William Lilly on the Essential Dignities

In Christian Astrology pp. 101 – 103, William Lilly surveys the five essential dignities – house rulership, exaltation, triplicity, term and face –, interpreting them by analogy to social status and individual character.

House (i.e., sign) rulership signifies a person who is fully in charge of their affairs, well-established and prosperous; or, more simply, someone who is happy, well and content.

Exaltation shows someone of exaggerated importance… or self-importance. This is because Exaltation generates dramatic effects that do not always measure up to their promise.

Triplicity signifies someone who has enough to be comfortable and get by in the world. It suggests sufficiency rather than plenty.

Terms shows basic physical attributes, like bodily constitution and temperament, rather than status or condition.

Face shows someone hanging by a thread. It doesn’t so much suggest inevitable ruin as it does precariousness and vulnerability – like someone living out of the coin jar while waiting for the next paycheck to arrive.

First, Lilly’s interpretations are suggestive, not exhaustive, and are meant to give helpful indications rather than the last word. Lilly himself uses them judiciously and always has a total picture in view. For instance, in his judgment of the soldier’s question (CA pp. 135-6), a number of mitigating factors (e.g., benefic aspects to the Moon) lead him to read the Sun’s exaltation as magnanimity rather than unmitigated arrogance.

Second, Lilly interprets the dignities in light of the social hierarchy of his time, which were bound up with the major concerns of his clientele (e.g., inheritance, property, marriage, posterity, health). Although he is preoccupied with public reputation, manners and class identity in a way that is typical of 17th-century England, the underlying concerns and realities are the same for us as for him. People still raise the same questions (Does x love me? Will I have a child? Is my son guilty? Should I buy the house?). And, as ever, these questions arise from a social order that can still be meaningfully understood through the hierarchy of essential dignities (e.g., House ≈ old money. Exaltation ≈ celebrity, the nouveau riche. Triplicity ≈ the middle class. Terms ≈ skilled laborers. Face ≈ the working poor. Peregrine ≈ the unemployed and destitute. Detriment ≈ criminals and  the insane. Fall = the bankrupt and publicly disgraced).

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