The Wheel of Fortune
The symbolism of the wheel of fortune deals with the cyclic movements in human life. In its original form, it figures a wheel (circle), divided in four compartments. The goddess Fortuna Panthea and her wheel are, in a general and historical sense, connected with Fate (fatum) and Moira, and therefore with the relative notions of boundaries in life. The gods are subordinate, in Greek cultural history as recorded by Homer, by a higher power called Moira. The original meaning of the word is ‘part’ or ‘assigned piece of land’ (CORNFORD, 1912). The Moira is the act of a first division of place, and therefore of division-thinking in general.
OTTO (1954) pointed to a gradual broadening of the term: Homer envisaged Moira as an impersonal being (the inescapable fate) and used the expression in singular. Hesiod described already three Moirai (Parcae), daughters of the goddess of the night, envisaged as abstract figures (FIELD, 1977). They were called Clotho (the spinster), Lachesis (the partitioner) and Atropos (the unavoidable). The primary partition-aspect (of Moira) was less important in the later popular belief. The notion of a trinity prevailed, with names as the Dirae (Furiae), Erinyans and Eumenideans, as the guardians of Tartarus (GUERBER, 1907/1981). Fate (or ‘Tyche’) lived in the Greek cultural period through a full cycle of development, which reached it highest visibility in an oppositional environment.
The meaning of the word ‘Fortuna’ is derived from ‘fors‘ (luck) and ‘ferre‘ (to bring). Fortune – in its original implication – is related to the verb ‘to bring’: that which is brought. The goddess Fortuna is she who brings something, in a neutral sense and plural (PITKIN, 1984; FRAKES, 1988). The image of the goddess changed during the Roman Empire to a person, with a positive aura: she was the source of all good, the ‘bona dea‘ (good goddess), to be identified with Isis.
Fortuna Panthea and Fortuna Populi Romani were favored personifications. Her three symbols – the cornucopia (abundance), the rudder of a ship (to steer the course of life in the right direction) and a ball or a wheel (the cyclic change and the turning of destiny) – pointed to an optimistic approach. The aspect of uncertainty and unpredictability was only added in the latter years of the Roman period, when the culture itself was on the decline. Fortuna is one of the few Roman gods, which made the change – in the early fourth century AD – to Christianity (PATCH, 1927). Apparently, the personification of chance was strong enough to survive in the monotheistic Christian world.
The wheel (of Fortune) became a symbol in its own right. It was first mentioned, according to ROBINSON (1946), by Cicero (‘In Pisonem’). No illustrations before the Roman period are known. The idea of a recurrent-dualistic valuation (good and bad) within a cyclic-tetradic context (radiae of a wheel) might have been fairly original at the time. However, there are – as earlier described by ROES (1933) – Greek connotations to the cult of the sun-wheel. Furthermore, the names of Ixion (punished by Zeus to an eternal turning wheel, fig. 376/377), Triptolemus (established the agriculture), Circe (a sorceress who helped Odysseus), Medea (the daughter of the king of Colchis, who helped Iason) and the iynx (a mythological bird from the Persian area) are all related to (dramatic) changes in circumstances.
Fog. 376 – Ixion and the wheel. In the Museum of Side, Turkey (Photo Marten Kuilman, 2009).
Fig. 377 – Ixion was convicted by Zeus to be strapped to a turning wheel, because he seduced his wife Hera. Fire and the eternal movement are a reference to the sun-wheel. An oil painting by Cornelis van Haarlem (1562 – 1636), dated 1588. In the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. (Photo: Marten Kuilman, 2013).
Cicero was followed by a long trail of writers who used the ‘rota fortunae’ and the unpredictable character of Fortuna: Tibullus (‘Elegy‘), Propertius, Ovid in the ‘Tristia‘ and the ‘Epistulae ex Ponto’ (Letters from the Black Sea), Horatius (‘Carmina‘; Songs, later called ‘Odes’), Seneca (‘Agamemnon’), Plinius and Tacitus in the ‘Dialogus de oratoribus’ (Dialogue about the orators).
