The Wheel of Fortune And The Cosmic Gears

One of the many things that people fondly imagine that they “know” is that the Middle Ages were static, a thousand years in which everyone knew their place and nothing much happened. Such a perception is actually a variant on the eternal “things ain’t what they used to be” topos; just as we think that today’s youngsters are less courteous than we were, we think that being distressed by social change is a modern monopoly. But if medievals did not suffer from future shock, why then was one of their core images and metaphors the Wheel of Fortune? This symbolises the changefulness of earthly life: one day you are a king, and some other fellow is a beggar; the next day you are the beggar. Music-lovers, at least, know one medieval song about this Wheel: “O how Fortune, Inopportune, Apes the moon’s inconstancy: Waxing, waning, Losing, gaining…… Life treats us detestably: First oppressing, Then caressing, Shifts us like pawns in her play: Destitution, Restitution, Mixes and melts them away.” (David Parlett’s translation) True, such verses are primarily gambling songs, but we meet the same laments about the instability of our existence among the medieval religious; indeed, these are generally Platonists, accustomed to contrasting the mutability of the sublunary sphere with the changelessness of the spiritual world.

It may well be the case that medievals did not share our predicament of needing a five-year-old boy to get our latest electronic gizmo working; but the technological is only a single kind of change, and not necessarily one that outweighs bad harvests, plague and death in childbed as a fit subject for meditation on unpredictability. The essential uncertainty of life was surely felt more acutely by a medieval than by a citizen of a modern welfare state; and perhaps he was also better equipped to deal with it.

For there are only two strategies for managing uncertainty – controlling outcomes or reducing anxiety. All cultures have invested a lot of effort in the first strategy. They engage in prayer, ceremonies, blood sacrifices, fasting, vigils, pilgrimages, witchcraft, sorcery and alchemy to make things happen “just the way they should”. And lo! alchemy and sorcery did beget science and technology, which share the same aim. In some respects science and technology work, much better than do augury and witch-doctoring; but anyone who imagines universal progress in controlling outcomes relative to the superstition of yore is invited to contemplate magazine diets, Internet Viagra, e-mail scams, pyramid-game religions and management consultancy.

The alternative strategy is to recognise that Shit Happens. This is a difficult art to master, because it goes against our childhood training. Parents tell us that if we are good little boys and girls, good things will happen, and if we are bad, then bad things will happen. This is, of course, complete nonsense; and most of the business of both individual lives and the intellectual history of the race resides in trying to reconcile such mendacious imprinting with reality. Primitive religion, as seen in Job’s Poor Comforters and the American prosperity gospel, insists that mother was right and that nothing bad will happen to you if you are good, which, since stuff like war, plagues, hurricanes and so forth insists on happening anyway, means that you must have been bad. The advanced religions preach detachment from outcomes and desires; or submission to the will of God, which is just another name for “whatever happens”.

In one respect the medievals may have been better equipped to manage uncertainty than we are, because they had the advantage of living before John Calvin. If he had summarised his theology in a visual metaphor, he might have replaced the Wheel of Fortune with a clockwork gear train. Outcomes are not random, which means that they are your own fault. Predestination as a doctrine is one thing, but what the culture seems to have acquired from Calvinism is a strengthening of the primal delusion that we learn at our mother’s knee, that the virtuous will prosper. Now, “no man is a villain to himself”; and so for most people, “virtuous” means “me”.

Consequently, in cultures influenced by Calvinism, people have a far higher sense of entitlement to favourable outcomes than is good for them. To suspect that the cosmic gear-train may not in fact provide you with prosperity and security is the same as contemplating the possibility that you are not among the Elect, that is to say, that you are damned. Life under such a doctrine is much more frightening than it is for the Catholic who believes that the world is a Vale of Tears and God’s saints suffer more than most, and more frightening than it is for the atheist who believes that Shit Happens, but that when he dies it will stop happening.

Posted on June 12, 2009 at 09:45 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Shit Happens

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  1. Written by » Jain cosmology four games
    on July 5, 2009 at 20:55

    […] The Wheel of Fortune and the cosmic gears […]

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