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    Chapter XI: Of Prognostification Essay

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    Regarding Oracles, it is very certain that long before the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ, they had begun to lose their credit. We see this because Cicero labors to find the cause of their declination, and these are his words: “Cur isto modo jam oracula Delphis non eduntur, non modo nostra aetate, sed jamdiu, ut nihil possit esse contemptius?” (“Why in like sort are not oracles now uttered, not only in our times, but a good while since, so as now nothing can be more contemptible?”).

    As for other prognostications that were drawn from the anatomy of beasts in sacrifice, to which Plato does in some sort ascribe the natural constitution of the internal members of them, of the scraping of chickens, and of the flight of birds, “We are of opinion that certain birds were even bred to prognosticate some things: of thunders, of turnings and back-recourse of rivers. Multa cernunt aruspices: multa augures provident: multa oraculis declarantur: multa vaticinationibus: multa somniis: multa portentis” (“Soothsayers see much: bird-prophets foresee as much: much is foretold by Oracles; much by prophecies; much by portentuous signs”), and others, upon which antiquity grounded most of their enterprises, as well public as private. Our religion has abolished them.

    Although there remain yet among us some means of divination in the stars, in spirits, in shapes of the body in dreams, and elsewhere, it is a notable example of the mad and fond curiosity of our nature, amusing itself to preoccupy future things, as if it had not enough to do to digest the present.

    “Why pleas’d it thee, thou ruler of the spheres, To add this care to mortal’s care-clogg’d mind, That they their misery know, ere it appears? Let thy drifts sudden come; let men be blind Towards future fate; oh let him hope that fears” (“Cur hanc titi, rector Olympi Sollicitis mortalibus addere curam, Noscant venturas ut dira per omnia clades Bit subitum quodcunque paras, sit caeca futuri Mens hominum fati, liceat sperare timenti”).

    “It is not so much profitable for us to know what is to come, for it is a miserable thing; a man should fret and be vexed and do no good.” Yet it is of much less authority. Here, the example of Francis Marquis of Salum has seemed remarkable unto me. He was Lieutenant General unto Francis our King and over all his forces, which he then had beyond the mountains in Italy, a man highly favored in all our court, and otherwise infinitely beholding to the King for that very Marquisate, which his brother had forfeited.

    Having no occasion to do it, yea, and his mind and affections contradicting the same, he suffered himself to be frightened and deluded, as it has since been manifestly proved by the fond prognostications which then throughout all Europe were given out to the advantage of the Emperor Charles the Fifth and to our prejudice in Italy, where these foolish predictions so much possessed the Italians that in Rome, there were laid great wagers, and much money given out upon the exchange that we should utterly be overthrown. After he had much condoled and complained with his secret friends the unavoidable miseries which he foresaw prepared by the fates against the Crown of France and the many friends he had there.

    For notwithstanding his treason, we lost neither man nor town, except Fossan, which long after was stoutly contested and defended by us. Prudens futuri temporis exitum caliginosa nocte premit Deus, ridetque si mortalis ultra fas trepidat. Our wise God hides in pitch-dark night of future time the event decreed and laughs at man if man fears more than he needs to fear. Ille potens sui laetusque deget, cui licet in diem dixisse, vixi, cras vel atra nube polum pater occupato vel sole puro. He who lives happily and contentedly with himself can say each day, “I have lived,” and tomorrow let God charge the sky with dark clouds or fair sunshine ray. Laetus in praesens animus, quod ultra est, oderit curare. For the present time, a merry mind hates to worry about what is behind, and those who take this word in a contrary sense are wrong. Ista sic reciprocantur ut et si divinatio sit dii sint, et si dii sint sit divinatio: hence is so reciprocal that if there is any divination, there are gods, and if there are gods, there is divination. ” Much more wisely Pacuvius: “Nam istis linguam avium intelligunt, plusque ex alieno jecore sapiunt, quam ex suo magis audiendum quam auscultandum censio.” They understand the language of birds and know less from their own livers than from others’. They may be heard, not hearkened to, I guess.

    This so famous art of divination of the Tuscans grew thus: a husbandman digging very deep into the ground saw Tages, a demi-god, appear out of it, with an infantile face yet fraught with age-like wisdom. All men ran to see him, and both his words and knowledge were remembered for many ages after, collected and containing the principles and means of this art. An offspring suitable to its progress. I would rather direct affairs by the chance of dice than by such frivolous dreams. And truly, in all commonwealths, men have always ascribed much authority unto lot. Plato, in the policy which he imagined by discretion, ascribed the deciding of many important effects unto it, and amongst other things, would have marriages between the good to be contrived by lot.

    He gives such large privileges to this casual election that he appoints the children proceeding from them to be brought up in the country and those born of the bad to be banished and sent abroad. Nevertheless, if any of those so exiled shall by fortune happen, while growing, to show some good hope of himself, he may be revoked and sent-for back, and such among the first as shall in their youth give small hope of future good to be banished. I see some who study, plod, and gloss their almanacs, and in all accidents allege their authority. A man would be as good to say they must speak truth and lies. Quis est enim qui totum diem jaculans, non aliquando conlinet? “For who is he that, shooting all day, sometimes hits not the white? I think not the better of them, though what they say proves sometimes true. It would be more certain if there were either a rule or a truth to lie ever. Seeing no man records their fables, because they are ordinary and infinite, and their predictions are made to be of credit because they are rare, incredible, and prodigious.” So answered Diagoras surnamed the Atheist being in Samothrace to him.

    You that think the Gods to have no care of human things, what say you of so many men saved by their grace and help?” answered he. “Thus it is done. Those who were drowned, far exceeding their number, are not here set forth.” Cicero said that amongst all other philosophers who have avowed and acknowledged the Gods, only Xenophanes the Colophonian has gone about to root out all manner of divination. It is so much the less to be wondered at if at any time we have seen some of our Princes’ minds, to their great damage, rely upon such like vanities. “I would to God I had with my own eyes seen those two wonders mentioned in the book of Joachim, the Abbot of Calabria, who foretold all the Popes that should ensue, together with their names and shapes, and that of Leo the Emperor, who fore-spoke all the Emperors and Patriarchs of Greece. This I have seen with my own eyes, that in public confusions, men amazed at their own fortune, give themselves headlong, as it were, to all manner of superstition to search in heaven the causes and ancient threats of their ill-luck. In my time, they are so strangely successful therein that they have persuaded me it is an amusement of sharp and idle wits, that such as are inured to this subtlety, by folding and unfolding them, may in all other writings be capable of finding out what they seek after. But above all, their dark, ambiguous, fantastical, and prophetic gibberish mends the matter much, to which their authors never give a plain sense, that posterity may apply what meaning and construction it shall please unto it. The demon of Socrates was perhaps a certain impulse or will which, without the advice of his discourse, presented itself unto him.

    In a mind so well purified and by continual exercise of wisdom and virtue so well prepared as his was, it is likely his inclinations, though rash and inconsiderate, were ever of great moment and worthy to be followed. Every man feels in himself some image of such agitations, of a prompt, vehement, and casual opinion. It is in me to give them some authority that affords so little to our wisdom. I have had some, equally weak in reason and violent in persuasion and dissuasion, which was more ordinary to Socrates, by which I have so happily and so profitably suffered myself to be transported as they might perhaps be thought to contain some matter of divine inspiration.

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    Chapter XI: Of Prognostification Essay. (2018, Jun 05). Retrieved from

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