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An essay by A. A. Milne

The Future

Title:     The Future
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

The recent decision that, if a fortune-teller honestly believes what she is saying, she is not defrauding her client, may be good law, but it does not sound like good sense. To a layman like myself it would seem more sensible to say that, if the client honestly believes what the fortune-teller is saying, then the client is not being defrauded.

For instance, a fortune-teller may inform you, having pocketed your two guineas, that a rich uncle in Australia is going to leave you a million pounds next year. She doesn't promise you the million pounds herself; obviously that is coming to you anyhow, fortune-teller or no fortune-teller. There is no suggestion on her part that she is arranging your future for you. All that she promises to do for two guineas is to give you a little advance information. She tells you that you are coming into a million pounds next year, and if you believe it, I should say that it was well worth the money. You have a year's happiness (if that sort of thing makes you happy), a year in which to tell yourself in every trouble, "Never mind, there's a good time coming"; a year in which to make glorious plans for the future, to build castles in the air, or (if your taste is not for castles) country cottages and Mayfair flats. And all this for two guineas; it is amazingly cheap.

And now consider what happens when the year is over. The fortune-teller has done her part; she has given you a year's happiness for two guineas. It is now your uncle's turn to step forward. He is going to give you twenty years' happiness by leaving you a million pounds. Probably he doesn't; he hasn't got a million pounds to leave; he has, in fact, just written to you to ask you to lend him a fiver. Well, surely it is the uncle who has let you down, not the fortune-teller. Curse him by all means, cut him out of your will, but don't blame the fortune-teller, who fulfilled her part of the contract. The only reason why you went to her was to get your happiness in advance. Well, you got it in advance; and seeing that it was the only happiness you got, her claim on your gratitude shines out the more clearly. You might decently send her another guinea.

This is the case if you honestly believe your fortune-teller. Now let us suppose that you don't believe. It seems to me that in this case you are entitled to the return of your money.

Of course, I am not supposing that you are a complete sceptic about these things. It is plainly impossible for a fortune-teller to defraud a sceptic, otherwise than by telling him the truth. For if a sceptic went to consult the crystal, and was told that he would marry again before the month was out, when in fact he was a bachelor, then he has not been defrauded, for he is now in a position to tell all his friends that fortune-telling is absolute nonsense--on evidence for which he deliberately paid two guineas. Indeed, it is just on this ground that police prosecutions seem to me to fail. For a policeman (suitably disguised) pays his money simply for the purpose of getting evidence against the crystal-gazer. Having got his evidence, it is ridiculous of him to pretend that he has been cheated. But if he wasted two guineas of the public money, and was told nothing but the truth about himself and his family, then he could indeed complain that the money had been taken from him under false pretences.

However, to get back to your own case. You, we assume, are not a sceptic. You believe that certain inspired people can tell your future, and that the fee which they ask for doing this is a reasonable one. But on this particular occasion the spirits are not working properly, and all that emerges is that your uncle in Australia----

But with the best will in the world you cannot believe this. The spirits must have got mixed; they are slightly under-proof this morning; you have no uncle. The fortune-teller gives you her word of honour that she firmly believes you to have at least three uncles in Australia, one of whom will shortly leave you a mill---- It is no good. You cannot believe it. And it seems to me that on the morning's transaction you have certainly been defrauded. You must insist on "a tall dark man from India" at the next sitting.

It is "the tall dark man" which the amateur crystal-gazer really wants. He doesn't want the future. There is so little to foretell in most of our lives. Nobody is going to pay two guineas to be told that he will be off his drive next Saturday and have a stomach-ache on the following Monday. He wants something a little more romantic than that. Even if he is never going to be influenced by a tall dark man from India, it makes life a little more interesting to be told that he is going to be.

For the average man finds life very uninteresting as it is. And I think that the reason why he finds it uninteresting is that he is always waiting for something to happen to him instead of setting to work to make things happen. For one person who dreams of earning fifty thousand pounds, a hundred people dream of being left fifty thousand pounds. I imagine that if a young man went to a crystal-gazer and was told that he would work desperately hard for the next twenty years, and would by that time have earned (and saved) a fortune, he would be very disappointed. Probably he would ask for his money back.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's essay: Future