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Exploring Encheiridion 18 – Episode 58


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Whenever a raven croaks ominously, don’t let the impression carry you away, but straightaway discriminate within yourself, and say: “None of this is a warning to me; it only concerns my feeble body or my tiny estate or my paltry reputation or my children or my wife. But to myself all predictions are favorable if I wish them to be, since it is up to me to benefit from the outcome, whatever it may be.” (Ench 18) In ancient Greece and Rome, a raven was thought to be a messenger of the God Apollo, and the croaking of a raven was typically considered a sign of future bad luck. We moderns are likely to dismiss this kind of divination without further consideration. However, the Stoic’s conception of the cosmos inspired them to give serious consideration to the connection between signs and events. As professor Dorothea Frede wrote in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics: The uniform nature of the active and passive powers within the cosmic order also explains why there is, in contradistinction to Plato and Aristotle, no separation in Stoicism of the super- and the sub-lunary world. The heavenly motions are ruled by the same principles that operate on earth: All of nature is administered by the supreme divine reason, and hence there is a global teleological determinism that the Stoics identified with fate. The omnipotence of the active principle explains the Stoic conception of an overall sumpatheia within nature, an inner connection between seemingly quite disparate events. Divination, the study of divine signs and portents, is therefore treated as a science in Stoicism rather than as superstition. Careful observation leads to the discovery of certain signs of those interconnections, even if human knowledge does not fully comprehend the rationale behind the observable order of all things. This explains why the Stoics not only supported the traditional practices of divination, but also helped establish astrology as a respectable science in the Greek and Roman world.[1] I’m not going to spend much time on divination in this episode because that is not the point of this lesson. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand the role it played in the founding of Stoicism. In the opening chapter of their book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In, Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos do a wonderful job telling the story of Zeno’s calling to the life of a philosopher. They note that after being shipwrecked, Zeno was destitute and wondered what would become of his life. They continue: so he set off on a two-hundred-mile round trip to seek guidance from the Oracle of Delphi — the priestess of the Greek god Apollo — who was respected and revered all over Greece for her divinations. Even kings would travel for days to seek her counsel, and while today it might seem ridiculous to heed the utterings of a young woman in a trancelike state, a trip to Delphi was taken very seriously indeed. Every meeting was an involved process that had more in common with South American ayahuasca rituals than, say, visiting a clairvoyant. The Oracle required visitors to prepare in both body and mind, and as with ayahuasca ceremonies, those seeking answers at the Temple at Delphi had to adhere to strict rules in order to approach the ritual with reverence, respect, and sincerity. You couldn’t just rock up to the Oracle, hand over some coins, and demand that she saw you. Nobody could sit in the Oracle’s presence until they had properly considered the dangers of misinterpreting her advice and also understood and pledged to abide by the three maxims of self-discovery: “know yourself,” “nothing to excess,” and “surety brings ruin.” Wisdom seekers were told to listen carefully to what she said in relation to their strengths, weaknesses, personal quirks, and the specific roles they played in the wider world (as, say, a daughter, mother, Spartan queen). Zeno kept all this in mind as he told the Oracle the story of his shipwreck,

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