Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli


In a curious treatise on “Divination,” or the knowledge of future events, Cicero has preserved a complete account of the state-contrivances which were practised by the Roman government to instil among the people those hopes and fears by which they regulated public opinion. The pagan creed, now become obsolete and ridiculous, has occasioned this treatise to be rarely consulted; it remains, however, as a chapter in the history of man!

To these two books of Cicero on “Divination,” perhaps a third might be added, on political and moral prediction. The principles which may even raise it into a science are self-evident; they are drawn from the heart of man, and they depend on the nature and connexion of human events! We presume we shall demonstrate the positive existence of such a faculty; a faculty which Lord Bacon describes of “making things future and remote as present.” The aruspex, the augur, and the astrologer have vanished with their own superstitions; but the moral and the political predictor, proceeding on principles authorised by nature and experience, has become more skilful in his observations on the phenomena of human history; and it has often happened that a tolerable philosopher has not made an indifferent prophet.

No great political or moral revolution has occurred which has not been accompanied by its prognostic; and men of a philosophic cast of mind in their retirement, freed from the delusions of parties and of sects, at once intelligent in the quicquid agunt homines, while they are withdrawn from their conflicting interests, have rarely been confounded by the astonishment which overwhelms those who, absorbed in active life, are the mere creatures of sensation, agitated by the shadows of truth, the unsubstantial appearances of things! Intellectual nations are advancing in an eternal circle of events and passions which succeed each other, and the last is necessarily connected with its antecedent; the solitary force of some fortuitous incident only can interrupt this concatenated progress of human affairs.

That every great event has been accompanied by a presage or prognostic, has been observed by Lord Bacon. “The shepherds of the people should understand the prognostics of state tempests; hollow blasts of wind seemingly at a distance, and secret swellings of the sea, often precede a storm.” Such were the prognostics discerned by the politic Bishop Williams in Charles the First’s time, who clearly foresaw and predicted the final success of the Puritanic party in our country: attentive to his own security, he abandoned the government and sided with the rising opposition, at the moment when such a change in public affairs was by no means apparent.1

In this spirit of foresight our contemplative antiquary Dugdale must have anticipated the scene which was approaching in 1641, in the destruction of our ancient monuments in cathedral churches. He hurried on his itinerant labours of taking draughts and transcribing inscriptions, as he says, “to preserve them for future and better times.” Posterity owes to the prescient spirit of Dugdale the ancient Monuments of England, which bear the marks of the haste, as well as the zeal, which have perpetuated them.

Continental writers formerly employed a fortunate expression, when they wished to have an Historia Reformationis ante Reformationem: this history of the Reformation would have commenced at least a century before the Reformation itself! A letter from Cardinal Julian to Pope Eugenius the Fourth, written a century before Luther appeared, clearly predicts the Reformation and its consequences. He observed that the minds of men were ripe for something tragical; he felt the axe striking at the root, and the tree beginning to bend, and that his party, instead of propping it, were hastening its fall.2 In England, Sir Thomas More was not less prescient in his views; for when his son Roper was observing to him that the Catholic religion, under “the Defender of the Faith,” was in a most flourishing state, the answer of More was an evidence of political foresight —“Truth, it is, son Roper! and yet I pray God that we may not live to see the day that we would gladly be at league and composition with heretics, to let them have their churches quietly to themselves, so that they would be contented to let us have ours quietly to ourselves.” Whether our great chancellor predicted from a more intimate knowledge of the king’s character, or from some private circumstances which may not have been recorded for our information, of which I have an obscure suspicion, remains to be ascertained. The minds of men of great political sagacity were unquestionably at that moment full of obscure indications of the approaching change; Erasmus, when at Canterbury before the tomb of Becket, observing it loaded with a vast profusion of jewels, wished that those had been distributed among the poor, and that the shrine had been only adorned with boughs and flowers; “For,” said he, “those who have heaped up all this mass of treasure will one day be plundered, and fall a prey to those who are in power;”— a prediction literally fulfilled about twenty years after it was made. The unknown author of the Visions of Piers Ploughman, who wrote in the reign of Edward the Third,3 surprised the world by a famous prediction of the fall of the religious houses from the hand of a king.4 The event was realised, two hundred years afterwards, by our Henry the Eighth. The protestant writers have not scrupled to declare that in this instance he was divino numine afflatus. But moral and political prediction is not inspiration; the one may be wrought out by man, the other descends from God. The same principle which led Erasmus to predict that those who were “in power” would destroy the rich shrines, because no other class of men in society could mate with so mighty a body as the monks, conducted the author of Piers Ploughman to the same conclusion; and since power only could accomplish that great purpose, he fixed on the highest as the most likely; and thus the wise prediction was, so long after, literally accomplished!

