The blessing of misfortune

Wheel of FortuneWhat I read tonight in Book 2 of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy reminds me of what St. James writes in his epistle, “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (1:2-4, MSG). Consider what Lady Philosophy says to the aggrieved Boethius in David Slavitt’s fine translation:

The fact of ill fortune is better for men than good. When Fortune smiles, she is always false. But when she is inconstant and whimsical she shows her true self. The first aspect of Fortune will deceive people, but the second is instructive. The first blinds while the second opens men’s eyes to how fragile the happiness of mortals really is. The man who enjoys good fortune is driven frantic, running this way and that and trying to maintain what he has. The other is steady and, if he learns from his experience, even wise. Good fortune can lead men astray, deceiving them about what to expect from life and how to think of themselves. When Fortune is unkind, she draws men back to an understanding of what the world is like, and who their friends are.

If misfortune is a blessing, should we court it? No! Just as the wheel turns, so too, hardship will find us. Here, Lady Philosophy takes up the voice of Fortune:

I have a wheel, and I turn it so that what is low is raised high and what is up is brought down. You ascend? Fine! But you must acknowledge that it can’t be wrong for you to descend again. You were not aware of how a wheel works.

What, then, shall we do when ill fortune besets us? According to Lady Philosophy, man can weather even the most violent storm if he submits to the governance of love:

What governs earth and sea and sky
is nothing other than love,
whose tight rein if it ever slackened
would leave creation in chaos
of civil war’s utter ruin.
Love binds people too,
in matrimony’s sacred bonds
where chaste lovers are met,
and friends cement their trust and friendship.
How happy is mankind
if the love that orders the stars above
rules, too, in your hearts.


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