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Fortuna versus Fate
July 6, 2014
by William P. Meyers

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In prior essays [see note below] I have examined the nature of randomness, determinism, and free will. Here I would look at these issues from a more human-centered angle. To do so I will start from the ancient concepts of fate and fortune as personified in goddesses.

The Romans had "the Fates," Nona, Decima, and Morta. Together they were the Parcae, personifications of the idea of destiny or Fate.

Romans, like Americans, were a determined people. They rose from being bush-league villagers to dominating the Mediterranean world. If they recognized the Fates, they preferred Fortuna. She was the personification of luck or fortune, both good and bad. Other religions, of course, have their equivalents.

In societies where most people have few choices, their fate is the predominant theme. Whether class-based society in post-Norman Conquest England, or caste-based society in India, or the fate of females in herding-based societies, many people have had little opportunity to make decisions in their lives. One's fate is determined by one's birth.

In societies, or in social subsets, where more choices can be made, decision making is a more important factor. Free will becomes more of a reality when you are not a slave to others. Fortune becomes more than just being born to the right or wrong family.

In the English colonies that became the United States of America, many if not most white male individuals saw a transition from the rigid English class system to some greater degree of freedom. It was risky: people could, and did, die easily on the early frontier. The typical English immigrant, before about 1750, came to America an indentured servant and died before being freed from the indenture.

In the short run in 18th century America it was better to be a black slave, the property of some white master, than to be an indentured white servant, in theory on the route to freedom. Black slaves were valuable property. Even in old age they might do tasks that justified their daily feed. In contrast the graduation of an indentured servant had a cost to their masters (usually trivial by today's standards: a new suit of clothes). Many did not make it to through their final year to claim their clothes.

If the indentured servant survived the short run, the long run offered some hope. Wages were high enough that a man could save money and either set up in a trade or buy land and farm. Or even slaves.

Today we have a very complex global and national society where one's station at birth still matters, but a lot of choices are available. Anyone in the U.S. who sticks to school, avoids the pitfalls of alcohol and drugs, and is willing to work like a dog for someone else can gain a sort of material prosperity. If pitfalls abound, opportunities do as well.

Are choices made by modern humans governed by The Fates or by Fortuna? Is it a person's fate to make a good or bad choice, or is the choice just fortunate or unfortunate?

Everybody is born, and everyone dies sooner or later. That is the fate of humans, of mammals, and of most animals and plants. Astronomers tell us that even stars are born and die. But stars don't make choices.

Letting other people make choices for you is in itself a choice. Even a slave can rebel. Most people in the world today have some choices they can make, and those in turn can lead to more choices, including better choices.

Given the choice, I'll take Fortuna over The Fates. Tomorrow I may die, but if I had planned on that too much when I was younger, I would not have learned to appreciate the long run. Fortuna cannot help you much if you make demands on a 24 hour cycle. But if you look to the years and decades, there is a lot of wiggle room for individuals, groups, and society.

Philosophy (and religion) have practical consequences. Perhaps what we need is a goddess of Decision Making. As far as I know, the Romans did not have one.

Related posts:

Genes, Environment, and Free Will [September 10, 2013]
Wittgenstein, Determinism, and Fortune [January 16, 2013]
The Not Much Uncertainty Principle [January 30, 2011]
Randomness, Chance, and Two Darwins [April 18, 2009]

Agree? Disagree? You can comment on this post at Natural Liberation Blog at blogspot.com

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