In an earlier post I had talked about mythic consciousness and how it provides explanations for why bad things happen to a particular individual when rational arguments no longer persuade. With millions of Americans out of work, we’re going to throw billions at the economy in hopes that it will show us favor us once again. There’s no plan B for the national economy right now, so if the stimulus package currently being hammered out in Congress doesn’t work, don’t be surprised if some House sub-committee starts to consider the sacrificing of virgins.
Tracing a line from the global economic downturn to a single person’s job loss or house foreclosure is difficult, if not impossible. Why this particular person and not someone else? Why me? Economists can’t answer these questions.
But the ancients could. They had a name for this causality: Fortune. She was the Roman goddess of luck, fate, and fortune. Originally she was a fertility goddess, the eldest child of Jupiter. As Roman civilization became more urbanized, money, advancement, love and health were added to her portfolio. She was enshrined in temples throughout Italy and on the back of many Roman coins, holding a cornucopia in one hand and a rudder in the other. The former was a symbol of her power to bestow favors, and the latter a symbol of her more sinister power to change destinies. She could arrange a bounteous feast, then place a chicken bone in your throat to kill you.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca sternly reminds us that our lives are in the hand of Fortune. Anything we have can be taken away from us. “Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own,” he writes. “Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl.” When a grieving mother came to him after the death of her son, he told her plenty of people have lost children, and that she shouldn’t dwell on her loss. “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.” He counseled a friend who was worried about a lawsuit that threatened his career, “If you lose this case, can anything more severe happen to you than being sent into exile or led to prison? ‘I may become a poor man;’ I shall then be one among many. ‘They may put me in chains.’ What then? Am I free from bonds now?”
Seneca warns us never to forget the whims of Fortune. The most painful misfortunes are the ones we don’t expect, so always expect the worst, but be assured that the worst probably won’t be as terrible as we feared. He doesn’t mean to suggest that we should do nothing at all to increase our chances of receiving good Fortune. He simply says that you shouldn’t take misfortune personally. Fortune knocks everybody to the ground at some point. Seneca himself suffered exile and wealth. He ended his days by slitting his wrists by the order of Emperor Nero.
Stoicism isn’t about not showing emotion during times of duress. It’s about facing up to reality and accepting that what appears solid and permanent is really an illusion. Whole cities can disappear as easily as a single job. Everything is in flux. Everything is in the hands of Fortune, and you never know what she’s going to do today.