February 11, 2007

Fortuna caeca est

In English: Fortune is blind.

Yesterday, I promised a series of proverbs and sayings about Roman Fortuna, but first I wanted to review the sayings about Fortune that I've posted in the blog previously. Yesterday's proverb, Victrix fortunae sapientia, told us that wisdom was able to triumph over fortune. Yet this is not a universal proverbial truth, because a few days earlier we learned that Fortuna imperatrix mundi, Fortune rules the world. Yet back in October, I had posted a very defiant proverb in defense of individual effort: Est unusquisque faber ipsae suae fortunae, asserting that each person is the maker of his own fortune.

Clearly, the topic of luck or fortune provoked a variety of responses among people in the ancient Roman world, and I think this is still true today. Some people believed that luck ruled the world, above and beyond human control. Other people thought that people made their own luck, shaping their own destiny. In particular, they thought that a human quality such as wisdom could give you the upper hand in a contest with the effects of fortune.

What's especially interesting is that unlike so many elements of traditional culture which stand in outright contradiction to modern scientific culture, the notion of luck, also known as "randomness," has a firm foothold in the scientific world. Indeed, the foundation of many scientific investigations is the principle of randomness. Check out the wikipedia article on randomness for information about randomness at work in the physical and biological sciences, mathematics, statistics, economics, and more.

Today's proverb, about the blindness of Fortune, calls attention precisely to that aspect of Fortune which is like modern randomness. When the proverb tells us that Fortune is blind, it means that she is doling out her gifts and punishments with no regard to person. She cannot see what's she doing - which does not stop her from doing it all the same! The result: randomness. As Seneca has his chorus exclaim in the Phaedra: Res humanas ordine nullo / Fortuna regit sparsitque manu / munera caeca, "Fortune rules the affairs of men at random and, blind, she hands out her gifts."

That, then, is one perspective on Fortune, a blind goddess acting at random. I'll share some more proverbs about the Roman Fortuna in the following days.

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud - a proverb so simple it could be learned on the very first day of a Latin class, although it definitely gives you some profound notions to think about!

2. Fortuna caeca est.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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