Book Review: Living In Bob Makransky’s World

Planetary Strength (2010) and Planetary Combination (2016)

By Bob Makransky

Wessex Astrologer

Review by Joseph Crane, October 27, 2016


When evaluating an astrological natal chart, how do we reconcile different criteria for planetary strength, for whether a planet is well or poorly placed in the chart, and how might we interpret this for a client?  What are the differences between planet in its own sign or exaltation but in a difficult house, and the same planet conjunct the Ascendant or Midheaven but in a sign of debility? What if that planet is well-aspected but afflicted by, say, Saturn and Neptune?  What is the role of a planet when it is part of an aspect configuration or chart pattern? By taking on these complex matters and offering a logic for assessing all these factors, Bob Makransky’s books promise much.

Many astrologers will be startled when reading Makransky’s books. He does not consider our usual depictions of signs and houses; his keywords for planets, angles, and aspects are idiosyncratic to say the least.  In an era when astrology books often inhabit the echo chamber, Makransky’s books are different from that.

bob-pic-for-websiteEach year I write an elaborate article reviewing a book new to the astrology world.  It gives me a chance to step outside my astrological comfort zone, confront ideas unfamiliar to me, to consider the needs of the new astrology student or newer professional astrologer.  I was originally going to review Planetary Combination and quickly realized that much of it elaborated on his work with aspects in his earlier Planetary Strength.  These two books should be read together, they require something like total immersion and they will not be for everybody.

Here I will give you a sense of how Makransky reasons astrologically and his perspective on life that strongly informs his work, as is the case for all of us.

Although Planetary Strength contains the subtitle “A Commentary on Morinus”, it really isn’t. Makransky often uses Morinus simply as a point of departure. He does not discuss Morinus’ work as a whole but one facet of it, and also departs from Morinus’ style of astrological interpretation.  Makransky, like the famous seventeenth-century French astrologer, attempts to systematize and rationalize the use of astrology’s symbols and interpretive methods.  Perhaps we should call Makransky’s work “inspired by Morinus.”


What is Planetary Strength?

At the outset of Planetary Strength, Makransky notes Morinus’ distinction between a planet’s “intrinsic strength”, a planet’s own nature, and “external strength”, how that planet is modified by “celestial state” – planets in signs of dignity or debility – and the planet’s position with respect to the horizon, aspects planetarystrengthfrom other planets and other factors.  Strength is an augmentation or reduction of a planet’s intrinsic nature, what he calls the native’s “the capacity for free choice.”  Planetary strength gives an ability to realize one’s desires, to control one’s own destiny and helps produce “ease, tranquility, and contentment” (p. viii). Planetary weakness or debility points to “a bondage or inability to exercise free choice” that may manifest as vulnerability or defensiveness.  Immediately one detects a definite attitude toward life reflected in his astrology.

Makransky contrasts celestial state, terrestrial state, and aspectual state as key indicators of planetary strength.

Celestial state refers to whether a planet is in a sign of dignity or debility and this will impact the attitude of the native toward themselves and others.  When planets are dignified, there is a greater range of possibilities of activity, greater spontaneity or alertness to opportunities; debilitated planets signify the person being more confused, fuzzier, too hesitant or too stubborn.  He uses the words spirited for a planet or planets in good celestial state, nonplussed for those in poor celestial state. The former concentrates energy, the latter dissipates energy.

Terrestrial state is about a planet or planets that are angular, especially conjunct one of the angles, or that are cadent.  This is about social relationships or “adaptation to social conditioning”.  Angular planets help one be more in command in social relationships, but if cadent they lead to being in greater bondage to social relationships.  Because “angular types” have greater confidence in their ability to impact people, and because cadent types can experience social relationships as difficult or overwhelming, the angular person’s endeavors meet with greater success than those of one with a predominance of cadent planets.  Makransky uses the keywords dominating and reactive for angular and cadent respectively.

Aspectual state, whether a planet or planets are well-aspected or afflicted, is about one’s immediate environment and personal relationships. One experiences good or bad luck depending on one’s ability to adjust and to live strategically, or to “stumble and bumble against the flow.” Unlike celestial and terrestrial strength, aspectual strength is more directly connected to the external world. Makransky uses the keywords detached for well-aspected and maladjusted for afflicted.  Since aspectual state also refers to membership in larger aspect configurations and chart patterns, he devotes Planetary Combination to these considerations.

