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[1arg] A discourse of the philosopher Favorinus directed against those who are called Chaldaeans, and who profess to tell men's fortunes from the conjunction and movements of the stars and constellations.


AGAINST those who call themselves “Chaldaeans” or “astrologers,” 1 and profess from the movements and position of the stars to be able to read the future, I once at Rome heard the philosopher Favorinus discourse in Greek in admirable and brilliant language. But whether it was for the purpose of exercising, not vaunting, his talent, or because he seriously and sincerely believed what he said, I am unable to tell; but I promptly jotted down the heads of the topics and of the arguments which he used, so far as I could recall them immediately after leaving the meeting, and they were about to this effect: 2 That this science of the Chaldaeans was not of so great antiquity as they would have it appear; that the founders and authors of it were not those whom they themselves name, but that tricks and delusions of that kind were devised by jugglers and men who made a living and profit from [p. 5] their lies. And since they saw that some terrestrial phenomena known to men were caused by the influence and control of the heavenly bodies, as for example the ocean, as though a companion of the moon, grows old and resumes its youth along with her—from this, forsooth, they derived an argument for persuading us to believe that all human affairs, both the greatest and the least, as though bound to the stars and constellations, are influenced and governed by them. But Favorinus said that it was utterly foolish and absurd to suppose, because the tide of the ocean corresponds with the course of the moon, that a suit at law which one happens to have about an aqueduct with his neighbours, or with the man next door about a party wall, is also bound to heaven as if by a kind of chain and is decided by the stars. But even if by some divine power and purpose this could happen, yet he thought that it could by no means be grasped and understood in such a brief and scant span of life as ours by any human intellect, but he believed that some few things were conjectured παχυμερέστερον, (to use his own term), that is, “somewhat roughly,” 3 with no sure foundation of knowledge, but in a loose, random and arbitrary manner, just as when we look at objects far away with eyes blinded by their remoteness from us. For the greatest difference between men and gods was removed, if man also had the power of foreknowing all future events. Furthermore, he thought that even the observation of the stars and constellations, which they declared to be the foundation of their knowledge, was by no means a matter of certainty. “For if the original Chaldaeans,” said he, “who dwelt in the open plains, watched the movements and orbits of the stars their [p. 7] separations and conjunctions, and observed their effects, let this art continue to be practised, but let it be only under the same inclination of the heavens as that under which the Chaldaeans then were. For the system of observation of the Chaldaeans cannot remain valid, if anyone should wish to apply it to different regions of the sky. For who does not see,” said he, “how great is the diversity of the zones and circles of the heavens caused by the inclination and convexity of the earth? Why then should not those same stars, by which they maintain that all human and divine affairs are affected, just as they do not everywhere arouse cold and heat, but change and vary the weather, at the same time causing calm in one place and storm in another—why should they not, I say, produce one series of affairs and events in the land of the Chaldaeans, another among the Gaetulians, another on the Danube, and still another on the Nile? But,” said he, “it is utterly inconsistent to suppose that the mass and the condition of this vast height of air does not remain the same under one or another region of the heavens, but that in human affairs those stars always indicate the same thing from whatever part of the earth you may observe them.” Besides, he expressed his surprise that anyone considered it a certainty that those stars which they say were observed by the Chaldaeans and Babylonians, or by the Egyptians, which many call erraticae, or “wandering,” but Nigidius called errones, or “the wanderers,” 4 are not more numerous than is commonly assumed; for he thought it might possibly be the case that there were some other planets of equal power, without which a correct and [p. 9] final observation could not be completed, but that men could not see them because of their remarkable brilliance or altitude. ' For,' said he, “some stars are visible from certain lands and are known to the men of those lands; but those same stars are not visible from every other land and are wholly unknown to other men. And granting,” said he, “both that only these stars ought to be observed, and that too from one part of the earth, what possible end was there to such observation, and what periods of time seemed sufficient for understanding what the conjunction or the orbits or the transits of the stars foretold? For if an observation was made in the beginning in such a manner that it was calculated under what aspect, arrangement and position of the stars anyone was born, and if thereafter his fortune from the beginning of his life, his character, his disposition, the circumstances of his affairs and activities, and finally also the end of his life were noted, and all these things as they had actually happened were committed to writing, and long afterwards, when the same stars were in the same aspect and position, it was supposed that those same things would happen to others who had been born at that same time; 5 if the first observations were made in that way,” said he, “and from such observations a kind of science was formed, it can by no means be a success. For let them tell me in how many years, pray, or rather in how many ages, the cycle of the observations could be completed.” For he said that it was agreed among astrologers that those stars which they call “wandering,” which are supposed [p. 11] to determine the fate of all things, beginning their course together, return to the same place from which they set