April 19th, 2006

The Consolations of Philosophy

Lady Liz asked me: “Who would ever want to look at a photo like this? He’s just an ugly old man.”

I replied that he reminded me of a folk tale that originated centuries ago near the village of Buonopane, perhaps on that same narrow path beneath the spring of Nitrodi. It goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a well-dressed wealthy gentleman who gave a fisherman 40 ducats to row him to a rock out on the sea. When they arrived, the gentleman called out:

“Fortuna! Fortuna!”

But no one responded.

He shouted again, “Fortuna! Fortuna!”

Finally a beautiful girl appeared. “What do you want?” she asked.
“I have no place to put all my abundance,” he replied, “so you must stop sending me money!”

The girl laughed. “I will send you even more money, so that you will drown in it!”

The fisherman, hearing this, was astonished. “Good heavens!” he said to himself. “My children are hungry and go around barefoot! So tomorrow I, too, will come here to visit Fortuna!”

The next night the fisherman rowed out to the rock. “Fortuna! Fortuna!” he called.

There was only silence, so he called again. “Fortuna! Fortuna!”

Suddenly an ugly and filthy old man appeared and asked him, “What do you want?”

“Give me some penny!” the fisherman cried. “My children have no shoes, and they are starving. It is cold and I don’t know what to do!”

“Idiot!” the old man shouted. “You received those 40 ducats from the gentleman yesterday only because I was asleep. If I had been awake you would have gotten nothing!”

* * *

Alain De Botton, in his beautiful book “The Consolations of Philosophy,” tells us that in the Roman Empire Fortuna was a fertility goddess, the firstborn of Jupiter, and was honored in temples throughout Italy.

She was “…visited by the barren and farmers in search of rain. But gradually her remit had widened, she had become associated with money, advancement, love and health.”

Her image appeared on many Roman coins. She held a cornucopia in one hand and a rudder in the other. She was beautiful and usually wore a light tunic and a coy smile.

“The cornucopia was a symbol of her power to bestow favors, the rudder a symbol of her more sinister power to change destinies,” De Botton explains. “She could scatter gifts, then with terrifying speed shift the rudder’s course, maintaining an imperturbable smile as she watched us choke to death on a fishbone or disappear in a landslide.”

Where’s the “consolation” here?

Well, De Botton explains, it’s like this:

“Because we are injured most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (‘There is nothing which Fortune does not dare’), we must… hold the possibility of disaster in mind at all times. No one should undertake journey by car, or walk down the stairs, or say goodbye to a friend, without an awareness…of fatal possibilities.”