Thursday, July 28, 2016

Lucky Oedipus

The latest New Philosopher magazine is here, and this is extremely good...

The theme is luck, and the editorial team has put together a fascinating collection of essays, interviews and illustrations.

My essay, 'Lucky Oedipus', uses the ancient Greek myth to reflect on the nature and existential value of luck:
Luck is not just accident, since it does not require intent. Suppose the fight with his father was close, and what gave Oedipus the advantage was a gust of wind that blinded Laius with grit. A lucky win, but not accidental.  
And luck is not simply chance, since rare things are always happening somewhere, at some time. Luck suggests consequence. Perhaps while Oedipus was blinding himself with Jocasta’s brooches, three trees in the Black Forest lost their leaves in spring. Neither lucky nor unlucky for him or anyone else, but certainly an unusual happening. 
So luck is a rare but significant event. It brings together two parts: first, something relatively unusual occurs; second, this something matters. Importantly, luck does not depend on knowledge of it. Oedipus, in a more naturalistic interpretation, had terrible luck well before he realised his woes. And this luck is not absolute. Had Oedipus and Jocasta’s marriage been childless, audiences might have said ‘lucky they didn’t have kids’. Not because their coupling would be redeemed, but because it would be better if died with them. Luck is judged, not simply by what happened, but by what might have happened: its likelihood and desirability. 
In this light, it often makes no sense to call a whole life lucky or unlucky. If someone’s life is predictably sublime or abysmal, then something less exotic is usually going on. The ancients might call it a curse, we might call it socioeconomic class or genetics: the forces that nudge individuals to wealth or poverty, calm or anxiety. ‘None can be called happy,’ says the chorus famously in King Oedipus, ‘until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace.’ Mortal life is fragile, yes. There really is chance and happenstance. As tragedy teaches, even the best souls can be cracked by the force of unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances, and we cannot reckon their consequences until the casket is closed. But luck itself is unusual, by definition. 
You can pick up New Philosopher in all good bookshops and newsagents, or subscribe to increase your chances of good literary fortune.

(Oedipus explains the riddle of the Sphinx, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, c. 1805)

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