out only after an innumerable and almost infinite number of years, so that there could be no continuity of observation, and no literary record could endure for so long an epoch. And he thought that this point also ought to be taken into consideration, that one constellation presided at the time when a man was first conceived in his mother's womb, and another one ten months later when he came into the world, and he asked how it was consistent for a different indication to be made about the same person, if, as they themselves thought, a different position and order of the same stars gave different fortunes. But also at the time of marriage, from which children were expected, and at the very union of the husband and wife, he said that it ought to be indicated by a fixed and inevitable position of the stars, with what character and fortune men would be born; and, indeed, long before that, when the father and mother were themselves born, it ought to be foretold even then from their horoscope what offspring they would produce; and far, far back of that, even to infinity, so that, if that science rested on any foundation of truth, a hundred years ago, or rather at the beginning of heaven and earth, and then on in an unbroken series of predictions as long as generation followed generation, those stars ought to have foretold what character and fortune anyone would have who is born to-day. “But how,” said he, “can it be believed that the fate and fortune foretold by the form and position of any one of the stars are [p. 13] fixed and attached to one particular individual, and that the same position of the stars is restored only after a long series of years, if the indications of the same man's life and fortunes in such short intervals, through the single degrees of his forefathers and through an infinite order of successions, are so often and so frequently pointed out as the same, although the position of the stars is not the same? But if this can happen, and if this contradiction and variation be admitted through all the epochs of antiquity in foretelling the origin of those men who are to be born afterwards, this inequality confounds the observation and the whole theory of the science falls to the ground.” Moreover, he thought that the most intolerable thing was their belief that not only occurrences and events of an external nature, but even men's very deliberations, their purposes, their various pleasures, their likes and dislikes, the chance and sudden attractions and aversions of their feelings on trifling matters, were excited and influenced from heaven above; for example, if you happened to wish to go to the baths, and then should change your mind, and again should decide to go, that all this happens, not from some shifting and variable state of mind, but from a fateful ebb and flow of the planets. Thus men would clearly be seen to be, not λογικὰ ζῶα or “reasoning beings,” as they are called, but a species of ludicrous and ridiculous puppets, if it be true that they do nothing of their own volition or their own will, but are led and driven by the stars. “And if,” said he, “they affirm that it could have been foretold whether king Pyrrhus or Manius Curius was to be victorious in the battle, why, pray, do they not dare also to predict which of the [p. 15] players with dice or counters on a board will win? Or, forsooth, do they know important things, but not those which are unimportant; and are unimportant things more difficult to understand than the important? But if they claim knowledge of great matters and say that they are plainer and easier to be understood, I should like,” said he, “to have them tell me, in this observation of the whole world, in comparison with such mighty works of nature, what they regard as great in the trifling and brief fortunes and affairs of men. And I should like to have them answer this question also,” said he: “if the instant in which man at birth is allotted his destiny is so brief and fleeting, that at that same moment not more than one can be born with the same conjunction under the same circle of the heavens, and if therefore even twins have different lots in life, since they are not born at the same instant—I ask them to tell me,” said he, “how and by what plan they are able to overtake the course of that fleeting moment, which can scarcely be grasped by one's thoughts, or to detain and examine it, when in the swift revolution of days and nights even the briefest moments, as they say, cause great changes?” Then, finally, he asked what answer could be made to this argument, that human beings of both sexes, of all ages, born into the world under different positions of the stars and in regions widely separated, nevertheless sometimes all perished together by the same kind of death and at the same moment, either from an earthquake, or a falling building, or the sack of a town, or the wreck of the same ship. “This,” said he, “of course would never happen, if the natal influence assigned to the birth [p. 17] of each of them had its own peculiar conditions. But if,” he said, “they answer that even in the life and death of men who are born at different times certain events may happen which are alike and similar, through some similar conjunction of the stars at a later time, why may not sometimes everything become equal, so that through such agreement and similarity of the stars many a Socrates and Antisthenes and Plato may appear, equal in birth, in person, in talent, in character, in their whole life and in their death? But this,” said he, “can by no means whatever happen. Therefore they cannot properly use this argument against the inequality of men's births and the similarity of their death.” He added that he excused them from this further inquiry: namely, if the time, the manner and the cause of men's life and death, and of all human affairs, were in heaven and with the stars, what would they say of flies, worms, sea urchins, and many other minute animals of land and sea? Were they too born and destroyed under the same laws as men? so that to frogs also and gnats either the same fates are assigned at birth by the movements of the constellations, or, if they do not believe that, there seemed to be no reason why that power of the stars should be effective with men and ineffectual with the other animals.

