Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Cicero, De divinatione: how Thales made a fortune.

In his De Divinatione Cicero sets out arguments in favour of divination and arguments against. In the first book his brother Quintus is the spokes mouth of the arguments pro, whereas Cicero is refuting the arguments in book two. Cicero has rendered historians of religion a great service, as he explains into detail all kinds of divination. Through Quintus he points to numerous examples of the validity of divination, but also mentions those cases of foreknowledge we would call scientific knowledge and common sense. In this context he mentions an anecdote about Thales of Miletus (c. 624 – c. 546 BC), the first known Greek philosopher and whose extant writings are unfortunately limited to a few quotes. Philosophers were already in antiquity seen as a bit weird and out of touch with reality and so people were making fun of Thales, saying that he couldn’t make money. Thales’ philosophical studies also included the working of nature and foreseeing an excellent harvest for olives, he bought in advance all crop - or to another tradition all olive presses - and was now a monopolist, who could ask any price he wanted. The anecdote is obviously legendary and the same story goes about Democritus, but it shows that philosophers are not that mad. May be they are simply not interested in making money.

Cicero, De Divinitatione, 1, 111.

Rarum est quoddam genus eorum, qui se a corpore avocent et ad divinarum rerum cognitionem cura omni studioque rapiantur. Horum sunt auguria non divini impetus, sed rationis humanae; nam et natura futura praesentiunt, ut aquarum eluviones et deflagrationem futuram aliquando caeli atque terrarum; alii autem in re publica exercitati, ut de Atheniensi Solone accepimus, orientem tyrannidem multo ante prospiciunt. Quos prudentes possumus dicere, id est providentes, divinos nullo modo possumus, non plus quam Milesium Thalem, qui, ut obiurgatores suos convinceret ostenderetque etiam philosophum, si ei commodum esset, pecuniam facere posse, omnem oleam, ante quam florere coepisset, in agro Milesio coemisse dicitur.

a corpore: i.e. from pleasure
avoco: to withdraw
divinarum rerum: though we would call this rather the study of nature, in the opinion of Quintus, being an adherent of Stoic philosophy, there was no difference between god and nature. Cf. Spinoza `Deus sive natura’.
studium: zeal
rapiuntur: are being driven
impetus –us (m.): impulse
praesentiosensi -sensum: perceive in advance
eluvio –onis (f.): inundation
deflagratio –onis (f.): consuming by fire (The Stoics believed that one day the cosmos would be consumed by a cosmic fire and then rise again.)
accepimis: we have heard
Solon (c. 638 – c. 558 BC), the famous Athenian statesman, whose constitutional reforms tried to reconcile the various opposing factions in Athens. His relative Peisistratus ended these reforms by absorbing absolute power. Solon was also one of the seven sages, as was Thales.
orior ortus: to arise
prudentes id est providentes:  prudens is contracted from providens
obiurgator –oris (m.): chider, rebuker
convinco –vici –victum: to refute
si ei commodum esset: if it pleases him

W. A. Falconer (1923

"However, there is a certain class of men, though small in number, who withdraw themselves from carnal influences and are wholly possessed by an ardent concern for the contemplation of things divine. Some of these men make predictions, not as the result of direct heavenly inspiration, but by the use of their own reason. For example, by means of natural law, they foretell certain events, such as a flood, or the future destruction of heaven and earth by fire. Others, who are engaged in public life, like Solon of Athens,123 as history describes him, discover the rise of tyranny long in advance. Such men we may call 'foresighted' — that is, 'able to foresee the future'; but we can no more apply the term 'divine' to them than we can apply it to Thales of Miletus, who, as the story goes, in order to confound his critics and thereby show that even a philosopher, if he sees fit, can make money, bought up the entire olive crop in the district of Miletus before it had begun to bloom.

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