The Great Conversation: Prophecy
By Gabriel Blanchard
To foresee and thus control the unknown is one of the oldest desires of humanity.
Artistic and philosophical literature about prophecy appears to be about as old as literature itself. We tend to think of prophecy as discovering the future in particular; however, in much ancient literature, the future is treated simply as a specific subset of the unknown in general, and prophecy is thought of as the mastery of the unknown. Revelations of past and present secrets as well as of the future, along with commands or sacred wisdom, all fall in the purview of prophecy.
Prophecy is accordingly often conceived of as a kind of gift from beyond, given by gods or similar beings—sometimes from the Fates, who are often superior to the gods. Classical myths and tragedies often turn upon prophecies. Oedipus Rex, in which multiple attempts to avert a ghastly prophecy lead directly to its fulfillment, is the most famous example, and was lauded by Aristotle as the perfect tragedy; the initial action of the Iliad and the plots of several plays of Aeschylus also turn on oracles. In a homelier vein, prophecies and spells cast by fairies are frequent features in folk tales, like the powerful curse that shapes the action of Sleeping Beauty, and which, as in Oedipus, takes effect chiefly because of efforts to avoid it.
Serious belief in—or at least desire for—the power to predict the future bore fruit in many kinds of divination, from haruspicy (telling the future from the entrails of sacrificial animals) to “reading” the shapes left by tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. But one of the most developed and persistent techniques of this kind was astrology, which survived the Christianization of the Roman Empire. It wavered between characterization as a way of understanding human character, a form in which Dante put it to use in his Paradiso, and a deterministic predictor of terrestrial events, a form in which the Medievals definitely condemned it—and, as with charging interest, they sometimes made use of it anyway. Astrology held this uncomfortable but secure place in respectable thought right down to the Enlightenment.
Prophecy as it appears in the Bible is somewhat different. Revealing secrets, including the secrets of the future, certainly comes into it. However, the heart of the Hebrew scriptures is the Torah, the Law, which was not primarily thought of as a disclosure of secrets to satisfy man’s interests or desires, but as the revelation of the divine plan for righteous life. The prophets that come in the train of the Torah proper were not, principally, diviners of the future; rather, they were commentators on the Torah—and on Hebrew society, especially its faithlessness to the covenant the Torah imposed on them. Interpretation and application of the Torah was the mystery they professed. This outlook continues in the early documents of Christianity, canonical and apocryphal alike. Foretelling the future, while it does occur, is a comparatively rare function of the Christian prophet: explaining the person of Jesus Christ is understood as the essential nature of prophecy.
Judaism (and Christianity after it) also produced another kind of prophetic literature, the apocalyptic. This genre brought together the themes of a disclosure of secrets, often involving journeys to hell or heaven or both, with prediction of the future, at least in broad strokes. History was cast as a cosmic war between good and evil—sometimes reflecting a much more literal kind of war. The persecution of the Jews by the Seleucid Empire, and the persecutions of the Church by Rome, provoked outbursts of apocalypses. The genre also flourished among the Gnostic sects. Due in part, maybe, to the Book of Revelation being recognized as holy Scripture, this philosophy of history remained an inspiration to millennarian sects for centuries. Indeed, it is arguable that the Marxist “dialectical” view of history, with its warfare between intrinsically hostile classes of proletariat and bourgeoisie and its starry-eyed hope in a cataclysmic reordering of society, is an atheistic version of apocalypticism.
This dialectical view of history suggests the other sense in which prophecy has been taken, namely that of insight. This, to be sure, is prophetic only by analogy, but the analogy is common for a reason; like Elrond or Galadriel, ages of stored experience and intelligence can produce an insight that seems superhuman to those who lack it. Predictions based on insight have often been expressed in satire, dystopia, or science fiction. George Santayana’s famous maxim “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” suggests a corollary, that those who do remember the past are liberated from the need to repeat it. Whether we are therefore going to acquire the wisdom in question and make use of it, or just go on repeating the past of our own free will, is another matter to divine.