Sir Walter Rawleigh foresaw the future consequences of the separatists and the sectaries in the national church, and the very scene his imagination raised in 1530 has been exhibited, to the letter of his description, two centuries after the prediction! His memorable words are —“Time will even bring it to pass, if it were not resisted, that God would be turned out of churches into barns, and from thence again into the fields and mountains, and under hedges — all order of discipline and church government left to newness of opinion and men’s fancies, and as many kinds of religion spring up as there are parish churches within England.” We are struck by the profound genius of Tacitus, who clearly foresaw the calamities which so long ravaged Europe on the fall of the Roman Empire, in a work written five hundred years before the event! In that sublime anticipation of the future, he observed —“When the Romans shall be hunted out from those countries which they have conquered, what will then happen? The revolted people, freed from their master oppressor, will not be able to subsist without destroying their neighbours, and the most cruel wars will exist among all these nations.”

We are told that Solon at Athens, contemplating on the port and citadel of Munychia, suddenly exclaimed, “How blind is man to futurity! Could the Athenians foresee what mischief this will do their city, they would even eat it with their own teeth to get rid of it!”— a prediction verified more than two hundred years afterwards! Thales desired to be buried in an obscure quarter of Milesia, observing that that very spot would in time be the forum. Charlemagne, in his old age, observing from the window of a castle a Norman descent on his coast, tears started in the eyes of the aged monarch. He predicted that since they dared to threaten his dominions while he was yet living, what would they do when he should be no more! — a melancholy prediction, says De Foix, of their subsequent incursions, and of the protracted calamities of the French nation during a whole century!

There seems to be something in minds which take in extensive views of human nature which serves them as a kind of divination, and the consciousness of this faculty has even been asserted by some. Cicero appeals to Atticus how he had always judged of the affairs of the republic as a good diviner; and that its overthrow had happened as he had foreseen fourteen years before.5 Cicero had not only predicted what happened in his own times, but also what occurred long after, according to the testimony of Cornelius Nepos. The philosopher, indeed, affects no secret revelation, nor visionary second-sight; he honestly tells us that this art had been acquired merely by study and the administration of public affairs, while he reminds his friend of several remarkable instances of his successful predictions. “I do not divine human events by the arts practised by the augurs, but I use other signs.” Cicero then expresses himself with the guarded obscurity of a philosopher who could not openly ridicule the prevailing superstitions; but we perfectly comprehend the nature of his “signs” when, in the great pending event of the rival conflicts of Pompey and of Cæsar, he shows the means he used for his purpose. “On one side I consider the humour and genius of Cæsar, and on the other the condition and the manner of civil wars.”6 In a word, the political diviner foretold events by their dependence on general causes, while the moral diviner, by his experience of the personal character, anticipated the actions of the individual. Others, too, have asserted the possession of this faculty. Du Vair, a famous chancellor of France, imagined the faculty was intuitive with him: by his own experience he had observed the results of this curious and obscure faculty, and at a time when the history of the human mind was so imperfectly comprehended, it is easy to account for the apparent egotism of this grave and dignified character. “Born,” says he, “with constitutional infirmity, a mind and body but ill adapted to be laborious, with a most treacherous memory, enjoying no gift of nature, yet able at all times to exercise a sagacity so great that I do not know, since I have reached manhood, that anything of importance has happened to the state, to the public, or to myself in particular, which I had not foreseen.”7 This faculty seems to be described by a remarkable expression employed by Thucydides in his character of Themistocles, of which the following is given as a close translation: “By a species of sagacity peculiarly his own, for which he was in no degree indebted either to early education or after study, he was supereminently happy in forming a prompt judgment in matters that admitted but little time for deliberation; at the same time that he far surpassed all in his deductions of the future from the past, or was the best guesser of the future from the past.”8 Should this faculty of moral and political prediction be ever considered as a science, we can even furnish it with a denomination; for the writer of the Life of Sir Thomas Browne prefixed to his works, in claiming the honour of it for that philosopher, calls it “the Stochastic,” a term derived from the Greek and from archery, meaning “to shoot at a mark.” This eminent genius, it seems, often “hit the white.” Our biographer declares, that “though he were no prophet, yet in that faculty which comes nearest to it, he excelled, i. e., the Stochastic, wherein he was seldom mistaken as to future events, as well public as private.”

We are not, indeed, inculcating the fanciful elements of an occult art. We know whence its principles may be drawn; and we may observe how it was practised by the wisest among the ancients. Aristotle, who collected all the curious knowledge of his times, has preserved some remarkable opinions on the art of divination. In detailing the various subterfuges practised by the pretended diviners of his day, he reveals the secret principle by which one of them regulated his predictions. He frankly declared that the future being always very obscure, while the past was easy to know, his predictions had never the future in view; for he decided from the past as it appeared in human affairs, which, however, lie concealed from the multitude.9 Such is the true principle by which a philosophical historian may become a skilful diviner.

