Montaigne's Essays/Book I/Chapter XI

Essays by Michel de Montaigne, translated by John Florio
The Eleventh Chapter: Of Prognostications

As touching Oracles it is very certaine, that long before the comming of our Saviour Iesus Christ, they had begun to lose their credit: for we see that Cicero laboureth to finde the cause of their declination: and these be his words: Cur isto modo jam oracula Delphis non eduntur, non modo nostra ætate, sed jamdiu, ut nihil possit esse contemptius? 'Why in like sort are not oracles now uttered, not onely in our t imes, but a good while since, so as now nothing can be more contemptible?' But as for other Prognostikes, that were drawne from the anatomie of beasts in sacrifice, to which Plato doth in some sort ascribe the naturall constitution of the intermall members of them, of the scraping of chickens, of the flight of birds, Aves quasdam rerum augurandarum causa natas esse putamus: 'We are of opinion', certain birds were even bred to prognosticate some things; of thunders, of turnings and backe-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 signes,' and others, upon which antiquitie grounded most of their enterprises, as well publike as private: our religion hath abolished them. And albeit there remaine yet amongst us some meanes of divination in the starres, in spirits; in shapes of the body in dreames, and elsewhere a notable example of the mad and fond curiositie of our nature, ammusing it selfe to preoccupate future things, as if it had not enough to doe to digest the present. -------cur hanc titi, rector Olympi Sollicitis mortalibus addere curam, Noscant venturas ut dira per omnia cla des Bit subitum quodcunque paras, sit cæca futuri Mens hominum fati, liceat sperare timenti. Why pleas'd it thee, thou ruler of the spheares, To adde this care to mortals care-clog'd minde; That they their miserie know, ere it appeares? Let thy drifts sudden come; let men be blinde T'wards future fate: oh let him hope that feares. Ne utile quidem est scire quid futurum sit: Miserum est enim, nihil profidentem angi: It is not so much as 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 is it of much lesse authoritie, loe here, wherefore the example of Francis Marquis of Salum hath seemed remarkable unto me: who being Lieutenant General unto Francis our King, and over all his forces, which he then had beyond the Mountaines in Italie, a man highly favoured in al our court, and otherwise infinitly beholding to the King for that very, Mar quisate, which his brother had forfeited: and having no occasion to doe it, yea and his minde and affections contradicting the same, buffered himselfe to be frighted and deluded (as it hath since been manifestly prooved) by the fond Prognostications which then throughout all Europe were given out to the advantage of the Emperor Charles the fift and to our prejudice in Italy, where these foolish predictions so much possesed the Italians, that in Rome there were laid great wagers, and much money give n out upon the exchange, that we should utterly be overthrowne) that after he had much condoled, yea and complained with his secret friends, the unavoidable miseries which he foresaw prepared by the fates against the Crowne of France, and the many friends he had there, he unkindly revolted, and became a turne-cote on the Emperors side, to his intolerable losse and destraction, notwithstanding all the constellations then reigning. But be was drawne unto it as a man encompassed and beset by divers passions; for having both strong castles, and all maner of munition and strength in his owne hands, the enemies armie under Antonio Leva about three paces from him, and we nothing mistrusting him, it was in his power to do worse than he did. For notwithstanding his treason, we lost neither man nor towne, except Fossan, which long after was by us stoutly contested and defended. Prudens futuri temporis exitum Caliginosa nocte premit Deus, Ridetque, si mortalis ultra Fas trepidat. Our wise God hides in pitch-darke night Of future time th' event decreed, And laughes at man, if man (affright) Feare more than he to feare hath need. Ille potens sui Lætqusue deget, cui licet in diem Dixisse, vixi, cras vel atra Nube polum pater occupato, Vel sole puro. He of himselfe lives merily, Who each day, I have liv'd, can say, To morrow let God charge the skiee With darke clouds, or faire sun-shine-ray. Lætus in præsens animus, quod ultra est, Oderit curare.3 For present time a mery mind Hates to respect what is behind. And those which take this word in a contrary sense are in the wrong. Ista sic reciprocantur ut et si divinatio sit dii sint, et si dii sint sit divinatio: quence is so reciprocall as if there be any divination, there are Gods: and