The word Ousia in Valens’ Anthologies

Each star is the ruler of its own essence (OUSIAS) for its sympathies and antipathies and mutual feelings in relation to the cosmos, and they have the authority for their commixtures with one another in accordance with application, separation, superiority, containment, spear-bearing, hurling of rays, and approaching of the masters.
(Vettius Valens – Anthology, book I, p.7, translated by Robert Schmidt, The Golden Hind Press, 1993).

Each star is the ruler of its own “element” (OUSIAS) in the universe with reference to <the stars’> sympathy or  antipathy or mutual influence. Their <aspects> are blended according the their “applications”or  “separations,”their “superior aspects”or “blockages,”their “attendance,”their “ray-shooting,”or the  “approach”of their masters. (Vettius Valens – Anthologies, Book I, p.2, translated by Mark T. Riley).

The word Ousia has very interesting history of translation and usage. There existed manly two translations of this word into Latin: essentia and substantia. In 4th century AD, Augustine was arguing that the word essentia as usually translated into English with participle “being-ness” should be used only for God because He only has the fullness of the being of which the word essentia refers or may refer. For all other individual beings, the word substantia need to be used. Boethius after Augustine accepted substantia as translation of ousia and from there everything went on the same path, every later author used this translation because the earlier author used it (Sachs).

Martin Heidegger was probably the first one who pointed out that the word substance is bad translation for the word ousia. He argued that the word ousia means Being and not substance. Joe Sachs finally made a translation of this word with thinghood;thinghood of things in the world is never reducible in our speech to any combination of qualities, quantities, relations, actions, and so on: that ousia or thinghood must be a separate category”(Sachs).[i] In other words, the thinghood of a thing is what makes that thing a thing, the cat-ness of a cat, dog-ness of a dog, the being-ness of the being.

This is the understanding of the ontology in Plato and especially Aristotle’s writings, but what kind of importance this inquiry into the ontological meaning of ousia has for our purpose of getting closer to Valens? My aim for understanding Valens is not only of an astrological background, I want to understand Valens’ world view, his cosmos, and his philosophy. I am aware that the time in which he lived is quite a syncretic one. This is the time when many gnostic schools, many hermetica and mystery schools emerged, and many binding of philosophies also. This is why getting closer to his mind is quite a difficult task.
He was highly read man, this is obvious by the many astrological and literature (in general) references he gives in Anthologies. This is why I am enthusiastic to read everything possible from that period and earlier, to try to get into the mind of those people who lived back then, who had the desire for knowledge, who had the curious mind to investigate and to what they had in disposal for this task.

Let’s get back to investigating the word ousia. Ousia is feminine present participle of εἶναι (to be) and is equivalent to the English word being or being-ness. Before Plato, the word “ontos’ was in usage to represent “really”, “actually”, “in fact”. Plato (?) coined the term ousia from the stem ont – plus the abstract noun ending – sia.[ii]

Heidegger in his Introduction to Metaphysics, approaches the problem of Being through the grammatics of the same. The word Being has as a precursor the infinitive form ‘to be’. This form of the verb is then transformed into substantive. “The character of our word Being, as a word, is determined, accordingly, by three grammatical forms: verb, infinitive, and substantive. Thus our first task is to understand the meaning of these grammatical forms”.[iii] The point Heidegger makes here, and why he goes into many details investigating the grammar of certain term is to investigate that which comes first: the noun (substantive) or the verb, a ‘pseudo-question’ as Heidegger points out, much discussed in the linguistics.

Of the ancient philosophers, Parmenides (early 5th century BCE) was one of the most interested in investigating the being. Einai is the infinitive verb translated into English as ‘to be’. The present participle of einai is to on, or in Parmenides’ dialect to eon. For Parmenides, the being (to on) is timeless, changeless and all talks about it is ‘opinion’ (doxa) and not the truth about the ‘being’.[iv]

Getting out from this little digression, let us now get back to Valens’ passage.
Schmidt has translated the word ousia (which at Valens, is given in its singular genitive form ousias) with the English word “essence”, and Riley with the English word “element”. Could we apply Sachs’ translation of ousia in this context as thinghood: “each star is the ruler of its own thinghood”?

Now Schmidt translated the whole sentence somewhat differently then Riley:
Schmidt: Each star is the ruler of its own essence for its sympathies and antipathies and mutual feelings in relation to the cosmos.
Riley: Each star is the ruler of its own “element” in the universe with reference to <the stars’> sympathy or antipathy or mutual influence.

The Greek word used here for cosmos/universe is κοσμος in accusative singular κοσμον.
The word Κυριος is used for Lord/Master:
Each star is the master [the one who has supremacy over] for its own thinghood in the cosmos”..
for its sympathies and antipathies and mutual feelings/influence, and they have the authority for their commixtures with one another [their aspects are blended] in accordance with application, separation, superiority [superior aspects], containment, spear-bearing, hurling of rays, and approaching of the [their] masters..”

And then Valens gives explanation of that thinghood for every separate planet:

The Moon is set down as ruler of foresight (pronoia, providence),  the Sun of light, Kronos of ignorance and necessity (ananke), Zeus of opinion and crowns of office and will (prothumia), the star of Ares of action and troubles, the star of Aphrodite of love and desire and beauty, and the star of Hermes of law and custom and fidelity. Which very stars, [if they are dispensers] of their own effects… [here lacuna exist in the original text]. (Schmidt)

We can see here that every planet has its own thinghood (ousia).
Every stars dispenses its own effects (apotelesmata) produced by their own thinghood (ousia). That is, their effects are produced by what they are, what is their thinghood IN the Cosmos, or the ‘Cosmic Soul’. So, Moon by its thinghood in the Cosmic Soul produces effects of pronoia, providence; Sun of light, Kronos of ignorance, etc.

