It often happens that we are forced to accept what we wish to avoid. Avarice, for example, defeats itself; and the miser who in futility clings to every penny finds himself compelled to part with greater sums than he might otherwise have spent. The health fanatic who obsesses about every morsel of food that goes into his mouth, or cup that is pressed to his lips, finds himself harassed by ailments and bodily infirmity, while the moderate enjoyer of pleasure scarcely has a need to visit the physician. The athlete fixated on avoiding injury brings it down upon himself.
It is nothing more than a form of pride, a manifestation of the unreasoning human Will. This Will we have to control the universe. But Fortune does not allow such presumption on our part. There is a kind of balance in Fortune, you see, a balancing of the scales, that prevents our foolish desires from assuming undue importance. We are put in check by these Scales of Adrastia. I recently read another amusing example of this in Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides. The work is a travel journal of their visit to the Scottish highlands in 1773. Boswell and Johnson were discussing the amusing fate of a Scottish miser who did not have the wisdom to let go of his pennies.
This miser once was visited by a friend, an Irish harper. The harper performed for him, but the miser, as Boswell says, “could not find it in is heart to give him any money.” Instead, the miser gave the musician a harp-key, which is a tool for tuning the instrument. The miser thought this key was of middling value; but it turned out to be ornamented with gold and silver, and contained a precious stone as well. It was worth between eighty and one hundred guineas. When the miser eventually discovered its value, he tried to take it back, but the harper refused. Boswell then relates his dialogue with Johnson on the matter:
BOSWELL. “I do not think O’Kane [the harper] was obliged to give it back.” JOHNSON. “No, sir. If a man with his eyes open, and without any means used to deceive him, gives me a thing, I am not to let him have it again when he grows wiser. I like to see how avarice defeats itself; how, when avoiding to part with money, the miser gives something more valuable.” Col said, the gentleman’s relations were angry at his giving away the harp-key, for it had been long in the family. JOHNSON. “Sir, he values a new guinea more than an old friend.”
And here can be found an illustration of what we said above. Those who cling too tightly to their obsessions, those who seek to impose their unreasoning Will on the workings of Fortune, are reminded of their folly. The fool conserves his water while his house burns; he sets himself up as Fortune’s equal, blind to the fact that he controls very little. Extremity in anything is never good, for it defeats its own purposes; moderation in all things is far wiser, and less costly. Loosen your grip, and you will find Fortune’s judgments less harsh! Fateful irony is Fortune’s way of restoring the balance in things. Modern man is in desperate need of periodic reminders that it is not he who runs the Universe; his arrogance has become unchecked, and knows few boundaries. We can try to evade this truth; and if it be thrown out the front door, it reenters through a side-window. Quod evadere velles, fortuna te facere cogit: what you wish to evade, Fortune compels you to do.
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