This should give you a beginning idea on Makransky’s approach to astrology and to the human endeavor, to his vision of life and the world.  Like most modern astrologers Makransky’s focus is psychological (he tells us a few times that “character is destiny”), relational but pessimistic about relating.


Words and Keywords

Years ago, I gave up on the use of astrological keywords because to me they had become mind-numbing buzzwords: I may forever cringe when I hear the Moon depicted as “nurturing”, Saturn as “limiting” or Pluto as “intense,” as if these words capture the essence and nature of the planets.

Makransky’s use of keywords is different and that is refreshing but poses a different set of difficulties.  For example, he uses spirited for a positive celestial state.  It’s opposite, nonplussed, means unable to react because of being confused or surprised.  Makransky loves words and uses many we do not see very often.

Here are his keywords for the planets: prepare for some surpris

  • Sun: Purpose
  • Moon: Assurance
  • Mercury: Mentality
  • Venus: Enjoyment
  • Mars: Accomplishment
  • Jupiter: Understanding
  • Saturn: Responsibility
  • Uranus: Independence
  • Neptune: Intuition
  • Pluto: Clarity

Some of these are straightforward and helpful; others, like Venus, Mars, and Saturn, capture but one dimension of the planet’s activity; others, like Pluto and Moon, seem to distort our usual understanding.  Makransky seems to do better when depicting planets that have a masculine tone – Sun, Mars, Uranus – than those that are more about connection like Moon and Venus.


An Algebra of Keywords: Celestial and Terrestrial State

To illustrate his approach to planetary strength, I’ll put Mars through Makransky’s criteria and interpretations, showing the many ways in which Mars could manifest in a natal chart. As seen above, the general keyword for Mars is Accomplishment.

Mars in a good celestial state is Spirited plus Accomplishment = Wholehearted.  (Makransky doesn’t consider the nature of the sign involved, so that Mars in Aries and Scorpio would be alike, Mars in Capricorn not much different.)  He calls this placement “self-certain, cocky, and quick to act and react”.  The opposite, Accomplishment plus Nonplussed = Indecisive is described as “doubtful, unsure of yourself, and easily frustrated”.

How about its terrestrial state?  An angular Mars is Dominating plus Accomplishment = Plucky. The dictionary definition of “plucky” (OED) is “showing determination for fight or struggle; brave, courageous, daring.”  Makransky talks about candid and fearless expression but also self-assurance and “self-confidence [that] can verge on self-congratulations”, inner qualities for sure.  What about a cadent Mars?  Reactive plus Accomplishment = Malcontent.  The word itself implies a passive resentful disposition. Makransky discusses “malcontent” as being more caustic and opinionated, easily misunderstood and misunderstanding, and – more in keeping with the word itself – weary and feeling overburdened.

Angular planets act differently at different angles.  He uses relatively standard depictions of the angles but notice the words, all nouns, he uses for them: ASC is close relationships and intimacy, MC more formal and group relationships and dominance, DSC more intimate relationships and manipulation, IC standing alone and firmness.

How’s Mars at the angles? Mars at the Ascendant is outfront; at the MC is gutsy; at the DSC is steadfast; at the IC is assiduous.  This last one, in the context of his descriptions of the IC, strikes me especially as odd.

What if you put celestial and terrestrial state together?

Mars in a good celestial state, in dignity, but in a cadent place yields whole-hearted (dignified planet) malcontent (cadent Mars) accomplishment (Mars, intrinsically).  Such a Mars has a free-spirited and independent nature befitting the dignified planet, but underneath is a complaining and distrustful attitude toward others.  “Although your everyday attitude is brisk and ready for anything, you often feel as though you are just drifting through life, or struggling on an endless treadmill – unrewarded and unfulfilled.” (pg. 67)

But what if Mars is angular but in bad celestial state? He gives us plucky but indecisive accomplishment.  Makransky stresses an outgoing and gregarious style, “a gentility and a nobility” that attracts others but one is filled with uncertainty and doubt just below the surface.  One can be overly trusting or naïve in relationships and can be betrayed but others with more social agility.  When forced to take a stand one relies on “mulish obduracy” rather than subtlety or finesse.