Human affairs make themselves; they grow out of one another, with slight variations; and thus it is that they usually happen as they have happened. The necessary dependence of effects on causes, and the similarity of human interests and human passions, are confirmed by comparative parallels with the past. The philosophic sage of holy writ truly deduced the important principle, that “the thing that hath been is that which shall be.” The vital facts of history, deadened by the touch of chronological antiquarianism, are restored to animation when we comprehend the principles which necessarily terminate in certain results, and discover the characters among mankind who are the usual actors in these scenes. The heart of man beats on the same eternal springs; and whether he advances or retrogrades, he cannot escape out of the march of human thought. Hence, in the most extraordinary revolutions we discover that the time and the place only have changed; for even when events are not strictly parallel, we detect the same conducting principles. Scipio Ammirato, one of the great Italian historians, in his curious discourses on Tacitus, intermingles ancient examples with the modern; that, he says, all may see how the truth of things is not altered by the changes and diversities of time. Machiavel drew his illustrations of modern history from the ancient.

When the French Revolution recalled our attention to a similar eventful period in our own history, the neglected volumes which preserved the public and private history of our Charles the First and Cromwell were collected with eager curiosity. Often the scene existing before us, even the very personages themselves, opened on us in these forgotten pages. But as the annals of human nature did not commence with those of Charles the First, we took a still more retrograde step, and it was discovered in this wider range, that in the various governments of Greece and Rome, the events of those times had been only reproduced. Among them the same principles had terminated in the same results, and the same personages had figured in the same drama. This strikingly appeared in a little curious volume, entitled, “Essai sur l’Histoire de la Révolution Françoise, par une Société d’Auteurs Latins,” published at Paris in 1801. This “Society of Latin Authors,” who have written so inimitably the history of the French Revolution, consist of the Roman historians themselves! By extracts ingeniously applied, the events of that melancholy period are so appositely described, indeed so minutely narrated, that they will not fail to surprise those who are not accustomed to detect the perpetual parallels which we meet with in philosophical history.

Many of these crises in history are close resemblances of each other. Compare the history of “The League” in France with that of our own civil wars. We are struck by the similar occurrences performed by the same political characters who played their part on both those great theatres of human action. A satirical royalist of those times has commemorated the motives, the incidents, and the personages in the “Satire Ménippée de la Vertu du Catholicon d’Espagne;” and this famous “Satire Ménippée” is a perfect Hudibras in prose! The writer discovers all the bitter ridicule of Butler in his ludicrous and severe exhibition of the “Etats de Paris,” while the artist who designed the satirical prints becomes no contemptible Hogàrth. So much are these public events alike in their general spirit and termination, that they have afforded the subject of a printed but unpublished volume, entitled “Essai sur les Revolutions.”10 The whole work was modelled on this principle. “It would be possible,” says the eloquent writer, “to frame a table or chart in which all the given imaginable events of the history of a people would be reduced to a mathematical exactness.” The conception is fanciful, but its foundation lies deep in truth.

A remarkable illustration of the secret principle divulged by Aristotle, and described by Thucydides, appears in the recent confession of a man of genius among ourselves. When Mr. Coleridge was a political writer in the Morning Post and Courier, at a period of darkness and utter confusion, that writer was then conducted by a tract of light, not revealed to ordinary journalists, on the Napoleonic empire. “Of that despotism in masquerade” he decided by “the state of Rome under the first Cæsars;” and of the Spanish American Revolution, by taking the war of the United Provinces with Philip the Second as the groundwork of the comparison. “On every great occurrence,” he says, “I endeavoured to discover, in past history the event that most nearly resembled it. I procured the contemporary historians, memorialists, and pamphleteers. Then fairly subtracting the points of difference from those of likeness, as the balance favoured the former or the latter, I conjectured that the result would be the same or different. In the essays ‘On the Probable Final Restoration of the Bourbons,’ I feel myself authorised to affirm, by the effect produced on many intelligent men, that were the dates wanting, it might have been suspected that the essays had been written within the last twelve months.”11

