Epictetus On Divination
Advice concerning divination from Epictetus, the stoic philosopher who flourished in the early second century.
Quoted here are the Enchiridion, or handbook, chapter 32; and Discourses, book 2, chapter 7.
Based on The Internet Classics Archive, The Enchiridion and The Discourses. © 1994-2009, Daniel C. Stevenson, Web Atomics.
Epictetus begins the Enchiridion with a stoic manifesto of sorts: “Some things are in our control, and others not.” The philosopher is advised to remove all desire and aversion from the things which are not in our control. “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” In the passages quoted below, he applies this to divination. We ask about things which are otherwise unknowable, and therefore not under our control. And so we are to maintain an indifferent attitude toward the result; the goal is to make constructive use of the information obtained, without considering it to be inherently good or bad. Even the augur is instructed only to reveal the results of the divination, and not to make value judgments or tell the inquirer what to do.
Most importantly, Epictetus maintains that we must behave responsibly regardless of the word from the oracle. If we learn that helping a friend will result in personal misfortune, for example, this does not mean that we should not help our friend; we should rather prepare ourselves for misfortune. To the stoic, what seems bad to us is not necessarily bad from a cosmic perspective; the gods’ will is always done.
32. When you have recourse to divination, remember that you know not what the event will be, and you come to learn it of the diviner; but of what nature it is you know before you come, at least if you are a philosopher. For if it is among the things not in our own control, it can by no means be either good or evil. Don’t, therefore, bring either desire or aversion with you to the diviner (else you will approach him trembling), but first acquire a distinct knowledge that every event is indifferent and nothing to you, of whatever sort it may be; for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder. Then come with confidence to the gods, as your counselors, and afterwards, when any counsel is given you, remember what counselors you have assumed, and whose advice you will neglect if you disobey. Come to divination, as Socrates prescribed, in cases of which the whole consideration relates to the event, and in which no opportunities are afforded by reason, or any other art, to discover the thing proposed to be learned. When, therefore, it is our duty to share the danger of a friend or of our country, we ought not to consult the oracle whether we will share it with them or not. For, though the diviner should forewarn you that the [sacrificial] victims are unfavorable, this means no more than that either death or mutilation or exile is portended. But we have reason within us, and it directs, even with these hazards, to the greater diviner, the Pythian god, who cast out of the temple the person who gave no assistance to his friend while another was murdering him.
How we ought to use divination
Through an unreasonable regard to divination many of us omit many duties. For what more can the diviner see than death or danger or disease, generally things of that kind? If then I must expose myself to danger for a friend, and if it is my duty even to die for him, what need have I then for divination? Have I not within me a diviner who has told me the nature of good and of evil, and has explained to me the signs of both? What need have I then to consult the viscera of victims or the flight of birds, and why do I submit when he says, “It is for your interest?” For does he know what is for my interest, does he know what is good; and as he has learned the signs of the viscera, has he also learned the signs of good and evil? For if he knows the signs of these, he knows the signs both of the beautiful and of the ugly, and of the just and of the unjust. Tell me, man, what is the thing which is signified for me: is it life or death, poverty or wealth? But whether these things are for my interest or whether they are not, I do not intend to ask you. Why don’t you give your opinion on matters of grammar, and why do you give it here about things on which we are all in error and disputing with one another? The woman, therefore, who intended to send by a vessel a month’s provisions to Gratilla in her banishment, made a good answer to him who said that Domitian would seize what she sent. “I would rather,” she replied, “that Domitian should seize all than that I should not send it.”
What then leads us to frequent use of divination? Cowardice, the dread of what will happen. This is the reason why we flatter the diviners. “Pray, master, shall I succeed to the property of my father?” “Let us see: let us sacrifice on the occasion.” “Yes, master, as fortune chooses.” When he has said, “You shall succeed to the inheritance,” we thank him as if we received the inheritance from him. The consequence is that they play upon us.
What then should we do? We ought to come without desire or aversion, as the wayfarer asks of the man whom he meets which of two roads leads to his journey’s end, without any desire for that which leads to the right rather than to the left, for he has no wish to go by any road except the road which leads to his end. In the same way ought we to come to God also as a guide; as we use our eyes, not asking them to show us rather such things as we wish, but receiving the appearances of things such as the eyes present them to us. But now we trembling take the augur by the hand, and, while we invoke God, we entreat the augur, and say, “Master have mercy on me; suffer me to come safe out of this difficulty.” Wretch; would you have, then, anything other than what is best? Is there then anything better than what pleases God? Why do you, so far as in your power, corrupt your judge and lead astray your adviser?
One more passage from the Enchiridion:
18. When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance to hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, “None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”
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