Remarkable are four sculptured Tyches, used as ornaments on a chair (so-called ‘sedia gestatoria’), dated from the middle of the fourth century (360 – 370 AD) and found in 1793 in a silver hoard on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (fig. 378). The female figures are representations of the four most important cities in the later Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria en Antioch (TOYNBEE, 1934/1947; WEITZMANN, 1979). Three Tyches are fairly equal in shape, representing a seated figure on a throne in frontal view. Antioch, as the exception, is in an oblique position on a piece of rock, with a stylized young man, symbolizing the river Orintes. There is a similarity with the Tyche of Antioch, a lost work of the Greek sculptor Eutychides of Sicyon from c. 300 BC.
Fig. 378 – The four Tyches as symbols of the geographical centers of the Roman Empire. The sculptures were used as ornaments on a chair (sedia gestoria). From left to right: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. In: WEITZMANN (1979) and pp. 135 – 155; Pl. V, VI in: TOYNBEE (1947).
The work of Boethius (sixth century) provided a link of the symbolism of the wheel of fortune from the Middle Ages to modern times (FRAKES, 1988). The ideas of Proclus (the variability of fate) and Plotinus (God as a central point in a moving world) were joined together in the ‘Consolation of Philosophy‘ to manipulate fate in a dynamic way (WATTS, 1969).
The wheel of fortune (Rota Fortunae) is a symbolic tool of Fortuna. Often she is depicted in the act of turning the wheel. The movement of the wheel was associated (in a dual mind) with the interpretation of fate: ‘what comes up must go down’. The ‘Axi Rotor’ provided an ascending movement (Ad Alta Vehor), leading to an apex (Glorior Elatus). The inevitable downward movement (Descendo Mortificat) ends in a nadir (fig. 379).
Fig. 379 – What goes up must go down – a dualistic interpretation of Fortuna. (Drawing by Marten Kuilman).
The goddess Fortuna belonged to the Roman pantheon and was one of the few surviving gods in the transition – in the fourth century AD – of the Roman world into the Christian European era. The Wheel of Fortune – and its ‘Rule of Four’ (PATCH, 1927) – seems to be a remnant of an old four-fold way of thinking, which became later modified in an oppositional context. The theme got a new lease of life in the dynamic times of the eleventh and twelfth century and fitted into the concept of a Tetragonus Mundus. The classical picture of the ‘rota fortunae‘ was given in a commentary of Gregory (‘Moralia in Job’), a Spanish manuscript from 914 AD (the drawing is of a later date)(fig. 380).
Fig. 380 – The four stages in personal fortune (regno, regnavi, sum sine regno and regnabo) are written near the figures on the wheel, which is turned by the goddess Fortuna. The movement is counter clockwise. Drawing from a ninth century Spanish manuscript of Gregory’s ‘Moralia in Job’. The illustration was possibly added in the thirteenth century. John Rylands Library, Manchester. Ms 83, fol. 214v. ‘MERSMANN, 1982; fig 95) pointed to a source in the ‘Umkreis in Suditalien‘.
The tetrapartite character of the ‘rota fortunae‘ is of direct relevance for the present investigation. PATCH (1927; p. 60/165) called the division, personalized in four figures holding the wheel, the ‘formula of four’. The four positions on the wheel have the following Latin names: regno, regnabo, sum sine regno, regnavi. These phases deal with the extremes of up and down, but also with the intermediate stages. They are a blueprint of all communications: the fortune of love, of the sea (ventosa), of stride, of glory, of time (Occasio versus Fortuna) and of death (the dance of death). The moving wheel reminds the participants in a communication to the instability and relativity of human endeavor. Fortuna appoints kings and rulers but will plunge them eventually in misery as well (as Tangred found out in Sicily, see fig. 349 in: Four moral qualities). The meaning of the four aspects of luck is, in a counter-clockwise direction:
Regno – I reign at the top of the wheel. Fortuna favours me and means good . (the top);
Regnavi – I reigned for a short moment, but Fortuna has left me and taken the . good from me (downward movement);
Sum sine regno – I have nothing left to rule. Fortuna has taken all my favours (the . lowest point);
Regnabo – I will reign when Fortuna let me and the wheel moves to the top . (upward movement).