In moral predictions on individuals, many have discovered the future character. The revolutionary character of Cardinal de Retz, even in his youth, was detected by the sagacity of Mazarin. He then wrote the history of the conspiracy of Fiesco, with such vehement admiration of his hero, that the Italian politician, after its perusal, predicted that the young author would be one of the most turbulent spirits of the age! The father of Marshal Biron, even amid the glory of his son, discovered the cloud which, invisible to others, was to obscure it. The father, indeed, well knew the fiery passions of his son. “Biron,” said the domestic seer, “I advise thee, when peace takes place, to go and plant cabbages in thy garden, otherwise I warn thee, thou wilt lose thy head on the scaffold!” Lorenzo de’ Medici had studied the temper of his son Piero; for Guicciardini informs us that he had often complained to his most intimate friends that “he foresaw the imprudence and arrogance of his son would occasion the ruin of his family.” There is a remarkable prediction of James the First of the evils likely to ensue from Laud’s violence, in a conversation given by Hacket, which the king held with Archbishop Williams. When the king was hard pressed to promote Laud, he gave his reasons why he intended to “keep Laud back from all place of rule and authority, because I find he hath a restless spirit, and cannot see when matters are well, but loves to toss and change, and to bring things to a pitch of reformation floating in his own brain, which endangers the steadfastness of that which is in a good pass. I speak not at random; he hath made himself known to me to be such an one.” James then gives the circumstances to which he alludes; and at length, when, still pursued by the archbishop, then the organ of Buckingham, as usual, this king’s good nature too easily yielded; he did not, however, without closing with this prediction: “Then take him to you! — but, on my soul, you will repent it!” The future character of Cromwell was apparent to two of our great politicians. “This coarse unpromising man,” said Lord Falkland, pointing to Cromwell, “will be the first person in the kingdom, if the nation comes to blows!” And Archbishop Williams told Charles the First confidentially, “There was that in Cromwell which foreboded something dangerous, and wished his majesty would either win him over to him, or get him taken off.” The Marquis of Wellesley’s incomparable character of Bonaparte predicted his fall when highest in his glory; that great statesman then poured forth the sublime language of philosophical prophecy. “His eagerness of power is so inordinate; his jealousy of independence so fierce; his keenness of appetite so feverish in all that touches his ambition, even in the most trifling things, that he must plunge into dreadful difficulties. He is one of an order of minds that by nature make for themselves great reverses.”

Lord Mansfield was once asked, after the commencement of the French Revolution, when it would end? His lordship replied, “It is an event without precedent, and therefore without prognostic.” The truth, however, is, that it had both. Our own history had furnished a precedent in the times of Charles the First. And the prognostics were so redundant, that a volume might be collected of passages from various writers who had predicted it. However ingenious might be a history of the Reformation before it occurred, the evidence could not be more authentic and positive than that of the great moral and political revolution which we have witnessed in our own days.

A prediction which Bishop Butler threw out in a sermon before the House of Lords, in 1741, does honour to his political sagacity, as well as to his knowledge of human nature; he calculated that the irreligious spirit would produce, some time or other, political disorders similar to those which, in the seventeenth century, had arisen from religious fanaticism. “Is there no danger,” he observed, “that all this may raise somewhat like that levelling spirit, upon atheistical principles, which in the last age prevailed upon enthusiastic ones? Not to speak of the possibility that different sorts of people may unite in it upon these contrary principles!” All this literally has been accomplished! Leibnitz, indeed, foresaw the results of those selfish, and at length demoralizing, opinions, which began to prevail through Europe in his day. These disorganizing principles, conducted by a political sect, who tried “to be worse than they could be,” as old Montaigne expresses it; a sort of men who have been audaciously congratulated as “having a taste for evil;” exhibited to the astonished world the dismal catastrophe the philosopher predicted. I shall give this remarkable passage. “I find that certain opinions approaching those of Epicurus and Spinoza, are, little by little, insinuating themselves into the minds of the great rulers of public affairs, who serve as the guides of others, and on whom all matters depend; besides, these opinions are also sliding into fashionable books, and thus they are preparing all things to that general revolution which menaces Europe; destroying those generous sentiments of the ancients, Greek and Roman, which preferred the love of country and public good, and the cares of posterity, to fortune and even to life. Our public spirits,12 as the English call them, excessively diminish, and are no more in fashion, and will be still less while the least vicious of these men preserve only one principle, which they call honour; a principle which only keeps them from not doing what they deem a low action, while they openly laugh at the love of country — ridicule those who are zealous for public ends — and when a well-intentioned man asks what will become of their posterity, they reply ‘Then, as now!’ But it may happen to these persons themselves to have to endure those evils which they believe are reserved for others. If this epidemical and intellectual disorder could be corrected, whose bad effects are already visible, those evils might still be prevented; but if it proceeds in its growth, Providence will correct man by the very revolution which must spring from it. Whatever may happen indeed, all must turn out as usual for the best in general, at the end of the account, although this cannot happen without the punishment of those who contribute even to general good by their evil actions.” The most superficial reader will hardly require a commentary on this very remarkable passage; he must instantly perceive how Leibnitz, in the seventeenth century, foresaw what has occurred in the eighteenth; and the prediction has been verified in the history of the actors in the late revolution, while the result, which we have not perhaps yet had, according to Leibnitz’s own exhilarating system of optimism, is an eduction of good from evil.

