Book Review by Michael J. Mates
Professor Peter T. Struck’s Divination and Human Nature takes the reader on a guided tour of ancient philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Neoplatonist Iamblichus) and their opinions regarding “natural” divination, as opposed to “technical” divination such as the reading of entrails, described as “the application of…logic to empirically gathered external signs” (p 16). The purpose of natural divination varies, but its nature remains strikingly similar among the philosophers examined: “the immediate apperception of something without the intervention of any reasoning process,” (p 20) knowledge which “arrives to us by ways other than self-conscious, goal-directed inferential chains of thought” (p 31), “an epiphenomenon of human anatomy and cognition (p 177), or, simply put, “intuition.”
Very briefly, then, and using quotations only from the author to keep things short: Plato regards natural divination as “intuitive insight” (p 52), revealed to be true as a result of the Socratic method of cross-examination, in which, at its simplest level, an illiterate slave boy is coaxed to reveal the truths of geometry. Our perceptions of higher truths thus take place without any dependence on the “unstable and illusory character of…empirical data” (p 55), and “turn our minds toward the immaterial” (p 56). The soul also performs “divination through dreams” (p 82).
Aristotle describes “foresight through dreams,” mediated not by god(s) but by the daimonic (my transliteration; see Note 2 below), who are “part of a realm of intermediate divinity beyond human control” (p 86). Sleep is a prerequisite, since defenses are down, and “movements of air” are thus able to produce “a palpable impression” in the sleeper, producing “a mental image that is inserted into the dream” (p 98). The weak-minded also benefit from the process; by contrast, “higher-order intellects occlude this lower-order information processing system” (p 104).
For the materialist Stoics, who view the cosmos as “a single unified animal” (p 172), and for whom god is “an extraordinarily refined mist that permeates and suffuses inert matter” (p 172), all intuitions and inexplicable connections occur within a unified system, rather than between realms, as with Plato and Aristotle. Because the universe is predetermined (“Nothing happens that is causally undetermined from what came before” p 196),), and souls are physical bodies, divination for the Stoics is “a gradient and not a rupture” (p 196). Given the Stoics’ definition of time (“an infinitesimal present and a past and future that do not properly exist” p 203), and the material unity of the universe, it is no surprise that Stoic divination is often prediction.
Struck concludes his generally chronological examination by illustrating divination according to the Neoplatonists (especially Iamblichus), whose oracles illustrate a new and “true divination, through assimilation to the divine, which yields sweeping knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of the universe” (p 216). This identifies “true divination as a meditative exercise in which the divine and human mind are understood to make a connection” (p 243). Obviously, this is a turning point, which dematerializes divination, in contrast to previous thinking.
To conclude, Struck takes us back in time, and out of philosophical discourse, to examine the role that divination plays in helping Penelope recognize her long-absent husband Odysseus at the end of the Odyssey. The divination is manifest as “hints, signs, and enigmas”—and even “kledonomancy, or divination by overheard words” (p 253).
This is an extraordinarily erudite book, both wide-ranging and specific, and repays close attention by the reader. It is therefore all the more surprising that two prominent typographical errors involve “phenomena” (used with a singular verb on p 36: “The phenomena…embraces…”) and “phenomenon” (used as a plural on p 111: “…to analyze these phenomenon…”).
Michael Mates earned his PhD in 1982 at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA, writing his dissertation on St. Patrick and the British Church. After seminary, he taught in Pakistan, and then worked as a U.S. diplomat with the Department of State, serving in Islamabad, Canberra, Karachi, Cluj (Romania), Columbia (District of) and Chisinau (Moldova), before retiring in 2011 to Monroe, Washington State, and starting a new career as co-landscaper at his hectare of gardens, lawns and forest, and brewer of black-fudge garden compost.
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Note to 21st-century reader: It is crucial to note that Plato considered the immaterial to be realer than the empirical, in an exact reversal of most contemporary unconscious thinking about the nature of reality. For example, every table will decay and collapse, but the idea, or substance, of “tableness” lasts forever.
Note 2: Throughout the book, Struck translates daimon as “demon,” which is likely to be confused by some with the Christian word for an evil spirit; in pre-Christian thought, daimones were spiritual beings, intermediate between men and the gods, and frequently the conveyers of intuition. Plato describes the daimoniov semeion (daimonic sign) as a “voice” and a warning, and thus “a kind of guardian angel” (p 68). The Greek word is the same in pre-Christian and Christian writings, but the usages are vastly different.
Note 3: It helps to have some knowledge of Ancient Greek and Classical Latin, as Struck advances his argument passage-by-bilingual passage, and even word-by-word.
Book Review of Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity - Related Topic: Roman Mythology