Extraordinary Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (Part 6)


I was thinking of a good way to introduce this section of the book, but Mackay does a great job of it himself in the second paragraph:

An undue opinion of our own importance in the scale of creation is at the bottom of all our unwarrantable notions. How flattering the pride of man to think that the stars in their courses watch over him, and typify, by their movements and aspects, the joys or the sorrows that await him! He, less in proportion to the universe than the all-but invisible insects that feed in myriads on a summer’s leaf are to this great globe itself, fondly imagines that eternal worlds were chiefly created to prognosticate his fate.

He goes on like this at a good clip for another half a page, but the idea is clear enough from this amusing sample. People are enthralled by the idea that someone might divine their futures by the movement of the stars or reading the pattern of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup.

And there is profit in writing about it. Just ask the editors of newspapers or magazines, any of them. They all print at least one major article on the predictions for the coming year, usually tailored to their audience of course. Writers of certain types of fiction are also fortune-tellers in their way.

Most readers might think I am talking about Science Fiction, and surely this genre has its fair share of prediction. But it isn’t the only sort. Thrillers tend in this direction too. It’s the idea of what comes next that keeps us enthralled.

Doubt what I’m saying? Remember Nostradamus?

The prophecies of Nostradamus consist of upwards of a thousand stanzas, each of four lines, and are to the full as obscure as the oracles of old. They take so great a latitude, both as to time and space, that they are almost sure to be fulfilled somewhere or other in the course of a few centuries. A little ingenuity might easily make events fit to some of them.

Mackay goes on the prove his point in the footnote:

Let us try. In his second century, prediction 66, he says:

“From great dangers the captive is escaped.
A little time, great fortune changed.
In the palace the people are caught.
By good augury the city is besieged.”

“What is this,” a believer might exclaim, “but the escape of Napoleon from Elba — his changed fortune, and the occupation of Paris by the allied armies?”

Of course, the prediction could be fulfilled by any number of historical characters. The idea though is that people love the art of prediction. After all, they read their horoscope every day, don’t they?

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