In Book VII of the Confessions, Augustine recalls wrestling with deep philosophical and theological questions in his early thirties. Not quite able to shake off his Manichean sensibilities, he struggles to understand the nature of an immutable, immaterial God and the origin of evil in a world that was created to be good.

By encountering the works of the Platonists and later St. Paul, Augustine is eventually able to make more sense of these boggling questions, and these realizations push him toward Christ and conversion.

But instead of focusing on these weighty matters of philosophy and theology, I want to talk about his rejection of astrology, the topic I find my students most want to discuss in book 7.

Since his adolescence, Augustine was interested in astrology and especially birth horoscopes. Although he had been warned off astrology by a wise man named Vindicianus and his friend Nebridius (see Conf. 4.3.5-6), he still retained some curiosity about the veracity of astrology until he heard a story from a friend named Firminus.

Firminus’ father and his friend were both avid devotees of astrology. When animals gave birth in their household, they would regularly record the positions of the stars as though conducting scientific research. And when they discovered that Firminus’ mother was pregnant with him at the same time that an enslaved woman became pregnant in the friend’s household, both men took great care to observe and make precise records of the moment of the births and the positions of the stars at the time.

The two women gave birth simultaneously – thus resulting in both children sharing the same birth horoscope. “Yet,” Augustine recounts, “Firminus was born in easy circumstances among his own relatives, and pursued quite a brilliant career in the world making money and advancing in rank, while that slave-boy went on serving his masters, with no alleviation whatever of the yoke his status imposed on him” (Conf. 7.6.8, tr. Boulding).

Hearing this story, Augustine realizes that the position of the stars does not explain the disparity in these two men’s lives: it is entirely a matter of material conditions. One was born into a noble family that was able to afford to give him an excellent education in the liberal arts; the other was born to an enslaved woman who lacked both the wealth and social standing to offer such an education to her son.

Augustine’s Marxist realization here – that the wealth and citizenship status of one’s family matter far more for one’s life trajectory than the time of one’s birth – leads him to reject astrology quite forcefully: “I hoped to attack and refute and make a laughing-stock of the demented people who make a living by astrology, and I wanted to make sure that none of them would be in a position to retort that either Firminus had lied to me or his father had lied to him” (7.6.10).

Augustine’s vehemence here is typical of his character. When he dislikes something, he tends to make that dislike known in an uncompromising fashion (see his lengthier rebuke of astrology in book 5 of The City of God).

Personally, even if perhaps I would not censure others so forcefully as Augustine does on this issue, I am not a believer in astrology. I know that I’m a Virgo and will occasionally read my horoscope if it’s next to the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. But I don’t take it seriously.

Many of my students, however, do. Particularly since the pandemic, astrology apps have risen in popularity among Millennials and Gen-Zers and ‘New Age’ beliefs are on the rise in both religious and non-religious groups. I have had students tell me that they couldn’t focus on an assignment because Mercury is in retrograde or that they refuse to date people with particular zodiac signs. And for some of my students who are from Asia or of Asian descent, they might take astrology and numerology quite seriously.

These students often get angry with Augustine in book 7. They take issue with his outright rejection of astrology and the superciliousness with which he dismisses it. As a teacher, I don’t think it’s my place to tell students whether they should accept or reject astrology, but I do appreciate how this issue inspires them to engage with Augustine, offer their own arguments, and participate in classroom discussion. Many undergraduates might not have strong opinions about Platonic immaterialism, but they do about horoscopes.