“I want you to remember that words have those meanings which we have given them; and we give them meanings by explanations.”

Ludwig Wittgentstein, The Blue Book1

Among the most difficult and crucial tasks in understanding an ancient text is figuring out what the archaic concepts actually referred to. While it is generally thought that the only way to “discover” the meaning of a word is through an analysis of its usage, this principle is especially relevant with respect to words in ancient texts since we have virtually no intuition of what these words meant for the people who used them. This task does not fall solely on the shoulders of the translators since there may be a word in the target language that corresponds to an archaic concept, but the word may be just as conceptually ancient as the word in the original language. The challenge posed to the reader is to determine the modern day synonyms for ancient words.

The underlying assumption of this endeavor is that the phenomena in question remains relatively constant over time, and it is only the words that we use to label these phenomena that change. The assumption that human nature has changed little since ancient times can be justified by a study of ancient texts. The struggle between passion and reason, the preoccupation with sex and death, the relentless need to reconcile determinism with freedom in the world, and even people’s senses of humor have remained virtually unchanged over the past two thousand years. It is therefore particularly puzzling to find one trait that is common to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome that has seemingly disappeared in our times - prophecy. However, before we mourn the passing of the prophets, we had better first explore the possibility that the alleged disappearance of prophecy is an illusion created and maintained by a misuse of language.

In order to reconstruct the concept of prophecy from the ground up, we must first rid ourselves of any preexisting notions that we have concerning the nature of prophecy. Just because our definition of a prophet is “1. One whose revelations are divinely inspired. or 2. One who foretells the future.”2 does not mean that the word meant this to the ancients. Before we proceed any further, it is also important to note the mystical issues surrounding prophecy, namely that God or a deity is the source of prophecy, can be bracketed. Finding a reductionist mechanism that explains prophecy in cognitive terms does not preclude divine inspiration. The believer will always be able to claim that God communicates with humans through this mechanism, while the empiricist can simply cut God out of the picture. Finally, we must make a distinction between prophets and prophecy. A prophet is much more than “one who prophesies”. The prophet’s environment, education, and social position directly influenced the form that his prophecy took. On the other hand, the term “prophecy” is intended to isolate the prophet’s internal mental experiences. As we shall see, there may be a direct link between a prophet’s internal mental experiences and his external behavior.

Most discussions about prophesy among ancient texts and the commentaries establish a link between prophesy and madness. Similarly, while the scientific community has yet to determine the relationship between creative genius and madness, there is mounting evidence of a correlation between the two. The fact that both prophecy and creative genius are somehow connected to madness suggests that the two are also related to each other. In order to make this comparison, we must compare the descriptions of how prophets prophesied, to the descriptions of creativity in geniuses. It will also be helpful to analyze the shifting definitions of madness over time. As this project is vast in scope, this paper will only attempt to sketch these ideas drawing from a limited number of sources.

“If someone among you experiences divine prophecy, I will make myself known to him in a vision, I will speak to him in a dream.”3

The incidence of prophecy in the Old Testament is so frequent that one could very well describe the book as the history of the prophets of Israel. Noah, Abraham, and Moses conversed with God ,4 Jacob and Joseph dreamt,5 while most of the prophets heard God, had visions, and/or dreamt.6 Traditionally, Ru’ach Ha’Kodesh (divine inspiration) not only enabled people predict the future, but also enabled some to interpret dreams (Joseph in Egypt, Daniel), compose poetry (Psalms, Song of Songs), and compose music (David’s harp playing, the Levite musicians). Unsurprisingly, the New Testament maintains this conception of prophecy as we see in the descriptions of Jesus and especially John’s visions in Revelations. What is surprising is that the Greek conception of prophecy is strikingly similar to the Judaic one despite the radically different world views of the two cultures.

“And that there are two kinds of madness, one resulting from human ailments, the other from divine disturbances of our conventions of conduct… And in the divine kind we distinguish four types, ascribing them to four gods: the inspiration of the prophet of Apollo, that of the mystic to Dionysus, that of the poet of the Muses, and a fourth type which we declared to be the highest, the madness of the lover to Aphrodite and Eros.”7

