16 January 2010

The Rota Fortunæ Motif from Boethius to Lewis


A couple of years ago I was rereading Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy with a book group, and the subject of the Rota Fortunæ, ‘Fortune’s Wheel’, came up in our discussion. It is of course an important part of Lady Philosophy’s consolation to point out the fickleness of Fortune and how she cannot be trusted. At the end of Book II.i, she says:

Will you really try to stop the whirl of her turning wheel? Why, you are the biggest fool alive—if it once stop, it ceases to be the wheel of fortune.

So with imperious hand she turns the wheel of change
This way and that like the ebb and flow of the tide,
And pitiless tramples down those once dread kings,
Raising the lowly face of the conquered—
Only to mock him in his turn;
Careless she neither hears nor heeds the cries
Of miserable men; she laughs
At the groans that she herself has mercilessly caused.
So she sports, so she proves her power,
Showing a mighty marvel to her subjects, when
The self-same hour
Sees a man first successful, then cast down. [1]


A friend’s question prompted me to look for references to the Wheel of Fortune in a couple of places besides John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant, A Confederacy of Dunces, and one of the first I thought of was Hamlet (II.ii.481-485). It is from the speech on the death of Priam spoken, at Hamlet’s request, by the First Player:

Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod, take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends! [2]


Interestingly, upon re-reading this passage from Hamlet, I recalled that C.S. Lewis quotes the phrase about the ‘strumpet Fortune’ in one of his poems, ‘A Cliché Came Out of its Cage’. There, Lewis addresses those who—

. . . worship the event,
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune). [3]


Two passages in The Discarded Image illuminate the meaning of the poem. Speaking of Boethius’s influence on subsequent literature, Lewis writes:

With Book II [of the Consolation] we embark on that great apologia for Fortune which impressed her figure so firmly on the imagination of succeeding ages. Comments on good and bad luck and their obvious failure to correspond with good and ill desert may be expected in any period; but the medieval allusions to Fortune and her wheel are exceptional in their frequency and seriousness. The grandeur which this image takes on in the Inferno (VII, 73 sq.) is a reminder how entirely it depends on the individual genius whether a locus communis shall or shall not be what we call ‘commonplace’. And this, like a thousands inferior passages, is part of the Boethian legacy. No one who had read of Fortuna as he treats her could forget her for long. His work, here Stoical and Christian alike, in full harmony with the Book of Job and with certain Dominical sayings (Lk xiii.4; Jn ix.13), is one of the most vigorous defences ever written against the view, common to vulgar Pagans and vulgar Christians alike, which ‘comforts cruel men’ [4] by interpreting variations of human prosperity as divine rewards and punishments, or at least wishing they were. It is an enemy hard to kill; latent in what has been called ‘the Whig interpretation of history’ and rampant in the historical philosophy of Carlyle. [5]


Lewis comes back to the theme much later in the book:

Indeed, the medieval conception of Fortune tends to discourage attempts at a ‘philosophy of history’. If most events happen because Fortune is turning her wheel, ‘rejoicing in her bliss’, and giving everyone his turn, the ground is cut from under the feet of a Hegel, a Carlyle, a Spengler, a Marxist, and even a Macaulay. [6]


The quoted phrase, ‘rejoicing in her bliss’, is a translation of a phrase in the passage from Dante’s Inferno referred to above (VII.96). There, Virgil describes Fortune thusly:

Then he: ‘Ah, witless world! Behold the grand
Folly of ignorance! Make thine ear attendant
Now on my judgment of her, and understand.

He whose high wisdom’s over all transcendent
Stretched forth the Heavens, and guiding spirits supplied,
So that each part to each part shines resplendent,

Spreading the light equal on every side;
Like wise for earthly splendours He saw fit
To ordain a general minister and guide,

By whom vain wealth, as time grew ripe for it,
From race to race, from blood to blood, should pass,
Far beyond hindrance of all human wit.

Wherefore some nations minish, some amass
Great power, obedient to her subtle codes,
Which are hidden, like the snake beneath the grass.

For her your science finds no measuring-rods;
She in her realm provides, maintains, makes laws,
And judges, as do in theirs the other gods.

Her permutations never know truce nor pause;
Necessity lends her speed, so swift in fame
Men come and go, and cause succeeds to cause.

Lo! this is she that hath so curst a name
Even from those that should give praise to her—
Luck, whom men senselessly revile and blame;

But she is blissful and she does not hear;
She, with the other primal creatures, gay
Tastes her own blessedness, and turns her sphere.’ [7]




[1] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. S.J. Tester (Camridge, MA: Harvard U, 2003), pp. 79, 81.

[2] A.L. Rowse, ed., The Annotated Shakespeare, Vol. 3 (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978), p. 222.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt, 1992), p. 4.

[4] The quote is from G.K. Chesterton, ‘A Hymn’, Collected Poetry, Pt. 1, Vol. X of Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (SF: Ignatius, 1994), p. 141:

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
For sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
(1907)


It is worth noting that the British heavy metal band, Iron Maiden, used the first stanza (and a barely recognisable take on the last) in their song, ‘Revelations’.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), pp. 81-2.

[6] Ibid., pp. 176-7.

[7] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Cantica I—Hell, trans. Dorothy Sayers (London: Penguin, 1949), pp. 112-3.

1 comment:

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