Some of the words he uses are strange but the reasoning is sound and easy to ap

Aspectual State

These are not uncharted waters in modern astrology but they are perilous ones.  Traditional astrology considered aspects as modifying the activity of a significator for an issue of concern. Modern astrologers look at predominance of one kind of aspect or another, or at aspect configurations, as well as chart patterns. These may be considered independently of the planets or points involved.  Much of Planetary Combination concerns itself with these factors and with two-planet aspect combinations.  In Planetary Strength Makransky assesses a planet being positively aspected or afflicted.

In an interpretative move I have not seen elsewhere, Makransky looks at aspectual state as “adaptation to immediate environment”: everyday relationships and situations.  Aspectual state gives information about a “basic take on life”, depicted as comfort or struggle in daily life.  Makransky uses the keywords detached for well-aspected and maladjusted for afflicted.

If terrestrial state applies to social or group relationships, aspectual state applies to immediate or personal relationships.   Aspectual state is more closely connected to the outer world, whereas celestial and terrestrial states are more inward, more attitudinal.

Makransky does not give criteria for well-aspected or afflicted: one blends in the aspect with the planet in aspect, using standard categories of benefic and malefic.  On page 55 of Planetary Strength he gives a helpful table of planetary pairs and their positive or negative indications.

If well-aspected, Mars has detached accomplishment and is efficient.  Reminding me of Mars in Capricorn, there’s an outgoing personality and analytical mind that can be daring and original.  It can get along with others to get their own way but can also go off on its own.

And if Mars has maladjusted accomplishment because of being afflicted?  He gives us ornery, a word that describes a moody difficult person.  This independent person is quick to resent and tangle, although with an “idiosyncratic nobility of and is reluctant to compromise: a “tell it like it is” kind of character.

Makransky also combines aspectual state with terrestrial state.  He calls an angular afflicted Mars plucky but ornery accomplishment, a cadent but well-aspected Mars efficient but malcontent accomplishment, the former being brusque and outspokenly individualistic and the latter with a controlled and forbidding presence.


Planetary Combination and Mars

Lately I’ve been looking at the chart of the 19th century poet William Blake who has Mars in Leo conjunct Neptune and both are opposed by Saturn.  One would call Blake’s Mars afflicted although the artist used it well for his prophetic and poetic endeavors.

planetarycombinationIn Makransky’s view Mars-Saturn aspects are about dominance and control and can bring conflicts and situations of oppression.  He stresses an independent spirit, being distant from others and prone to hunkering down when thwarted by others.  The opposition between responsibility (Saturn) and accomplishment (Mars) gives strength of character and self-assurance, even with a “my way or the highway approach”.  Mars and Saturn tend to work in complementary ways here: “Albeit a bit theatrical and fond of swagger, you’re essentially a cool customer who doesn’t fume or wring your hands helplessly; rather you appraise the possibilities realistically and with imperturbable detachment.”  (p. 146)

Makransky stresses the visionary and idealizing quality of Mars-Neptune aspects in general, yet casting these individuals as “peppy and peppery, blunt and dogmatic”.  The conjunction, brings together accomplishment and intuition (Neptune keyword) into a cantankerous, grumpy, crotchety, pessimistic person.

What if Blake had a different arrangement of Mars, Saturn, and Neptune, a T-Square with Mars as the apex?  Remember that a T-Square (he calls it a T-Cross) is made of two planets in opposition that both are in square to a third planet, usually considered receiving the energy or tension of the opposition.

Makransky considers somebody whose chart has this configuration to be intense, perhaps to hold their feelings in check while all is turbulence under the surface. Their inner drive can manifest through taking on a leadership role or too much of oneself.  Perhaps both.

The apex planet of the T-Cross, what Makransky calls the “short leg”, receives and displays much of this intensity and represents what the native stands on.  This planet is strong with a definite edge. Makransky’s apex Mars stands on pride and can display behavior that is haughty, supercilious, arrogant.

Contrast the behavior of Mars when the “point planet” of a “fan”, the planet bisecting two planets, in trine and in sextile to both.  This gives optimistic naivety, stressing the positive and ignoring or discounting the negative, perhaps being oblivious to problems as they arise.  The bisecting “point planet” projects – I assume projecting that planet’s qualities onto others. With Mars it’s alacrity, with a jaunty unfazed can-do spirit.


Special considerations: Sole dispositor and Unaspected Planets

Makransky considers a planet that is the last planet in a chain of dispositors – and thus in one if its signs —to be a sole dispositor. (With traditional rulerships, outer planets do not qualify.) A sole dispositor stands on its own in a natal chart, is the planet that can structure a social situation.

