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.