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Confessions Of An Inquiring Spirit Etc by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

ESSAY I. Fortuna plerumque est veluti Galaxia quarundam obscurarum Virtutum sine nomine.à

Fortuna plerumque est veluti Galaxia quarundam obscurarum Virtutum sine nomine. BACON.

(Translation) -- Fortune is for the most part but a galaxy or milky way, as it were, of certain obscure virtues without a name.

|Does Fortune favour fools? Or how do you explain the origin of the proverb, which, differently worded, is to be found in all the languages of Europe?|

This proverb admits of various explanations, according to the mood of mind in which it is used. It may arise from pity, and the soothing persuasion that Providence is eminently watchful over the helpless, and extends an especial care to those who are not capable of caring for themselves. So used, it breathes the same feeling as |God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb| -- or the more sportive adage, that |the fairies take care of children and tipsy folk.| The persuasion itself, in addition to the general religious feeling of mankind, and the scarcely less general love of the marvellous, may be accounted for from our tendency to exaggerate all effects that seem disproportionate to their visible cause, and all circumstances that are in any way strongly contrasted with our notions of the persons under them. Secondly, it arises from the safety and success which an ignorance of danger and difficulty sometimes actually assists in procuring; inasmuch as it precludes the despondence, which might have kept the more foresighted from undertaking the enterprise, the depression which would retard its progress, and those overwhelming influences of terror in cases where the vivid perception of the danger constitutes the greater part of the danger itself. Thus men are said to have swooned and even died at the sight of a narrow bridge, over which they had ridden, the night before, in perfect safety; or at tracing the footmarks along the edge of a precipice which the darkness had concealed from them. A more obscure cause, yet not wholly to be omitted, is afforded by the undoubted fact that the exertion of the reasoning faculties tends to extinguish or bedim those mysterious instincts of skill, which, though for the most part latent, we nevertheless possess in common with other animals.

Or the proverb may be used invidiously; and folly in the vocabulary of envy or baseness may signify courage and magnanimity. Hardihood and fool-hardiness are indeed as different as green and yellow, yet will appear the same to the jaundiced eye. Courage multiplies the chances of success by sometimes making opportunities, and always availing itself of them: and in this sense Fortune may be said to favour fools by those who, however prudent in their own opinion, are deficient in valour and enterprise. Again: an emiently good and wise man, for whom the praises of the judicious have procured a high reputation even with the world at large, proposes to himself certain objects, and adapting the right means to the right end attains them; but his objects not being what the world calls fortune, neither money nor artificial rank, his admitted inferiors in moral and intellectual worth, but more prosperous in their worldly concerns, are said to have been favoured by Fortune and be slighted; although the fools did the same in their line as the wise man in his; they adapted the appropriate means to the desired end, and so succeeded. In this sense the proverb is current by a misuse, or a catachresis at least, of both the words, fortune and fools.

How seldom, friend, a good great man inherits Honour or wealth with all his worth and pains! It sounds like stories from the land of spirits, If any man obtain that which he merits, Or any merit that which he obtains.


For shame! dear friend, renounce this canting strain; What would'st thou have a good great man obtain? Place? titles? salary? a gilded chain? Or throne of corses which his sword hath slain? Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends! Hath he not always treasures, always friends, The good great man? Three treasures, love, and light, And calm thoughts regular as infant's breath: And three firm friends, more sure than day and night, Himself, his Maker, and the angel Death. S. T. C.

But, lastly, there is, doubtless, a true meaning attached to fortune, distinct both from prudence and from courage; and distinct too from that absence of depressing or bewildering passions, which (according to my favourite proverb, |extremes meet,|) the fool not seldom obtains in as great perfection by his ignorance as the wise man by the highest energies of thought and self-discipline. Luck has a real existence in human affairs, from the infinite number of powers that are in action at the same time, and from the co-existence of things contingent and accidental (such as to US at least are accidental) with the regular appearances and general laws of nature. A familiar instance will make these words intelligible. The moon waxes and wanes according to a necessary law. The clouds likewise, and all the manifold appearances connected with them, are governed by certain laws no less than the phases of the moon. But the laws which determine the latter are known and calculable, while those of the former are hidden from us. At all events, the number and variety of their effects baffle our powers of calculation; and that the sky is clear or obscured at any particular time, we speak of, in common language, as a matter of accident. Well! at the time of the full moon, but when the sky is completely covered with black clouds, I am walking on in the dark, aware of no particular danger: a sudden gust of wind rends the cloud for a moment, and the moon emerging discloses to me a chasm or precipice, to the very brink of which I had advanced my foot. This is what is meant by luck, and according to the more or less serious mood or habit of our mind we exclaim, how lucky! or, how providential! The co-presence of numberless phaenomena, which from the complexity or subtlety of their determining causes are called contingencies, and the co-existence of these with any regular or necessary phaenomenon (as the clouds with the moon for instance), occasion coincidences, which, when they are attended by any advantage or injury, and are at the same time incapable of being calculated or foreseen by human prudence, form good or ill luck. On a hot sunshiny afternoon came on a sudden storm and spoilt the farmer's hay; and this is called ill luck. We will suppose the same event to take place, when meteorology shall have been perfected into a science, provided with unerring instruments; but which the farmer had neglected to examine. This is no longer ill luck, but imprudence. Now apply this to our proverb. Unforeseen coincidences may have greatly helped a man, yet if they have done for him only what possibly from his own abilities he might have effected for himself, his good luck will excite less attention and the instances be less remembered. That clever men should attain their objects seems natural, and we neglect the circumstances that perhaps produced that success of themselves without the intervention of skill or foresight; but we dwell on the fact and remember it, as something strange, when the same happens to a weak or ignorant man. So, too, though the latter should fail in his undertakings from concurrences that might have happened to the wisest man, yet his failure being no more than might have been expected and accounted for from his folly, it lays no hold on our attention, but fleets away among the other undistinguished waves, in which the stream of ordinary life murmurs by us, and is forgotten. Had it been as true as it was notoriously false, that those all-embracing discoveries, which have shed a dawn of science on the art of chemistry, and give no obscure promise of some one great constitutive law, in the light of which dwell dominion and the power of prophecy; if these discoveries, instead of having been as they really were, preconcerted by meditation, and evolved out of his own intellect, had occurred by a set of lucky accidents to the illustrious father and founder of philosophic alchemy; if they presented themselves to Sir Humphry Davy exclusively in consequence of his luck in possessing a particular galvanic battery; if this battery, as far as Davy was concerned, had itself been an accident, and not (as in point of fact it was) desired and obtained by him for the purpose of insuring the testimony of experience to his principles, and in order to bind down material nature under the inquisition of reason, and force from her, as by torture, unequivocal answers to prepared and preconceived questions -- yet still they would not have been talked of or described, as instances of LUCK, but as the natural results of his admitted genius and known skill. But should an accident have disclosed similar discoveries to a mechanic at Birmingham or Sheffield, and if the man should grow rich in consequence, and partly by the envy of his neighbours, and partly with good reason, be considered by them as a man below par in the general powers of his understanding; then, |Oh, what a lucky fellow! Well, Fortune does favour fools -- that's certain! It is always so!| -- and forthwith the exclaimer relates half a dozen similar instances. Thus accumulating the one sort of facts and never collecting the other, we do, as poets in their diction, and quacks of all denominations do in their reasoning, put a part for the whole, and at once soothe our envy and gratify our love of the marvellous, by the sweeping proverb, |Fortune favours fools.|

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