Mantic placebo

One way of establishing the kairos (what, and perhaps when) is divination. I read an interesting piece some time back in the LRB about pre-battle prognostications in the Ancient Near East: ritual sacrifice was held to guarantee success, as well as determine propitious tactics. If you won, that proved the effectiveness of the priests; if you lost, then they must have done something wrong. It was a perfect self-validating system that created order out of chaos, giving princes control over their military fortunes; rather as the ducking-stool was an effective way of dealing with the witch problem.

I thought I’d written about his here before, but I can’t find it. The I Ching, an old friend once said to me, works as long as you believe in it. This ancient text has acquired accretions like the Talmud, but at its core, relates a military campaign. This means it’s full of ‘kairetic’ questions: whether to cross the river, or wait; whether to humour your enemy, or attack; and so on. One consults the oracle by choosing a question, a matter of doubt; surely the habit of so doing encourages doubt itself, which it might or might not be a good thing to countenance more often. Then with yarrow stalks or coins, a hexagram is chosen, with adjunct passages brought into play by “moving lines”. Then you puzzle out how it might be relevant to the thing at hand, and what the upshot might be.

But this works without attributing heuristic potency to the oracle itself: the process of consulting it is a device to help see round corners. It might be that the fact of considering a possibility you shrink from serves either to close it off, or open it up; and the gnomic words of the hexagram allow either interpretation, according to what one is prepared to contemplate. Or it might be they suggest a course of action or inaction that never would have occurred to you, but which lay silent in the mind.

There’s also an attitude implicit especially in the accretions: a spiritual reticence, that might rub off on a person who lets it in. For those who can’t read ancient Chinese, there’s the difficulty of translation as well, with its tendency to learn only the lessons it chooses from what is an alien world. But the same problem exists for native speakers, perhaps pushed back centuries or millenia into the past, when at one time or another, the text acquired its patina.

I was going to mention this in the last post but one, which had far too many things in it. This is, I suppose, an example (or two examples) of how the kairos doesn’t actually exist in the world, till we make it, whether that means making the best of what might be seen as adversity, possibly of our own making, possibly thrust upon us by others; or trying our best to procure a better outcome, by judicious reflection, or consulting heart as well as head, or heart before head; or whatever is needful.

But on the whole, such a practice probably isn’t going to change a person’s course. The Assyrians and the Hittites will sooner or later come to blows. Thinking of getting a new job, having an affair, getting a bicycle? You probably will in the end.


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