Riding the Wheel of Fortune
“My God, my God! What has Thou done for me lately?”
I don’t remember where I heard that question, but it sums up how most people — including many Christians — look at life. Past goods are past. What’s next?
Of course, the question and the underlying expectations of bigger, better, and more are nothing new. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius had similar expectations and asked the same question.
Boethius was born in about AD 480 to a wealthy, influential patrician family that included Roman senators, consuls and emperors. Though he lost his father at a young age, he was brought up by an even wealthier and more influential patrician who saw that Boethius received the best education. Boethius married this patrician’s daughter and they had two sons. Both sons served as consuls.
His great intelligence, learning and heritage won him a high position with Emperor Theodoric — but in 523, fortune’s smile became a sneer.
The Consolation of Philosophy
Accused of treason, Boethius moldered in prison awaiting what he knew would be a brutal, painful death — a death that took place a year later. As he waited, he wrote his most famous book, The Consolation of Philosophy.
As the book opens, Boethius laments his change of fortune:
Verses I made once glowing with content;
Tearful, alas, sad songs must I begin.
See how the Muses grieftorn bid me write,
And with unfeigned tears these elegies drench my face.
As he laments, Lady Philosophy, the personification of reason, appears in his cell with no patience for his attitude. Regarding the muses who inspire his sad poem, she says, “These are they who choke the rich harvest of the fruits of reason with the barren thorns of passion. They accustom a man’s mind to his ills, not rid him of them.” They hold him in the prison of victimhood.
The book was Boethius’ cure as he, the author, put into Lady Philosophy’s mouth the words he needed to hear in order to reap a rich harvest before death.
“It is simply the change in your fortune, you imagine, which has so much cast down your spirit,” Lady Philosophy observes. You were rich, famous and honored. Now you’re a prisoner on death row. But that’s not your problem. Your problem, she tells him, is deeper beginning with the mistake of trusting fortune. Now, she adds, “you must accommodate yourself to your mistress’s ways. Will you really try to stop the whirl of her turning wheel? Why, you are the biggest fool alive — if once it stops, it ceases to be the wheel of fortune.”
The Wheel of Fortune
While today we believe in endless upward progress, the favorite medieval image of life was the wheel of fortune.
We each get on fortune’s wheel at the bottom (birth), rise toward the top (youth), achieve the heights (adulthood), and begin the decent (old age) that ends at the bottom (death).
The wheel of fortune governs careers like that of Boethius. Chris Christie ran for president, but if we remember him at all, we think of him looking the buffoon in a chair on a beach he closed to everyone due to COVID. The wheel turned, he reached for the stars, and the wheel turned.
The turning wheel of family wealth is sadly predictable. One generation rises from poverty to great wealth, the next generation manages the money (poorly), the generation following spends most of it, and their children spend the rest.
Nor do kingdoms, empires and nations escape. Think of the rise, the great power, and the collapse of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. China is on its way up these days, but fortune’s wheel won’t stop when they reach the top. And the United States…?
“The Lord Gave, and the Lord has Taken Away”
On the way up, it’s easy to trust fortune. After all, every day in every way things get better and better. But decline and death are ahead whether we see them or not.
Which is not to say this is random. The medievals saw fortune as God’s servant. Christians call it “Providence” — knowing, as Job knew, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. … Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 1:21; 2:10)
The good things of life, Lady Philosophy explains to Boethius, were never ours to keep. Wealth, position, power, fame, health and life itself — these are on loan and by their nature pass on to others when fortune turns her wheel. We deceive ourselves when we believe otherwise.
“For I think,” says Lady Philosophy, “that ill fortune is better for men than good. … [Good] fortune deceives, the second instructs; the one binds the minds of those who enjoy goods that cheatingly only seem to be good, the other frees them with the knowledge of the fragility of mortal happiness.”
Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong for us to enjoy good fortune with gratitude. Nor does it mean it’s wrong to enjoy good fortune with gratitude when bad fortune makes it only a memory.
As Lady Philosophy explains:
What binds all things to order,
Governing earth and sea and sky,
… O happy race of men
If the love that rules the stars
May also rule your hearts!
And “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” (Lamentations 3:22a)
Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”