Historians of Fortune

My disclaimer to all my posts is that I am strictly an amateur historian, and perhaps no more so than in the post below . . .

A frequent topic of conversation among historians is the nature of decline and fall.  Is the collapse of a particular civilization essentially inevitable, or can a civilization continue unto the end of all things?  Others nuance the dilemma a bit by stating that decline and fall remains eminently likely but possible to stave off.

Discussion about decline in the ancient and medieval world involved the concept of Fortune.  For the ancients, Fortune could often have the sense of arbitrary incoherence.  Troy must fall — Hector knows this.  As to why or to what end, he has no idea and seemingly cares not to know.  Not even Zeus seems to know why Troy must fall.  Fate, that awful word, never strayed far from the mind of the ancients.

Medieval thinkers sought to have a generous spirit and wanted to give Fortune a place in the Divine scheme.  Dante describes Lady Fortune as one of God’s servants.  She dispensed with blessings and setbacks indiscriminately, yes, but not for an unknown purpose.  God always wants to show forth his kingly munificence and have that imaged on Earth for all to see.  At the same time, all must learn humility, for without humility, who can be saved?   Blessings and rewards (in Fortune’s kingdom) not so much because of sin or righteousness but to teach grand lessons about salvation.  That is why Fortune is “Lady Fortune,” for the same reason St. Francis called death “our Sister, Bodily Death.”  Both have the gentle, nurturing female touch despite the pain they bring.

Eric Voegelin’ s treatment of Polybius in his Order and History intrigued me.  Perhaps the most famous section of Polyblius’ work is in Book VI where he discusses the cycle of rise and fall that preys upon all civilizations.  What makes this section of particular for me is that Polybius writes about Rome’s rise from ca. 270-200 B.C., but writes himself around 140 B.C. when cracks in the Republic started becoming evident.  It gives Polybius an unusual vantage point.

Voegelin, a notable critic of “disembodied” interpretive methods of history, makes two points worth noting in his treatment of Polybius.

The first surrounds the idea of cause and effect.  At times Polybius, like his fellow Greek Herodotus before him, at times has a tendency to extend the cause beyond comprehensible reason.  To have causes for events that extend long before anyone living at the time can recall.  Of course Polybius distinguishes between direct and distant causes, but the question is one of proportion.  If everything can be a cause, then nothing is a cause.  If the real cause has roots beyond the knowledge or experience of anyone living, then things “just happen.”  Both practices could be described as gnostic because both encourage us to live in a world without responsibility, in a state disconnected from creation.

The second concerns Polybius’ ultimate failure to find a true cause.  This leads him in turn to focus first on the bare reality of Rome’s practices, how they built forts, how they made laws, and so on.  He pays little attention to whether the laws be good or bad, or what particular advantage the forts might have given them.  This focus on the pure “physics” of things likely explain his drift into explaining everything with the Wheel of Fortune, which has in his mind an arbitrary quality.  Polybius quotes from the last Macedonian king with evident approval, who said,

If you take not an indefinite time, nor many generations, but just the last 50 years, you will see the cruelty of Fortune.  Fifty years ago do you suppose that the Macedonians or the Persians, if some god foretold it, would have believed by the present time that the Persians, who once ruled the world, would by now have ceased to be a name, while the Macedonians, who were then not even a name, would be rulers of all?  Yet this Fortune, who never keeps faith, but transforms everything against our reckoning . . . has lent him these good things until she decides to dispose differently of them (XXIX, 21).

Later Polybius, with Scipio in at the destruction of Carthage he records Scipio’s foreboding that now that Persia, Macedon, and Carthage had been destroyed, perhaps Rome would now be next.  But just as with the king of Macedon, no intelligible cause would exist.  Fortune does what she wills, leaving mankind ‘not guilty’ for whatever happens.

Of course others took up this idea before Polybius, notably Plato himself in The Republic.  Some accuse Plato of gnosticism and he can drift in that direction at times, but his analysis has its roots not so much in disembodied fate but in the lives of individuals.  When thinking about the transition from oligarchy to democracy he discusses the choices and desires of individuals.  So the “oligarchic man/men” lead the transition from timocracy to oligarchy.  The “democratic man” in turn brings about democracy, and so on.  The city-state contains the accumulated souls of its inhabitants, thus the city too might be said to have a “soul” in aggregate.  It too chooses.  It too has responsibility.  A brief excerpt discussing “democratic man” shows his method:

Yes, I said, he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he-is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on.


Plato refuses to submit everything to “Fortune/Fate” and this makes hima  greater thinker, and in another sense, the greater historian (see — this is why you read this blog, so you can find out shocking things such as, “Plato was a more profound thinker than Polybius.”  Thank goodness for A Stick in the Mud!).