Most of us have had a great idea pop up out of nowhere, often when we were not actively thinking about the subject at all—maybe on a walk or after a nap. Or we’ll have a hunch that turns out to be true.
Peter Struck, the Evan C Thompson Professor of Excellence in Teaching in classical studies, believes it was this phenomenon that the ancient Greeks and Romans were expressing through divination—a practice that had them looking at the natural world for answers. He makes the case in his new book Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Antiquity. Classical society had many paths to divination, and used it to answer questions ranging from the epic, such as whether to go to war, down to small domestic issues. Dreaming was important; you might wake up and realize a message about what would happen. You could also consult oracles, who were available across the range of the social hierarchy, says Struck, “from very expensive ones like the oracle at Delphi with its own temple, all the way down to the oracle you’d go to in the marketplaces, who had a little stand and a little sign out front.”
A third method of divination was through animal sacrifice, which was a routine act of piety then. “If you were a good person you did a lot of sacrifice,” says Struck. “And afterward you could read the entrails of the animal. It was thought that there were messages built into those pieces.” Beyond these major methods, Struck says almost everything could have been seen as a divine sign, from overheard words to the movement of leaves on the trees. “They were looking for what information is built into the universe and how they might gain access to it.”
Classicists have looked at the social role divination played in ancient society: as a way to appeal to an outside authority who had the status of an international or nonpartisan organization – like going to The Hague, says Struck. “It’s a really interesting mode of social communication and a way of building consensus, but that’s not the whole story.”
Others have tended to dismiss divination as superstition, “as if, because you were superstitious, somehow you would decide that the world was coursing with hidden messages,” says Struck. “The one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. It’s not a very good explanation, and it misses out on a lot of interesting things we can find out by thinking about it more seriously.”
Then Struck spent a year as a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences. He worked with cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists, and experimental psychologists who were studying all the ways human beings think without being consciously aware that they are thinking. He found himself drawing a parallel with the practices of divination.
“I started thinking about divination as an ancient version of some of the things that the scientists were looking at,” Struck says. “In both cases people were getting information without directly thinking about it. I think we as human beings have a certain capacity to know things without consciously directing our attention to thinking about them, and that when that happens it’s mysterious to us.
“What I’m claiming is that when the ancients talked about these moments of insight that they said arrived from divine signs, they were talking about something analogous to what we talk about under the broad rubric of intuition. But they thought, ‘I was looking at that plant or had a dream, so that must have been what did it.’ And just as for us, intuition is a like a placeholder that lets us talk in a polite way about something that, at its core, is pretty mysterious. We still don’t really have a clue as to where that comes from.”