There are many men who lack a certain sense of awe and grandeur at the inscrutable workings of Nature. They are apt to favor crank theories instead of considered judgments; and they recline in negativity and pessimism when the time comes for them to perform in the face of adversity. They lack faith in the ability of the human soul to accomplish truly great things, because they themselves have no awareness of the capacities of that divine soul.
We see such people drawn to ideas like “Shakespeare never wrote his plays,” “the moon landings never happened,” “this or that is impossible,” “nothing really matters,” or similar excursions into the world of befuddlement. These types never consider that genius has a way of springing up in the unlikeliest places; and that, under the right conditions, the potential of man’s creative impulse and focused will is nearly limitless. In the 2017 film Blade Runner 2049, a character named Sapper Morton, just before he dies, tells his pursuer: “Because you’ve never seen a miracle.” And this is how things are with them: they lack faith because they have never been touched by the light of inspiration, and never beheld a miracle. They filter everything through the rigid prism of their own myopia. Cicero says something along these lines in his On the Nature of the Gods (I.36):
And even if they are mistaken in this conjecture, I understand what they are aiming at. What about you? What exceptional and extraordinary work do you know that seems to have been made by a divine intelligence, from which you conclude that the gods exist? You say, ‘I have an innate conception of a god embedded in my mind.’ And an idea of a bearded Jupiter, and a helmeted Minerva—do you think they are really like this? How much better is the opinion of the general public: for the common people attribute to a god not only human limbs, but the use of those limbs as well.
I believe it was Machiavelli, in his Discourses, who said that while Fortune is like a river moving with unstoppable force, a man still can, through his personal actions, direct and bank the movement of that river. Human actions direct the gushing waters of Fortune. We are not helpless bits of cork, bobbing aimlessly in rolling seas; and he who adopts this attitude has condemned himself to misery and ineffectual isolation.
The historian Polyaenus, in his Stratagems (V.11), tells the story of a Carthaginian named Gescon, the brother of Hamilcar. Hamilcar was one of the best commanders that Carthage ever had, but he fell victim to the intense factionalism and rivalries that so plagued the internal affairs of this unfortunate state. The more successful he was, the more jealous enemies multiplied and conspired against him. In time, Hamilcar was accused of wanting to become an absolute dictator. The Carthaginians even went so far as to arrest and execute him. Hamilcar’s brother Gescon was banished. But the new generals that replaced Hamilcar proved to be incompetent; defeats and humiliations piled up, and the Carthaginian senate felt it had no choice but to send an apologetic letter to Gescon, recalling him from exile and asking him to take command of the armed forces.
Gescon reflected on the matter and decided to accept. When he returned to Carthage, he ordered his brother’s enemies, the men who had brought about his death, to be assembled and brought before him. He commanded them all to lie down on their stomachs. He then lowered his foot three times upon the necks of each of them. He told them that, by humiliating them in this way, he had taken sufficient revenge for his brother’s execution. He then dismissed them all, and said,
I will not return evil for evil, but will repay evil with good.
With this incredible lenience, which was very rare in those days, Gesco made it clear that the time had come to bring an end to Carthaginian factionalism and domestic discord. His esteem among the people rose to great heights; they felt they were in the hands of a man unlike any of his vindictive predecessors. He obtained the obedience of all parties, “as a character equally amiable and great.” The fortunes of Carthage from this point took a decidedly positive turn; domestic felicity reigned, and military successes came again on the battlefield.
A different approach was taken by the tyrant Agathocles of Syracuse, who lived from about 361 B.C. to 289 B.C. Polynaeus (V.3) says that Agathocles once got wind that some of the Syracusan chiefs were grumbling against him. He therefore formulated his own plans. He invited to a large banquet five hundred men whom he deemed most threatening to his rule. The food and drink flowed freely, with plate after plate of delicacies being brought before the assembled men. Agathocles himself, donning a scarlet robe “in the Tarentine fashion,” walked before all the revelers with a smile on his face. He sang for them, and played the harp, to the great amusement of all. When this good cheer and mirth had risen to a high level, Agathocles excused himself, saying that he needed to change his attire. And here, reader, I am sure you can finish the story: a number of armed men entered the chamber, and slew all the revelers, allowing not a single one to escape.
But by carrying out this treacherous and brutal act, Agathocles had sealed his own fate. He who thought he was directing the River of Fortune in his favor, discovered that he had become, in fact, a prisoner of his own criminality. New acts of violence became more and more necessary to justify old ones. When Agathocles heard that the generals Tisarchus, Anthropinus, and Diocles are scheming against him, he assembled them and told them he was going to send them to relive a city, an ally of Syracuse, that was then under siege. He told the three men to meet him on a certain day at Timoleontium, where he would provide them with horses, arms, and baggage. When the three generals appeared at the appointed time and place, with all their assistants and bodyguards, Agathocles had them all ambushed and slain.
Yet it is said that Agathocles was eventually poisoned by his grandson Archagathus. So it could be said that he had indeed been the shaper and maker of his River of Fortune, but not in the way he had expected. His brutality came full circle, and finally rebounded right upon his head. The same principle is true for us in the activities of our daily lives. The actions we take, the choices we make: these are the things that bank, dam, and direct that surging River of Fortune which we mentioned above. It may not hold true in every single case, or in every single instance, but measured over time with a large enough sample size, it is a law as certain as any deduced by the complex mathematics of the natural philosophers.
And we will here close our comments with a more pleasant example of the shaping of Fortune’s river. This is one found in the Miscellanies (Ch. 12) of the great Italian humanist Angelo Poliziano, who lived from 1454 to 1494. He relates a story from the city of Tyre in what is today Lebanon. The city had been famous since ancient times for its sophisticated use of purple dye, and this was a popular legend on how the dye came to be discovered. The hero Hercules, we are told, was passionately in love with a Phoenician nymph named Tyro. He also had a dog that followed him around loyally. One day, among the rocks of the seashore, the dog caught sight of the shellfish (murex) whose flesh is the source of the purple dye. The dog consumed the shellfish, and its lips became stained with a bizarre yet alluring tone of purple.
Hercules saw this and brought his dog with him when he approached the nymph Tyro. She was fascinated by the bright color staining the dog’s lips and mouth, and told Hercules that she would have no more to do with him unless he could bring her a dress of the same color as the dog’s purple lips. He collected some of the shellfish, pressed and boiled the animals, and used the resulting dye to color a fine dress for her. Her great satisfaction at this was demonstrated by her lasting affection for Hercules. And this is how the Tyrians say (ut Tyrii dictitant) that their precious purple dye was discovered.
Read more in the new translation of Cicero’s On Duties: