Tuesday, 14 October 2008

A Simple Twist of Fate

In one of my innumerable little notebooks, I find I have written "The fortunate believe in virtue, the unfortunate believe in fate." As there is no author credited, I suspect I must have made this up myself, in oracular mode. And no less idiotic for that: every man his own aphorist.

Recent events in the financial world will have given everyone cause to reconsider those two default settings of the human brain: "I am fortunate because I'm good, and you are unfortunate because you're bad," balanced by "I am unfortunate because it is my destiny, and you are fortunate because you're a lucky bastard."

Successful and/or wealthy people, smarting at envious accusations of the latter kind, are fond of quoting variations on that infuriatingly priggish retort: "Yes, and the harder I work the luckier I get." (These would probably be the same people whose business and house value have just gone through the floor and -- I'm guessing here -- will come home this evening to find a small asteroid has crashed through their roof, incinerating nothing but the box of share certificates they happened to leave out on the table last night. How lazy do you have to be to get that unlucky?)

Unsuccessful and/or poor people, of course, watch TV, write blogs, drink too much, and brood endlessly about alternative universes in which they Got A Speaking Part. Accused of being bad and lazy by the successful, we might reply: "Yes, and yet it seems to me that the harder I work the luckier you get, my friend." But we rarely do -- it's a sort of world historical esprit de l'escalier. We're more likely to snarl or sulk.

To mix up luck, chance, desserts, reward, effort and agency is the kind of glorious Comedy of Category Errors that gave us the world we have today, not to mention some of the world's leading systems of belief. But here is something else I wrote down in a notebook some 36 years ago, which literally fell out of a Christmas cracker on Boxing Day 1972:

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that believe there are two kinds of people in this world, and those that don't.

The irrefutable profundity of this affected me very deeply at the time. Pretty much everything did -- I was 18 and a Jethro Tull fan. For decades I believed this was a truly anonymous piece of folk wisdom, delivered to me by chance, and thus my personal property. Then recently I discovered it is actually Robert Benchley's Law of Distinction. Just my luck: that lucky bastard found it first...

1 comment:

poppy's dad said...

In the wonderful new world of quantum mechanics, well not that new but still quite wonderful, there will also be the people who are permanently undecided and, until they're asked (i.e an experiment is performed upon them) will obstinately remain in a mixture of both states.