Fortune and Misfortune
Some people (it is often said) have all the luck – implying that not much is left over for the rest of us. The British, with their love of ironical humor, have an expression wishing someone “the best of British luck,” suggesting that the recipient of the wish has not much chance. But, in the big picture, the Universe has its own odds. Insurance companies and gambling houses are both built on advance knowledge – not of the outcome, but of the chances. Actuaries, who calculate risks, are professional odds-assessors.
But they are only the latest in a long line of sorcerers, witch doctors, oracles, alchemists, tea leaf interpreters, Tarot card readers, and fortune tellers of all kinds, who, one way or another, have made a career out of reading the future in terms of some aspect of the present. But divination by means of the entrails of dead animals was popular even among the supposedly civilized Romans. My edition of Roget’s Thesaurus lists no fewer than 88 “forms of divination,” most of them words ending in “mancy,” such as “stercomancy,” which means divination by reading the seeds in bird excrement.
From earliest times, the interpretation of dreams has been seen as one form of insight into the future. The Bible is full of dream stories. One of the most notable, in the Book of Genesis, tells how Joseph saved Egypt, by correctly interpreting the dreams of Pharoah, leading to salutary precautions being taken against a coming famine.
This all makes interpreting the significance of lines on your hand (palmistry) and of bumps on your head (phrenology) seem pretty tame. Of course, nobody really knows the future, because it hasn’t happened yet. When sometimes an unlikely event seems to have been accurately predicted by someone, people who hear about it are so amazed that they forget the countless other predictions which were totally wrong. In 1898, 14 years before the sinking of the Titanic, an American writer named Morgan Robertson published a novel about a luxury liner named Titan which sinks in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg. There are so many similarities in the novel to what eventually happened that, after the Titanic disaster of 1912, Robertson was accused of being a “clairvoyant.” He denied having any such talent. But what makes the entire occurrence so remarkable is that an accurate “prediction” of this kind is so rare.
I myself once – and only once – had a dream which, at the time, I thought was prophetic, or, at least, “psychic.” In February, 1994, I dreamed that Dinah Shore had committed suicide – and I actually wrote it down, as I did occasionally, if the dream was unusually vivid. Dinah Shore was a singer and had been a big celebrity. I was never particularly interested in her or her music, and couldn’t think why I should be dreaming about her. But, just a few hours later, I heard on the news that Dinah Shore had died.
It was apparently quite peaceful. She was surrounded by her family – with no indication of suicide. (I learned only later that she was 76, and had ovarian cancer.) Still, for some time, I went around feeling that I had had a psychic experience – until someone disillusioned me by making the point: “What about all the dreams you’ve had that didn’t ‘come true’?” And this is the way that most similarities can be exploded. The most powerful producer of supposedly true prophecies is a little thing called, COINCIDENCE.
Another way of prophesying correctly is by making your prediction ambiguous. One famous story which we owe to the Greek historian Herodotus, illustrates this lesson. Back in the 6th century BC, a man named Croesus, was the King of Lydia (now the western part of Turkey), which in those days was an empire so wealthy that a byword for prosperity was to be said to be “as rich as Croesus.” But Lydia was in danger from the expanding Persian empire to the East.
Uncertain whether or not to meet this threat militarily, Croesus sought advice from the famous Oracle at Delphi. Those priestesses sent back word that “If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a great empire.” Croesus optimistically assumed that the Persians would be the empire destroyed. He went to war, and was crushingly defeated, leading to the destruction of the Lydian empire.
To sum up my own attitude on this subject:
“In all likelihood, whatever will be