Luck

Even a glance at the dictionaries is enough to reveal the confusion and bewilderment that people have felt about luck, hap, chance or fortune, especially as they have tried to reconcile it with religious belief, and chiefly with the concept of a benevolent God. This has been, and still is, an impediment to religious faith.

The human desire to explain the the randomness of chance has produced all manner of taboos, superstitions, and methods of divination—and even notions such as that found in Apuleius’s Golden Ass: that good or ill luck is something contagious: but this amounts almost to a denial of it, for if one takes away the element of chance, and substitutes the theory of contagion, then the concept of luck is altered. Furthermore, common experience does not confirm it.

Boethius states the problem simply in his Consolatio Philosophiae. Chaucer’s Middle English translation is if anything more memorable than the original:

O stelliferi conditor orbis…
‘O Thou Maker of the whele that bereth the sterres, which that art y-fastned to thy perdurable chayer, and tornest the hevene with a ravisshing sweigh, and constreinest the sterres to suffren thy lawe; so that the mone som-tyme shyning with hir ful hornes, meting with alle the bemes of the sonne hir brother, hydeth the sterres that ben lesse; and somtyme, whan the mone, pale with hir derke hornes, approcheth the sonne, leseth hir lightes…. Thou restreinest the day by shorter dwelling, in the tyme of colde winter that maketh the leves to falle. Thou dividest the swifte tydes of the night, whan the hote somer is comen…

‘O thou Governour, governinge alle thinges by certein ende, why refusestow only to governe the werkes of men by dewe manere? Why suffrest thou that slydinge Fortune torneth so grete entrechaunginges of thinges, so that anoyous peyne, that sholde dewely punisshe felouns, punissheth innocents? And folk of wikkede maneres sitten in heye chayres, and anoyinge folk treden, and that unrightfully, on the nekkes of holy men? ….

‘O thou, what so ever thou be that knittest alle bondes of thinges, loke on thise wrecchede erthes; we men that ben nat a foule party, but a fayr party of so grete a werk, we ben tormented in this see of fortune. Thou Governour, withdraw and restreyne the ravisshinge flodes, and fastne and ferme thise erthes stable with thilke bonde, with whiche thou governest the hevene that is so large.’  —Boethius, Consolatio Philosophiae I Metrum 5

Cicero gives a view in De Divinatione:

‘Can there, then, be any foreknowledge of things for whose happening no reason exists? For we do not apply the words chance, luck, accident, or casualty except to an event which has so occurred or happened that it either might not have occurred at all, or might have occurred in any other way. How, then, is it possible to foresee and to predict an event that happens at random, as the result of blind accident, or of unstable chance?  By the use of reason the physician foresees the progress of a disease, the general anticipates the enemy’s plans and the pilot forecasts the approach of bad weather. And yet even those who base their conclusions on accurate reasoning are often mistaken…

‘How can anything be foreseen that has no cause and no distinguishing mark of its coming? Eclipses of the sun and also of the moon are predicted for many years in advance by men who employ mathematics in studying the courses and movements of the heavenly bodies; and the unvarying laws of nature will bring their predictions to pass… You see the course of reasoning followed in arriving at these predictions.

‘But what course of reasoning is followed by men who predict the finding of a treasure or the inheritance of an estate? On what law of nature do such prophecies depend? … Surely nothing is so at variance with reason and stability as chance? Hence it seems to me that it is not in the power even of God himself to know what event is going to happen accidentally and by chance. For if He knows, then the event is certain to happen; but if it is certain to happen, chance does not exist. And yet chance does exist, therefore there is no foreknowledge of things that happen by chance.’
—Cicero, De Divinatione II 6-7, translated by W A Falconer, Loeb Classical Library, 1923.

However, the assumption that human ingenuity could encroach upon, and attempt to reduce, the realm of chance, was apparently commonplace for a Roman, although it does not come in for much discussion.