Thursday, 8 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 11: Of Prognostications


Montaigne discusses fortune-telling. Is it possible to tell the future, and should one follow their unexplained instincts?


'(man's desire to know the future is) a notable example of the wild curiosity of our nature to grasp at and anticipate future things, as if we had not enough to do to digest the present’

Oracles, that is, prophesiers or fortunetellers, had begun to lose credibility even before the coming of Jesus Christ. Other types of fortune-telling, for example those based on the flight of birds, the intestines of dead animals, the claps of thunder, floods, and so on carried great importance in ancient times, but are now abolished by our religion. Still, there are many who continue to practice fortune-telling through the stars above, or through spirits, of the shapes and complexions of men, or from dreams. This is ‘a notable example of the wild curiosity of our nature to grasp at and anticipate future things, as if we had not enough to do to digest the present’. 

Lucan, it seems, disapproved of prophesying; he said:
‘Let whatever thou art preparing be sudden. Let the mind of men be blind to fate in store; let it be permitted to the timid to hope.’

Similarly, Cicero says, ‘It is useless to know what shall come to pass; it is a miserable thing to be tormented with no purpose.’

Although less attention is paid to fortune-telling that in the past, we still have unusual cases occur from time to time, for example, the Italian Marquis (and ally of the French King) Franceso was so terrified at the good fortune prophesied towards Charles V that he became sure that the French would fall, and, in spite of having served the French King, he changed sides, with much regret and sadness.

 ‘A wise God covers with thick night the path of the future, and laughs at the man who alarms himself without reason.’ Hor. Od.

I, for my part, would sooner regulate my affairs with the role of a dice than by such idle and vain dreams. And indeed, many have lived their lives like this, according to chance. Plato, in the system of government that he models according to his own wishes, leaves to the state the decision of several important things, including marriage. The government would place so much importance in this ‘accidental choice’ of marriage that only the children born within their appointed couplings would be brought up in the country, and any begotten outside of the marriage that the state ordained would be thrust aside. Nonetheless, if any of these exiles showed sign of success, they could be recalled into the country, and if any of the retained children showed little expectation, they could be exiled.

I know many who study their calendars to predict future events, and whenever they see a prediction realized, they point this out as proof. In truth, it’s hardly surprising that ‘these alleged authorities sometime stumble upon a truth amongst an infinite number of lies.’ I cannot take such things seriously. I would be more convinced if there was a rule that the calendars always lied. Nobody records the predictions that don’t come true, because they are infinite and common, but if one does come true it is reported far and wide.

A story from Cicero:
Diogenes (surnamed, The Atheist) was shown a painting of several people that were saved from a terrible shipwreck. He was told, ‘look, you say the gods have no care for humans, what about all these people, saved through his special favour?’ He answered, ‘Where are the pictures of the far greater number of the ones that were cast away?’

I have seen men who, astonished at their own misfortune, abandon reason and superstitiously seek out in the stars the causes of their present situation. And sometimes, I find that they have been so ‘strangely successful’ in this. I think this is because the action somehow amuses their sharp and volatile wit. Those who are good at unfolding riddles are capable, in any sort of writing, to find out what they desire. But above all, what gives them the greatest room to play in is the obscure, ambiguous and fantastic gibberish that makes up prophetic talk, where the fortune-teller says nothing clearly and shrouds everything in riddle, so that one can interpret and apply it as they wish.

Socrates claimed to have a demon (literally ‘a divine something’) that frequently warned him – in the form of a ‘voice’ – against mistakes. This demon may actually have been no more than a kind of instinct or impulse, which came upon him without ‘the advice or consent of his judgment’. In a soul as enlightened as his own and so well-versed in wisdom and virtue, its not surprising that those inclinations were important and worthy of being followed, even though they were sudden, and undigested. It’s not strange to find oneself in a situation of agitation, where one makes a decision based on a sudden and forceful opinion. I think following one’s instinct can be extremely favourable. I myself have had ideas that seemed weak in reason, but nonetheless violently persuasive. I carried through with these ideas, and sometimes found the result to be so advantageous for me that one may have said that the idea had had something in it of ‘divine inspiration.’

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