A great genius, who was oppressed by malignant rivals in his own times, has been noticed by Madame de Staël, as having left behind him an actual prophecy of the French Revolution: this was Guibert, who, in his Commentary on Folard’s Polybius, published in 1727, declared that “a conspiracy is actually forming in Europe, by means at once so subtle and efficacious, that I am sorry not to have come into the world thirty years later to witness its result. It must be confessed that the sovereigns of Europe wear very bad spectacles. The proofs of it are mathematical, if such proofs ever were, of a conspiracy.” Guibert unquestionably foresaw the anti-monarchical spirit gathering up its mighty wings, and rising over the universe! but could not judge of the nature of the impulse which he predicted; prophesying from the ideas in his luminous intellect, he seems to have been far more curious about, than certain of, the consequences. Rousseau even circumstantially predicted the convulsions of modern Europe. He stood on the crisis of the French Revolution, which he vividly foresaw, for he seriously advised the higher classes of society to have their children taught some useful trade; a notion highly ridiculed on the first appearance of the Emile: but at its hour the awful truth struck! He, too, foresaw the horrors of that revolution; for he announced that Emile designed to emigrate, because, from the moral state of the people, a virtuous revolution had become impossible.13 The eloquence of Burke was often oracular; and a speech of Pitt, in 1800, painted the state of Europe as it was only realised fifteen years afterwards.

But many remarkable predictions have turned out to be false. Whenever the facts on which the prediction is raised are altered in their situation, what was relatively true ceases to operate as a general principle. For instance, to that striking anticipation which Rousseau formed of the French revolution, he added, by way of note, as remarkable a prediction on monarchy. Je tiens pour impossible que les grandes monarchies de l’Europe aient encore long tems à durer; toutes ont brillé et tout état qui brille est sur son declin. The predominant anti-monarchical spirit among our rising generation seems to hasten on the accomplishment of the prophecy; but if an important alteration has occurred in the nature of things, we may question the result. If by looking into the past, Rousseau found facts which sufficiently proved that nations in the height of their splendour and corruption had closed their career by falling an easy conquest to barbarous invaders, who annihilated the most polished people at a single blow; we now find that no such power any longer exists in the great family of Europe: the state of the question is therefore changed. It is now how corrupt nations will act against corrupt nations equally enlightened? But if the citizen of Geneva drew his prediction of the extinction of monarchy in Europe from that predilection for democracy which assumes that a republic must necessarily produce more happiness to the people than a monarchy, then we say that the fatal experiment was again repeated since the prediction, and the fact proved not true! The excess of democracy inevitably terminates in a monarchical state; and were all the monarchies in Europe at present republics, a philosopher might safely predict the restoration of monarchy!

If a prediction be raised on facts which our own prejudices induce us to infer will exist, it must be chimerical. We have an Universal Chronicle of the Monk Carion, printed in 1532, in which he announces that the world was about ending,14 as well as his chronicle of it; that the Turkish empire would not last many years; that after the death of Charles the Fifth the empire of Germany would be torn to pieces by the Germans themselves. This monk will no longer pass for a prophet; he belongs to that class of historians who write to humour their own prejudices, like a certain lady-prophetess, who, in 1811, predicted that grass was to grow in Cheapside about this time!15 The monk Carion, like others of greater name, had miscalculated the weeks of Daniel, and wished more ill to the Mahometans than suit the Christian cabinets of Europe to inflict on them; and, lastly, the monastic historian had no notion that it would please Providence to prosper the heresy of Luther! Sir James Mackintosh once observed, “I am sensible that in the field of political prediction veteran sagacity has often been deceived.” Sir James alluded to the memorable example of Harrington, who published a demonstration of the impossibility of re-establishing monarchy in England six months before the restoration of Charles the Second! But the author of the Oceana was a political fanatic, who ventured to predict an event, not by other similar events, but by a theoretical principle which he had formed, that “the balance of power depends on that of property.” Harrington, in his contracted view of human nature, had dropped out of his calculation all the stirring passions of ambition and party, and the vacillations of the multitude. A similar error of a great genius occurs in De Foe. “Child,” says Mr. George Chalmers, “foreseeing from experience that men’s conduct must finally be decided by their principles, foretold the colonial revolt. De Foe, allowing his prejudices to obscure his sagacity, reprobated that suggestion, because he deemed interest a more strenuous prompter than enthusiasm.” The predictions of Harrington and De Foe are precisely such as we might expect from a petty calculator, a political economist, who can see nothing farther than immediate results; but the true philosophical predictor was Child, who had read the past. It is probable that the American emancipation from the mother country of England was foreseen twenty or thirty years before it occurred, though not perhaps by the administration. Lord Orford, writing in 1754, under the ministry of the Duke of Newcastle, blames “The instructions to the governor of New York, which seemed better calculated for the latitude of Mexico, and for a Spanish tribunal, than for a free British settlement, and in such opulence and such haughtiness, that suspicions had long been conceived of their meditating to throw off the dependence on their mother-country.” If this was written at the time, as the author asserts, it is a very remarkable passage, observes the noble editor of his memoirs. The prognostics or presages of this revolution it may now be difficult to recover; but it is evident that Child, before the time when Lord Orford wrote this passage, predicted the separation on true and philosophical principles.

