A character in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series. He creates the idea of psychohistory. Using this new field of science he predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire and a 30,000 year dark age. To shorten this period and preserve the knowledge the human race has aquired to this point he sets up the Encyclopedia Foundation staffed with the best scholars and scientists of the Empire. He sends them to a planet on the edge of the galaxy called Terminus.

The first psychohistorian, also the First Minister of the Galactic Empire under Cleon I, as told by Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.

Seldon first proves psychohistory is feasible when he is rather young, but it takes him the rest of his life to fully develop the science. He begins at Streeling University on Trantor, where the Hari Seldon Psychohistory Project is eventually begun. Rather than try to study the twenty-five million worlds of the Galactic Empire, he studies the various sectors of Trantor itself to establish the laws of psychohistory.

In order to shorten a predicted dark age, Seldon sets up two Foundations: the Encyclopedia Foundation located on Terminus, and the more secretive Second Foundation at Star's End.

Lucan and Hari Seldon

The great Roman dynasts Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great duked it out in 48 BC in the fields near the Greek town of Pharsalus. The stakes and the reasons why each fought were complex, but in the event Pompey, a general who had a tremendous reputation going into the battle, suffered a sort of breakdown and contributed in no small way to the decisive defeat of his side (nominally, the forces of the republic--huzzah!). Later Roman authors seized upon the contrast between Pompey's proven reputation and his fairly ignominious role in the battle--it made a good story.

The Roman poet Lucan wrote a brilliant epic poem called the Pharsalia (in the early 60s AD) about the war between Caesar and Pompey, and he found a way to describe Pompey as a paper tiger that no one who reads it ever forgets. He uses a metaphor of a noble old oak tree covered with trophies (Pharsalia, Book I, 135-143):

. . . stat magni nominis umbra, /qualis frugifero quercus sublimis in agro /exuvias veteris populi sacrataque gestans / dona ducum nec iam validis radicibus haerens /pondere fixa suo est, nudosque per aera ramos /effundens trunco, non frondibus, efficit umbram, /et quamvis primo nutet casura sub Euro, /tot circum silvae firmo se robore tollant, /sola tamen colitur.

"He (Pompey) stands, a shadow of a 'great' name, like a lofty oak in the fertile countryside bearing the spoils of an ancient poeple and gifts dedicated by generals. No longer clinging firmly with its roots, it sits fixed by its own weight, and pouring out bare branches through the air from its trunk it offers no shade with leaves--and though it sways and will fall in the first good wind, and a mass of trees around it lift themselves up with unshaken strength, it alone is venerated."

Now let's have a look at a passage of Asimov's Foundation. Seldon has been brought before the Commission of Public Safety, and while being questioned, he seeks a metaphor to describe the weakness of the Galactic Empire despite its outward appearance of being as strong as ever:

Q. (theatrically) Do you realize, Dr. Seldon, that you are speaking of an empire that has stood for twelve thousand years, through all the vicissitudes of the generations, and which has behind it the good wishes and love of a quadrillion human beings?

A. I am aware of both the present status and the past history of the Empire. Without disrespect, I must claim a far better knowledge of it than any in this room.

Q. And you predict its ruin?

A. It is a prediction which is made by mathematics. I pass no moral judgments. Personally I regret the prospect. Even if the Empire were admitted to be a bad thing (an admission I do not make), the state of anarchy which would follow its fall would be worse. It is that state of anarchy which my project is pledged to fight. The fall of the Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity--a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.

Q. Is it not obvious to anyone that the Empire is as strong as ever it was?

A. The appearance of strength is all about you. It would seem to last forever. However, Mr. Advocate, the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might it ever had. The storm blast whistles through the branches of the Empire even now. Listen with the ears of psychohistory, and you will hear the creaking.

Coincidence? Anyone who has ever spent time in a forest knows about widowmakers, so the idea of a tree that is ripe to topple is common enough. On the other hand, Asimov parallels Lucan in using the tree as a metaphor, and I would argue that he has adopted and adapted Lucan's oak in several particulars. The wind whistles through the branches of Asimov's tree, while Lucan's oak shoots its naked branches out into the air; in both it is a storm wind that will topple them; Asimov's rotten tree parallels Lucan's leafless trunk; and Asimov's tree creaks (because it is loose) just as Lucan's sways. Carried a bit further, Lucan's oak is an object of reverence covered with the ancient glories of its people just as Asimov has Seldon's inquisitor refer to the antiquity of the Empire (12,000 years), the vicissitudes of generations through which it has lasted, and the good wishes of a quadrillion citizens.

Asimov had an encyclopedic knowledge, and if many of his books probably reflect learning from later years, he clearly had some background in the classics (quite apart from the obvious model for the fall of the Galactic Empire he had in Gibbon's Decline and Fall) as he wrote the Foundation stories. Seldon's homeworld is Helicon--a name laden with significance in the ancient world as the mountain on whose slopes the muses tarried with their patron Apollo--a little further west on the same mountain mass is Mt. Parnassus, where Apollo had his oracular seat at Delphi. Seldon is explicitly called "raven Seldon": "He keeps predicting disaster." How fitting then, that this oracle should have come from Helicon. Again, when breakaway provinces are putting pressure on Terminus, we have the names Smyrno (there is a famous ancient Greek city Smyrna which is now Izmir, Turkey) and Anacreon, the latter the name of a Greek lyric poet. The great and luckless general Bel Riose of Foundation and Empire is a very slightly altered form of Belisarius, Justinian's great and ultimately luckless general.

Until we find some smoking gun in Asimov's correspondence (or buried in his autobiography) telling us he read Lucan, the proposal that this breathtakingly beautiful passage from Foundation has one of its roots firmly in the Roman world is just a probability at best. I find the parallels convincing: YMMV.

The Asimov quotations are taken from Foundation (1951), p. 27; the unlovely translation of the Latin is mine.

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