I mentioned the sixteenth century French seer Michel de Nostre Dame yesterday in connection with dubious skepticism. It isn’t necessary to believe in his prophecies to enquire as to what he thought he was doing, although there’s also the issue of whether he was a charlatan. This is further complicated by the possibility that a charlatan may turn out to be unintentionally accurate. My aim here is to give a mini-outline of what I think he thought he was doing, and to offer an opinion about the method and its metaphysical implications.
Just as an introduction, Nostradamus was a French herbalist of the sixteenth century who attempted to use attar of rose to cure the Plague and also published an annual almanack. The fact that he was a herbalist possibly gives his way of thinking an affinity with mine, since I am too, although a twenty-first century one. It might also be observed that attar of rose is currently one of the most expensive essential oils and that if someone did go around selling it to terminally ill people many of whom would also have their next of kin die, it could constitute a low-risk strategy for making money from them. Even so, I don’t want to malign his reputation and in fact attar of rose is strongly antimicrobial. Whether it works against Yersinia pestis or whatever the pathogen involved in the Black Death was (it’s been suggested that it was misidentified due to how it spread) is another matter, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that it did.
Nostradamus published his prophecies in 1555, claiming that all of them would happen by the year 3797. There are ten ‘Centuries’ – chapters – each originally consisting of a hundred quatrains (four line verses) making predictions in rather gnomic language. One of the chapters has fifty-eight missing quatrains, and unsurprisingly stories have grown up around this that he considered them too dangerous to published and hid them behind a walk in his house. There are alleged copies of these, but ignoring those leaves 942 verses, the first two of which describe his alleged method. I’ll come back to that. Over the 2242 years which the prophecies were supposed to cover, if the 940 verses each referred to a single event, the mean rate at which they could be expected to be fulfilled would be about one every two years and five months. A truly random distribution would probably contain clusters of prophecies coming true in quick succession and long intervals during which nothing happens. By now we could, with the assumption of randomness, expect about a fifth of them to have taken place. On the other hand, the distribution might not be random. More significant events might happen close together or something about his method of divination might make some more easily scryable, that is, viewable through a “crystal ball” or somesuch method.
A common misconception about the prophecies is that they aren’t dated. In fact many of them are, through references to seldom-seen astronomical events, though some of these occur more than once in the two millennia said to be covered. There are also at least two clear references to years, which are thought by some not to be intended literally – 1666 and 1999. The repeated digit when written in Arabic numerals suggests that something else might have been going on which means that the actual dates mentioned might not be as accurate as the allusions to astronomical events.
This brings up the issue of obscurity and it’s certainly true that many verses are repeatedly reinterpreted for each generation. That said, as I mentioned yesterday the quatrain said to refer later to 9/11, not to be confused with the fake version which appeared afterwards, was widely seen by 1980 to refer to an airliner crashing into a skyscraper in New York City. This can be verified if you find yourself a print copy of one of Erika Cheetham’s books on Nostradamus printed at around that time: there’s no need to take my word for it.
An interesting set of events took place in 1987 in connection with these apparent prophecies. Since about 1979 I had expected, due to reading his work, that there would be a Third World War beginning with a conflict between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf on 22nd October 1987 and continuing for twelve years. In fact what happened at around that time, 19th October in fact, was Operation Nimble Archer, where the US Navy attacked two Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. This is a matter of record, not false memory: it’s in my diary and explicitly linked to Nostradamus. Fortunately, nothing much came of it. But none of it is post hoc rationalisation.
Back to the opening couple of verses. These read:
Estant assis de nuict secret estude
Seul reposé sur la seller d’ærain:
Flamine exigue sortant de solitude
Fait prosperer que n’est à croire vain.
La vierge en main mise au milieu des Branches
Dear l’onde il moulle & le l’imbe & le pied:
Vn peur & voix fremissent par les Manches
Splendeur diuine. Le diuin pres s’assied.
In translation (not mine):
Standing alone at night in secret study
It is placed on the brass tripod
A slight flame comes out of the emptiness and
Makes successful that which should not be believed in vain
The wand in the hand is placed in the middle of the tripod’s legs
With water he sprinkles both the hem of his garment and his foot.
A voice, fear: he trembles in his robes.
Divine splendour; the god sits nearby.
This is what Nostradamus claimed he did to make his prophecies. Deep in the night he sat in front of a brass tripod (or did he? I’ll return to that) upon which a vessel containing water was placed, put a wand in the middle of the tripod’s legs, sprinkled himself with water, saw visions in the water and heard a voice.
