Rota Fortunae

A friend of mine challenged me to write a blog entry about the Wheel of Fortune. Not the game show, thank goodness, but a much meatier topic: the medieval philosophy about fate. So here goes.

You see this topic coming up over and over again in the literature of the time. They believed that the goddess Fortuna randomly spins this wheel to which we are all attached. If you happen to be on the less fortunate part of that wheel when it stops, well, then, you are in for some bad luck indeed. And, as the carnival barkers say, “Where she stops, nobody knows!”

I happen to have my own completely unsubstantiated theory about the origins of this philosophy. I think it was an invention of the people in power, whether they were religious or political leaders. As we all know, life in that era was nasty, brutish and short for the average person. If they had had time to lift their heads up and look about them, they might just have built up a healthy resentment for their plight, but most of them were too busy just trying to survive.

But just in case, it would be quite handy for the upper classes to be able to instill in the unwashed masses a belief that they had absolutely no power over their own destiny. If there’s no hope for change, there’s no point in bitterness. Resign yourself to your fate. Accept the fact that we’re all tied to Fortuna’s wheel. Don’t ask questions.

I find it quite interesting that when the wheel of fortune was mentioned back then, it was usually in reference to one’s run of bad luck. Unexpected death or illness. Loss of children. You never heard about the people who would have had to have been attached to the top, or “good luck”, part of the wheel when it stopped. I suspect those were usually the royals and the popes. Goodness, no, we don’t want to draw attention to them. That might cause the very resentment that the powers that be were trying to avoid.

I do believe that fate does have a role in my life. Some pretty horrible and pretty amazing things have happened to me that I did nothing personally to bring about. But I also believe that the choices I make influence the path my life takes. If I decide to turn left, I might meet the love of my life. If I turn right I might not. But I’m the one who decides which way to turn.

I don’t think I’m tied to a wheel. I view it more as a pendulum. Age and experience tells me that when things aren’t going well, it’s just a matter of time before the pendulum will swing back the other way. I derive a lot of comfort from that. But I don’t feel helpless. The pendulum is going to swing, yes, but I get to decide which plane it will swing on. That counts for something.

Wheel of Fortune

[Image credit: web.eecs.utk.edu]

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