Chance And Greatness

One of the reasons I like reading literature from other cultures is because it demonstrates the universality of human experience. I am currently reading Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima, the first of four books he wrote “in his masterful tetralogy The Sea of Fertility.” It is a marvelous book and a discussion between two of the major characters in the novel struck me as worthy of reflection. The young hero Shigekuni Honda is discussing “chance” with his friend Kiyoaki Matsugae. As the discussion draws to a close,  Honda tells his friend

For if chance ceases to exist, the Will becomes meaningless — no more significant than a speck of rust on a huge chain of cause and effect that we only glimpse from time to time. Then there’s only one way to participate in history, and that’s to have no will at all — to function solely as a shining, beautiful atom, eternal and unchanging. No one should have to look for any other meaning in human existence.

This, of course, is the doctrine of determinism which the West has struggled against in its defense of free will since the Middle Ages. After all, if the human will is not free than we cannot be regarded as responsible for our actions and morality goes out the window. Kant, for one, spent most of his intellectual life struggling with this conundrum. What interests me in this context is the question of what we do with the notion of “greatness” if free will is a fiction. We assume that great men and women determine their own actions which then translate into extraordinary events in the world. But if, as Honda suggests in this passage, all actions are determined then no one can be regarded as truly great, since their accomplishments are not a function of their free will. In the end, however, I think a case can be made for chance and therefore for free will. But I’m not sure it helps us rescue the notion of greatness.

Let me take a famous historical example: the crossing of the Delaware River by the colonists in the American Revolution. It is an event that is supposed to have turned the war around and paved the way for eventual victory by the young colonists against the mighty British. And it made George Washington famous, surely one of the greatest generals ever to lead his troops into battle. A close reading of the circumstances surrounding that event demonstrates the significant role played by chance in the victory by the colonists, however. Indeed, the victory is in itself a demonstration of the role chance plays in the affairs of men.

To begin with, Washington broke his small contingent of troops into three groups. He took the first group across the river above Trenton; a second group was to have crossed at Trenton while a third group was to cross below Trenton and  attack from the South. Neither of the other two groups made it across because of ice jams! Furthermore, there were loyalists everywhere and yet no word of the crossing ever reached the ears of the Hessians who were, admittedly, a bit hung over after a night of celebrating Christmas. To make matters worse, Washington’s crossing with a few thousand men, horses, and cannons took several hours longer than anticipated and instead of a dawn attack, his out-manned and exhausted troops were faced with a late morning attack against seasoned troops who were sure to win. But fog moved in and covered the movement of troops until it was too late and the victory was assured.

Washington knew the Hessians would be celebrating Christmas and their guard would be down. That much he knew. But all of those other factors, the fog, the silence of the loyalists who might have shouted a warning, the inability of two of the three  contingents to cross the river — all of these factors were clearly a matter of chance — they were completely unpredictable — especially the sudden and unexpected appearance of  the fog which was the real life-saver. One might say the American victory was a fluke. It could have so easily gone the other way and it would have meant the end of the American Revolution and, probably, the end of this country as a nation. In a word, Washington’s greatness can perhaps be reduced to chance (luck?) as can the greatness of many of the men throughout history who have led troops into battle. And the consequences of those victories or losses can also be chalked up to chance in many cases. So if we can say that events are often the result of chance, then, contrary to what Honda suggests, our lives have meaning and  men and women are free and therefore responsible for their actions. Morality is saved — though the notion of “greatness” is somewhat questionable.

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14 thoughts on “Chance And Greatness

  1. There is a great book by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, which deals with the same question. It’s title is translated as Destiny and Desire, but in reality it should be titled Will and Chance.

  2. I knew a top flight cancer surgeon from New York’s Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital who had a very successful colleague, who always said, “I’d much rather be lucky than good.” Free will and chance, epitomized.

    • It takes real courage to admit that luck plays such a large role in success. Look at how much trouble the wealthy in this country have admitting it!!

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  3. I was taught at my Christian school that God guided Washington’s actions and ensured victory as part of the myth of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. The concept of greatness is interesting. There is a fine line between great acts and foolhardy decisions, determined by the chance occurrences that surround the event. Thanks for the mental exercise this morning:)

  4. Great post. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” about successful people, he noted four traits. 1) they worked hard at their craft, 2) they were smart enough, not necessarily the smartest, 3) they were given opportunity and 4) they recognized the opportunity and seized it. Looking at your post, Chance is item (3), but recognizing it and seizing it is as important. He notes that Bill Gates had opportunity to program on the Univ. of Washington computers when he was a teen, provided he did so from 1 am to 3 am in the morning. The observation Gladwell makes is how many teens would have gotten out of bed at 12:30 am to go program at 1 am like Bill Gates did? General Washington seized the opportunity of the Hessians celebrating and did something about it. An old line comes to mind – “many people miss opportunity as it dressed up as hard work.” Thanks, BTG

    • But Washington got some incredible breaks! I had an ancestor who was one of his generals and a close friend and I dare say he counted his lucky stars! (He was later killed by the British at the battle of Princeton. His luck ran out!)

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      • Maybe doing the unexpected led him do more unexpected things when the breaks presented themselves. I had a management professor who used to say if you show up, show up on time and show up dressed to play, that is more than half the battle. Washington was ready to play and was the aggressor. Who knows, he may overcome another obstacle if presented.

        What was your ancestor’s name?

  5. I’m not much of a philosopher, as I am sure you know, but would free will be possible if we looked at it in terms of how we react to chance? Great post! These ideas intrigue me.

    • According to this argument, once you admit the possibility of chance events the door is open to free will.

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  6. Brother Hugh: My goodness you do have a knack for stirring up the dendrites! Your reflections today beg to be engaged in a venue more satisfying than a blog; say a long evening with fine wine? Or perhaps a semester course with an aggravatingly provocative but skillful teacher? (Know any?)
    Got lots of thoughts but before running off half-cocked I want to be sure that I understand the departing premise for your thoughts. I am not sure from the modest snippet from your reading what position Honda holds. Does he assume the position of the determinist: all things are preordained, or does he argue “if” that premise is true, then…?
    Of course this makes a huge difference.
    IF our lives are scripted, then credit or blame can hardly come our way (chance and luck just being part of the script.)
    IF we have choice aka, free will, [and who would want to live in a world that was not so ordained?] quite apart from the presence of luck and chance, then virtue and blame are surely fellow travelers.
    Washington was great beyond measure for many, many reasons; in his Christmas crossing of the Delaware he was also lucky. Without Washington’s nerve, leadership, resolve, determination, we would never have heard of that “lucky” Christmas fog in 1776, and alternatively Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of blacks and whites who had for years been working harmoniously together in our government, undertaken because his Presbyterian pre-destination consigned separation to the races, (it’s the way it was ordained to be) bad luck for the blacks and awful theology from the Princeton scholar.
    At the end of the day, if free will is merely a theory which is in error, then it doesn’t matter what we do or think. What an ugly, depressing, profoundly disabling thought. On the other hand if what we do and think matters, a thought that is mirrored in our everyday lives I should imagine, then luck and chance are simply part of the mix. Washington no less great because on THAT day he was a bit lucky, and Wilson no less regrettable for his race policy because he was a southern racist reflecting his misfortune in being a child of the south.

    • Well said, Ben. Kant insisted that the logic of the arguments for and against free will wereequally persuasive. Thus, we must accept free will as a postulate of practical reason — otherwise we could not act mortally. I agree with Kant.

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