Harrison Middleton University

Have a Difficult Decision to Make? Have a Copy of Virgil or Homer Handy?

Have a Difficult Decision to Make? Have a Copy of Virgil or Homer Handy?

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


June 9, 2023

Thanks to Chad Greene, a 2023 Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today’s blog.

Depending on your concentrations, perhaps you have read enough about probability and statistics to dissuade you from playing the types of lotteries states tend to sponsor, such as MegaMillions or Powerball. But, in my own reading of one of the Great Books this spring, I have discovered a delightful lottery that I encourage all lovers of epic poetry to try out.

In the first half of my 2023 Fellowship in Ideas, I have indeed experienced a profound form of fellowship during collegial conversations I have had with a group of exceptional people who share my love of the Great Books – administrators and tutors at Harrison Middleton University – as we have spent a few weeks working our ways through François Rabelais’ sixteenth-century satire Gargantua and Pantagruel.

In Book 3, one of the targets of his satire are the many, many ways in which humans have attempted to take away their personal responsibility for making difficult decisions. Here, Rabelais ridicules dozens of forms of vaticination – that, along with vaticinator and vaticinatress, are three of the many, many words I have learned reading Gargantua and Pantagruel – including the casting of Virgilian and Homeric lots.

While his close companion Panurge agonizes over the decision of whether he should marry, Pantagruel suggests in Chapter X of Book 3 that they attempt a Virgilian lottery. “[I]f it please you,” Pantagruel proposes to Panurge, “this you may do. Bring hither Virgil’s poems, that after having opened the book, and with our fingers severed the leaves thereof three several times, we may, according to the number agreed upon betwixt ourselves, explore the future hap of your intended marriage.” So, essentially, the first step in the process of casting Virgilian lots in Gargantua and Pantagruel is flipping the leaves of a volume of Virgil’s poetry to select a page.

Then, in Chapter XI, Pantagruel agrees to Panurge’s suggestion that, for the second step, they select the number of a line of poetry on that page by rolling dice. “[T]o satisfy your humor in some measure,” Pantagruel concedes, “I am content you throw three dice upon this table, that, according to the number of the blots which shall happen to be cast up, we may hit upon a verse of that page which in the setting open of the book you shall have pitched upon.” In Chapter XII, due to Pantagruel and Panurge’s opposing interpretations of Virgil’s lines, they follow these steps three times.

Now, I have not liked everything we have read about in Gargantua and Pantagruel, but I immediately loved this. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons. The first, as a fellow lover of Great Books, you would probably guess: I love the poetry of Virgil, especially his epic, the Aeneid. The second, though, I doubt that you would ever guess. Perhaps I was predisposed to love this sort of lottery because my parents made a difficult decision about me – specifically, what my first name would be – in a slightly similar manner. In their particular case, one of them first opened a baby-name book to a random page and the other then pointed at a name with their eyes closed.

In my attempt at a Virgilian lottery, I followed a process much closer to Pantagruel and Panurge’s steps than to my parents’ steps. For sentimental reasons, the copy of Virgil’s Aeneid that I pulled from my bookshelves was Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which I read during my undergraduate days. Since there are twelve books in the Aeneid, I next rolled two dice to select the section of the epic I would open up to a random page. Then, because there are thirty-nine lines on each page of that particular paperback copy of the Aeneid, I rolled seven dice to select the line. (If I wound up with a number greater than thirty-nine, my plan was simply to continue counting onto the top of the next page.) If any of that was difficult for you to follow, please allow me to demonstrate my modified, three-step process.

The difficult decision I selected to settle by casting Virgilian lots was one that I imagine you have agonized over yourself: Which book should I read next? One of my primary research interests are portrayals of utopias in imaginative literature, so I chose four from my nightstand stack: Plato’s The Republic, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood. My hope was that a random line from Virgil’s Aeneid would suggest which of these I should read next.

My first roll of the dice, to select one of the twelve books of the Aeneid, was a six. After flipping to a random page in Book VI, I rolled a second time to select a line. The dots added up to thirty. So I counted down from the top of the page and found this:

 And he groaned
To pick these figures out, in a long file….

And I, yes, groaned. For, yes, it was certainly a chore to pick out one of these four books. That’s why I was casting Virgilian lots.

As Pantagruel points out in Chapter X of Book 3, “Divers notable things of old have … been foretold and known by the casting of Virgilian lots.” However, in that same chapter, he also allows that “frequently by a Homeric lottery have many hit upon their destinies.” Since my Virgilian lottery didn’t turn out to be a winner, I decided to play the Homeric lottery, instead. So I pulled a copy of Robert Fagles’ translation of the Iliad from my shelves. Because the Iliad has twenty-four books instead of twelve, I made my first roll with four dice instead of two. Otherwise, I followed the same steps I had when casting Virgilian lots.

My first roll of the dice, to select one of the twenty-four books in the Iliad, was a ten. So I selected a page in Book 10, then rolled a second time to identify a line. The dots added up to twenty-one, and my finger started down the page.

This time, the answer to my question seemed much clearer:

Athena, eyes blazing
breathed fury in Diomedes and he went whirling….

I took the word blazing in that first line as a strong statement that it was Cavendish’s The Blazing World I should move to the top of my nightstand stack. That couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?

Except that, well, yes: Of course it could be a coincidence. Gargantua and Pantagruel was a satire, and even Pantagruel – who suggested the casting of literary lots – thinks this is ridiculous. “Do not you nevertheless imagine, lest you should be deluded,” he declares at the end of Chapter X, “that I would upon this kind of fortune-flinging proof infer an uncontrollable and not to be gainsaid infallibility of truth.”

And it’s true: a Virgilian or a Homeric lottery is not a serious way to make a difficult decision. But it is a fun way to randomly dip into one of the Great Books.

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