On Luck

In his 1906 book on Algeria, Esto Perpetua, Hilaire Belloc meets a Frenchman there. He asked him if he thought himself “prosperous.” “He said, as do all sad people, that luck was the difference.” Why were the luckless called “sad”? It is, I suppose, because, when the dice do not roll our way, no one can be blamed for our plight. A statistical order exists in the rolling the dice. The flip of a coin – if the coin does not fall our way, if we did not “luck” out – is just the way it is: sad.

The words, luck, chance, accident, and fortune, all have the same meaning. At first sight, no specific “cause” of luck or chance can be identified. No one is to blame. That is why it can be used “reasonably.” To choose who is to kick and who is to receive in a football game, the only “fair” way is to employ chance. Once the first step is decided, the second step, in fair play, gives the next priority to the loser. Without the agreement to abide by chance, we could not begin “fairly.” Yet to be the “lucky” winner of a lottery, say, has its rewards – the proverbial “luck of the Irish.”

Luck appears in Scripture. In Acts, Matthias was chosen by lot over Joseph Barsabbas to replace Judas among the Twelve (1:23). The United States and other countries today have hundreds of casinos whose basic business, when honest, is luck and its fascination. We work hard to “beat the odds.”

We sometimes underestimate the influence of chance in our lives. Indeed, we wonder if many things that seem to be results of accident or chance are not somehow “intended.” As far as I can see, every existing human being is, at first sight, the result of chance. The first meeting of one’s father and mother was to all appearances, a chance, a blind date, an unexpected trip, a girl next door. Yes, we also say that each of us is “intended” by God from the beginning. If this intention is so, something more than chance is at work. Chance itself needs to be reduced to order. More or less, this is what Providence is about.

In discussing chance in A General Theory of Authority, Yves Simon explained the “rationality” of irrational accidents. Millions of road “accidents” happen every year. Purpose exists in accidents. Each driver is going to a certain place for a reason. Neither driver intended to run into the other. So chance occurs when two reasonable actions cross outside the purpose of either.

But accidents have consequences, often dire ones. Most people know someone in the family or neighborhood who was killed in an accident. We try to fix the blame on someone or something. It “should” not have happened, yet it did. We have to live with accidents. Our insurance economy is based on dealing with the “sad” things that bad luck brought about. Insurance is a way to spread out the cost of accidents.

And the rise and fall of nations? Is that due to luck? Fortune? Belloc was in the ruins of the ancient Roman-African city of Timgrad. There he chanced to meet a man “of a kind I had not encountered before. . . .We discussed together in these brief moments the chief business of mankind.” The man knew something of Sussex, Belloc’s native county in England. He told Belloc that, in the desert, the stars were “terrible to man” and “the distances endless.”

This remark caused Belloc to remember “the old knowledge” – namely, “How great nations as they advance with unbroken records and heap up experience, and test life by their own past, and grow to judge exactly the enlarging actions of men, see at last that there is no Person in destiny, and that purpose is only in themselves. Their faiths turn to legend, and at last they enter into that shrine whose God has departed and whose Idol is quite blind.”

Destiny is chance, not purpose. Purpose is in ourselves. What we sometimes call “fate” is really the plan of God, a plan that free men can reject. We are tempted to look back at our lives to think that they “must” have happened the way that they did. We thus think that the world is made only of chance with no purpose. If so, we have no responsibility for it.

And what is the “chief business of mankind?” It is to see that “purpose is only in ourselves.” Even if we meet by chance, we choose by judgment. No reason can be given why a world of pure chance would exist. It would be a shrine of a departed God, a blind Idol. But a world in which both chance and purpose exist together is quite likely. Such is a world in which the results of both luck and choice exist, with real effects on our lives and world.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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