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  • The Art of Alarm
  • Elisabeth Young-Bruehl (bio)

In the ancient Greek world, Cassandra was metonymic for prophecy. Apollo gave Priam's daughter her capacity for prophecy as a love gift, but when she refused his suit, so the story goes, he condemned her to be lucid but rejected. The key feature of Cassandra's story characterizes Greek prophecy: it is a truth about the future that no one benefits from.

The Greek suspicion of prophecy went even further than the skepticism and incessant questioning or refusal of final Truth so characteristic of their philosophia—or at least of the domains of it not descended from Parmenides. In their stories about Apollo himself, bestower of prophetic gifts, they were also aware of how prophecy can be manipulated. Apollo had tricked the goat-legged god Pan into teaching him the prophetic art and then he had seized the Delphic Oracle to make the priestess there his own. People listening to Apollo's representatives would have had every reason to wonder whether the prophecy played a role in some quarrel among the gods.

In the Judeo-Christian and Islamic monotheistic traditions, there is no god whose special province is prophecy, although there are, of course, prophets, and Mohammed is the Prophet in Islam. False prophets may appear, but no believer should ever question whether the ultimate, divine source of truth about the future is reliable or manipulative. A prophet's message is a statement of God's will, of the future as God's finished production toward which human beings, sojourning on the earth, are ultimately travelling. In these traditions, people march into the future and the prophets are guides.

Since the Enlightenment the status of prophecy has become problematic again, although not in the Greek manner. When "the prophets of Paris"—Turgot, Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Comte and their followers—imagined a science of society that was going to bring about mankind's future perfection, their visions were explicitly non-religious—although they, very importantly, retained the idea that the future is out there, to be marched toward. Each claimed to have a special human insight into the deeper workings of History, what we would now call a theory, and each portrayed the destination of Progress in systematic detail. They did not agree, however, on the systematic details. In the century after the French Revolution, self-appointed prophets of every conceivable sort hitched their visions of Progress to programs for nation-states.

Certainly the vast majority of modern self-appointed prophets in the public realm have been prophets of Progress, invoking perfectability, most frequently in Marxist terms, but after the First World War, which was such a shock to optimism and idealism, prophetic visions of the decline and fall of civilizations in the Spenglerian manner became more common. By the mid-twentieth century, modernist self-consciousness about the unpredictability of human affairs had tempered non-religious prophetic enthusiasm generally, even in America, the land of the victorious non-Marxist ideology of Progress, the emergent superpower. But that does not mean that the modernists or even their current heirs, were not in love with theory or not given to making claims for their knowledge of either the deeper causes of history or the shape of things to come.

No one trying at the mid-twentieth century to imagine the future was more circumspect and suspicious of prophecy, whether of Progress or of Doom, than Hannah Arendt, who included in the Preface to her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism these somber sentences:

This book has been written against a background of both reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition, not of faith.

She might have written the same sentences were she living today, in our so-called post-modernist era. And in the last years of her life, in the early 1970s, she often did write specific complaints both against those who pretended to knowledge of the future and offered "deeper causes" theories about the past. As she did in "Home to Roost," her reflection in 1975 on the American bicentennial, Arendt cautioned that those...


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pp. 19-24
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