“Fortune, Good Night! Smile once more; turn thy wheel.” William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act II, Scene II.
In this section so far we have looked at two modalities of our experience of the unfolding of life – free will and fate. Today we will look at the third modality – chance or fortune. Fate refers to deterministic aspects of our existence such as our human form, gender, physical attributes, time, place and family of birth, world events, and so forth – typically considered the necessary aspects of life. Free will represents our ability to choose our future within the limits of the environment and our abilities – that is the contingencies we appear to control. Fortune represents the contingent aspects of life that appear to be outside our control such as weather, people we meet or who influence our life course, or other chance events.
Fortune then is simply the factor of chance in human affairs. Fortune can be good or bad, but very few of the greatest people who have ever lived deny the part serendipity played in their accomplishments. The role of philosophy is to recognize chance as an inescapable factor in life and to guide us in how to use fortune (or overcome it) in living well.
We can start by looking at the phenomenon of chance. Bertrand Russell defines chance as an event whose cause is unknown. Other philosophers such as Aristotle and J.S. Mill think chance is the concurrence of two independent causal chains – coincidence as it were. Alternatively Epicurus, Charles Peirce, and William James all see chance as events that are uncaused.1 It seems to me that we should accept all three of these facets of fortune.
In Greek myth, Fortune is a goddess who combats against the Fates and like them has power even over the other gods. Aristotle lumps good fortune into the category of external goods. Such goods are beyond man’s power and merit, rather they are unpredictable. But no philosopher or myth of antiquity investigates the human experience of fortune as lucidly as Boethius does in the sixth century. That is the subject of the next blog.
1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 2, page 73.