These remarks I have touched upon in a dry, unadorned, and almost jejune style. But Favorinus, such was the man's talent, and such is at once the copiousness and the charm of Greek eloquence, delivered them at greater length and with more charm, brilliance and readiness, and from time to [p. 19] time he warned us to take care lest in any way those sycophants should worm their way into our confidence by sometimes seeming to stumble upon, and give utterance to, something true. “For they do not,” said he, “say anything that is tangible, definite or comprehensible, but depending upon slippery and roundabout conjecture, groping with cautious steps between truth and falsehood, as if walking in the dark, they go their way. And after making many attempts they either happen suddenly on the truth without knowing it, or led by the great credulity of those who consult them, they get hold by cunning of something true, and therefore obviously find it easier to come somewhere near the truth in past events than in those to come. Yet all the true things which they say through accident or cunning,” said he, “are not a thousandth part of the falsehoods which they utter.”

But besides these remarks which I heard Favorinus make, I recall many testimonies of the ancient poets, by which delusive fallacies of this kind are refuted. Among these is the following saying of Pacuvius: 6

Could men divine the future, they'd match Jove.
Also this from Accius, who writes: 7

I trust the augurs not, who with mere words
Enrich men's ears, to load themselves with gold.
Favorinus too, wishing to deter and turn away young men from such calculators of nativities and from certain others of that kind, who profess to reveal all the future by means of magic arts, concluded with arguments of this sort, to show that they ought by no means to be resorted to and consulted. [p. 21] “They predict,” said he, “either adverse or prosperous events. If they foretell prosperity and deceive you, you will be made wretched by vain expectations; if they foretell adversity and lie, you will be made wretched by useless fears. But if they predict truly and the events are unhappy, you will thereby be made wretched by anticipation, before you are fated to be so; if on the contrary they promise prosperity and it conies to pass, then there will clearly be two disadvantages: the anticipation of your hopes will wear you out with suspense, and hope will in advance have reaped the fruit of your approaching happiness. Therefore there is every reason why you should not resort to men of that kind, who profess knowledge of the future.”

1 Literally, calculators of nativities; see also note on i. 9. 6.

2 p. 44, Marres.

3 In a rough and ready, superficial manner.

4 Fr. 87, Swoboda; the reference is to the planets.

5 That is, the time when the stars were again in the same position. The point is, that observations made for one man, even though they came out right, were of no value, because of the long time that it took for the stars to reach the same positions that they had at the time of the earlier observations.

6 v. 407, Ribbeck3.

7 v. 169, Ribbeck3.

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