History and Fortune

From a certain, and extremely common perspective, history can be seen as the rise and fall of individual leaders. According to this perspective, the story of Rome did not belong to the people or the senate, but to Julius Caesar and his imperial descendants. World War II was really about the personalities of Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin, rather than about the millions of people who fought, and died and suffered through the conflict.

World War Damage

Not to mention the damage to the environment!

Because of this “Big Man” perspective of history we tend to attribute the success or failure of a realm to whomever seems to be in charge at the time. In times of peace and plenty, there must have been a good king. (Or queen.) In times of war and despair there must have been a bad president.

It can seem that certain people are destined to lead nations into triumph, or into disaster, but I’m not so sure I believe in destiny. I don’t believe we are all set on some predetermined path. Rather, the story has yet to be written, so we can’t know beforehand who the heroes and villains are.

There is no such thing as destiny, manifest or otherwise, but there is such a thing as Fortune. Good things and bad things just sort of happen randomly on a whim. Indecipherable to us. One day you are enjoying paradise, and the next it turns to hot lava beneath your fancy vacation home.

Lava Destroyed House

Who wants to buy a timeshare?

Powerful rulers, the emperors and monarchs and presidents, do not determine the fate of the realm. Good times and bad times just happen, no matter who is in charge. In fact, events have more control over how we remember leaders, than leaders have control over events during their reign.

We remember good times fondly, and so we regard the people who were in charge during good times as good leaders. “Remember when Arthur was King, and everything made sense?” “Remember when Gerald Ford was President, and my back didn’t hurt all the time? He was such a good leader.”

We remember bad times with disdain. Whomever was in charge during bad times will end up being hated, regardless of what they actually did or did not do.

ancient records

“And during the reign or Ur-Nammu there was a huge earthquake…so he must have sucked.”

Good times and bad times are the prerogative of Fortune alone. Fickle, indecipherable, maddening Fortune. No matter how powerful they may be, no person has any influence over what Fortune may give or what Fortune may take away.

Perhaps in our hearts we all know this. That is why we heap praise and scorn on our leaders when they are really no more powerful than the rest of us. You can curse Fortune all you want, and nothing will change. Or you can curse a “bad” leader, and at least maybe feel a little better about things. You can praise Fortune to your heart’s content, but it won’t protect you from having bad times. On the other hand, if you suck up to the “good” King he might make you a knight or something.

We are all at the mercy of Fortune. So don’t worry about who is, was, or will be in charge. Things will always get better. And things will always get worse.

History is not a grand story of special people. It is a mundane story of good and bad luck.