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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces the essay
On Fortune


as published in Vol. II
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1928

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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(Vol. II) Plutarch, Moralia


The work appears in pp73‑89 of Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of the Moralia, first published in 1928. The Greek text and the English translation (by F. C. Babbitt) are now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1956 and was not renewed at the appropriate time, which would have been that year or the year before. (Details here on the copyright law involved.)

 p73  Loeb Edition Introduction

In default of any information regarding Plutarch's short essay on Chance, we can only guess that it may have been delivered as a lecture, although Hartman denies such a possibility. The arguing of such subjects has always had a certain attraction for mankind until comparatively recent times, but the development of a more exact knowledge regarding psychology has in later years checked such discussions. Yet a knowledge of psychology will not detract from the interest and enjoyment of anyone who will read this essay.


1 1 (97) [link to original Greek text] Man's ways are chance and not sagacity.​1

Is it true that man's ways are not justice either, or equality, or self-control, or decorum, but was it the result of chance and because of chance that Aristeides​2 persevered in his poverty dwhen he could have made himself master of great wealth, and that Scipio,​3 having captured Carthage, neither took nor saw any of the spoil? Was it the result of chance and because of chance that Philocrates,​4 having received money from Philip, "proceeded to spend it on trulls and trout," and was it due to chance that Lasthenes and Euthycrates lost Olynthus, "measuring happiness by their bellies and the most shameless deeds"?​5 Was it the result of chance that Alexander,​6 the son of Philip, forbore to touch the captive women himself and punished those who offered them insult, and, on the other hand, was it because the Alexander who was the son of Priam yielded to the dictates of an evil genius or of chance that he lay with the wife of his host, eand by her abduction filled two of our three continents with war and woes? For if these things happen because  p77 of chance, what is to hinder our saying that cats, goats, and apes because of chance are given over to greediness, lustfulness, and mischievous tricks?

2 1   [link to original Greek text] If self-control, justice, and bravery exist, how is it possible to reason that intelligence does not exist; and if intelligence exists, must not sagacity exist also? For self-control is a kind of intelligence, they say, and justice requires the presence of intelligence.​7 Or rather, that particular sagacity and intelligence which render men virtuous in the midst of pleasures we call continence and self-control, in perils and labours we call it perseverance and fortitude, in private dealings and in public life we call it equity and justice. fWherefore, if we impute the works of sagacity to chance, let the works of justice and of self-control be also ascribed to chance, and, by Heaven, let thieving, stealing purses, and licentious living all be ascribed to chance, and let us abandon all our reasoning processes and resign ourselves to chance, to be driven and carried, as dust or rubbish by a violent wind, hither and thither. If, then, sagacity does not exist, it is a fair inference that there can be no sagacious planning about what is to be done, and no consideration of searching for what is to the best advantage, but Sophocles​8 indulged in idle talk when he said:

98 Whatever is pursued

May be achieved; neglected it escapes;

[link to original Greek text] and so too in another place where he tries to distinguish different classes of actions:

What can be taught I learn; what can be found

I seek; but God I ask to answer prayer.​9

 p79  [link to original Greek text] For what is there which can be found out or learned by mankind if the issue of all things is determined by chance? And what deliberative assembly of a State can there be which is not abolished, or advisory council of a king which is not dissolved, if all things are under the dominion of chance, which we reproach for being blind because we, like blind men, stumble against it?​10 bHow can we help doing so when we pluck out sagacity, as it were our own eyes, and take as our guide in life a blind leader?

3 1   [link to original Greek text] Yet, suppose someone among us should say that the act of seeing is chance and not vision nor the use of "light-bringing orbs," as Plato​11 calls the eyes, and that the act of hearing is chance and not a faculty apperceptive of a vibration in the air which is carried onward through ear and brain.​12 If such were the case, it were well for us, as it appears, to beware of trusting our senses! But, as a matter of fact, Nature has conferred upon us sight, hearing, taste, smell, and our other members and their faculties to be cministers of sagacity and intelligence, and

