There Is No Luck In Stoicism

This week’s topic suggestion comes from Paul B., who thought it would be interesting to talk about the concept of luck through the lens of Stoicism and, also, whatever part it could be said to play in one’s life.

Thanks for the suggestion, Paul. I hope what follows is what you had in mind.

Luck, as most of us think of it today, probably isn’t compatible with Stoic philosophy

We tend to think of luck, in modern times, as a force of some kind – or as an inherited attribute that we either are or are not imbued with.

Imagine someone is walking down the street and, despite the fact that they are looking down at their cellphone and paying no attention to their surroundings, they “luckily” avoid falling into an open manhole.

In such a scenario, most of us would feel that “luck” had stepped in and intervened on this individual’s behalf. Had our distracted pedestrian been unlucky, the opposite would have happened.

If this is what most people think of luck as: as a special force that some people are assisted by while others are not, then what most people think of as luck cannot exist in Stoicism as it would be fundamentally disruptive to the Stoic’s concept of fate.

If you disagree, I already know the question you’d leverage to voice that disagreement:

“If a lucky thing happens to you, who is to say it wasn’t fated?”

To which I would reply, “If your luck was fated, it wasn’t luck but fate.”

Perhaps one could frame their fate as being either lucky or unlucky, but that would only be a kind of contemporary shorthand for saying that the present conditions or happenstance of one’s life were preferred (in their opinion, and for them).

This idea of luckiness and unluckiness, suggests a disruptive phenomenon that cheats fate.

In order for something to cheat fate (which, in Stoicism, is the causal chain initiated by Nature at the start of its latest “lifecycle” following the last Ekpyrosis*) it would need to be greater than Nature.

To be greater than Nature would require the supernatural.

In Stoic Logic, nothing is greater than Nature. Stoics identify Nature as both “God” and the Universe itself. What could be greater than the Universe itself?

In Stoic Physics, nothing exists outside the natural world.

Luckiness and unluckiness, then, either do not exist or are subordinate to Nature.

If luck and unluckiness exist, but are subordinate to Nature (and therefore to the causal chain and fate), then they can’t be the fate-disruptive forces we tend to conceptualize them as.

Instead, the concepts of luck and unluckiness would be human assents to a false impression about how the world works.

The consequence of this line of reasoning will be an uncomfortable one for some, but it is clear:

To believe in any form of luck is to assent to a false impression that negatively impacts one’s ability to understand what is true.

To choose to negatively impact one’s ability to understand what is true about the world around them, is to choose to negatively impact their ability to pursue and obtain the knowledge of how to live excellently (Virtue).

To choose to do that, to choose work against one’s own progress toward Virtue, the very heart of Stoic philosophy and living, is, in strictly Stoic terms and thus categorically for our purposes here, vicious.

The concept of luck, then, is antithetical to Stoicism and Stoic practice.

One might be tempted to equate luck and bad luck with fortune and misfortune, and posit that the Stoics believed in these things — but they did not.

Fortune, for the Stoics, was a word that described the phenomenon of Fate bringing about outcomes that you perceived as being in your favour. This is very different than “luck” in the sense we’re discussing it here.

For a reflection on this, consider the following from Meditations 4.23:

“Everything harmonizes with me, which is harmonious to thee, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early nor too late, which is in due time for thee. Everything is fruit to me which thy seasons bring, O Nature: from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23

Luck is only what we call the outcomes fate brings when those outcomes are favourable to us — but the sage views everything fate brings as favourable.

So, what is luck to the sage? And what is luck to the Stoic?

A false impression of fate.

Tough pill to swallow, but there it is.

Thanks for reading.

–Tanner

* Ekpyrosis (in Stoic Cosmology and Physics) is the great cosmic fire that destroys the Universe every [some amount of thousand of years] so that the Universe can be reborn and a new cycle can begin. I’m not advocating for the idea that this cycle exists, but it’s important to know what the Stoic’s would have thought based on what they reasoned out through their physics.

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