He considers Mars the most intense of the sole dispositor planets, emphasizing a need to be right and have the last word. Although not lacking in social skills, here Mars is contentious and happy to throw down the gauntlet when provoked.  It is an active engaging Mars that must get its own way.

Makransky sings the praises of unaspected planets and considers being unaspected the most powerful factor of planetary strength.  I have not seen this elsewhere.

Unaspected Mars is pert (I also had to look this up.): daring, brash, enthusiastic, and making no effort to attract people or win them over. Mars starts itself and motivates itself and doesn’t get entangled in the complexities of striving for social approval or even worldly success.

Why is an unaspected planet so powerful?  Makransky tells us they can operate independently without the conditioning of social structures and concerns that are represented in aspects and configurations.  There is respect for one’s social space and also respect for the space of others.


What Do I Make of All This?

I appreciate Makransky’s effort to systematize our considerations of planetary strength and to draw some clear lines between them.  For somebody who dislikes keywords, I find Makransky’s use of keywords interesting, challenging, and occasionally frustrating. He far surpasses the banality with which many astrologers use keywords, although some of his word combinations and explanations may confuse more than enlighten.

From Planetary Strength, pg. 44

From Planetary Strength, pg. 44

If you were expecting a standard book that will confirm your understanding of astrology’s symbols and how to interpret them, you will be frustrated; you are entering a world of verbal complexity and conceptual subtlety.  There is plenty that you have not seen anywhere else. You may find Makransky’s approach to astrology brilliantly unconventional or just plain weird.

To work with Makransky’s books productively one must be willing to immerse oneself in the author’s world. He covers an enormous amount of material that one could apply to one’s interpretive work.

There’s a stoic undertone to Makransky’s approach to life but without their cosmic piety that has made such a strong contribution to astrology.  Makransky distrusts society’s conventions and its seductions of belongingness, and in response one must be guarded and, if the societal situation calls for it, controlling. What’s left is a sense of disconnection from others, a need to strategize one’s approach to preserve one’s freedom and dignity. I find little romance and no sentiment in Makransky’s work.

There are many passages that illustrate an unbridgeable gulf between oneself and one’s world.  I return to disposition and unaspected planets as examples to illustrate his point of view.

In the introduction to Planetary Combination he discusses the aspect relation between a planet and its dispositor:

“The disposition of a planet symbolizes the orientation of that personality trait with respect to the prevailing cultural mores; hence it is an indicator of conformity.  Disposition has to do with constraints which are put on the natives’ freedom of action, and the balance between their public and private selves.  A planet in good aspect with its dispositor indicates ability to accept the world as given and to play his or her own part in it – at least superficially.  A planet afflicted by its dispositor feels like an outsider looking in: there is a difficulty in fitting oneself into the prevailing social norms, but at the same time a lack of initiative in striking out on one’s own.” (p. 19)

Here’s the psychology of unaspected planets:

“The reason why the unaspected planet is unmoved by worldly glory is because it symbolizes a profound isolation, cosmic anguish, which comes across to others as a feeling of sadness.  “We can say that all of the aspects (except for the parallels) symbolize some form or another of self-pity.  The unaspected planet does not dull the feeling of cosmic anguish – separatedness – with self-pity, but rather it feels it directly as sadness… [this sadness] is a symbol of the true understanding that we are alone in life, and that any assumption to the contrary is an illusion.” (p. 57)

There is much to be gained from Makransky’s presentation of life. I have clients and students for whom his set of attitudes is not uncommon and his prescriptions can be helpful.  You may profit from Makransky’s insightfulness and wisdom without having to buy into his world view: engaging in dialogue with his writing can clarify your own perspectives and stimulate your interpretative thinking into new directions.\

Lately I have become fascinated by astrology texts written in the 1970’s and 1980’s – their interpretations plain reveal the assumptions of the time in which they were written and some of these have changed from that time.  They can also reveal the character of the individuals writing them.  It’s likely that years from now somebody reading my astrological material will similarly find my interpretations dated and covered with personal bias.

Think of studying this material like going to a “blockbuster” art show and spending a fine afternoon with the art and vision of a Goya or a Van Gogh or an Escher, artists whose vision you may not share but whose perspectives you can learn from. I applaud Bob Makransky and his publisher Margaret Cahill at Wessex Astrologer for having produced a work of originality and complexity and befuddlement, astonishment and irritation and inspiration.               


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