Our society is obsessed with status. Thousands of movies, documentaries, and TV programs are dedicated to the billionaires, movie stars, and politicians we deem important. They strive to answer what makes them great, how they reached such heights and places of power.
Some of them ascribe to to luck. “Bill Gates was just in the right place at the right time.” Some attribute it to innate ability. “Marlon Brando was just born a great actor.” A select few of these narratives choose to focus on hard work. They emphasize the thousands of hours of diligence poured into their work. They set them up as examples for the viewer to aspire to. You too could be great, if you just work hard enough.
These narratives are always less than satisfying. The audience is captivated by the idea of vast amounts of power, but they must continue on after it is over. Everyone must go back to their average paying jobs and their unaccomplished friends when the weekend is done. Greatness is too complex of a topic to be boiled down into a catch phrase. All attempts to do so are doomed to fail before they even start.
One of the most noteworthy attempts in history to understand greatness comes from Renaissance Italy. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli was written as a study into what makes a leader gain and keep power. Its lessons have since been widely applied, to everything from business to warfare.
Born into 16th century Florence, he lived his entire life in an Italy dominated by political strife. He begins off the treatise by directly addressing the ruler of Florence, calling for him to rise to an unmatched greatness. Only then could he unite the warring states of Italy and bring peace to the land. In the ensuing chapters, he describes, at great detail, how great rulers are made. He cites both contemporary and ancient sources as role models and cautionary examples.
He deviates little from this formula throughout the entire book. A notable exception comes towards the end. There is a chapter that concerns itself with the good and bad luck princes must account for ruling. Instead of citing history, he speaks in generalities and metaphors.
In this chapter, Machiavelli speaks of a force he calls fortuna. Most English translation render it as the word “fortune”, but it has a much more profound meaning. She is a force to be reckoned with. She is one that brings both blessings and curses. No one is outside of her grasp. She happens to everyone, from peasant to king, though not all at once. It is impossible when to predict when she will smile upon you or bring misery to your life.
Despite the fickle nature of fortune, he still finds meaning in it:
I compare fortune to one of those torrential rivers which, when enraged, inundates the lowlands, tears down trees and building, and washes out the land on one bank to deposit it on the other. Everyone flees before it; everyone yields to its assaults without being able to offer it any resistance. Even though it behaves this way, however, it does not mean that men cannot make provision during periods of calm by erecting levees and dikes to channel the rising waters when the come, or at least restrain their fury and reduce the danger.
The same may be said about fortune, which tends to show her strength where no resources are employed to check her. She turns her course toward those points where she knows there are no levees or dikes to restrain her.
Misfortune casts it shadow on all men at one point or another. It does not effect everyone the same though. Those wise enough to prepare for hardship will be the ones affected least. The true virtue of a man is tested in these moments. The ability to deal with adversity ultimately determines his position in life. In times of plenty, there is enough for all to live on. The strong only show their worth in the worst of times.
Modernity is a time of untold prosperity. We see it in every obese person on welfare, every professor who raids the state’s funds with tenure, and every time an apology is demanded for hurting someone’s feelings. These people have never known starvation, never experienced war, or put their life on the line. It takes only a modicum of effort to provide for the basics of life today. The further we proceed into modernity, the more this weakness shall rule.
Machiavelli offers this chapter as a warning. Anyone who depends on the great fortune of today will be the first to fall when misfortune hits. All glory is fleeting. A decadent society that does not prepare for the future is no different. It too will crumble at the first sign of true crisis.