The psychology of the prophet originates in the shaman’s insight for healing the sick. The notion of predicting the future was simply the application of a remedy or change of behavior that would change the future. The sick could be physically ill or suffer a psychological modality. The function of the shaman as healer, which would be refined or sophisticated by herbalists, midwives, and wise elders, was not so much to change the future as to make one away of what the future would be without change in the present. On a mundane level, the function of problem-solving was a matter of experience; finding herbs, for example, called upon the shaman’s perception of where to optimize gathering. Perception, experience, reflection, integration, synthesis: the hallmarks of dealing with crisis and the future, be it one’s own or another’s.
With the evolution of shamanism into priesthood in complex societies, the augurs were arranged to reflect the values of the class in authority. Healing the sick was confined to healing the powerful, and predicting the success of crops or the outcome of battles was more relevant to the powerful than to the lowborn. Cicero argued, nevertheless, that augurs were demanded by the populace and were of “great advantage” to the state, and so should be retained (though he clearly was skeptical).
Today we have financial forecasters — though they have been dissipated from the temple by the global economic downturn — and sports, television, political elections, lotteries. Though the augurs have been otherwise banished, the games of fortune as augurs are still found to be in demand by the populace and of “great advantage” to the state.
All this is augury based on whim and amusement. But religious sentiment often borders on the fine line between what Cicero called superstition and religion. We might consider crass a prayer to get rich or get even, but that line is crossed when what is desired is reasonable, like rain during a drought. Even so, as the famous story of the two hillsides shows, there is contradiction in circumstance. The story is of two farmers on either side of a hill. On one side the farmer needed rain and on the other side, where the rain was ruinous, the farmer needed dryness. Who was God (or the gods) to satisfy? Both, perhaps?
The wisdom of shamanism, and forms of proactive future-changing rather than future-predicting, is in identifying the potential for positive change and pulling out for inspection all the factors involved. There is an empirical objectivity to the process, a high degree of vigilance and fact-gathering, all done with intuition as much as reason. For example, to cure a disease, the natural approach is to identify all the relevant factors, then make an estimate based on the conditions brought about by the factors. Modern medicine proceeds in the opposite way. After compiling a list of symptoms, the list is compared to a list of diseases, and a match made. Then the list of diseases is matched to a list of pharmaceuticals. Seldom are the organic factors of diet, exercise, energy, and frame of mind taken into account. Medicine, except in its grossest mechanical sense, is a reading of augurs, as superstitious as augur-reading in antiquity.
A perspicacious approach is what marks modern tarot as well. The cards are not supposed to predict the future but to identify underlying factors that the person is supposed to take into account. Or, more precisely, the cards stimulate the unconscious of the person to reflect on archetypes so that these factors begin to reveal patterns and issues in their lives to take into account. Taking these into account, the people can see what is coming in their lives. This is not divination or augury because the reader can change that probable future — if he or she addresses the underlying issues. (Of course, not all tarot users think of tarot this way.)
Another form of prophecy, actually closer to something like tarot, is religious prophecy. The shift from religions of sacrifice to religions of ethics is a substantial maturation of the relation of individual to nature, God, and self. The Old Testament Yahweh was satisfied with the “sweet savor” of burnt animal sacrifices, but by the time of Isaiah, it was a sacrifice of the heart and not of an animal that was pleasing to God, of course representing a spiritual advance. The same process took place in Aryan India with the transition from Vedic Brahmanism to Vedanta. The individual remarkably improves their ability to understand their future when taking into account more of the fundamental aspects of nature and spirit than when relying on others to interpret or predict the future.
Most religious prophecy however, intends to predict specific events, such as the Fatima prophecies, ignoring the Gospel injunction of Jesus (Mark:13:32) that no one knows the day nor hour — by which is meant a myriad of events from the mundane to death itself, which is what should matter, rather than political, economic, catastrophic, or apocalyptic events over which individuals have no control.
Similarly, cryptic prophecies declared by witches or Nostradamus or the like also pander the the desire to control not just the future but to control others, to have them live and respond in the same way as oneself, to remake the environement of time and space into a chaos, with oneself sufficiently compelled to react. An entire psychology of the occult prefers these nebulous forces to those of enlightenment and self-realization. Their augurs tend to overlap religion as much as politics.
There are more benign religious prophecies, such as the fictional Celestine prophecies, or the New Age prophecies about the winter solstice of 2012. These fall into similar categories, distinguished only by their sentiment of secular piety or presumed authenticity.
We do not control our lives in an absolute fashion, of course, but we have substantial input about how we spend our time and energy, and it is essential to control these in order to carve out a future that is in harmony with our values. Our knowledge of forthcoming catastrophe should be entirely in order to amend our lives — not as repentance or revelation but as will to power, power over ourselves.
We must be wary of the tone and structure we adopt in our speculations about the future. Forecasts about material and social conditions easily adopt a biblical phraseology that puts one on a godly plain, judging the world in terms of good and evil. The concern of sages everywhere has always been to transcend good and evil, to see good and evil as subjective intervention in the interests of human desires.
By transcending good and evil, we approximate to a harmony with nature and the universe that is not possible when we are concerned only about future outcomes of present deeds. Such a concern betrays our petty motives. If what we are doing here and now is right, then the future does not matter. The future unfolds according to the nature of its causes and effects, but our individual future is guided by what we identify as values and incorporate into our lives. How could events matter in this ultimate sense?
It is in this sense the sage would say: “Love God and do what you will.” But only in this sense.
Part of the temptation of prediction is the assurance it gives us, the power it seems to bestow on secular events. This is a false path, but understandable because modern society and culture are constructed on material achievement and cannot measure themselves in ways other than those. The modern world has constructed its values on this material plain and ignores the more subtle aspects of life, nature, self, spirit, and being.
Lao-tzu offers a different presentation of reality: as mystery. Note especially the off-hand advice of the last stanza about the future.
Looked at but unseen – it is beneath form;
Listened to but unheard – it is beneath sound;
Held but not touched – it is beneath feeling;
These depthless things evade definition,
And blend into a single mystery.
In its rising there is no light,
In its falling there is no darkness,
A continuous thread beyond description,
Lining what cannot occur;
Its form formless,
Its image nothing,
Its name silence;
Follow it, it has no back,
Meet it, it has no front.
Attend the present to deal with the past;
Thus will you grasp the continuity of the Way,
Which is its essence.
The future? It does not exist. You are an accumulation of the past. Deal with the past. Then attend the present. Thus will you enter the Way. There is no other way to deal with the future.