if there be Gods, there is divination.' Much more wisely Pacuvius. Nam istis linguam avium intelligunt, Plusque ex alieno jecoresapiunt, quam ex suo Magis audiendum, quam auscultandum c ensio.1 Who understand what language birds expresse, By their owne than beasts-livers knowing lesse, They may be heard, not hearkned to, I guesse. This so famous art of divination of the Tuskanes grew thus. A husband-man digging very deepe intothe ground saw Tages, a demy-God appear out of it, with an infantine face, yet fraught with an age-like wisdom. All men ran to see him, and both his words and knowledgee were for many ages after remembred, and collecte d, containing the principles and meanes of this art. An ofspring sutable to her progresse. I would rather direct affaires by the chance of dice, than by such frivolous dreames. And truly in all common-wealths, men have ever ascribed much authoritie unto lot. Plato in the policie which he imagineth by discretion, ascribed the deciding of many important effects unto it, and amongst other things would have marriages betweene the good to bee contrived by lot. And giveth so large privileges unto thi s casuall election, that he appoints the children proceeding from them to bee brought up in the countrie; and those borne of the bad to be banished and sent abroad. Notwithstanding if any of those so exiled shall by fortune happen, whilest he is growing, to shew some good hope of himselfe, that he may be revoked and sent- for backe, and such amongst the first as shall in their youth give small hope of future good to be banished. I see some that studie, plod, and glosse their Almanackes, and in all accidents alleage their authoritie. A man were as good to say, they must needs speake truth and lies. Quis est enim qui totum diem . jaculans, non aliquando conlincet? 'For who is he that, shooting all day, sometimes hits not the white?' I thinke not the better of them, though what they say proove sometimes true. It were more certaine, if there were either a rule or a truth to lie ever. Seeing no man rec ordeth their fables, because they are ordinarie and infinit; 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, who in shewing him diver's vowes and offrings hanging in the Temple, brought thither by such as had escaped shipwracke, said thus unto him: 'You that thinke the Gods to have no care of humane things, what say you by so many men saved by their grace and helpe?' 'Thus is it done,' answered he: 'Those which were drowned farre exceeding their number, are not here set-forth.' Cicero saith, That amongst all other Philosophers that have avowed and acknowledged the Gods, onely Xenophanes the Colophonian hath gone about to root out all maner of divination. It is so much the lesse to be wondred at, if at any time we have seene some of our Princes mindes, to their great damage, relie upon such like vanities. I would to God, I had with mine owne eyes seene those two wonders, mentioned in the booke of Ioachin the Abbat of Calabria, who foretold all the Popes that should ensue, together with their names and shapes: And that of Leo the Emperor, who fore-spake all the Emperors and Patriarkes of Greece. This have I seene with mine owne eyes, that in publike confusions, men amazed at their owne fortune, give themselves head-long, as it were to all maner of superstition, to search in heaven the causes and ancient threats of their ill-lucke; and in my time are so strangely s uccessefull therein, as they have perswaded me, that it is an ammusing of sharpe and idle wits; that such as are inured to this subtletie, by folding and unfolding them, may in all other writings be capable to finde out what they seeke-after. But above all, their dark, ambiguous, fantasticall, and propheticall, gibrish, mends the matter much, to which their authors never give a plaine sense, that posterity may apply what mean ing and construction it shall please unto it. The Dæmon of Socrates was peradventure a certaine impulsion or will, which without the advice of his discourse presented it selfe unto him. In a minde so well purified, and by continuall exercise of wisedome and vertue so wel prepared, as his was, it is likely, his inclinations (though rash and inconsiderate) were ever of great moment, and worthie to be followed. Every man feeleth in himselfe some image of such agitations, of a prompt, vehement and casuall opinion. It is in me to give them some authoritie, that affoord so little to our wisedome. And I have had some, equally weake in reason, and violent in perswasion and disswasion (which was more ordinarie to Socrates) by which I have so happily and so profitably suffred my selfe to be transported, as they might perhaps be thought to containe some matter of divine inspiration.