Mind has sight and mind has hearing; all the rest is deaf and blind.​13

[link to original Greek text] Precisely as would be our case if the sun did not exist, and we, for all the other stars, should be passing our life in a continual night, as Heracleitus​14 affirms, so man, for all his senses, had he not mind and reason, would not differ at all in his life from the brutes.  p81 But as it is, we excel them and have power over them, not from chance or accidentally, but the cause thereof is Prometheus, or, in other words, the power to think and reason,

Which gives the foal of horse and ass, and get

Of bull, to serve us, and assume our tasks,

d [link to original Greek text] as Aeschylus​15 puts it. Certainly, in so far as chance and nature's endowment at birth are concerned, the great majority of brute animals are better off than man. For some are armed with horns, or teeth, or stings, and Empedocles says,

But as for hedgehogs

Growing upon their backs sharp darts of spines stand bristling,​16

[link to original Greek text] and still others are shod and clad with scales or hair, with claws or horny hoofs. Man alone, as Plato​17 says, "naked, unarmed, with feet unshod, and with no bed to lie in," has been abandoned by Nature.

Yet by one gift all this she mitigates,​18

e [link to original Greek text] the gift of reasoning, diligence, and forethought.

Slight, of a truth, is the strength of man; and yet

By his mind's resourcefulness

Doth he subjugate the monsters

Of the deep, and the purposes

Of the denizens of earth and air.​19

[link to original Greek text] Horses are the lightest and swiftest of foot, yet they run for man. The dog is pugnacious and  p83 spirited, yet it watches over man. Fish is most savoury, and the pig very fat, yet for man they are nourishing and appetizing food. What is bigger than an elephant or more terrible to behold? But even this creature has been made the plaything of man, and a spectacle at public gatherings, and it learns to posture and dance and kneel.​20 Such presentations are not without their use; indeed, they serve a purpose fin that we may learn to what heights man's intelligence raises him, above what it places him, and how he is master of all things, and in every way superior.

No, we are not invincible either in boxing or wrestling,

Nor are we swift in the race.​21

[link to original Greek text] Indeed, in all these matters we are not so fortunate as the animals; yet we make use of experience, memory, wisdom, and skill, as Anaxagoras​22 says, which are ours, and ours only, and we take their honey, and milk them, and carry and lead them at will, taking entire control over them. In all this, therefore, there is no element of chance at all, but solely and wholly sagacity and forethought.

4 1  99 [link to original Greek text] Moreover, under the head of "man's ways"​23 would fall, no doubt, the activities of carpenters, copper-smiths, builders, and statuaries, wherein we see nothing brought to a successful conclusion accidentally or as it chances. That chance may sometimes contribute slightly to their success,​24 but  p85 that the arts through themselves bring to perfection the most and greatest of their works, in plainly suggested by this poet:

Into the highway come, all craftsmen folk,

Who worship Labour, stern-eyed child of Zeus,

With sacred baskets placed about.​25

b [link to original Greek text] For the arts have Labour, that is Athena, and not Chance as their coadjutor. Of just one artist,​26 however, it is related that in painting a horse he had succeeded in nearly every respect in the drawing and colours, but the frothy appearance of the foam from champing the bit, and the rush of the foam-flecked breath, he had tried again and again to paint, but without success, and each time had wiped it out, until finally, in a rage, he threw his sponge, just as it was, full of pigments, at the canvas, and this, as it struck, transferred its contents in some amazing manner to the canvas, and effected the desired result. This is the only recorded instance of a technical achievement due to chance. Rulers, weights, measures, and numbers are everywhere in use, so that the random and haphazard may find no place in any production. cIndeed, the arts are said to be minor forms of intelligence, or rather offshoots of intelligence, and detached fragments of it interspersed amid life's common necessities, as it is said in the allegory regarding fire, that it was divided into portions by Prometheus and scattered some here and some there. For thus, when intelligence is finely broken and divided, small portions and fragments of it have gone to their several stations.

