Sunday, December 29, 2019

Can you lose at life?

I have been carefully examining the language you moderns use in day-to-day life. As I am a slow learner, I have found myself confused in trying to understand how you view the world. It seems to me that you consider life to be a game that can be won or lost. You speak of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in life. And when someone ‘wins’ you often deem the win to be deserved. For example, I have heard people say that the rich deserve their wealth. And I suppose it follows that the poor also deserve their place in life.

But is this true? Can you win and lose at life? Is life akin to a game? We ancients didn’t speak that way. If someone was poor, we wouldn’t think of them as losing at life. Instead we would suggest that the will of Tyche, our god of fortune, had not been in their favor. The Romans also had a god of fortune. Their name for Tyche was Fortuna. She was depicted as holding a tiller by which she could shift one’s fortune. Because her actions were totally out of our control, we would suggest that the poor were ‘unfortunate’ rather than a losers at life.

Perhaps people who consider life a game will find this a strange way of talking. But it does depend upon what sort of game they consider life to be. Is it a game with well defined rules in which a person can win or lose by using their skill and intellect? Is life, for example, like a game of chess? If so, it may make sense to speak of winners and losers. We wouldn’t hesitate to say that the winner of a chess game deserves his win. After all, to win he must have played the game better than his opponent. And we presume that they started the game with an equal number of pieces and played by the same rules.

Would we use the same language to describe someone winning at a game of chance — for example, a slot machine or lottery? Would we suggest that someone who wins the lottery deserves the win? I don’t even think the word ‘win’ in games of chance means quite the same thing as it does in a game of chess. There is no skill involved in a game of chance. The outcome is totally in the hands of fortuna. I wonder if life is more like this than we care to believe.

Of course, we do need certain skills in life. But much of what happens in life is well beyond our control — including our position at birth. Is it not true that fortuna decides who is wealthy and who is poor at birth? And is it not true that this starting position can have a massive impact on a person’s life? If so, it would seem to be overstating things to suggest that a poor person is losing at life and deserve their position (if by ‘losing’ we mean in the sense of a game of chess rather than a game of chance).

I am interested in what would happen in society if we shifted our language. Rather than speaking of winners and losers in life, let us speak of those who are fortunate and those who are less fortunate. Seeing things in this way may prompt those who are fortunate to help the unfortunate more so than if they truly think they deserve to be ‘winning’ at life.

— Socrates