Even when the event does not always justify the prediction, the predictor may not have been the less correct in his principles of divination. The catastrophe of human life, and the turn of great events, often prove accidental. Marshal Biron, whom we have noticed, might have ascended the throne instead of the scaffold; Cromwell and De Retz might have become only the favourite general or the minister of their sovereigns. Fortuitous events are not comprehended in the reach of human prescience; such must be consigned to those vulgar superstitions which presume to discover the issue of human events, without pretending to any human knowledge. There is nothing supernatural in the prescience of the philosopher.

Sometimes predictions have been condemned as false ones, which, when scrutinised, we can scarcely deem to have failed: they may have been accomplished, and they may again revolve on us. In 1749 Dr. Hartley published his “Observations on Man,” and predicted the fall of the existing governments and hierarchies in two simple propositions; among others —

Prop. 81. It is probable that all the civil governments will be overturned.

Prop. 82. It is probable that the present forms of church-government will be dissolved.

Many were alarmed at these predicted falls of church and state. Lady Charlotte Wentworth asked Hartley when these terrible things would happen. The answer of the predictor was not less awful: “I am an old man, and shall not live to see them; but you are a young woman, and probably will see them.” In the subsequent revolutions of America and of France, and perhaps now of Spain, we can hardly deny that these predictions had failed. A fortuitous event has once more thrown back Europe into its old corners: but we still revolve in a circle, and what is now dark and remote may again come round, when time has performed its great cycle. There was a prophetical passage in Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity regarding the church which long occupied the speculations of its expounders. Hooker indeed seemed to have done what no predictor of events should do; he fixed on the period of its accomplishment. In 1597 he declared that it would “peradventure fall out to be threescore and ten years, or if strength do awe, into fourscore.” Those who had outlived the revolution in 1641, when the long parliament pulled down the ecclesiastical establishment, and sold the church-lands — a circumstance which Hooker had contemplated — and were afterwards returned to their places on the Restoration, imagined that the prediction had not yet been completed, and were looking with great anxiety towards the year 1677, for the close of this extraordinary prediction! When Bishop Barlow, in 1675, was consulted on it, he endeavoured to dissipate the panic, by referring to an old historian, who had reproached our nation for their proneness to prophecies!16 The prediction of the venerable Hooker in truth had been fully accomplished, and the event had occurred without Bishop Barlow having recurred to it; so easy it seems to forget what we dislike to remember! The period of time was too literally taken, and seems to have been only the figurative expression of man’s age in scriptural language which Hooker had employed; but no one will now deny that this prescient sage had profoundly foreseen the results of that rising party, whose designs on church and state were clearly depicted in his own luminous view.

The philosophical predictor, in foretelling a crisis from the appearance of things, will not rashly assign the period of time; for the crisis which he anticipates is calculated on by that inevitable march of events which generate each other in human affairs; but the period is always dubious, being either retarded or accelerated by circumstances of a nature incapable of entering into this moral arithmetic. It is probable that a revolution similar to that of France would have occurred in this country, had it not been counteracted by the genius of Pitt. In 1618 it was easy to foretell by the political prognostic that a mighty war throughout Europe must necessarily occur. At that moment, observes Bayle, the house of Austria aimed at a universal monarchy; the consequent domineering spirit of the ministers of the Emperor and the King of Spain, combined with their determination to exterminate the new religion, excited a reaction to this imperial despotism; public opinion had been suppressed, till every people grew impatient; while their sovereigns, influenced by national feeling, were combining against Austria. But Austria was a vast military power, and her generals were the first of their class. The efforts of Europe would then be often repulsed! This state of affairs prognosticated a long war! — and when at length it broke out it lasted thirty years! The approach and the duration of the war might have been predicted; but the period of its termination could not have been foreseen.

