Corrected subject – Cicero, On Divination

This text notably fell in the philosophy test of the 2015 bac. See all the subjects of the bac 2015.

Text by Cicero:

How can one predict an event without any cause or clue that it will occur? The eclipses of the sun and the moon are announced with many years of anticipation by those who study the movements of the stars with the help of calculations. In fact, they announce what the natural law will realize. From the invariable movement of the moon, they deduce when the moon, opposite the sun, enters the shadow of the earth, which is a cone of darkness, so that it necessarily darkens. They also know when the same moon, passing under the sun and interposing itself between it and the earth, hides the light of the sun from our eyes, and in what sign each planet will be at any moment, what will be the daily rising or setting of the different constellations. You see what reasoning is used by those who predict these events.

Those who predict the discovery of a treasure or the arrival of an inheritance, on what clue do they base themselves? Or, in what natural law is it found that this will happen? And if these and similar events are subject to the same necessity, what is the event that must be admitted to have happened by accident or pure chance? Indeed, nothing is so contrary to rational regularity as chance, so much so that even a god does not possess in my eyes the privilege of knowing what will happen by chance or by accident. For if he knows, the event will certainly happen; but if it certainly happens, there is no more chance; and chance exists: consequently, there is no prediction of chance events.

Cicero, On Divination, 1st century B.C.

Context

Knowledge of the author was not necessary. Especially for Cicero and this text, it will not handicap you. This Latin treatise was written in 44 BC. Cicero was then about fifty years old, which corresponds to the period of the end of his life, which is interesting because his philosophy had evolved somewhat between his youth and this period. He wrote this treatise when his influence as a politician was waning, especially after the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, which ended with the defeat of Pompey, for whom Cicero had sided, against Caesar.

Issues

The problematic is not clearly stated in this text. It must be brought out. It is, however, illuminated by the questions Cicero asks himself in this extract. The aim is to understand what is foreseeable, and thus to grasp the link between chance and what was foreseen, what was intended.

Plan

You could follow the text sentence by sentence, or since the text was relatively short, do a cross-sectional commentary on the text, i.e., taking it as a whole in each part of your commentary.

Understanding the text

Let’s go through the text again to bring out the main ideas in the text:

How can we predict an event that has no cause or clue that it will happen?

For Cicero, it is not possible to predict an event that has no cause or clue.

The eclipses of the sun and the moon are announced with many years of anticipation by those who study the movements of the stars with the help of calculations. In fact, they announce what the natural law will realize. From the invariable movement of the moon, they deduce when the moon, opposite the sun, enters the shadow of the earth, which is a cone of darkness, so that it necessarily darkens. They also know when the same moon, passing under the sun and interposing itself between it and the earth, hides the light of the sun from our eyes, and in what sign each planet will be at any moment, what will be the daily rising or setting of the different constellations. You see what reasoning is used by those who predict these events.

Cicero takes the example of astronomy to show how a reasoning could lead to find new truths. But above all, what Cicero insists on is that this reasoning is visible, clear, and can be reproduced. There are real reasons, a real reasoning which allowed to establish conclusions about the future, to foresee.

Those who predict the discovery of a treasure or the arrival of an inheritance, on what clue do they base themselves?

Here, Cicero raises the question of the seriousness of predictions which are not based on a clear reflection, which are not based on indices, on visible facts. One understands that fortune-tellers are targeted here, by the title of the extract “On divination” and by the examples taken : discovery of a treasure and arrival of an inheritance. There is nothing to determine in advance these two events, there is no clue. This is the opposite of the example he had taken on astronomy.

Or, in what natural law is it found that this will happen? And if these and similar events are subject to the same necessity, what is the event that must be admitted to have happened by accident or pure chance?

Cicero makes the hypothesis that what allows a prediction does not reside in the clues, but that there would be a natural law, that is to say a sequence inherent in the forces of nature, which exceeds man and which makes the world move, which presides over such or such event. Even in this case, it would be necessary to determine what is part of this natural law, what was destined, and what happens by accident. By accident”, the term is used in a sense close to chance, it is an event that was unforeseeable, that happens in a fortuitous way.

Indeed, nothing is so contrary to rational regularity as chance, so much so that even a god does not possess in my eyes the privilege of knowing what will happen by chance or by accident. For if he knows, the event will certainly happen; but if it certainly happens, there is no more chance; and chance exists: consequently, there is no prediction of chance events.

A word that may have disturbed some of you: fortuitous means that happens by chance, unexpectedly. So that the sentence “there is no forecast of fortuitous events” sounds like a pleonasm, in the good sense of the word.

“rational regularity” → what is predictable (example of eclipses)
“chance” → that which is unpredictable, that which happens by accident

The reasoning followed here is a reasoning by the absurd: “if A, then C does not exist; yet there is at least one case for which C exists, so we must conclude that A does not exist.”

We notice, however, that Cicero does not justify here his statement “yet chance exists”, and considers this premise as an obvious one. We must also note the mention that Cicero makes of “a god“, which forbids to conclude in this extract to a discourse which would be scientistic, or positivist, i.e. where only science would explain everything.

Topics in philosophy for the 2015 bac

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6 thoughts on “Corrected subject – Cicero, On Divination

  1. because I evoked the fatality which was opposed to chance therefore the fatality marks a total absence of freedom Moreover in the first paragraph I spoke of the truth by relying on the idea of demonstration and science

  2. @rubens: It comes together strongly. These are not exactly the same nuances, natural law being closer to the conception of the universe that the philosophers of antiquity had, especially in the case of Cicero, who did not explain things in terms of “determinism”, but of harmony between nature and the universe. It all depends on how you worded it in your copy, but it should be fine! Good day, The Academics in Politics team

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