The ancient Stoics wrote quite a bit about luck, or Fortuna (from the name of the goddess that personified it), particularly Seneca. To begin with, we should not trust luck:
“No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed.” (Letters IV.7)
You may feel lucky because things have been going well for you for some time, but that’s the thing about luck: she can turn on you in a moment. So what’s the Stoic attitude toward Fortuna? To make ourselves immune from her, by caring only about the things she does not control (and we do):
“Fortune has no jurisdiction over character.” (Letters XXXVI.6)
Meaning that to work on becoming better persons is up to us, and is done through the continuous practice of the four cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. Even the most unlucky person in the world can still do that, and the most lucky ones ought to do it, in part so that they may use their luck wisely.
But what does modern science have to say about luck? A recent article by Steven Hales in Aeon magazine, entitled “The unreality of luck,” sheds some interesting light. Hales begins with the astonishing tale of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a technician for oil tankers, who was sent to another city by Mitsubishi, the company he worked for, to do some work during the summer of 1945. That city was Hiroshima, and Yamaguchi was there when the atomic bomb dropped. Miraculously, he survived with minor injuries and was sent back home. To Nagasaki, where the second bomb was dropped shortly thereafter. He survived that too, and died at the ripe age of 93, in 2010.
Hales asks us to consider what may appear the sort of quintessentially odd question that philosophers are the only ones to take seriously: was Yamaguchi lucky or unlucky? If you reflect for a moment, you will see that there really is no fact of the matter about the outside world that can be called upon to answer that question. It really depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, one could argue that you have to be incredibly unlucky to have experienced the only two atomic explosions during wartime that human beings have ever caused. On the other hand, you must also be incredibly lucky to have survived in both occasions!
It is precisely because one could easily and legitimately argue either way that we begin to suspect that “luck” isn’t a feature of the world, but is all in our mind, or, to be more precise, in how we judge certain events.
The Stoics would have agreed. In order to abstain from rush judgments, they trained themselves to describe external events in an objective fashion, like this:
“When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of mucus.” (Meditations VI.13)
How unromantic, eh? Well, that’s the point. It’s possible that Marcus engaged in this exercise precisely because he realized that he liked food, wine, sex, and power a bit too much. To objectivize things, events, and activities is a way to put some distance between them and us, so that we may more thoughtfully examine them.
Applied to Yamaguchi’s travails, we can objectively say that he was in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the two bombs were dropped, and that he survived with minor injuries. Whether he was lucky or unlucky in doing so is a matter of judgment. Specifically, his own judgment. Perhaps he lost his family and friends in the Nagasaki bombing, and he considered that to be one of the worst misfortunes of his life, so that having survived the blasts was judged by him to be bad luck. Then again, maybe he was able to live a productive life in the decades that followed, leading him to assess what happened as good luck.
A recent paper by Jennifer Johnson in the journal Philosophical Psychology, mentioned by Hales, reports of an experiment aiming at testing the idea that judgments of good or bad luck depend on one’s personality rather than on objective characteristics of events. Johnson discovered that a judgment of luck (or not) is a function of how optimist or pessimist one is. If you are an optimist you interpret cases like that of Yamaguchi as examples of good luck, and in general you tend to see other people as lucky. The opposite occurs if you are inclined toward pessimism.
This is also connected to a well known cognitive bias in human beings. Imagine your doctor has to tell you that you need surgery, and has to lay out the options for you. If she says that your one-month survival rate after surgery is 90% you will be more likely to opt for it than if the doctor points out that you have a 10% chance of mortality after a month, even though, of course, the objective situation is identical. Human brains, turns out, really dislike negative outcomes.
Which is another thing the Stoics were attuned to and worked hard to counter. Consider this quote from Marcus:
“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)
It’s a kind of premeditatio malorum, a thinking ahead to unpleasant things happening to you, so that you may be better prepared to tackle them. The Stoics attempted to look at the world as it is, avoiding either an optimistic or a pessimistic outlook, navigating the sweet spot between wishful thinking and an overly negative take on the way things are.
Hales concludes his essay by remarking: “What all this shows is that our judgments about luck are inconsistent and changeable, the predictable result of framing effects and idiosyncratic personality traits. They raise the serious possibility that ‘luck’ is no more than a subjective point of view taken on certain events, not a genuine property in the world that we discover. It might well be that attributing luck is a mere façon de parler, or turn of phrase, and not something we should take seriously — an outcome that would come as a real surprise to gamblers, athletes, job seekers and stockbrokers, all of whom see their histories as saturated with luck. Their luck might well be, in a very strict psychological sense, entirely of their own making.”
Indeed, the Stoics went even further, arguing that “bad” and “good” are never attributes of things or events, but rather judgments we make about those things or events. They advised us to recognize this as the key to a more serene life, as Epictetus famously put it:
“If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly.” (Enchiridion 1.3)
What really belongs to you is your judgments, your opinions, and the values you choose to adopt. What does not really belong to you is everything else. Yamaguchi obviously could not control whether the Americans were going to drop atomic bombs on Japan. He could also not control how his body was going to recover from the injuries. Or who among his relatives and friends would survive the blast and who wouldn’t. What he could control, however, was how to react to all this for the several decades he lived after those tragic days. I hope he made the best of that time.