With All They Say

“I see some who study and comment on their almanacs and cite their authority in current events. With all they say, they necessarily tell both truth and falsehood. For who is there who, shooting all day, will not sometime hit the mark? [Cicero.] I think none the better of them to see them sometimes happen to hit the truth; there would be more certainty in it, if it were the rule and the truth that they always lied. Besides, no one keeps a record of their mistakes, inasmuch as these are ordinary and numberless; and their correct divinations are made much of because they are rare, incredible, and prodigious. In this way Diagoras, who was surnamed the Atheist, replied to the man in Samothrace, who, showing him in the temple many votive offerings and tablets of those who had escaped shipwreck, said to him: “Well, you who think that the gods care nothing about human affairs, what do you say about so many men saved by their grace?” “This is how it happens,” Diagoras answered. “Those who were drowned, in much greater number, are not portrayed here.” Cicero says that only Xenophanes of Colophon, out of all the philosophers who have acknowledged the gods, tried to eradicate every kind of divination. It is therefore the less amazing that we have occasionally seen some of our princely souls linger on these vanities to their disadvantage.

“I would certainly like to have seen with my own eyes these two marvels: the book of Joachim, the Calabrian abbot, which predicted all the future popes, their names and appearance; and that of the Emperor Leo, which predicted the emperors and patriarchs of Greece. This I have seen with my own eyes, that in public disorders men stunned by their fate will throw themselves back, as on any superstition, on seeking in the heavens the ancient causes and threats of their misfortune. And they have been so strangely fortunate in this in my time as to persuade me that since divination is an amusement of sharp and idle minds, those who are trained in this subtle trick of tying and untying knots would be capable of finding, in any writings, whatever they want. But what gives them an especially good chance to play is the obscure, ambiguous, and fantastic language of the prophetic jargon, to which their authors give no clear meaning, so that posterity can apply to it whatever meanings it please.”

(Montaigne, Essays, Frame Translation)


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