“Fortune is powerless to help one who does not exert himself.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
Last time we saw how Boethius analyzed the situation of extreme misfortune, and found the opportunity it offers for reinforcing detachment and self-mastery as well as helping to identify true friends. Fortune can be approached by the philosopher from additional standpoints.
Philosophers offer advice on the role fortune plays in life and our ability to resist it. Diogenes Laertius is skeptical of the importance of fortune when he says, “Chance has a small impact on the wise man, while reasoning has arranged for, is arranging for, and will arrange for the greatest and most important matters throughout the whole of life.”1 Epictetus seems to differ, giving the typical Stoic view which echoes Boethius, “We must make the best of those thing that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it.”2 Machiavelli offers a pragmatic analysis: “Fortune is the arbiter of one half of our actions, but still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”3 Shakespeare challenges passivity in the face of ill fortune when Hamlet asks “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.” His queen, Elizabeth I of England, advises against reliance on chance, “Never think you fortune can bear the sway / Where virtue’s force can cause her to obey.”
But Leonardo da Vinci expresses best the use of good fortune in the quote above and in another, “When fortune come, seize her with a firm hand. In front, I counsel you, for behind she is bald.”4 While we must develop detachment in the case of unavoidable misfortune, we must be prepared to seize on good fortune, not waste it. This is particularly well demonstrated in cases of serendipity – the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Most of us will experience this as ‘being in the right place at the right time.’ But better examples show the importance of preparation for and openness to lucky events such as when Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, when he came back from a vacation and found that a green mold called Pennicilium notatum had contaminated Petri dishes in his lab and were killing some of the bacteria he’d been growing.
In conclusion, fortune or chance is an inevitable modality of the experience of life. Misfortune often requires detachment and perspective although it can perhaps be combatted at times. Good fortune requires preparation, openness, and firm action. However, fortune cannot be forced nor relied upon. Free will and ethical behavior offer more dependable means to achieve the goals of life.
1Inwood, Brad and Gerson, L.P., Hellenistic Philosophy, Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., Indianapolis. ISBN 0-87220-041-8, page 27.
2Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952, page 185.
4MacCurdy, Edward (editor), The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, George Braziller, New York, 1955. Page 86 and 1093.