fate’ […] Pronoia, in fact can supersede heimarmene […]”3.

Greenbaum goes into great detail, explaining that fate is included in providence and comes to the conclusion, that:

“Tertiary providence […] operates within heimarmene (which includes planets and stars), but allows some choice.” 4

(The three Moirai, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos)

Embracing this philosophy, Lilly shows that he is adhering to the hermetic as well as Neoplatonic notion of betterment through work on the self, leading to increased spiritual awareness. In Lilly’s view, fate does not have to be inevitable and can be negotiated which, of course, would have a deep impact on both his astrological method as it would on his magical operations. For him, fate exists solely within the nature of the individual human being, and the apparent fixity of a chart becomes wholly fluid and malleable, conditional only on the exertion of effort by the individual.

It has already been mentioned that Lilly doesn’t explicitly reveal his views in any of his writings, but if we look closely at his Letter to the Student in Astrology, we can read between the lines:

“ […] Beware of pride and self-conceit, and remember how that long ago, no irrationall Creature dared offend Man, the Microcosm; but did faithfully serve and obey him, so long as he was master of his own Reason and Passions, or until he subjected his Will to the unreasonable part. But alas! When iniquity abounded, and man gave the reins to his own affection, and deferred reason, then every Beast, Creature and outward harmful thing, became rebellious and unserviceable to his command. Stand fast, oh man! to your God, and assured principles, then consider your own nobleness, how all things created, both present and to come, were for your sake created; no for your sake God became Man: you are that Creature, who being conversant with Christ, lives and reigns above the heavens, and sits above all power and authority. How many pre-eminences, advantages has God bestowed on you? you range above the heavens by contemplation, conceive the motion and magnitude of the stars; you talk with Angels, yes with God himself; […]” 5 [Emphasis mine]

There were some astrologers though, who did not veil their philosophical views so darkly. One of them was Robert Burton, who published his Anatomy of Melancholy in1621. The reader will note that this was 26 years before William Lilly published his Christian Astrology. Burton’s book was widely read and we can assume that Lilly had read it, too. Burton writes about the subject:

“Natural causes are either primary and universal, or secondary and more particular. Primary causes are the heavens, planets, stars, &c., by their influence (as our astrologers hold) producing this and such like effects. I will not here stand to discuss obiter, whether stars be causes, or signs; or to apologise for judical astrology. If either Sextus Empericus, Picus Mirandula, Sextus ab Heminga, Pererius, Erastus, Chambers, &c., have so far prevailed with any man, that he will attribute no virtue at all to the heavens, or to sun, or moon, more than he doth to their signs at an innkeeper’s post, or tradesman’s shop, or generally condemn all such astrological aphorisms approved by experience: I refer him to Bellantius, Pirovanus, Marascallerus, Goclenius, Sir Christopher Heidon, &c. If thou shalt ask me what I think, I must answer, nam et doctis hisce erroribus versatus sum, (for I am conversant with these learned errors,) they do incline, but not compel; no necessity at all: agunt non cogunt: and so gently incline, that a wise man may resist them; sapiens dominabitur astris: they rule us, but God rules them. All this (methinks) Joh. de Indagine hath comprised in brief, Quaeris a me quantum in nobis operantur astra? &c. Wilt thou know how far the stars work upon us? I say they do but incline, and that so gently, that if we will be ruled by reason, they have no power over us; but if we follow our own nature, and be led by sense, they do as much in us as in brute beasts, and we are no better. So that, I hope, I may justly conclude with Cajetan, Coelum est vehiculum divinae virtutis, &c., that the heaven is God’s instrument, by mediation of which he governs and disposeth these elementary bodies; or a great book, whose letters are the stars, (as one calls it,) wherein are written many strange things for such as can read, or an excellent harp, made by an eminent workman, on which, he that can but play, will make most admirable music. But to the purpose.” 6 [Emphasis mine]

Below is shown the title page of the 1638 edition of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which Lilly could have read.

It may be of interest to compare Burton’s text to what William Ramsey has to say in his Astrologia Restaurata, published only six years after Lilly’s Christian Astrology, wherein Ramesey quotes from his own Lux Veritatis published in 1651:

“[..] to prove unto you by the sacred word of God that the stars are both, signs and causes.” 7 He continues: “[..] astrology, or the influence of the stars has no fatality, except some contingency be mixed therewith; for this were to deny the providence of God […] itsays thus (and so forward) supines dominabitur astris, a wise man rules the stars […] and astra regunt homines, sed regit astra Deus, the stars rule men, but God rules the stars; not meaning when we say, Astra regunt homines, any fatal necessity to be attributed to the influence of those heavenly bodies, nor to have power over men farther than such men are guided only by sense as brute beasts, and not by reason, and farther that they agunt non cogunt, they act or incline, but no wise compel; but where grace or reason supports a man, there, or onsuch a man the stars have no power.” 8 [Emphasis mine]

1 Liana Saif, The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy, Palgrave 2015, p83, quoting Bacon, Opus majus, I, p.262

2 William Lilly, Annus tenebrosus, or The dark year, London: printed for the Company of Stationers, and H. Blunden at the Castle in Corn- hill, 1652, p23.

3 Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum, The Daimon in Hellenistic Astrology, Brill 2015, p.30ff

4 Ibid, p.32

5 William Lilly, Christian Astrology, London: Printed by John Macock,1647, p.xxxi.

6 Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621: SUBSECT. IV.—Stars a cause.

7 William Ramesey, Astrologia Restaurata, London : Printed for Robert White, 1653, p.35.

8 Ibid, p.53f.


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