There is far more discussion about prophecy (including the taxonomy of madness given above) in Plato than in the Bible, although characters who are prophets are less plentiful. However, the Socrates’ talk about prophecy is by no means theoretical. Socrates clearly thinks that he is divinely inspired,8 and this inspiration manifests itself in a number of different ways.9 Inspiration does not come to Socrates in the form of dreams or visions, it comes as a voice - the voice of Diotima. Although he introduces her as “a Mantinean woman… deeply versed in this and many other fields of knowledge”10 it is not a tremendous speculative leap to read Diotima as a voice inside Socrates head, and not an actual woman. Although Socrates does not receive inspiration from dreams and visions, these processes were also recognized by the Greeks as forms of inspiration.11 Socrates’ conversations with Diotima are extremely reminiscent of Moses’ conversations with God, and perhaps the similarity is no accident. The fact that both the Hebrews and the Greeks considered voices to be the highest form of prophesy indicates that there may be something universal involved in prophesy. The more we discover, the more it seems like the Hebrews and the Greeks did not invent the concept of prophecy out of thin air. The concepts may have developed in an attempt to explain certain behavior so basic to human nature that it transcended the boundaries of geography, culture, and religion.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the book that psychiatrists use to diagnose mental disorders, or in other words, the modern day definition of madness. The definition of a “manic episode”12 includes the following symptoms: (1) Elevated or expansive mood “characterized by unceasing and unselective enthusiasm for interacting with people”, (2) Inflated self-esteem such as giving “advice on matters about which he or she has no special knowledge” or claiming a special relationship with God, (3) Speech that is loud, rapid, difficult to interrupt, and often “full of jokes, puns, plays on words, and amusing irrelevancies”, (4) A flight of ideas “i.e., a nearly continuous flow of accelerated speech, with abrupt changes from topic to topic, usually based on understandable relations”, (5) Increased involvement in goal directed activity including “excessive planning of, and participation in, multiple activities (e.g., sexual, occupational, political, religious). (6) “God’s voice may be heard explaining that the person has a special mission.” We would be hard pressed to come up with a better description of Socrates, Jesus, and most of the Biblical prophets. In other words, if the Second Coming were to happen tomorrow, there is no doubt Jesus would end up thrown in a rubber room, shot full of Thorazine, and diagnosed as extremely ill (that goes for Socrates and Moses, too). But aside from the cynical skepticism of today’s generation, what has happened to the definition of madness between ancient times and now? Has the “divided line” between prophecy and madness simply been shifted? Is there still room left today for the prophecy of old?

“Is Saul among the Prophets?”13

Often it was even difficult for the people living in ancient times to distinguish between prophecy and sanity, and prophecy and insanity. One of the interesting aspects about prophecy was that it could be induced in somebody byanother prophet. Moses “gave” prophecy to the seventy elders,14 Samuel was raised and trained by the prophet Eli, and Saul’s prophecy was provoked by a wandering band of prophets.15 Socrates enters a trance before his speech in the Phaedrus and stops talking when he begins to “lose it”. Timaeus says that “No man, when in his wits, attains prophetic truth and inspiration, but when he receives the inspired word, either his intelligence is enthralled in sleep or he is demented by some distemper or possession. And he who would understand what he remembers to have been said, whether in a dream or when he was awake, by the prophetic and inspired nature… must first recover his wits.”16 Timaeus goes on to criticize those that consider the interpreters of prophets messages to be prophets as well. The fact that prophecy is connected to training, mentors, education, and self-induced trances, in addition to madness, sheds new light on the passage in Joel that foretells the state of prophecy in messianic times. “And it shall come to pass afterward, That I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions; And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids, In those days will I pour out My Spirit.”17 Perhaps prophecy is something that is within all of our grasps, if only we could learn how to tap into it.

Since prophecy is inextricably connected to the personality to the individual and to the way that his ideas came to him, the trail of the prophets is easy to lose as soon as history is recorded with different priorities. After Jesus, most historical emphasis was placed on the development and progression of ideas, as opposed to the origin of the ideas and the personalities of those involved. Consequently, much of the evidence that seems to indicate a link between prophecy and creative genius is anecdotal. Nonetheless, the evidence that exists definitely suggests that we are on the right trail. First, even the ancients gestured at the connection between inspiration and creativity, as seen in their categorization of the poets and musisians as prophets. Second, although the scientific community has yet to prove that there is a correlation between insanity and creativity, that there is a connection is all but obvious. The list of creative genius who would also be categorized as mentally ill includes Virginia Woolf, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Dostoevski, Dubois, Richard Feynman, and many, many more. Finally, the most convincing facts that connects prophecy with creative genius are the rare personal accounts of where ideas come from. Even the venerable institution of empirical science has had conceptual revolutions that originated in dreams,18 flights of ideas,19 and moments of revelation.20 There is no doubt that the ancients would have considered the men and woman who behaved in these ways and received these kinds of revelations, to be prophets.

A recent resurgence of interest in the psychology of creativity has yielded many interesting results, but the question of creativity has remained unsolved. The following hypothesis, while consistent with current beliefs concerning the mind, is by no means conclusive. Suppose that there was a part of your mind that was operating without your awareness. Next, imagine that this part of your mind was actually carrying out tasks that you had initiated (like trying to remember a tune or a name). It is only a small step from there to consider that this part of your mind is capable of talking on much larger processing jobs (like working out the consequences of a theory) including finding a pattern in data you have observed. This setup is ideal except for one small detail. Since you are not aware of the part of your mind doing the processing, you will be equally ignorant of its solution. This part of your mind needs some way to communicate with your conscious self, and dreams, visions, and voices are perfect for the task. Turning back to the issue at hand, maybe predicting the future was actually a subset of what the prophets of old could have done with their talents. Were the seers and prophets nothing more than people who were very adept at abstract pattern recognition, where, in their case, the abstractions consisted of social forces and dynamics?