The Renaissance, which revived many of the pagan gods (SEZNEC, 1953/1972), heralded a restated worship of Fortuna, and she figured prominent in the general consciousness. Petrarca (1304 – 1374) in his ‘De remediis utriusque fortunae’ and Boccaccio (1313 – 1375) in the ‘Amorosa visione‘ were important reference points in the distribution of the dynamic understanding of Fortuna in the European cultural history. The general acquaintance only increased, when their work was printed and illustrated (fig. 381-3).
Fig. 381 – The wheel of Fortune. 1. Fortuna and Sapienza. Twelfth century. Four figures, eight spokes, movement clockwise. Corpus Christi Coll. Ms. Cambr. 66, folio 66. Pl. 5 in: PATCH (1927); 2. Fortuna and Sapientia. Woodcut 1510/1512. Four figures, eight spokes, movement counter-clockwise. Car. Bovillus ‘Liber de Sapiente‘ (Paris/Amiens, 1510/1512).
CASSIRER 1977) and a description in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, Vol. 30, 1967; 3. From Francesco Petrarcha’s ‘De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae’ of Francesco Petrarca by the ‘Petrarca-master’. Identified by Wilhelm Fraenger as Hans Weiditz from Strassburg. Theodor Musper (1927) opposed this view by pointing at the quality difference of the illustrations in the ‘Krauterbuches’ (of Weiditz) and the woodcuts in Petrarca’s work, 1532. Four figures (+ four winds), five spokes and movement clockwise. SCHOTTLAENDER (1975); 4. From Brant’s ‘Narrenschiff‘, 1494. Three figures (donkey/ fool), six spokes, movement counter-clockwise. WEHMER et al (1971). Also in: GILLES (1971).
Fortuna and ‘having luck’ is closely related to the unpredictability of affairs. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) believed in the possibility to influence and reduce the power of Fortuna by practical knowledge and decisiveness. However, he also knew, that in the outcome, unexpected elements could play a role. His well known book ‘Il Principe’ (The Prince) was a manual for the pursue of ‘Realpolitik‘. Power is the visible version of belief, and can only be active when the material world is close at hand.
Machiavelli openly posed the effectiveness of limited thinking. Dualistic concepts like power, success or honor were carried to their ultimate end. A nation is, in his view, based on a good law and good armament. ‘Most of the excitement and repulsion which ‘The Prince‘ has generated comes from its frank acknowledgement that in practice successful governments are always ready to act ruthlessly to attain their ends’ (BULL, 1961/1975, p. 24). The goddess Fortuna does exist, but can be helped by a powerful action of man in his decision-making: that is the message. It is a repeat of the old knowledge of the Greek and the Romans, who saw in Tyche the goddess of Chance, who could, to a certain extent, be manipulated.
Machiavelli, who had a persistent preoccupation with manhood and had ‘a disdain for the household, the private, the personal and the sensual’ (PITKIN, 1984), attributed Fortune with ‘female’ qualities, in particular, unreliability. The writer of ‘The Prince‘ and the ‘Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius’ was an oppositional thinker ‘pur-sang‘, who despised all kinds of utopian idealism. He placed ‘virtu‘ – as a ‘male’ quality characterized by success, skill, strength and power – against the ‘female’ quality of ‘effeminato‘, including the earlier mentioned ‘household’ attributes. Machiavelli called her ‘The Goddess is a lady and must be taken by storm’ (PATCH, 1927) or at another occasion: an ‘aged witch with two faces’.
