10 September 2005

Magical Mystery Philosopher

If you know it, it's easy. If you don't know it, it's not easy. What is the source of the following?

Those who intended to control a house or a city, he said, needed the help of divination. For the craft of carpenter, smith, farmer or ruler, and the theory of such crafts, and arithmetic and economics and generalship might be learned and mastered by the application of human powers; but the deepest secrets of these matters the gods reserved to themselves; they were dark to men. You may plant a field well; but you know not who shall gather the fruits: you may build a house well; but you know not who shall dwell in it: able to command, you cannot know whether it is profitable to command: versed in statecraft, you know not whether it is profitable to guide the state: though, for your delight, you marry a pretty woman, you cannot tell whether she will bring you sorrow: though you form a party among men mighty in the state, you know not whether they will cause you to be driven from the state. If any man thinks that these matters are wholly within the grasp of the human mind and nothing in them is beyond our reason, that man, he said, is irrational. But it is no less irrational to seek the guidance of heaven in matters which men are permitted by the gods to decide for themselves by study: to ask, for instance, Is it better to get an experienced coachman to drive my carriage or a man without experience? Is it better to get an experienced seaman to steer my ship or a man without experience? So too with what we may know by reckoning, measurement or weighing. To put such questions to the gods seemed to his mind profane. In short, what the gods have granted us to do by help of learning, we must learn; what is hidden from mortals we should try to find out from the gods by divination: for to him that is in their grace the gods grant a sign.
I ask because the passage seems to me entirely consistent with the texts on human knowledge, its scope and limits, one finds in Xenophanes. (By consistent I mean: there is nothing that would hinder someone who wrote what is attributed to Xenophanes, from accepting this.) And yet the person to whom these views are attributed, it seems, did not share the epistemological views often attributed to Xenophanes (scepticism, rejection of the possibility of divine revelation, thoroughgoing fallibilism)--or did he?


Stephen Menn said...

It's Socrates in Xenophon *Memorabilia* I,i,7-9--not a very obscure passage, is it?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Yes, indeed, and it isn't very obscure.

Perhaps the clue was the most difficult part, 'gotten easily without ease', i.e. Xenophan(es).