The Biblical prophets were more social critics than seers, and they spent most of their time admonishing the rich for treating the poor poorly, and criticizing the people for being mean to each other. Their predictions were usually along the lines of “if you continue doing X, Y will happen to you.” Biblical prophecies were never understood to be deterministicly binding, as they were in Sophocles.21 The prophecies of Jonah are a prime example of this view, since Nineveh repented and Jonah’s prophecies of destruction were never carried out. The parable of the gourd22 reflects the view of the Hebrews that God can forgive, and prophecies not be fulfilled. In fact, Jewish law incorporates this view, as seen in the criterion for convicting a false prophet. If a person makes a prophecy concerning the future that does not come true, (a) if it is a prediction of bad things he is not convicted, (b) but if it was a prediction of good things he is convicted. The rational behind this ruling is that in case (a) God may have forgiven the people (or the people can never have too much criticism), whereas in case (b) the prophet is disgracing god (or the people can not stand having good promises not come true). Perhaps it was the prophet’s social position (kings, judges, advisors), their training, or some other unknown factor that caused the genius of the prophets to manifest itself as predictions of the future. Regardless, it is extremely plausible that predicting the future may have been the product of creative genius.

Whatever mode/language you happen to be thinking in, whether politics, mathematics, music, art, or literature, a part of your mind will be hard at work trying to help you out. So what separates the prophets/geniuses from the average men and from the lunatics? If we knew the answer to that we would probably be well on our way to constructing the society of prophets/geniuses depicted in Joel. For now, an analogy is the best that we can do. Imagine three people living in a world of ideas. One is anchored to the ground and can’t seem to come up with anything new and innovative, partially from a lack of perspective, and partially because he is trapped in the existing paradigm of thought. The second man is a real space cadet, and floats around the universe thinking up all of this great stuff, but never able to come back to the ground to tell everybody else about it. The third man has the best of both worlds. He gets to spacewalk, but he is tethered to the ground. That way he gains the perspective and novelty of being outside of reality, but he can still come back down to the ground to explain what he has seen and heard to the others. This third man is the prophet/genius. There is always the danger that his tether will rip and he will join the ranks of the witches, Mansons, Coreshes, those possessed by devils, and paranoid schizophrenics. However, unless he ventures into space, he will never be close enough a part of himself to hear and see the messages that are being communicated to him. Madness is very powerful force that can control the person as easily as the person can control it, however, like all powerful forces it can harnessed. Riding the edge is not an easy task, but the payoffs can be enormous. With this in mind, we can more fully understand the idealistic wish of Moses: ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them.”23

1Preliminary Studies for the “Philisophical Investigations”: The Blue and Brown Books, p. 27

2Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary

3God speaking to Aaron and Miriam, Numbers 12:6

4Genesis 6:13-21, Genesis 12:1, 15, 17-18, 22, Exodus-Deuteronomy

5Genesis 28:12-15, Genesis 37:5-9

6All the instances of prophecy in the Old Testament are far too numerous to cite, however, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Twelve Prophets all provide good examples of these forms of prophecy.

7Phaedrus 265b

8Phaedrus 238c

9 A possible reading of the texts suggests that Plato’s attempt to become the superwriter, superseding and eliminating the need for all forms of writing that preceded him (Lyric, Epic, Tragedy, Comedy, etc.), is mirrored in Socrates who represents the superprophet, his inspiration manifesting itself in all four of the ways mentioned above. Socrates is at once a fortune teller (The Republic can be read as a warning in the spirit of the Old Testament prophets), a poet, and a lover, who existence makes obsolete the individuals who embody “just” one of these traits, and in this respect typifies the Platonic hero.

10Symposium, 201d

11Timaeus, 72a

12American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition, Revised. Washington, DC, APA, 1987.

13A popular question, often asked by the commentaries.

14Numbers, 11:16-25

15Samuel I, 10:9-12. Saul’s case is particularly interesting since Saul was often subject to a Ru’ach Ra’ah (bad spirits) or in modern terminology, depression. The commentators question can then be understood as “Is this form of insanity (i.e. depression) a form of prophecy as well?

16Timaeus, 72a

17Joel, 3:1-2

18The structure of Benzene as well as the structure of DNA are said to have been discovered in dreams.

19Einstein reported having a “flight of ideas” out of which he had to sort out the good from the bad.

20Poincare, a famous mathematician, told of a solution that occurred to him while stepping on a bus.

21It is difficult to tell what the Greek view was concerning the determinate nature of prophecy. As Sophocles was a playwright, his tale might have reflected the beliefs concerning prophecy at the time, or he may have been poking fun at those who took prophecy seriously by exaggerating what would happen if it was taken deterministicly.

22Jonah, 4

23Numbers, 11:29