Thursday, April 18, 2024

Stoic Divination through Sympathy and Soul Travel


The Stoics had an optimistic belief in divine pronoia: that the gods sent forewarning to humans out of benevolence. They defined divination as “the foreknowledge and foretelling of things that happen fortuitously” (Cicero De Divinatione 2.13). The future that can be foreseen for them is not predetermined.

Two modes of divination described by the far-traveled philosopher Posidonius (c. 135-51 bce) are observation of the "affinity of all things" and the close study of dreams. He spent time with druids in Gaul and wrote five books on divination, of which only fragments survive, mostly in the pages of De Divinatione, a philosophical dialogue by CiceroThe concept of sympatheia - the “affinity of all things” (συμπάθεια τον όλον) – presents the world, including the gods, as a unified organism with mutually interrelated parts that turn on each other. Everything is part of a cosmic body. Just as your whole body may respond to the lightest touch on your little toe, what happens to any part of the cosmos may resonate with the whole and generate an event far away. 

Posidonius taught that the soul travels free from the body during sleep. “Divination finds a positive support in nature, which teaches us how great is the power of the soul when it is divorced from the bodily senses as it is especially in sleep and in times of frenzy or inspiration: (Cicero de div 1.129). The Stoics held that dream divination is open to all, a view resoundingly espoused by Synesius of Cyrene in his wonderful little book On Dreams around the year 404.

With the name of a sea-god inside his own, perhaps it is not surprising that Posidonius was wedded to the sea. He confirmed his sense of pattern in the cosmos as an oceanographer, studying the effect of the Moon on the tides. He set up his own school of philosophy on the island of Rhodes, a hub for travelers and traders from all over the Hellenistic world. He traveled on boats to Spain, Gaul, Italy, Sicily, Dalmatia and Greece. He was fond of maritime metaphors to describe the voyage of life, sailing on fortune’s wind, seeking safe harbor.

Rhodes, island of Posidonius the Stoic philosopher


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