Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Fortune (sometimes) favors the bold
The biggest catastrophe's are covered by the sands of time. If that isn't clear, tomorrow is Aug. 24, and if Aug. 24 does not resonate—and I imagine it doesn't—just remember that Sept. 11 will also be just another day in a string of same, if we wait long enough.
Aug. 24, 79 A.D. was the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, burying the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Not the sort of anniversary the media typically notices, and to be honest, I might have overlooked it, had not we visited the H & M downtown last week.
Notice the shirt above, as I did, waiting for the boys to pick out their purchases. The "good" is some fashion designer's notion; it's implied in the general saying, common for nearly 2,000 years, that "Fortune favors the brave."
Unless it isn't implied. Because while the line did become an aphorism, it originated, or at least be most famously used, in Virgil's reworking of Homer, "The Aeneid." There, in book X, the Latin is "audaces fortuna iuvat"—"fortune speeds the bold" — uttered by Turnus, rallying his men to fight anew on the beach.
Though there might be some irony at work here. "Speeds" is not the same as "favors." Your bravery could be hurrying you toward doom, which is kinda what happens to Turnus. Yes, he wins his duel, planting a spear into Pallas' chest. But this enrages Aeneis, and the gods, who basically boot Turnus away from the field of battle. He does not end well.
Seeing the shirt did not make me think of Virgil, however, that would be pretentious. The truth is worse. It made me think of Pliny the Younger, who was 17 years old when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Twenty-five years later, he wrote a letter to the historian Tacitus describing the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who commanded the fleet.
"On 24 August in the early afternoon, my mother pointed out to him the appearance of a cloud of unusual size and form," Pliny the Younger writes.
In his account, Pliny the Elder orders a fast ship, and invites his nephew to come with him. "I replied that I should prefer to continue with my studies," another example of the under-appreciated life-saving qualities of studiousness.
So Pliny the Elder sets out to save a relative who was close to the eruption: "He hurried to the place others were fleeing from, setting his course straight for the dangerous area."
Ash rains down on the ship, then pumice and burnt stones. "My uncle hesitated a bit, wondering whether to turn back, but then said to the helmsman who warned him to do just that, 'fortune favors the brave.'"
Not in this case. Though Pliny the Elder boldly made landfall unscathed, he decided to push his luck and linger there. The gases and fumes overcame him and he died. So yes, sometimes fortune favors the bold, and others boldness speeds you to destruction. Worth bearing in mind. Fortune may — or may not — favor the bold, but safety hangs around the meek.