Continuing the 17th century Puritan trend in recent posts, I’m currently reading Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution.
In one chapter he describes the growth of prophecy following the Reformation’s abolition of mediators between individuals and God, a growth which added to the already widespread belief in magic at all levels of society. Hill lists a number of respected, educated figures – including Sir Walter Ralegh, Francis Bacon, John Locke, John Kepler – who believed in magic, astrology, alchemy and other things that we might now dismiss as superstition. In their defence he writes:
It is only from our modern vantage point that we can separate what is “rational” in seventeenth century science from what is not. We must not allow this wisdom after the event to make us condescending about beliefs held by men like Bacon, Boyle and Newton. Only in the course of the seventeenth century did the laws of nature harden and congeal… (pp.89f.)
But is our view today really so much more scientific anyway? Here is Hill a couple of pages later on the growth of “prophecy” during the 1640s and 50s:
In England the revolutionary decades gave wide publicity to what was almost a new profession – the prophet, whether as interpreter of the stars, or of traditional popular myths, or of the Bible. It is therefore very important for us to grasp the role of prophecies in popular psychology.
“Dreams and prophecies do thus much good,” Selden observed; “they make a man to go on with boldness upon a danger or a mistress. If he obtains, he attributes much to them; if he miscarries, he thinks no more of them, or is no more thought of himself.”
Hobbes too in his history of the civil war noted that prophecy was “many times the principal cause of the event foretold.” (p.91)
Astrology, divination or the “scientific” study of biblical prophecy no longer feature highly among the “respectable” sources of guidance sought by the educated and powerful (though they are not as absent as some would like to think). However, we still live in an uncertain world in which it is possible to make a good living by claiming to provide guidance for the future based on one’s deep, specialist, arcane knowledge: as an economist, media pundit or business guru, for example.
Now clearly the nature of these disciplines is very different from that of 17th century prophets and seers, reflecting the very different culture in which we live: one in which science and statistics are valued more highly than magic and the discernment of God’s inscrutable will. But their function is arguably similar: enabling people (including politicians and business leaders) to “go on with boldness upon a danger” instead of being paralysed by indecision; and frequently being themselves “the principal cause of the event foretold”.
To see this similarity in function, you only have to look at the adulation shown towards those – such as Nouriel Rubini or Meredith Whitney – who are perceived to have predicted the credit crunch. Maybe they did (and do) have special insight; maybe they just got lucky (like the economists who have been described as having “predicted seven of the last two recessions”). But many people hang on their every word (along with other perceived seers such as Warren Buffett), partly because it’s either that or nothing – just as it was for those in the 17th century, battered by uncertain harvests and tumultuous political and religious upheavals.