This reminds me of tales of the Vatican’s Chronovisor. It’s exceedingly far-fetched, but Vatican City is said to own a secret machine invented by a Roman Catholic priest with a cathode ray tube on which pictures of the past can be viewed, back to at least Ancient Roman times. Unsurprisingly I’m highly dubious about this but the method Nostradamus described is somewhat similar.
Clearly if Nostradamus really did what he claimed, his method and apparatus, and the theory behind it, would be immensely important. It’s similar to the use of black mirrors and crystal balls. It’s also possible that this is fabricated or that Nostradamus was imagining or hallucinating things due to sleep deprivation.
The use of the word “tripod” in the translation is also interesting. Although I can’t find a reference to a tripod in the French, my knowledge of the sixteenth century version of the tongue is deficient. This could be a reference to the Platonic Triad of Beauty, Justice and Truth uniting in the One of the ineffable Ultimate.
Nostradamus was, like many learned people of his time and the previous millennium, a follower of the Neo-Platonist Iamblichus. Neo-Platonism is a retrospective label for an important school of philosophy which held sway over mediaeval and early modern thought. Plotinus, Iamblichus and their associates merely considered themselves to be Platonists but from today’s perspective they seem to have adopted a very different mode of thought. At the end of European antiquity, there having been an attempt to reconcile Christianity and classical philosophy, Western thought took a mystical turn, reflected in, among other things, Gnosticism. It’s esoteric and I personally find it irritating, partly because it marks a turn away from the clarity and rationality of ancient Greek philosophy and reflects the influence of what the Church had sadly become. Nevertheless, the phrase “what if?” comes to mind. To an outsider there seems to be no difference between scientific language and technobabble. How do we know Neo-Platonism isn’t simply a perfectly valid line of thought which was later thrown out due to the vagaries of history? In particular, how do we know that somewhere in all that apparently nonsensical mess there isn’t a genuinely reliable technique for predicting the future?
Although my background is in Western academic philosophy, that hasn’t made me an expert on Aristotle or Plato. I find the pre-Socratic thinkers more appealing and relevant, and also the likes of Stoics and Cynics. One thing I do know, like many other people, is the World of Forms, which I may have mentioned in ‘Souls And Black Holes’ as the basis of the soul. There is, in Plato’s view, an eternal and unchanging entity corresponding to the merely physical examples of the things corresponding to it, for each “real” thing. I tend to feel this way about “ideas whose time has come”, such as inventions whose ideas are there to be had, including the likes of the filament light bulb, the ZX Spectrum, as mentioned previously, and the plots of certain novels.
Though I don’t know if Neo-Platonism went in that direction, I can also see that the idea of the soul as a Platonic Form works quite well in connection with those of the Resurrection and Day of Judgement. God firstly has to recreate everyone while maintaining their identity. If they are mere copies they can’t be accountable for the sins of the originals, and the Platonic Form works well for this in the absence of a ghost-like soul. God then judges those resurrected people as if they’re, as the current vernacular has it, the best versions of themselves. That is, they are seen by God as if they’d had all the advantages and a near-perfect life. This, as far as I can see, is very close to the idea of the Form although I don’t know if Neo-Platonism took it in that direction.
Consequently, this is what I think Nostradamus may have seen himself as doing, or at least portrayed himself as doing:
All events, past, present and future, correspond to an eternal Form of themselves, written, as it were, in a perfectly authoritative book of the history of the world. His divination process is accessing those eternal entities which he then expresses. In terms of Theosophy they are the Akashic Record. It’s probably never going to be clear how honest he was in expressing this, but I think that’s what he’s getting at.
Finally, Nostradamus is a good example of how current Christian fundamentalism projects its own values into the past. We are led to believe that all forms of divination have always been considered heresy or witchcraft by the Church. Nostradamus very publicly practiced two forms of divination, astrology and scrying, and wasn’t persecuted. There are apocryphal tales that he was. This is because all of that stuff was regarded as absolutely fine by the Church through most of its history. Only recent revision of that long tradition has promoted the idea that it was considered in any way problematic.
None of this is meant to imply that I believe in Nostradamus nowadays. Stopped clocks are right twice a day, after all, and having made almost a thousand pronouncements, it is possible that some would be correct. I do also find, though, that there’s an almost wilful rewriting of the past on the part of non-believers in this area which makes him look less plausible, and it rather reminds me of the rewriting fundamentalism has recently done to make it appear that Christians have always been against divination. Neither of those things are true.