My grandfather used to have a phrase he would use when confronted with a situation that only wisdom and experience could fully explain. The world will teach you, he would say. At the time, as a much younger man, I always saw this as a frustrating response. It seemed too trite, too smug. But with the passage of time, and with more scars to my credit, I can now see the wisdom behind it. I now know what he meant. Beware the fickleness of fortune, for all glory is fleeting; don’t be a slave to your base desires; and most importantly, know that you may be on top today, but that all good fortune can be snatched away in an instant.
These are lessons that immigrants and refugees like him know in their bones. Life has a way of compensating for great success by allocating us a measured ration of misfortune. Good fortune and ill-fortune are handmaidens, and will both eventually come to call on us, and never in circumstances of our own choosing. Over a long enough time span, a man’s fortune always reverts to the mean.
Consider the career of the philosopher and statesman Boethius (A.D. 475?—524). In his style and substance, he straddles the worlds of classical antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages. Coming from a wealthy and distinguished Roman family, he received the best education of his day, becoming erudite in both Greek and Latin letters. Not content with scholarly pursuits, he decided to enter public life, and awed the Roman Senate with his eloquence, and roused the Roman masses with his benevolence. Men compared him to Cicero and Demonsthenes. Eventually he rose to serve the Gothic king Theodoric, who then ruled most of Italy.
Boethius’s abilities made him enemies at court, and he eventually was wrongfully accused of participation in a conspiracy against the king. Theodoric, infirm of mind and body, probably listened to the counsel of his Gothic ministers, who likely resented Boethius’s popularity among the people of Rome; and Boethius did not help his cause by proving inept in the game of palace intrigue.
The tomb of Theodoric
Theodoric eventually had Boethius thrown in jail and sentenced to death. It was a shocking reversal for a man who had during his entire life known nothing but success. And from this miserable place, this gloomy dungeon, he wrote one of the first books of prison literature and perhaps the most famous of all medieval philosophical works: De Consolatione Philosophae (The Consolation of Philosophy). Nothing focuses the mind as wonderfully as a death sentence. Drawing strength and solace from his classical studies, he set out timeless principles of fortune, fate, and how to seek the good life. He had learned well the stern and masculine ethic of the ancients, and had imbibed freely from that fount of eloquence and sagacity which the ancient writers represented. And in all his book, there is not one word of complaining or whining.
Fortune is various and fickle, says Boethius, and a wise man benefits more from bad luck than from good:
For I think that ill fortune is better for men than good. Fortune always cheats when she seems to smile, with the appearance of happiness, but is always truthful when she shows herself to be inconstant by changing. The first kind of fortune deceives, the second instructs. The one binds the minds of those who enjoy goods that cheatingly only seem to be good, the other frees them with the knowledge of the fragility of mortal happiness. So you can see that the one is inconstant, always running here and there, uncertain of herself; and the other is steady, well prepared and—with the practice of adversity—wise. [II.5]
The rich man, in his stupidity and venality, will hoard wealth, not realizing that it will all eventually be taken away:
Let him load his neck with Red Sea pearls, and plough his fat fields with hundreds of oxen! Gnawing care will never leave him while he lives, and neither will his great wealth go with him when he dies. [III.5]
Boethius suggests that a wise man, if he enjoys great success, will always remember to behave in a modest and virtuous way. Why? Because the people he encountered on his rise to the top will likely be the same ones who will witness his fall. Never mock or insult those worse off than you; one day, you may find yourself among them. A wise man will not count it an evil if he encounters adversity, for this will test and harden him:
A wise man ought not to take it badly, every time he is brought into conflict with fortune, just as it would not be fitting for brave man to be frightened every time the sound of war crashed out. Since for each of these the difficulty is itself the occasion, for the latter of increasing his glory, for the former of further developing his wisdom. And this is indeed why virtue is called virtue, because relying on its own powers it is not overcome by adversity….You are engaged in bitter mental strife with every kind of fortune, lest ill fortune oppress you or good fortune corrupt you. [IV.45]
And finally, we cannot call someone a real man who is driven and controlled by lusts. Chasing after sensual or material pleasures is demeaning, debasing, and brutalizing. Boethius says:
The stealer of others’ wealth burns with greed: you would say he was like a wolf. The wild and restless man flaps his tongue in pointless arguments: you would say he was a dog. The scammer rejoices in his tricks and frauds: he is on the level of a little fox…the weak and fearful is afraid of everything: he is reckoned like a deer. The stupid sluggard is numb: he lives an ass’s life…a man is drowned in foul and demeaning lusts: he is gripped by the instinct of a filthy pig. [IV.55]
The overall impression given by the Consolation is that, on a long enough timeline, a man’s fortune will sooner or later revert to the mean. Even if he is garlanded by success, this will eventually be counterbalanced by the visitation of some calamity. The universe, which he equates with God, has some built-in balancing principle, so that our successes will sooner or later be offset with misfortunes.
With this in mind, the wise man will behave accordingly. Cherish your true friends, for you will know who they are when disaster hits you. Do not denigrate those less fortunate than you, for you may find yourself among them. Do not tempt Fate by allowing yourself to be enslaved with pursuits for women, money, and glory. All of these things will be taken away from you in time. All dissolves into the receding mist of time and Nature’s pleasure, as the foamy waves retreat from the sandy shoreline, leaving only an outline of what once was.
The poignancy of Boethius’s philosophy is matched by the tragedy of his fate. On October 23, 524, the Reaper finally called on him. His executioners removed him from his cell, looped a cord around his neck, and strangled him. The cruelty and injustice of this end is overshadowed by the brilliance of his philosophical testament to the world. May we, in our hour of crisis, face our challenges with equal courage and stoic resolution. And if we think we know better than the world, and if we think we are exempt from the laws of fortune, we should think again. No one is exempt.
The world will teach us.
Read More: 15 Hard Lessons I’ve Learned From Life