Of the ancients and the moderns …
The students of Leo Strauss, independently following their master in a chorus, proclaim that “modernity” was in no small way inaugurated when Niccolo Machiavelli proposed, in the last chapter of The Prince, that about half the time, fortune could be tamed. (At least by men bold enough to try to win her favors).
The position, like all such grand historicizing gestures, is hardly indisputable. In fact, ancient histories seem full enough with generals who tried to force fortune’s hand, and even to overthrow republics. To think of the “ancients” as proposing that we could only think the good, not try to achieve it (at least half the time), is surely to sell them somewhat short.
Certainly, as the modern Francis Bacon knew, much ancient ethical thought turns upon the distinction between what we can control, the sphere of the virtues and character, and what we cannot, the realm of fortune. We are asked to focus on what we can control, the cultivation of our character.
Nevertheless, this is not to turn us away from the world. Nor from trying to influence things within it. The Stoics’ conception of the virtues in fact conceives them as involving forms of knowledge, exactly, about how to deal with things beyond our control.
If the Stoics meanwhile ask us to pursue external things with a reserve, this is not to foster a monastic withdrawal. It is to cultivate a realization that our wishing does not make things so. When we engage with others, for example, they too will have a say in what outcomes come out of our exchanges.
One Stoic was an emperor who conducted campaigns and put down rebels, and several others were leading Statesmen. (Antoninus Pius [reigned 138–161 CE] might also be considered a Stoic, at least in action, if not by dogma). Other Stoics again were rebels against impious and autocratic emperors.
The Stoics must, we infer, have been moderns. Very well. Let a thousand elisions bloom.
Homo faber fortunae suae
A good place to look to begin to fathom Bacon’s position on this issue, in any case, is his little essay “Of Fortune”. But here as elsewhere, the reader needs also to attend…