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Luck vs. Reason, or Kismet vs. the Lightbringer

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Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel, 15th-century France

1,569 words

As part of an effort to better understand, and if possible, return to tradition, I’ve been plumbing the depths of folk tales, reading accounts of oral traditions, stories, legends, myths, sayings, epic songs, and other linguistic cultural artifacts of times past. One significant understanding I reached in my explorations is that pre-modern man placed a great value on luck as a factor in success or failure. Contrasting that is the modern view that chance plays a lesser role in the world. But what if the old folks had it right?

Here is an example: A man would always complain of his luck (k’smet in the original, which has leaked into English as kismet) and about how he was poor and nothing went well for him. His luck, personified as a man and angered at being slandered, sent him a dream that he ought to find his fortune in a rotten cherry stump in a different town. The man went there and found the rotten cherry stump in front of a grocery. As he picked up the stump, the grocer asked him what he was doing. When the man told him, the grocer laughed at him for having travelled all that way on account of a dream, recounting his own dream of finding a pot of gold under the fireplace of a house next to a spring. The man realized that the grocer was describing his own home and fireplace, so he went home, dug up the fireplace, and found a pot of gold.

What’s that supposed to mean? Is it a moral story? What’s the moral of that story? Follow your dreams, even if they sound absurd? Complaining will jumpstart your luck? Don’t mock people who do seemingly stupid things? It’s certainly a very fun story (in the original telling). It’s not even especially magical. If it were written today, we’d call it magical realism and toffs would scoff at it for being lowbrow (as magical realism is perceived in the literary mainstream). It is sort of nonchalant about the supernatural, treating the humanoid personification of a specific person’s luck as no big deal; that luck is an entity in itself, similar to an ancient daemon, is not even commented on. Lafcadio Hearn noticed the same nonplussed attitude towards the supernatural in Japanese folklore. Yes, you came across a woman with a neck three fathoms long, but did she have any gossip to share?

Indeed, the only moralism we see in the story is the grocer exhorting the man to look to his trade and labor and make his fortune by mundane and material means, ignoring prophetic and portentous dreams in favor of keeping his nose to the grindstone. And so the grocer, who dreamt of the pot of gold so that the man could find it, is made the fool of the story, the butt of a cosmic joke played on him by another man’s kismet. From the perspective of the grocer, life is tragicomic.

Before we can write the story off as Balkan peasant superstition, let us consider a passage from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America:

The gentlemen of Virginia were deeply absorbed in the study of stars, planets, spheres and portents — not as signs of God’s purpose, but as clues to their own fate. They believed every man possessed a certain fixed quality called fortune, which could be understood by knowledge of these things. The idea was widely accepted in Elizabethan England.

Many gentlemen kept “fortune books” which were collections of magical and astrological lore for good luck in love, marriage, sex, health, travel. One such fortune book included an entire chapter on marriage with entries on “whether a man shall marry, the time of marriage, how many husbands a woman shall have, who shall be the master of the two, how they shall agree after marriage, and whether the man or his wife shall die first and the time when. The cult of fortuna implied that life was a game of chance in which the odds were rigged by mysterious powers in the universe.

We see here that the Virginian gentlemen planters had a view of destiny and luck that is cognate with the view in the folktales I’ve been unearthing. This commonality likely reaches far back into the past, to the ur-religion and ur-folk belief of Indo-European people about how the world functions, as we see such perception of luck and destiny in many different European folkloric traditions.

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You can buy Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods here [3].

When we speak of destiny, we speak of a quality which is fixed but unknown to man. Lucky men have a good destiny, unlucky men don’t. Some are destined to have, others to want. Some are destined to rule, others to be ruled. Some are destined to find meaning, fulfillment, and love; others to wander the Earth with a hunger that cannot be sated at the center of their being. Luck is the visible part of destiny: its effects on our day-to-day lives, the manifestation of this metaphysical reality in the physical realm. I purchase a lottery ticket and win. That is luck, but luck transpired because I was destined to win the lottery. And indeed, luck seems convoluted to observers, and so men will claim that “events conspired,” but this is nothing more than destiny unfolding as it was supposed to be and as it always was foretold, but man could not see or hear it.

Pre-modern man did not question luck. Another story concerns a bet between “the Mind” (but better understood as the Wit) and the Kismet on who is more important. The Kismet, endeavoring to prove that he is the more important one, takes a simple shepherd boy and has him married to the King’s daughter so that he is to inherit the kingdom. It is not specified how. It was luck — sheer, dumb luck that did it. Now, the Wit gets his comeuppance, as it is demonstrated that Wit is necessary to keep the gains made by luck, but at the end, The Wit and the Kismet come to an understanding that both of them are necessary for a man’s success and endeavor to work together in the future.

This is an attitude toward economic and political status that would scandalize a modern bourgeois and ostensibly rational mind. Fortune comes from the sweat of man’s brow, or as per Ayn Rand, from his intellect. If some men are wealthier than others, it is because they worked harder, or are smarter, or both. The notion that wealth is related to luck and that a shepherd could become a king through good luck, or that a king could be reduced to the level of a shepherd through bad luck, scandalizes the modern mind. The bourgeois liberals aren’t the only ones who reject luck; their managerialist frenemies who run the modern bureaucratic states also scoff at fortune and luck. They do not fit into the models on which the bureaucrat depends for his schemes and plans. How does one account for the ebbs and flows of fortune in a five-year-plan?

The very unknowable nature of destiny means that it repels the modern mind, especially the modern Western mind, which recoils from that which it cannot re-present [4]in the Heideggerian sense, or more precisely, that which it cannot isolate, illuminate, and keep in mind. What cannot exist in the mind (or cannot be grasped in the mind) cannot exist and is rejected as superstition, generally provoking an outsized reaction in Western thinkers. It goes to show that we are thoroughly metaphysicized as a civilization: few of us have the sense of wonderment that Macedonian peasants and Virginia gentry had at the unknown and unknowable workings of fortune.

The unknown — and more importantly, unknowable — factors which lead to the success or failure of human ventures, or God playing dice with the universe, frighten and disgust the metaphysical thinker. They conflate human categorical ignorance of the laws of the universe as non-existence of the laws of the universe, meaning complete metaphysical and physical anarchy: up is down, the law of gravity isn’t being inforced, and the interpunction signs in this article are leaping off your screen and engaging in a spirited game of polo.

Luck and destiny operate according to their own laws, which man might or might not learn. Men have certainly tried to use divination and astrology to control their fortune and luck, with mixed success. I’m not a believer in astrology, though it has been pointed out to me that I possess the freewheeling and whimsical ego typical of the male Sagittarius. But ultimately, I do not have to know my destiny in order to put my trust in it. That may be a privilege of the East, where faith is not an empirical category and theology doesn’t try to re-present God [5]. Accordingly, men of the East still put their trust in luck, even as our own traditions are slowly devoured by the Western Weltanschauung.

To accept the phenomenon of luck is to accept an unknowable factor in outcomes, something beyond the ken of man. To accept the phenomenon of luck is to accept a limiting principle to man’s artifice and the light he can bring to an unrevealed universe. To accept the phenomenon of luck is to reject the Luciferian (light-bringing) scientism of the Western metaphysical tradition.

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