Reading Montaigne 1.11: Of prognostications

Montaigne demonstrates a fine grasp of sarcasm here, making sport of oracles and augury, which he notes were already out of fashion even in Cicero’s time and then goes on to describe the history of one strand of fortune-telling:

“That much-celebrated art of the Tuscans originated in this way: A laborer, piercing the ground deeply with his plough, saw Tages emerge from it, a demigod with the face of a child but the wisdom of an old man. Everyone came on the run, and his words and knowledge, containing the principles and methods of this art, were collected and preserved for many centuries. A birth in conformity with its development.”

Montaigne argues that he would rather order his life “by the chance of the dice than such dreams,” and shrewdly observes that chance has played a role in all governments, including the idealized republic envisioned by Plato.

Prognosticators rely on chance, Montaigne says, making rafts of predictions, some of which are bound to be true. Since no one tallies up the predictions, only the rare lucky guesses are remembered as brilliancies. He extends this idea to the proofs of religious belief, relating the story of Diagoras the Atheist who was shown a temple full of offerings to the gods by those who had escaped shipwrecks and asked, “Well, you who think that the gods care nothing about human affairs, what do you say about so many men saved by their grace?” To which Diagoras answered: “This is how it happens; those who were drowned, in much greater number, are not portrayed here.”

Montaigne would have us take a somewhat Buddhist approach to life, living and being present each day without worry about the future which we cannot know. Montaigne shares three quotes from Horace to buttress his argument, including this:

Happy the man,
And master of himself, who can
Each day say: I have lived. Let Jove
Tomorrow fill the sky above
With clouds, or sunlight pure.

Indeed, we are the better for not knowing what is to come, if that knowledge were true, because such knowledge does us no good. As Montaigne quotes Cicero:

“There is no use in knowing what is to be; for it is wretched to be tormented to no purpose.

And, of course, if the knowledge is inaccurate, then the “torment” is to even less purpose.

This is not to say that we can’t somehow tap into something greater than ourselves if we are in some way prepared for it, if we possess a “well-purified soul … prepared by a continual exercise of wisdom and virtue,” as did Socrates. These moments may not be borne of a future foretold, but they are important, and in a way go back to Montaigne’s previous essay on prompt and slow speech:

Everyone feels within himself some likeness of such stirrings of a prompt, vehement, and accidental opinion. It is my business to give them some authority, since I give so little to our wisdom. And I have had some as weak in reason as violent in persuasiveness–or in dissuasiveness, as was more ordinary in Socrates–but which I let myself be carried away so usefully and fortunately that they might be judged to have in them something of divine inspiration.

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