Working Qualitatively with Dignity
In traditional astrology, there are five types of essential dignities and two types of essential debilities. A planet’s sign location may confer onto it dignity by what we generally refer to as rulership. But "rulership" should more appropriately be used to designate all of the ways in which planets manage certain locations of the Zodiacal band. The one implied by the word "rulership" is actually more appropriately called domicile rulership. But there is also rulership by exaltation, by triplicity (aka trigon), by term (aka bounds) and by face (aka decan rulership). Conversely, a planet may become debilitated by entering into its sign of detriment or fall, which are also two types of rulerships or lordships. These dignity and debility designations refer to specific signs or portions of signs that a particular lord governs in some manner. When a planet chances to occupy these locations they are cast into a unique relationship to the lord who governs or controls that dignity or debility. When the lord of a particular dignity chances to be in one of its own governed positions, this is often considered a good thing and the planet is heralded as being "dignified". When the lord of a particular debility chances to be in one of its own governed debility positions, this is typically considered a bad thing and the planet is designated as debilitated. For example, Mars in Capricorn is considered to be exalted, which is "good". But Mars in Cancer is considered to be in fall, which is "not good". Sometimes, because the terms "good" and "bad" do not resonate well to some modern astrologers, the dignity problem is expressed in terms of strength and planets are said to be "stronger" or "weaker" in those places and thought to be impaired or bolstered in their abilities to produce their significations.
But aside from "good" and "bad" or "strong" and "weak" what are the unique relationships that these designations refer to? What specific function does a planet have with regard to its domicile location? What specific function does a planet have with regard to its triplicity, fall, term, detriment, etc. locations? In other words, if a planet is in its own terms for example, how does it behave that is different from when it is in its own domicile location. Is it just weaker? Or does it control something else altogether that has nothing to do with its control over its domicile? If we are saying that a planet has a unique relationship to a particular Zodiacal location, what is that unique relationship? The designations of "weak" and "strong" imply that the 7 known dignities and debilities are just varying degrees given on a scale of "strength". Therefore, the implication is that the 7 dignities do not have different functions, but are all notches on a scale measuring one single function: the planet's ability to deliver its significations.
You’ll notice that in today’s more sophisticated astrological programs, a medieval codification system of these different locations appears in the form of a table wherein each planet is allocated a different score according to how many of its controlling places it occupies, with some dignities getting a greater score, while term or the two debilities get a lower or negative scores respectively. Thus, a final planetary score is given which purports to identity how “dignified” a planet is, when all its dignities and debilities are added together. Although this scoring system has been attributed to Ptolemy, it does not appear anywhere in the Tetrabiblos and may have been a later innovation of the Arabic period.
The problem with this scoring system is that it implies one dimension or function when it considers all the dignities together by a single score. But if that function is strength or ability to deliver, than why do they have such distinctly different names? And why does each dignity originate from disparate historical traditions? It appears that the dignity table may have been an attempt by Islamic astrologers to remedy the problem of what to do with contradictory delineations created by the lost knowledge of these original functionalities. More problematic, is that the individual functionality of each dignity is obscured and perpetuated when they are all read as quantifiers of some perceived "strength". At the very least, surely these scales are misleading because if we are speaking about different functions, than we may be combining apples with oranges and creating an overarching function ("ability or strength to deliver") that does not in reality exist as such.
This is born out when tested against real charts. For example, Jeffrey Dahmer has a chart with no less than 4 planets in dignity, including Venus, planet of love and relationships, both of which he was incapable of delivering into his life. If any traditionally trained astrologer were to be blindly asked whether they thought Dahmer had a dignified or debilitated Venus, we would expect them to answer the latter. Butt they would be wrong. Ted Turner, the media mogul and philanthropist, has 4 planets in detriment and fall, including Mercury, planet of negotiations and communications, which he was most certainly capable of delivering into his life. If an astrologer cannot reliably anticipate a dignity placement in someone's chart knowing that person's history with that planet's significations, then there must be something wrong with the way we are understanding dignity and the way it has been historically taught in the literature.
Working critically and qualitatively with dignity and debility also raises another important question: if one planet has a unique relationship to a particular Zodiacal location, then would it not also do something to other planets that may traverse that location? So far, the lack of a functional differentiation between dignities and the consequent need to quantify them on a single scale, has obscured the need to answer this question. Venus has 2 points because it is in the first 8 degrees of Taurus, so it does not even occur to us that it may also be doing something to other planets passing through those same degrees of Taurus. So what could it be doing to them? The answer to that question would be given by the functionality of Term. Similarly, Mars has a domicile relationship to Aries and Scorpio, so it is "doing something" to those signs and to the planets in them that is in accordance with the functionality of Domicile.
This is a research question that has obsessively occupied my attention for the better part of my astrological career. It is also a topic that I cover in great detail in talks and courses that I teach. In this blog, I will often also post the occasional analysis of a specific dignity condition and what it means in someone's chart. But for many years, the unique functionality of Triplicity and Term eluded me as I tested out the application of other dignity functions with far more reliable success. However, in the last year, much progress has been made on deciphering and testing these two dignities and we're currently in a position to start teaching the function and application of those two rulerships in a more reliable and satisfactory manner than has ever been previously done. So if you are an advanced student who uses dignity regularly, stay tuned for forthcoming information, particularly with regard to Term and Triplicity (aka Bounds or Trigon).