The goddess Fortuna offered, in those (pivotal) time of great activity, in which worlds were discovered and new and strange horizons were opened, a viable option to understand the incomprehensible: life was a matter of chance, take it or leave it. Her companion Ventura, or the adventure, was gradually incorporated in her all-embracing providence. The Christian culture of Europe has always been uncomfortable with the trust in the goddess of luck, because it was seen – in lower division thinking – as an interference with heavenly providence, provided by God. The distribution of God’s gifts in life was not a matter of luck, but could – to a certain extend – be earned.
This division of the wheel (number of spokes) was not always constrained to four. The number of figures around the wheel – which give some clues on the type of division – vary widely. In particular, when the driving spirit behind the rotating wheel was of an oppositional nature, any number of people or attributes could be used. The picture of the wheel of fortune can act as a reference to the philosophical background of its maker.
A good example of this observation is a woodcut in John Lydgate’s ‘The Fall of Princes’, published in London in 1554 (fig. 382). Fortuna, with her hair as the rays from a sun god, has a Janus-face, symbol of a two-division, and three pair of hands reaching for six (or seven) persons on a wheel. A king, a rich merchant and a bishop are at the top. One of the lower men going up holds a banner with the inscription ‘Fortuna‘. An ordinary man falls down and will bump on his head any moment. To the right is a scribe or administrator, who reaches for his head in an act of incomprehension.
Fig. 382 – Fortuna with the many hands. Woodcut in John Lydgate’s ‘The fall of Princes’ (London, 1554). The ‘formula of four‘ was abandoned in favor of a multiplicity, rooted in oppositional thinking (one versus many). The dual, Janus-face of Fortuna is further evidence for a lower frame of mind, reflected in an emphasis on the up and down movement and the higher and lower social classes. In: CHEW (1962).
The illustrated poem of Sebastian Brant called ‘The Ship of Fools’ (Das Narrenschiff) had a great influence on the imagination of the readers of the early sixteenth century (fig. 383). The book was printed in Basel in 1494 and can be regarded as one of the first ‘best-sellers‘ after the invention of the printing press (WEHMER et al., 1971). His poem lacks the stable division environment. The fools refer directly to an unbalanced state and derangement.
Fig. 383 – The Ship of Fools. Woodcut from Doctor Brant’s ‘Narrenschiff”, Strasbourg, Math Hupfuff, 1512. In: DOLLINGER (1972).
Albrecht Dürer made in 1498 a woodcut of a kneeling Sebastian Brant (1458 – 1531) with a shield in front of him, bearing a tetrapartite sign (fig. 384).
The illustration of the ‘Wheel of Fortune‘ in Brant’s ‘Ship of Fools‘ is a woodcut, of which the authorship of Albrecht Dürer is questionable (fig. 381-4). It shows a triple division with three hybrid fools/donkeys turning around a wheel. The hand of God (not Fortuna!) reaches from the top left through a nimbus, while an open grave marks the lower corner. The spirit is dualistic.
A well-known encyclopedic work titled the ‘Margarita Phylosophica‘ (Strasbourg, 1504) described the cyclic movement in human life (in Lib. VIII) under the heading ‘De Principiis Rerum Natura’. The theme of transitoriness was also incorporated in the ‘Theatre Francois‘ of the Frères Parfaict (II, 113ff) in the form of a ‘Mystère de Bien-Advisé et Mal-Advisé‘ (fig. 385).
Fig. 385 – The formula of four: Regnabo, Regno, Regnavi and Sum sine Regna. A (failed) research object, which should be followed up. But where do we find the ‘Mystère de Bien-Advisé et Mal-Advisé ‘? It is mentioned in e-books (Google) many times, but the actual text is a mystery… Mystères et Moralités des XIVe-XVe siècles: éditions critiques (Nativité du ms. Paris, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève ; Vengeance Nostre Seigneur d’Eustache Marcadé [2 mss : Arras, BM, 697 ; Londres, Chatsworth House, 48B]); Traduction (Moralité de Bien Advisé, Mal Advisé du ms. Paris, BNF, Rothschild 2797). In: PATCH (1927).
