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Blupete's Weekly Commentary

July 5th, 1998.


Though some of us proceed on what we think are well laid out plans (in fact precious few do) most things occur to us chance-medley and, really, are all too often simply unavoidable. Most people come to terms with the disasters that befall them, and, it would seem, do so more quickly the more severe the disaster. Likely for reasons of mental health most simply accept that the result was not to be helped. But for a period of time -- it seems it is in the nature of humans -- we can not help wonder, indeed fret, that things might be different if only we had preceded differently prior to the happening of the vexatious event. This, as William Hazlitt writes, is the principle and soul of games of chance.

"It is the mist and obscurity through which we view objects that makes us fancy they might have been, or might still be otherwise. The precise knowledge of antecedents and consequents makes men practical as well as philosophical Necessarians. - It is the want of this knowledge which is the principle and soul of gambling, and of all games of chance or partial skill. The supposition is, that the issue is uncertain, and that there is no positive means of ascertaining it [the event]. It is dependent on the turn of a die, on the tossing up of a halfpenny: to be fair it must be a lottery; there is no knowing but by the event; and it is this which keeps the interest alive, and works up the passion little short of madness. There is all the agitation of suspense, all the alternation of hope and fear, of good and bad success, all the eagerness of desire, without the possibility of reducing this to calculation, that is, of subjecting the increased action of the will to a known rule, or restraining the excesses of passion within the bounds of reason. We see no cause beforehand why the run of the cards should not be in our favour: - we will hear of none afterwards why it should not have been so. As in the absence of all data to judge by, we wantonly fill up the blank with the most extravagant expectations, so, when all is over, we obstinately recur to the chance we had previously. There is nothing to tame us down to the event, nothing to reconcile us to our hard luck, for so we think it. We see no reason why we failed (and there was none, any more than why we should succeed) - we think that, reason apart, our will is the next best thing; we still try to have it our own way, and fret, torment, and harrow ourselves up with vain imaginations to effect impossibilities. (Losing gamesters thus become desperate, because the continued and violent irritation of the will against a run of ill luck drives it to extremity, and makes it bid defiance to common sense and every consideration of prudence or self-interest.) We play the game over again: we wonder how it was possible for us to fail. We turn our brain with straining at contradictions, and striving to make things what they are not, or in other words, to subject the course of nature to our fantastical wishes. "If it had been so - if we had done such and such a thing" - we try it in a thousand different ways, and are just as far off the mark as ever. We appealed to chance in the first instance, and yet, when it has decided against us, we will not give in, and sit down contented with our loss, but refuse to submit to anything but reason, which has nothing to do with the matter. In drawing two straws, for example, to see which is the longest, there was no apparent necessity we should fix upon the wrong one, it was so easy to have fixed upon the other, nay, at one time we were going to do it - if we had - the mind thus runs back to what was so possible and feasible at one time, while the thing was pending, and would fain give a bias to causes so slender and insignificant, as the skittle-player bends his body to give a bias to the bowl he has already delivered from his hand, not considering that what is once determined, be the causes ever so trivial or evanescent, is in the individual instance unalterable. Indeed, to be a great philosopher, in the practical and most important sense of the term, little more seems necessary than to be convinced on the truth of the maxim, which the wise man repeated to the daughter of King Cophetua, That if a thing is, it is, and there is an end of it!" ("On Great and Little Things.")

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Peter Landry

July, 1998 (2019)