Most of us have had a great idea pop up out of nowhere, often when we were not actively thinking about the subject at all—maybe on a walk or after a nap. Or we’ll have a hunch that turns out to be true.
Peter Struck, the Evan C Thompson Professor of Excellence in Teaching in classical studies, believes it was this phenomenon that the ancient Greeks and Romans were expressing through divination—a practice that had them looking at the natural world for answers. He makes the case in his new bookDivination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Antiquity. Classical society had many paths to divination, and used it to answer questions ranging from the epic, such as whether to go to war, down to small domestic issues. Dreaming was important; you might wake up and realize a message about what would happen. You could also consult oracles, who were available across the range of the social hierarchy, says Struck, “from very expensive ones like the oracle at Delphi with its own temple, all the way down to the oracle you’d go to in the marketplaces, who had a little stand and a little sign out front.”