Philosophical Morsels: Failure, Over Lunch

One: Grad School Sounds Easy

This semester I served as an ambassador of the Biochemistry Graduate Program at The University of Georgia. We met with a few prospective graduate students at lunch a few weeks ago; and of course, like most graduate student ambassadors, folks always fall into this trap of saying the good stuff.

And only the good stuff.

One of the applicants was clever enough to notice, “You guys make graduate school sounds easy” she said.

I was the first to interject.

We chatted about failure, over lunch.

Two: A Lousy Teacher

There are two kinds of failure. 1) Failure from ignorance, and 2) Failure from Fortuna. The former is very straight forward – when you fail because of a kind of ignorance.

When you fail because you have got something important (specific to the task) to learn.

You don’t want to be successful when you still have something to learn; when you have still got bills to pay; when you have still got dishes to clean, when you have still got shit to do.

The repercussion can be brutal.

If you have ever heard the popular quote attributed to Bill Gates ‘Success is a lousy teacher…’ Then you get the whole point, failure from ignorance is one way of thinking about the quote.

Three: Fortuna

Failure from Fortuna is misfortune. There is really no other way to put it; and if I should make you guess the etymology of the word (mis) fortune right now, then you should guess right.

Lady Fortuna (also Automatia) was a goddess in the ancient roman religion, her father was Jupiter and her mum – I really don’t know, I looked it up, I couldn’t track her.

The whole Fortuna thing was introduced to Rome by either Servius Tullius or Ancus Marcius; and like most historical ‘facts’ there are controversies.

She is completely blind, but please, please, don’t confuse her with goddess Iustitia, whom you might know as lady justice. That blindfolded woman with a weighing scale and a sword.

Iustitia is OK, very OK. Again, she has this weighing scale, she figures you out and (theoretically) treats you according [1].

Not Fortuna. She is not like that, no weighing scale, just a bloody wheel, symbolizing her instability.

In one hand, she has a cornucopia (fortune) on the other hand Helmsman’s rudder. She smiles you smile, she frowns you fail.

You fail not because you are stupid or ignorant but because you aren’t.

Failure from ignorance is really different from failure from Fortuna. However, we can have a combination of both – which is messier.

Secondo, both kinds of failures are intercalated at a different dimension:

A failure to understand (and react aptly) to failure from Fortuna will be a kind of failure from ignorance. This is the whole point of stoic philosophy.

I can’t unpack all the ideas in this short essay; Seneca, Boethius, Epictetus will all be great guides [2].

Five: ILS

Okay, okay. I did not tell them all that, I restricted myself to the failure from ignorance.

It’s hard to talk about Fortuna over any kind of meal. Equally painful to write about her.
We had a couple slices of pizza, smiled, and parted.

We can all figure Fortuna on our own.

Note:

[1]The reader will quickly note that Iustitia herself is subject to Fortuna. True but sad.

[2] I really think a summary of Boethius’s massively influential book, Consolation of Philosophy will suffice

Photo Credit: Anonymous

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