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Hermetic Histories: Divine Providence and Conspiracy Theory

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In the ancient world, the writing of history was closely connected with divination. In this essay I argue that two types of historiography, the providential and the conspiratorial, have a distinct divinatory dimension. Divination purports to uncover occult influences behind the gritty flux of human affairs. Providentialism looks for the "hand of God" in historical events both great and small. Conspiracism is concerned not with the "hand of God" but the "hidden hand." Providentialism and conspiracism are hermetic histories. Like divination they concern themselves with tracking and interpreting signs. History is deciphered via sacred/secret texts, such as the Bible or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In this mode historiography is akin to cryptography. Providentialism and conspiracism are hermetic also in the sense that they present "airtight," all-encompassing explanations of past events. They are totalizing histories. The purpose of this essay is to highlight connections between the discourses of divination, divine providence, and conspiracy theory. By way of illustration, I discuss the Primary Chronicle of Kievan Rus' and two articles written in the post-Soviet period by the late Metropolitan Ioann. The approach taken in this essay foreshortens textual detail and historical depth in favor of a kind of Wittgensteinian perspicuous presentation. Hence the value of formal links: the vaulting phrases of providentialism resound in the Primary Chronicle, yet the text seems grounded in the Lebenswelt of divination; in the articles of Ioann, providentialism passes into conspiracism, demonstrating a link between the two hermetic discourses.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religious Studies Niagara University, NY 14109, USA


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