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‘What’s Your Sign?’: Why (part of) the Age of Aquarius Is Still with Us

Steven Doloff

Skeptical Briefs Volume 13.2, June 2003

We have always lived in uncertain times. It is understandable therefore how, in a world continually threatened by droughts, floods, famines, plagues, and wars, people would seek the imagined security promised by prophetic systems of belief such as astrology which, however cryptically or equivocally, claim to reveal a reliable order to things.

And yet when we hear of contemporary world leaders or their family members seeking the balm of such promised security, the more sophisticated of us often stand amazed. For example recently we have become aware that Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, consults psychics, and that Senator Hillary Clinton, when she was First Lady, sought similar spiritual guidance. And, of course, we all remember that Nancy Reagan as First Lady had a regular personal astrologer. So why won’t this vestige of the Age of Aquarius go away?

It is true that occult belief systems have from the very origins of Western civilization long guided and justified personal and political hopes, fears and desires. Traditionally they were the hopes, fears and desires of pharaohs, caesars, and fuhrers (and their spouses) who could afford to keep private seers on hand for immediate consultation, on military campaigns, treaties, marriages, and so forth. But while the concerns of the common folk for their own lives were of course no less pressing to them, it was not until the Renaissance, the printing press, literacy, and an expanded middle class that more widespread and detailed familiarity with divination systems like astrology became possible, and then popular.

Despite three hundred years of science and rationalism, the impulse to divination remains with us today, though this is at least partially understandable. After all, the world still appears to many of us no less uncertain and dangerous. In fact we ourselves seem to add new technological and ecological numbers to the roulette wheel of potential human disasters at an increasing rate. In this way, at least, the “Aquarian” proliferation of mystical beliefs in the 1960s and 1970s can be perceived as a normal social phenomenon in response to anxious times. The novelty, if there was one, lay in the sheer speed of the proliferation of these beliefs, facilitated by unprecedented media resources, and the media’s own commercial interest in the baby boomers’ every quirk.

Taken in its more gauzy and rosy colored aspects, the 1960s Age of Aquarius can be abstracted sociologically as a popular mass delusion, a psychological denial or a retreat from the harsh geopolitical realities of the new and frightening nuclear age, the cold war, and the Vietnam War. However, it need not be seen only as that.

From a political perspective, it was much more than merely a characteristic escapist response to an uncomfortable human condition. Then as now, the thrust of the so-called New Age philosophies reflected a very deliberate purpose or will on the part of many of their adherents. That purpose was to urge a more benign and humane set of priorities upon the specifically manmade political sphere of things, the sphere ostensibly over which we can have some measure of control.

When, in the 1967 musical Hair, lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado wrote: “When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars,” many of us, including those who had no personal interest or faith at all in astrology per se, wholeheartedly hummed along with these celestial events very much aware that this was a metaphorical call for better alignment of more mundane social forces down here on Earth.

It is of course ironic that President Reagan, who as governor of California back in the 1960s was a prominent representative of the conservative “establishment” in reaction to which the Aquarian Age arose, should ultimately be revealed as influenced by astrology in whatever indirect or minuscule way through his wife Nancy. But after all, Nancy Reagan’s interest then, and Cherie Blair’s flirtation now, with the supernatural merely returns such beliefs to their traditional function as psychological comfort for national leaders and their families, in their need to formulate or rationalize difficult and stressful decisions.

By the way, President Bush, being born on July 6, 1946, astrologically happens to be a Cancer. That probably means 2003 will be a momentous year for him, one abounding with “both great opportunities and grave dangers.” And that means it will be for us too.

Steven Doloff

Steven Doloff is a professor of English and Humanities at the Pratt Institute in New York City.