There is, however, a spirit of political vaticination which presumes to pass beyond the boundaries of human prescience; it has been often ascribed to the highest source of inspiration by enthusiasts; but since “the language of prophecy” has ceased, such pretensions are not less impious than they are unphilosophical. Knox the reformer possessed an extraordinary portion of this awful prophetic confidence: he appears to have predicted several remarkable events, and the fates of some persons. We are told that, condemned to a galley at Rochelle, he predicted that “within two or three years he should preach the gospel at Saint Giles’s in Edinburgh;” an improbable event, which happened. Of Mary and Darnley, he pronounced that, “as the king, for the queen’s pleasure, had gone to mass, the Lord, in his justice, would make her the instrument of his overthrow.” Other striking predictions of the deaths of Thomas Maitland, and of Kirkaldy of Grange, and the warning he solemnly gave to the Regent Murray not to go to Linlithgow, where he was assassinated, occasioned a barbarous people to imagine that the prophet Knox had received an immediate communication from Heaven. A Spanish friar and almanac-maker predicted, in clear and precise words, the death of Henry the Fourth of France; and Pieresc, though he had no faith in the vain science of astrology, yet, alarmed at whatever menaced the life of a beloved monarch, consulted with some of the king’s friends, and had the Spanish almanac laid before his majesty. That high-spirited monarch thanked them for their solicitude, but utterly slighted the prediction: the event occurred, and in the following year the Spanish friar spread his own fame in a new almanac. I have been occasionally struck at the Jeremiads of honest George Withers, the vaticinating poet of our civil wars: some of his works afford many solemn predictions. We may account for many predictions of this class without the intervention of any supernatural agency. Among the busy spirits of a revolutionary age, the heads of a party, such as Knox, have frequently secret communications with spies or with friends. In a constant source of concealed information, a shrewd, confident, and enthusiastic temper will find ample matter for mysterious prescience. Knox exercised that deep sagacity which took in the most enlarged views of the future, as appears by his Machiavelian foresight on the barbarous destruction of the monasteries and the cathedrals —“The best way to keep the rooks from returning, is to pull down their nests.” In the case of the prediction of the death of Henry the Fourth, by the Spanish friar, it resulted either from his being acquainted with the plot, or from his being made an instrument for their purpose by those who were. It appears that rumours of Henry’s assassination were rife in Spain and Italy before the event occurred. Such vaticinators as George Withers will always rise in those disturbed times which his own prosaic metre has forcibly depicted:—

It may be on that darkness, which they find

Within their hearts, a sudden light hath shin’d,

Making reflections of

some things to come


Which leave within them musings troublesome

To their weak spirits; or too intricate

For them to put in order, and relate.

They act as men in ecstasies have done —

Striving their cloudy visions to declare —

And I, perhaps, among these may be one

That was let loose for service to be done:

I blunder out what worldly-prudent men

Count madnesse. — P. 7.17

Separating human prediction from inspired prophecy, we only ascribe to the faculties of man that acquired prescience which we have demonstrated that some great minds have unquestionably exercised. We have discovered its principles in the necessary dependence of effects on general causes, and we have shown that, impelled by the same motives, and circumscribed by the same passions, all human affairs revolve in a circle; and we have opened the true source of this yet imperfect science of moral and political prediction, in an intimate but a discriminative knowledge of the past.

Authority is sacred, when experience affords parallels and analogies. If much which may overwhelm when it shall happen can be foreseen, the prescient statesman and moralist may provide defensive measures to break the waters, whose streams they cannot always direct; and the venerable Hooker has profoundly observed, that “the best things have been overthrown, not so much by puissance and might of adversaries, as through defect of council in those that should have upheld and defended the same.”18

The philosophy of history blends the past with the present, and combines the present with the future: each is but a portion of the other! The actual state of a thing is necessarily determined by its antecedent, and thus progressively through the chain of human existence; while “the present is always full of the future,” as Leibnitz has happily expressed the idea.

A new and beautiful light is thus thrown over the annals of mankind, by the analogies and the parallels of different ages in succession. How the seventeenth century has influenced the eighteenth; and the results of the nineteenth as they shall appear in the twentieth, might open a source of predictions, to which, however difficult it might be to affix their dates, there would be none in exploring into causes, and tracing their inevitable effects.

The multitude live only among the shadows of things in the appearances of the present; the learned, busied with the past, can only trace whence and how all comes; but he who is one of the people, and one of the learned, the true philosopher, views the natural tendency and terminations which are preparing for the future!

1 See Rushworth, vol. i. p. 420. His language was decisive.

2 This letter is in the works of Æneas Sylvius; a copious extract is given by Bossuet, in his “Variations.” See also Mosheim, Cent. xiii. part ii. chap. 2, note m.

3 Though it cannot be positively asserted it is generally believed that the author was Robert Longlande, a monk of Malvern. See introduction to Wright’s edition of “The Vision.” The latter part of the year 1362 is believed to be the time of its composition.

4 The passage is so remarkable as to be worth giving here, for the immediate reference of such readers as may not have ready access to the original. We modernize the spelling from Mr. Wright’s edition:—

But there shall come a king,

And confess you religious,

And award you as the Bible telleth

For breaking of your rule.

* * * *

And then shall the Abbot of Abingdon

And all his issue for ever,

Have a knock of a king,

And incurable the wound.