The point is, or at least how I understood this passage, that every planet has its own being-ness, its own ‘to be’ (to on), its own thinghood in the Cosmic Soul, as in matter of fact all things have, and they produce their own individual effects (apotelesma/αποτελέσμα) which are, as Valens says, comixtured by the configurations with the other planets and which (effects) emerge in human life or the events that happen in this sub-lunar or human level of the Cosmos.

But question arises here, how can something be ruler or master of its own something-ness? The thing is the thing itself. I am a being, I am not a ruler of my being, I am just as I am – a being and I exist in the thinghood of my being-ness. Why to say I am a master of my thinghood? Does Valens wants to point out here that the planets are masters of the properties of their own thinghood, or the apotelesma/effects/outcomes of the thinghood? We should not make mistake that thinghood (ousia) and properties are one and the same. A being has properties, the dog can be black in color, the blackness is a property of that dog, but its thinghood is just being a dog. The dog is not a master of its own dog-ness. The dog simply IS.

I think that further investigation in this direction would be of high importance for understanding the cosmological and philosophical principles of our Art. This is why learning philosophy, sociology, history, are all necessary branches for dwelling deeper and deeper into the mind of our ancestors who practiced this Art and approached it practically but theoretically as well.

I will be investigating more of this in the future and will come back, hopefully, with more information of the subject. I am excited about learning these beautiful subjects, which are not only helping me to understand the whole subject of astrology, but also, helping me on a practical level for becoming better astrologer. Both instances are very important for me.


[i] Joe Sachs, Aristotle: Metaphysics, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosphy.

[ii] Anthony Preus, Historical Dictionary of Ancient Greek Philosophy, Lanham, Scarecow Press, 2007 pp. 67-68.

[iii] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics  New translation by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 55-60 (notes omitted).

[iv] Anthony Preus, Historical Dictionary of Ancient Greek Philosophy, Lanham, Scarecow Press, 2007 pp. 67-68.


3 thoughts on “The word Ousia in Valens’ Anthologies

  1. The word ” esse” that Kant identified with noumenon, distinguished from the phenomenon, the appearance as we can see it with physical eyes, is related to the more inner quality of everything that exists and it is untouchable by the human mind or senses, like Plato´s forms. Remind that the Hellenistic astrology was sister of neo Platonism and possibly they came out together since that Plato describes a cosmogony, especially in the Timeus. So the word oisias must be nearer to esse, and elements is not a good word to describe the inner qualities of planets because elements are physical corruptible, unorganized matters, so means other kind of things in Hellenistic philosophic doctrine : by esse it means that we can see its effect into the phenomena but not to know directly its being or essence or esse.In other words we see the result of the behavior of stars but not the utmost inner quality of them.

    • Hi Clelia,
      I agree that the word ‘element’ is a bad translation for ousia, and you pointed out good argument for this, since the elements are corruptible as everything else beneath the sphere of the Moon.
      Mr. Riley pointed out in several occasions that there are probably mistakes in his translation, but I think that his attention in this time is shifted to some other projects, so we have to deal with the discrepancies and mistranslations in this text on our own, through comparation with Mr. Schmidt’s translation or for those who are better familiarized with Ancient Greek, to compare with the original Greek text.

      The word ‘essentia’ is also a Latin coined word for translating Greek phrase: to ti ên einai, literally “the what it was to be”. This was very problematic to translate for the Latin translators who read and studied Aristotle’s works. Aristotle also uses the short phrase of this: to ti esti, meaning the same thing. From here, esti, I think, they came out with the word “essentia”.

      The word “essence” or in Latin “essentia” is vague, non definitive and according to Sachs (who is doing translations of Plato and Aristotle for over a 30 years) does not explain the ousia as much as ‘thinghood’ does. He puts it very nicely in this quote:
      “Words like essence, individual, and actuality must either be vague or be given arbitrary definitions. The words Aristotle uses are neither vague nor are they conceptual constructions; they call forth immediate, direct experiences which one must have at hand to see what Aristotle is talking about. They are not the kinds of words that books can explain; they are words of the kind that people must share before there can be books. That is why understanding a sentence of Aristotle is so often something that comes suddenly, in an insight that seems discontinuous from the puzzlement that preceded it. It is simply a matter of directing one’s gaze.”

      Aristotle calls the thing ‘this’, because when you point to something simply as pointing to a chair, the chair is ‘this’ and it is itself, a thing standing out there to which you can point out. Sachs argues that the language of Aristotle was spontaneous and not so abstract as many want to understand.

      But yes, this is the difference between Plato and Aristotle. Plato is interested into the world of forms and the word ‘essence’ is probably, most applicable in this context. Aristotle in a matter of fact, is more interested in the immediate world around us, and for him a thing is just a thing in the very immediate sense of that word. For Aristotle, man is primary substance but manhood is secondary substance. For Plato the other way around.
      So yes, looking at ousia from Platonic or neo-Platonic standpoint, essence is probably better translation then thinghood, since we speak about cosmical states here, and not of something immediate of the world around us. I think that looking at the middle-Platonic authors and their usage of the word ousia would be my next task from here🙂

  2. “In other words, the thinghood of a thing is what makes that thing a thing, the cat-ness of a cat, dog-ness of a dog, the being-ness of the being.”

    That’s what Plato’s Forms refer to!

    Perhaps Valens was saying that the planets ARE the Forms themselves, the essences that allow matter to be certain things, just as chairness allows wood constructed in a certain way to become a chair. Thus, the lack of presence (represented by the strength of the planets) of any one of these Forms in a person’s life leads to a lack of materialisation of those things that are allowed to exist by the weakened Forms.

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