 p87  5 1   [link to original Greek text] It is therefore amazing how, if the arts have no need of chance to accomplish their own ends, the greatest and most perfect art of all, the consummation of the high repute and esteem to which man can attain, can count for nothing! But in the tightening and loosening of strings there is involved a certain sagacity, which men call music, and also in the preparation of food, to which we give the name of cookery, and in the cleaning of clothes, which we call fulling; dand we teach our children to put on their shoes and clothes, and to take their meat with the right hand and hold their bread in the left, on the assumption that even these things do not come by chance, but require oversight and attention.​27 But can it be that those things which are most important and most essential for happiness do not call for intelligence, nor have any part in the processes of reason and forethought? But nobody wets clay with water and leaves it, assuming that by chance and accidentally there will be bricks, nor after providing himself with wool and leather does he sit down with a prayer to Chance that they turn into a cloak and shoes for him; and when a man has amassed much gold and silver and a multitude of slaves, eand has surrounded himself with spacious suites of rooms, and, in addition, has furnished them with costly couches and tables,​28 does he imagine that these things, without the presence of intelligence in himself, will be happiness and a blissful life, free from grief and secure from change?

[link to original Greek text] Somebody asked Iphicrates​29 the general, as though undertaking to expose him, who he was, since he was "neither a man-at‑arms, nor archer, nor targeteer"; and he answered, "I am the man who  p89 commands and makes use of all these." 6 fIntelligence is not gold or silver or repute or wealth or health or strength or beauty. What then is it? It is the something which is able to make good use of all these, and something through whose agency each of these is made pleasant, noteworthy, and profitable. Without it they are unserviceable, fruitless, and harmful, and they burden and disgrace their possessor. It is surely excellent advice that Hesiod's​30 Prometheus gives to Epimetheus:

Never to welcome

Any gifts from Zeus of Olympus, but always return them,

100 [link to original Greek text] meaning the gifts of chance and external advantages; as if he were advising him not to play the flute if ignorant of music, nor to read if illiterate, nor to ride if unused to horses, thus advising him not to hold public office if a fool, nor to be rich if miserly, nor to marry if ruled by a woman. For not only is it true, as Demosthenes​31 has said, that "undeserved success becomes a source of misconception for fools," but undeserved good fortune also becomes a source of misery for the unthinking.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 From Chaeremon: Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p782. Cf. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, V.9 (25).

2 Cf. Plutarch's Life of Aristides, chap. xxv (p. 334B).

3 Cf. Plutarch's Moralia, 200B.

4 Demosthenes, Or. XIX (De falsa legatione), 229 (p412). The money was the price of treason according to Demosthenes.

5 Demosthenes, Or. XVIII (De corona), 296 (p324). These men also Demosthenes puts in his list of traitors.

6 Cf. Plutarch's Life of Alexander, chap. xxi (p. 676B ff.).

7 Cf. Moralia, 441A and 1034C.

8 Oedipus Tyrannus, 110.

9 From an unknown play of Sophocles; Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Sophocles, No. 759.

10 Cf. Kock, Com. Att. Frag. III p121, Menander, No. 417.

11 In the Timaeus, p. 45B.

12 Cf. Plato, Timaeus, p. 67B.

13 From Epicharmus; cited by Plutarch also in Moralia, 336B and 961A. Cf. Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, I p123.

14 Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, I p97; Bywater, p13. A slightly different version of the saying is given by Plutarch, Moralia, 957A.

15 From the Prometheus Unbound of Aeschylus; Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Aeschylus, No. 194. The lines are again quoted by Plutarch, Moralia, 964F.

16 Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, I p252.

17 Protagoras, 321C.

18 Author unknown, but perhaps Euripides: cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Adespota, No. 367; cited again by Plutarch, Moralia, 959D.

19 From the Aeolus of Euripides; Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Euripides, No. 27.

20 Plutarch has several good stories about elephants in Moralia, 968 ff.

21 Adapted from Homer, Od. VIII.246.

22 Cf. Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, I p409.

23 Cf. the first line of chap. i supra.

24 From Epicurus; cf. the quotation in Diogenes Laertius, X.144.

25 Perhaps from Sophocles; cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Sophocles, No. 760. Ἐργάνη is an epithet applied to Athena as patron of the arts.

26 Nealces, according to Pliny, Nat. Hist. XXXV.36 (104). Dio Chrysostom (Or. LXIII.4) says it was Apelles, and Valerius Maximus (VIII.11.7) says "a famous painter."

27 Cf. Moralia, 5A and 440A.

28 Cf. Moralia, 100C, infra.

29 This story also in Moralia, 187B and 440B.

30 In the Works and Days, 86.

31 Olynthiac I.23.

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