5 Ep. ad Att. Lib. x. Ep. 4.

6 Ep. ad Att. Lib. vi. Ep. 6.

7 This remarkable confession I find in Menage’s “Observations sur la Langue Françoise,” Part II. p. 110.

8 Οὶκείᾳ γὰρ ξυνέσει, καἱ οὔτε προμαθὡν ἐς αὐτἡν οὐδὲν, οὔτ᾽ ἐπιμαθὼν τῶν τε παραχρῆμα δἰ ἐλαχίστης βουλῆς κράτιστος γνώμων, καὶ τῶν μελλόντων ἐπιπλεῖστον τοῦ γενησομένου ἄριστος εἰκαστής. — Thucydides, lib. i.

9 Arist. Rhet. lib. vii. c. 5.

10 This work was printed in London as a first volume, but remained unpublished. This singularly curious production was suppressed, but reprinted at Paris. It has suffered the most cruel mutilations. I read with surprise and instruction the single copy which I was assured was the only one saved from the havoc of the entire edition. The writer was the celebrated Chateaubriand.

11 “Biographia Literaria; or, Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life and Opinions.” By S.T. Coleridge, Esq. 1807. Vol. i. p. 214.

12 Public spirit, and public spirits, were about the year 1700 household words with us. Leibnitz was struck by their significance, but it might now puzzle us to find synonyms, or even to explain the very terms themselves.

13 This extraordinary passage is at the close of the third book of Emile, to which I must refer the reader. It is curious, however, to observe, that in 1760 Rousseau poured forth the following awful predictions, which were considered quite absurd:—“Vous vous fiez à l’ordre actuel de la société, sans songer que cet ordre est sujet à des révolutions inévitables — le grand devient petit, le riche devient pauvre, le monarque devient sujet — nous approchons l’état de crise et du siècle des révolutions. Que fera donc dans la bassesse ce satrape que vous n’aurez élevé que pour la grandeur? Que fera dans la pauvreté, ce publicain qui ne sçait vivre que d’or? Que fera, dépourvu de tout, ce fastueux imbecille qui ne sait point user de lui-même?” &c. &c.

14 This prediction of the end of the world is one of the most popular hallucinations, warmly received by many whenever it is promulgated. It had the most marked effect when the cycle of a thousand years after the birth of Christ was approaching completion; and the world was assured that was the limit of its present state. Numerous acts of piety were performed. Churches were built, religious houses founded, and asceticism became the order of the day, until the dreaded year was completed without the accompaniment of the supernatural horrors so generally feared; the world soon relapsed into forgetfulness, and went on as before. Very many prophecies have since been promulgated; and in defiance of such repeated failures are still occasionally indulged in by persons from whom better things might be expected. Richard Brothers, in the last century, and more than one reverend gentleman in the present one, have been bold enough to fix an exact time for the event: but it has passed as quietly as the thousandth anniversary noted above.

15 One of the most effective prophecies against London, and which frightened for the time a very large number of its inhabitants, was that given out in the spring of 1750, after a slight shock of an earthquake was felt in London, and it was prophesied that another should occur which would destroy the town and all its inhabitants. All the roads were thronged with persons flying to the country a day or two before the threatened event; and they were all unmercifully ridiculed when the day passed over quietly. Walpole in one of his amusing letters speaks of a party who went “to an inn ten miles out of town, where they are to play at brag till five in the morning, and then come back — I suppose, to look for the bones of their husbands and families under the rubbish!” Jokers who were out late amused themselves by bawling in the watchmen’s voice, “Past four o’clock, and a dreadful earthquake!” A pamphlet purporting to be “a full and true account” of this earthquake which never happened, was “printed for Tim Tremor, in Fleet-street, 1750,” and made the vehicle for much personal satire. Thus it is stated that the “Commissioners of Westminster-bridge have ordered this calamity to be entered in their books, as a glorious excuse for the next sinking pier;” and that the town received some comfort upon hearing that “the Inns of Court were all sunk, and several orders were given that no one should assist in bringing any one lawyer above ground.”

16 An eye-witness of the great fire of London has noted the difficulty of obtaining effective assistance in endeavouring to stay its progress, owing to the superstition which seized many persons, because a prophecy of Mother Shipton’s was quoted to show that London was doomed to hopeless and entire destruction.

17 “A Dark Lantherne, offering a dim Discovery, intermixed with Remembrances, Predictions, &c. 1652.”

18 Hooker wrote this about 1560, and he wrote before the Siècle des Révolutions had begun, even among ourselves! He penetrated into this important principle merely by the force of his own meditation. At this moment, after more practical experience in political revolutions, a very intelligent French writer, in a pamphlet, entitled “M. da Villèle,” says, “Experience proclaims a great truth — namely, that revolutions themselves cannot succeed, except when they are favoured by a portion of the Government.” He illustrates the axiom by the different revolutions which have occurred in his nation within these thirty years. It is the same truth, traced to its source by another road.

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