Wheel of (Mis)Fortune

Seemingly every card-carrying Greek in antiquity bemoaned the workings of chance in human affairs. 

Stobaeus (5th century AD) preserved a fragment by one Hermolochus (no biographical facts are known) who expressed the familiar idea with admirable simplicity.

Aristotle too rehearsed the theme, but shifted the emphasis from the facticity of chance to the character traits necessary to weather it. 

Hermolochus: Fr. 846 (PMG)

All of life bewilders.
Nothing in it secure,
And chance takes it off course.
Hope cheers the heart,
But exactly what’s to come,
And which way one’s carried,
No mortal knows.
A god guides all . . . and yet,
Often, some terrible breeze
Blows against good luck.

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, I.1100b.22-b.32

Things of varying magnitude happen by chance, and little bits of luck, good or bad, are clearly not the decisive things in life. 

However, when a multitude of great chance events are favorable, life is more blessed, for by their very nature such events lend it beauty, and they are put to noble and good use. 

Conversely, some chance events crimp and spoil our bliss, for they bring pain and interfere with many things we do.  But all the same, even in these instances, nobility shines through whenever someone good-naturedly bears a multitude of great misfortunes, and does so not because he’s numb to pain, but because he’s noble and great-souled.  

Hermolochus Fr. 846 (PMG)

ἀτέκμαρτος ὁ πᾶς βίος οὐδὲν ἔχων πιστὸν πλανᾶται
συντυχίαις· ἐλπὶς δὲ φρένας παραθαρσύνει· τὸ δὲ μέλλον ἀκριβῶς
οἶδεν οὐδεὶς θνατὸς ὅπᾳ φέρεται·
θεὸς δὲ πάντας †ἐν κινδύνοις θνατοὺς† κυβερνᾷ·
ἀντιπνεῖ δὲ πολλάκις εὐτυχίᾳ δεινά τις αὔρα.

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, I.1100b.22-b.32

πολλῶν δὲ γινομένων κατὰ τύχην καὶ διαφερόντων μεγέθει καὶ μικρότητι, τὰ μὲν μικρὰ τῶν εὐτυχημάτων, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ τῶν ἀντικειμένων, δῆλον ὡς οὐ ποιεῖ ῥοπὴν τῆς ζωῆς, τὰ δὲ μεγάλα καὶ πολλὰ γινόμενα μὲν εὖ μακαριώτερον τὸν βίον ποιήσει (καὶ γὰρ αὐτὰ συνεπικοσμεῖν πέφυκεν, καὶ ἡ χρῆσις αὐτῶν καλὴ καὶ σπουδαία γίνεται), ἀνάπαλιν δὲ συμβαίνοντα θλίβει καὶ λυμαίνεται τὸ μακάριον: λύπας τε γὰρ ἐπιφέρει καὶ ἐμποδίζει πολλαῖς ἐνεργείαις. ὅμως δὲ καὶ ἐν τούτοις διαλάμπει τὸ καλόν, ἐπειδὰν φέρῃ τις εὐκόλως πολλὰς καὶ μεγάλας ἀτυχίας, μὴ δι᾽ ἀναλγησίαν, ἀλλὰ γεννάδας ὢν καὶ μεγαλόψυχος.

Tyche, the goddess of fortune. Her sheaf of wheat represents prosperity, and her turreted crown is a symbol of security. The Tyche of Antioch. Roman copy (c.300 BC) of Greek original. The statue is in the Vatican.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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