The lack of historic consciousness of quadripartite symbolism – in connection with the Wheel of Fortune – can be found in many illustrations, which followed after the Pivotal Point (1500) in the European cultural history (fig. 386).
Fig. 386 – Variations on the theme of the wheel of Fortune. The ‘formula of four‘, as an indication of the four phases of a person in relation to luck, is abandoned. 1. A woodcut of Pencz (MARLE, van (1932); 2. Burgkmaier (1532) (CHEW, 1962); 3. Fortuna and the flatterers. The sage stops the wheel. Engraving of Cornelis van Delen on the titlepage of Francis Bacon’s ‘Henri VII’ (Leiden, 1642) (CHEW, 1962); 4. Fortuna and Fate. Woodcut on the titlepage of Robert Recorde’s ‘The Castle of Knowledge’ (London, 1556) (CHEW, 1962).
Belief in ‘Fortuna’ is still strong in the present day. Her power is the same as ever, only her appearance has changed. She is dressed now in the clothes of statistics and probability calculation. The computer is her faithful servant to do the dirty work. Mortgage banks and pension funds are able to calculate the average lifespan of their contributors and know to outwit Lady Fortuna. Only in the individual cases do they have to admit defeat.
MacINTYRE (1981/1984) distinguished in his ‘post-modern’ approach to virtue four sources of systematic unpredictability in human life (pp. 93 – 100). The original sequence in MacIntyre’s book (in the present numbering: 2 – 4 – 3 – 1) is changed, to show the place of uncertainties in a quadralectic visibility-spectrum:
1. ‘Pure contingency’ (p. 99) or: total unpredictable. Mentioned last by MacIntyre, this is essentially the foremost reason that prediction can never be a 100%-affair. Small events can lead to great consequences, but it can never conjunctured afterwards, that such an event necessarily led to the fortune or misfortune, which was the result. Therefore it can also not be included in any sort of prediction. This is the birthplace of Fortune in it purest form.
2. ‘The nature of radical conceptual innovation. Any invention, any discovery, which consists essentially in the elaboration of a radical new concept cannot be predicted, for a necessary part of the prediction is the present elaboration of the very concept whose discovery or invention was to take place only in the future. The notion of the prediction of radical conceptual innovation is itself conceptually incoherent’ (p. 93). Nobody could – before the wheel was invented – predict when the wheel would be invented, because there was no reference to the ‘wheel’ as such. The addition ‘radical new’ (to the conceptual innovation) means a point in time with no history and points to a linear time.
3. ‘The game-theoretic character of social life’ (p. 97). It is possible to present the interhuman endeavour as a great game, which can be studied with the formal structures of game theory. The outcome of a predictive theory is governed by law-like generalisations. A limitation of the players and the rules is implicit, making this approach in essence a static exercise which can only successful within its own boundaries and rules.
4. ‘The unpredictability of certain of his own future actions by each agent individually generates another element of unpredictability as such in the social world’ (p. 95). Because some decisions are contemplated but not yet taken – which in turn will influence the results of other decisions – there will always be an element of uncertainty in communication.
The theory of probability has reached in modern science a high degree of perfection, but every statement will still be subject to the division environment, which governs the communication. In the case of tetradic thinking the above-presented systematic uncertainties are incorporated in any predictability made in this environment. In lower forms of division thinking some of these uncertainties are not even noticed, and the absence is translated in a misguided confidence.
The standard work of Antoine Augustine COURNOT (1843/1977) about the theory of probability can be summarized with the motto ‘exceptio firmat regulam‘ (exception confirms the rule). This particular state flourishes in a system, which leaves enough space to cater for these exceptions. It also holds, that the greatest conceptual space occurs in the highest form of division thinking.
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