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Cicero waxes sceptical

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a rare photo of Cicero reading

Work commitments and other activities are preventing me from posting as much as I’d like here. Also, I take on too much, conceptually. I started a post on the concept of the soul and its origins, and I’ve found there’s just way too much to contain within a single post – the draft is getting bigger and bigger. So I’m thinking I’ll try and limit myself to quotes and commentary. There’s so much I’m reading now that’s worth commenting on and exploring before it flies from my head…

So here’s something more from Anthony Kenny’s Ancient Philosophy, before I return it to the library. It touches on astrology and soi-disant new-ageism, which have been irritants for milennia:

The best astrologers, Cicero says, avoid astrological prediction. The belief that men’s careers are predictable from the position of stars at their birth is worse than folly: it is unbelievable madness. Twins often differ in career and fortune. The observations on which predictions are based are quite erratic: astrologers have no real idea of the distances between heavenly bodies. the rising and setting of stars is something that is relevant to an observer: so how can it affect alike all those born at the same time? A person’s ancestry is a better predictor of character than anything in the stars. If astrology was sound, why did not all the people born at the same moment as Homer write an Iliad? Did all the Romans who fell in battle at Cannae have the same horoscope?

It’s funny that these arguments against astrology are similar to the first ones that occurred to me as a young person. If people of a particular astrological sign really did have certain traits in common, we could surely organise our society more efficiently by exploiting our knowledge of this. Of course, full-on astrologers [and I’ve met one or two] will argue that real astrology is much more complicated, and they might start going on about Vedic astrology, synchronicity, ephemerides and so forth, insisting that if you’re not well versed in the theories and the conceptual apparatus of astrology, then you’re talking through the wrong hole. Remarkable how similar this approach is to that of Terry Eagleton and others who have lashed out at the ‘new atheists’ and their ignorance of theology, ancient and modern. The same Courtier’s Reply can be given in both cases – there is no mechanism, no evidence of agency. Nuff said.

Cicero is similarly scathing about other forms of divination, not all of which are still with us – observation of the flight of birds, the entrails of sacrificed animals, the interpretation of dreams and the consultation of oracles. Of course, cultural habits change, but we still dream. Here’s what he has to say:

We sleep every night and almost every night we dream: is it any wonder that dreams sometimes come true? It would be foolish of the gods to send messages by dreams, even if they had time to flit about our beds. Most dreams turn out false, and so sensible people pay no attention to them. Since we possess no key to interpret dreams, for the gods to speak to us through them would be like an ambassador addressing the Senate in an African dialect.

I like the last observation – which can also be applied to oracles, and the god called God’s usually obscure way of ‘answering prayer’. Then again, so many gods are like that, so playful, so unpredictable, so capricious and yet beyond our judgment. We can only talk about seeming – their reality is way outside our ken.

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Written by stewart henderson

June 3, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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