I do not claim to be a great political mind—when it comes to “being well rounded,” political theory is an edge that needs to be filled in—but Quentin Skinner’s recent comments on Machiavelli struck a chord. His discussion of “fortuna” in The Prince seems particularly useful. “If you’re going to attain greatness, somehow you’ve got to be lucky,” Skinner explains, “One of the really deep points Machiavelli wants to make is that there is no such thing as a successful politician who hasn’t been phenomenally lucky […] the question for Machiavelli is ‘how do you get lucky.’” Like a startled cat, or a confused hound, my ears are raised.
I think of the current candidate for President of the United States: Barrack Obama. If Obama hadn’t stood against the Iraq War efforts in 2002, would he have been considered Presidential candidate material? Without the confusion following 9/11, perhaps there would not have been an opening for such a campaign. In some sense, Barack Obama is on a wave generated by the trends in this country; his current success can surely be attributed to knowing when to act and how to act, but it must be attributed to the state of current affairs.
Such stories concern me on a personal level. A great thinker might be born into the incorrect time and burn at the stake, while the dullest-tool-in-the-box may be born into an era where ignorance is considered humble and honest and he may become leader of the next social movement. These sorts of occurrences happen often enough. As a writer, I ask myself, “what wave can I ride? Is it even possible for someone of my personality to become as prolific as Nietzsche?” There are millions of blogs, and so what are the chances that this one will become successful?
The question, as I’ve seen from Skinner, is how a person comes to have some control, understanding, or even a vague foresight over the fleeting possibilities of luck. It wouldn’t surprise me to see someone disturbed over this question, for what source could we consider reliable to inform us about luck? To consign a bit of any outcome to chance seems to take power out of our hands. After all, our current lack of knowledge about the future doesn’t translate into a perpetual ignorance—many of us all want to feel as though it is possible to know everything, even if we cannot in our current state.
To this I respond: we must admit that not everything, as of yet, is a reality. Further still, not everything can be a reality simultaneously. Making choices as to what exists and what does not also includes knowledge of the world. Knowing one position may make it impossible to know others. The lucky or (in Skinner’s language) those who get lucky cannot just act any way they would like, at any time they would like, toward anyone they might like (or despise!). The truly fortunate know which waves to ride, how to stay steady, when they will come, and, most importantly, when to ditch the wave and avoid death. Perhaps we don’t need to know everything, since that may not be possible in the first place, and it may just be enough to know to “wing it.”
It can be argued that luck is nothing but a revelation despite ignorance—some event occurs at the benefit of a lucky person who happened to be at the right place at the right time. We all have, as children, found an unclaimed bill laying on the floor. Whatever denomination it was, we all knew what it meant: free candy, free food, free arcade rounds. We call it good luck, and all of the kids in the playground would call it the same. It may be tenable to say that it is only because of a lack of knowledge that children would call this luck. Science, skill, understanding, would yield a more consistent result. Let us ask, then, what if one child happened to have the ability to know every situation in which money were misplaced? That child would have the ability to be lucky at every possible occasion. Would that make the situation any less “lucky?”
I think it would not: there is still an element of chance involved, even with absolute knowledge. Even if I know that a highly coveted twenty-dollar bill is teetering on the edge of a person’s back-pocket seam, there is no guarantee that the money will fall. Luck, good and bad, is a series of happenings that we cannot guarantee; “getting lucky” is a matter of knowledge and manipulation. None of us are God, after all, and there are no guarantees.
Perhaps the scientist presses her luck doing experiments; artist takes a chance with each brush stroke; and each step of life is a gamble. Kinda makes life seem more exciting, doesn’t it?