Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Superstition and Skepticism

Some of the ancients were credulous about bird omens, and others were skeptical. Xenophon was notoriously superstitious, and his credulity extended to bird omens. In this passage from his Anabasis (6.1.23, tr. Carleton L. Brownson), he speaks of himself in the third person:
Moreover, he recalled that when he was setting out from Ephesus to be introduced to Cyrus, an eagle screamed upon his right; it was sitting, however, and the soothsayer who was conducting him said that while the omen was one suited to the great rather than to an ordinary person, and while it betokened glory, it nevertheless portended suffering, for the reason that other birds are most apt to attack the eagle when it is sitting; still, he said, the omen did not betoken gain, for it is rather while the eagle is on the wing that it gets its food.
In Homer's Iliad (12.195-250, tr. Samuel Butler), Polydamas is superstitious about a bird omen, and Hector is skeptical:
While they were busy stripping the armour from these heroes, the youths who were led on by Polydamas and Hector (and these were the greater part and the most valiant of those that were trying to break through the wall and fire the ships) were still standing by the trench, uncertain what they should do; for they had seen a sign from heaven when they had essayed to cross it -- a soaring eagle that flew skirting the left wing of their host, with a monstrous blood-red snake in its talons still alive and struggling to escape. The snake was still bent on revenge, wriggling and twisting itself backwards till it struck the bird that held it, on the neck and breast; whereon the bird being in pain, let it fall, dropping it into the middle of the host, and then flew down the wind with a sharp cry.

The Trojans were struck with terror when they saw the snake, portent of aegis-bearing Jove, writhing in the midst of them, and Polydamas went up to Hector and said, "Hector, at our councils of war you are ever given to rebuke me, even when I speak wisely, as though it were not well, forsooth, that one of the people should cross your will either in the field or at the council board; you would have them support you always: nevertheless I will say what I think will be best; let us not now go on to fight the Danaans at their ships, for I know what will happen if this soaring eagle which skirted the left wing of our with a monstrous blood-red snake in its talons (the snake being still alive) was really sent as an omen to the Trojans on their essaying to cross the trench. The eagle let go her hold; she did not succeed in taking it home to her little ones, and so will it be with ourselves; even though by a mighty effort we break through the gates and wall of the Achaeans, and they give way before us, still we shall not return in good order by the way we came, but shall leave many a man behind us whom the Achaeans will do to death in defence of their ships. Thus would any seer who was expert in these matters, and was trusted by the people, read the portent."

Hector looked fiercely at him and said, "Polydamas, I like not of your reading. You can find a better saying than this if you will. If, however, you have spoken in good earnest, then indeed has heaven robbed you of your reason. You would have me pay no heed to the counsels of Jove, nor to the promises he made me -- and he bowed his head in confirmation; you bid me be ruled rather by the flight of wild-fowl. What care I whether they fly towards dawn or dark, and whether they be on my right hand or on my left? Let us put our trust rather in the counsel of great Jove, king of mortals and immortals. There is one omen, and one only -- that a man should fight for his country. Why are you so fearful? Though we be all of us slain at the ships of the Argives you are not likely to be killed yourself, for you are not steadfast nor courageous. If you will not fight, or would talk others over from doing so, you shall fall forthwith before my spear."

The contrast between superstition and skepticism is likewise stark in a pair of passages from Plutarch's Lives, although here it is not a question of bird omens but of eclipses. Nicias, like Xenophon, was superstitious, and delayed withdrawal from Syracuse because he was disturbed by a lunar eclipse (Plutarch, Life of Nicias 23, tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
But just as everything was prepared for this and none of the enemy were on the watch, since they did not expect the move at all, there came an eclipse of the moon by night. This was a great terror to Nicias and all those who were ignorant or superstitious enough to quake at such a sight. The obscuration of the sun towards the end of the month was already understood, even by the common folk as caused somehow or other by the moon; but what what it was that the moon encountered, and how, being at the full, she should on a sudden lose her light and emit all sorts of colors, this was no easy thing to comprehend.

The first man to put in writing the clearest and boldest of all doctrines about the changing phases of the moon was Anaxagoras. But he was no ancient authority, nor was his doctrine in high repute. It was still under seal of secrecy, and made its way slowly among a few only, who received it with a certain caution rather than with implicit confidence.

Men could not abide the natural philosophers and "visionaries," as they were then called, for that they reduced the divine agency down to irrational causes, blind forces, and necessary incidents. Even Protagoras had to go into exile, Anaxagoras was with difficulty rescued from imprisonment by Pericles, and Socrates, though he had nothing whatever to do with such matters, nevertheless lost his life because of philosophy.

It was not until later times that the radiant repute of Plato, because of the life the man led, and because he subjected the compulsions of the physical world to divine and more sovereign principles, took away the obloquy of such doctrines as these, and gave their science free course among all men. At any rate, his friend Dion, although the moon suffered an eclipse at the time when he was about to set out from Zacynthus on his voyage against Dionysius, was in no wise disturbed, but put to sea, landed at Syracuse, and drove out the tyrant.

However, it was the lot of Nicias at this time to be without even a soothsayer who was expert. The one who had been his associate, and who used to set him free from most of his superstition, Stilbides, had died a short time before. For indeed the sign from Heaven, as Philochorus observed, was not an obnoxious one to fugitives, but rather very propitious; concealment is just what deeds of fear need, whereas light is an enemy to them.

And besides, men were wont to be on their guard against portents of sun and moon for three days only, as Autocleides has remarked in his "Exegetics"; but Nicias persuaded the Athenians to wait for another full period of the moon, as if, forsooth, he did not see that the planet was restored to purity and splendor just as soon as she had passed beyond the region which was darkened and obscured by the earth.
When a solar eclipse frightened the men under his command, Pericles (a friend of the philosopher Anaxagoras) was quick to chide their foolishness. Plutarch, Life of Pericles 35.1-2 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin) tells the story:
Desiring to heal these evils, and at the same time to inflict some annoyance upon the enemy, he manned a hundred and fifty ships of war, and, after embarking many brave hoplites and horsemen, was on the point of putting out to sea, affording great hope to the citizens, and no less fear to the enemy in consequence of so great a force. But when the ships were already manned, and Pericles had gone aboard his own trireme, it chanced that the sun was eclipsed and darkness came on, and all were thoroughly frightened, looking upon it as a great portent.

Accordingly, seeing that his steersman was timorous and utterly perplexed, Pericles held up his cloak before the man's eyes, and, thus covering them, asked him if he thought it anything dreadful, or portentous of anything dreadful. "No," said the steersman. "How then," said Pericles, "is yonder event different from this, except that it is something rather larger than my cloak which has caused the obscurity?" At any rate, this tale is told in the schools of philosophy.

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