Wisdom, Reason and the Mind: An Astrological Excursion

Did you ever wonder why medieval literature made such extensive use of allegory? Was allegory merely a popular literary device and nothing more? Or could it be that all of the allegorical figures we encounter from this period were an expression of another perception of the process of thought? We may have to change our assumption that the psychological constitution of our ancestors a millennium or more ago was the same as our own. If we do, then we become immediately aware that our perception of what we might think as astrological “tools” must change and at the same time we may even learn some astrology. It is presumption to say that because we are modern, our way of looking at the world, because it is modern, is a refinement of all that has gone before, when in reality we no longer really understand our inheritance! This is not to say that everything that is still available to us should be accepted as authoritative on the basis of antiquity alone. It is equally presumptuous to proclaim an ancient authority as infallible because we have “discovered” him!

I would like to suggest that the allegorical figures from this period, which modern readers generally find tedious, are an expression of a more externalised perception of thought. I would go so far as to say that they are an expression of the cosmos speaking to man. We still have a vague reminiscence when we think of a Muse bringing inspiration to a poet.

I would like in this article to look at three of these personifications – Wisdom, Reason and Mind – and compare them with those planets that are associated with the quality of mind in traditional astrology. Some passages from the work of Boethius (ca. 475 – 526 AD) will help to illustrate this.

Wisdom was always associated with the divine. It was also personified in many forms, one of these being Sophia, the Virgin crowned with stars and carrying the Divine Child. It is Philo-Sophia that consoles Boethius in “The Consolation of Philosophy”. Let us read how he describes her,

“… a woman [that seemed to appear above his head] of a countenance exceeding venerable. Her eyes were bright as fire, and of a more than human keenness; her complexion was lively, her vigour showed no trace of enfeeblement; and yet her years were right full, and she plainly seemed not of our age and time. Her stature was difficult to judge. At one moment it exceeded not the common height, at another her forehead seemed to strike the sky; and whenever she raised her head higher, she began to pierce within the very heavens, and to baffle the eyes of them that looked upon her.”

Wisdom helps Boethius, who is in prison under sentence of death, to clear his mind. It has become clouded by sorrow, lamentation and bitterness. When she first sees him she banishes the Muses who have been filling his mind with sentiment and pathos and says,

“… Art thou that man, who, erstwhile fed with the milk and reared upon the nourishment which is mine to give, had grown up to the full vigour of a manly spirit?”

She is addressing his mind, as Moon, which when unclouded is able to reflect the wisdom of the Sun. This is what in German is known as the “Gemüt” (this word expresses the more lunar or emotional state of “mind”, the English word “mood” gives a close approximation of the meaning) But his sorrow and lamentation have clouded this light. He is unable to receive the nurturing milk of Wisdom.

And she adds,

“And yet I had bestowed such armour on thee as would have proved an invincible defence, hadst thou not first cast it away.”

This armour is Reason. Mercury.

Later Philosophy says something very important to Boethius – and while doing so is also talking Astrology! She describes the Sun, Mercury and Moon for us in terms of “mind”,

“There is freedom, nor, indeed, can any creature be rational, unless he be endowed with free will.
• For that which hath the natural use of reason has the faculty of discriminative judgement [Mercury], and of itself distinguishes what is to be shunned or desired. [the Armour mentioned above] Now, everyone seeks what he judges desirable, and avoids what he thinks should be shunned. Wherefore, beings endowed with reason possess also the faculty of free choice and refusal. But I suppose this faculty not equal alike in all.
• The higher Divine essences possess a clear-sighted judgment, an uncorrupt will, and an effective power of accomplishing their wishes. [dignified Sun]
• Human souls must needs be comparatively free while they abide in the contemplation of the Divine mind, [dignified Moon]
• less free when they pass into bodily form, [peregrine Moon]
• and still less, again, when they are enwrapped in earthly members. [debilitated Moon] But when they are given over to vices, and fall from the possession of their proper reason, [debilitated Mercury] then indeed their condition is utter slavery. For when they let their gaze fall from the light of highest truth to the lower world where darkness reigns, soon ignorance blinds their vision; they are disturbed by baneful affections, by yielding and assenting to which they help to promote the slavery in which they are involved, and are in a manner led captive by reason of their very liberty. ”

I have used the H.R. James translation of “The Consolation of Philosophy” as it can be quickly be found at Project Gutenberg .


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