October 23, 2008

A turning of the wheel

Imagine having it all--fame, status, respect, wealth and more--and then suddenly losing it. (Some people are going through that right now.) How do you think you would deal with a big reversal of fortune (or Fortuna)?

That was pretty much the real situation of the Roman patrician Boethius (circa 480-535), who held high office in that twilight zone between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Rome had fallen under the power of the Ostrogoths, although for a time much of daily life remained unchanged. Boethius fell afoul of King Theodoric and was stripped of wealth and position, imprisoned and executed in what no doubt was a pretty nasty way.

It was during this period of imprisonment that he composed a classic work, The Consolation of Philosophy. As he bemoans his fate, Lady Philosophy visits him in prison and instructs him in wisdom so that he can face his end with composure. While that might sound contrived in a work of fiction, Boethius' situation was all too real.

The book is interesting to me largely for its view of the role of Fortune in human affairs. As Richard Green wrote in the introduction to his translation,

The conception of Fortune as the feminine personification of changeable, unpredictable fate is drawn from pagan sources, notably from the Roman poets and moralists, where she is described as blind, vagrant, inconstant, meretricious. But, as Seneca had observed, there are limits to her power: she cannot give a man virtue, nor deprive him of it, and so virtue becomes the wise man's weapon against her. She represented fate as a random, uncontrollable force, to be feared or courted, opposed or despised, according to the theological and philosophical dispositions of those who, largely through the experience of misfortune, felt her power.

A basic point of the book is that it is the very nature of Fortune to change. Those who put themselves in its/her power by basing our happiness on things that aren't within our own power to keep are helpless when things change--as they will.

Fortune herself is quoted by Philosophy as saying

Here is the source of my power, the game I always play: I spin my wheel and find pleasure in raising the low to a high place and lowering those who were on tip. Go up, if you like, but only on condition that you will not feel abused when my sport requires your fall.

There is a very old wisdom tradition among many cultures that while we can't control everything that happens to us, we can control our own responses and thus acquire a degree of independence from fortune.

Too bad that's easier said than done.

THE AMERICAN DREAM of social mobility seems to have migrated to northern Europe, according to a new report on economic inequality.

A GOOD QUESTION. Have there been any pay cuts on Wall Street for CEOs since the bailout?

NOT TO BE. The US suicide rate is increasing for the first time in a decade. Women have shown the largest increase.

URGENT ANCIENT DINOSAUR/BIRD UPDATE here. You really have to see the picture.


No comments: