Feeling lucky?

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Illustration from John Lydgate’s Siege of Troy, showing the Wheel of Fortune turned by the Queen of Fortune.

There’s no practical reason to keep that old baseball cap around, except that it’s your good luck charm. If you feel silly, though, you’re not alone. As a human race, we’ve been trying to control our fortunes for a while. From medieval Europe to ancient China to contemporary science fiction, we have wanted to understand our luck, and maybe even create it. Unfortunately, nobody’s been quite successful yet. But still, we try. So we turned to some professors for a little more understanding.

First, the Middle Ages. Karen Spierling, associate professor of history, gives context to the prevailing superstition of that time. When Catholicism spread across Europe, the Church incorporated local practices into its teachings. The blend of paganism and Christianity had people planting communion wafers in their fields and rubbing the feet of saint statues.

“Even though people understood the Church’s teachings, it wasn’t enough to stop them from looking for a source of luck and protection,” says Spierling.

To find a balance between control and chaos, citizens of the Renaissance liked to believe that everyone was on a wheel of fortune. If you were a good citizen, you might not fall off.

But philosophy suggests otherwise. “Most people think they deserve praise for their good deeds and blame for their bad deeds,” says Alexandra Bradner, assistant professor of philosophy. “But many philosophers argue that because so many factors out of our control affect our actions, there is very little of any action for which we are directly responsible.”

So maybe it’s not safe to trust luck, after all. Xinda Lian, professor of modern languages references Dao de Jing by Laozi, an ancient Chinese philosopher. One passage notes that “it is on disaster that good fortune perches; it is beneath good fortune that disaster crouches.”

And even though the wheel of fortune might be out of our control, Lian admits he’s still wary of the number 13—for no real reason. “Everyone likes luck,” he jokes.

He’s right. We do like luck. How many times have you seen someone knock on wood? Or step over a crack in the sidewalk? (There are plenty who won’t step on the College Seal in front of Swasey Chapel, in case it might jinx graduating.)

Even futuristic thinking plays with the idea of luck. An article called “The Genetics of Luck” in Wired magazine talks about Larry Niven’s Known Space science fiction novels, where certain people have a “luck gene” that drives them along a path of safety and success, whether they realize it or not.

In the real world, we have the comfort of knowing that technology continually advances, and modern medicine improves our chances. That should allow us to have a hand on the wheel, right?

Sure. But you might want to hang onto that lucky hat. Why risk it?

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