Fortune’s Wheel

For many in Western history, games of chance represented a portal of possibility, not a heresy to be demonized or a statistical probability to be managed.

By Jackson Lears

Allegory of Fortune, by Balthazar Nebot, c. 1730.

Allegory of Fortune, by Balthazar Nebot, c. 1730. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

In the American mythology of success, labor is the only path to prosperity. The affluent can cleanse their cash by claiming they worked hard for it; mastering fate and controlling outcomes bestow moral legitimacy on their earnings. Many moralists throughout American history have affirmed that merit matches reward and that people get what they deserve, in this world and the next.

But a heresy against this faith in hard work has stubbornly survived nearly two centuries’ preaching of the virtues of America’s civil religion. Its wayward adherents rarely ascend to pulpits or podiums. Instead, they are more likely to be found on subway platforms or in conven­ience stores standing in line to buy lottery tickets. While they may be hard workers, they know that labor alone is insufficient for success, that sometimes you have to catch a break. As Louis Hartz observed in his study The Liberal Tradition in America, a belief in “the breaks” has long been a safety valve to relieve the economic frustrations generated by a closed system of unevenly distributed merits and rewards. The lottery ticket, humble as it is, serves as a passport to a more fluid moral economy, where fate can be cruel or kind but is always arbitrary—where luck, as even Horatio Alger realized, matters more than pluck. And this culture of chance more closely resembles the world in which most people live than the one prescribed by the dominant mythology of success, which can aptly be called a culture of control.

The heresy owes its origins to the pagan goddess Fortuna, a deity who appears in the pantheons of many ancient societies. To imagine the contemporary lottery player paying homage to the goddess is not to dignify the prospect of poor people blowing grocery money on impossibly long odds, or to imply that government-sponsored gambling is an appropriate way to raise public revenues. But it does suggest that gambling is about more than mere money. Modern games of chance reenact ancient rituals of divination—casting lots, throwing pebbles, bones, shells, or dice—designed to provide glimpses of the sacred and to conjure luck or its spiritual equivalent, grace. Rather than the static and timeless cosmic order of orthodox monotheism, the sense of the sacred sought by diviners was a pluralist plentitude, symbolized in Western tradition by inconstant Fortuna and by similar figures in American Indian and African traditions.

These cross-cultural ingredients combined to create the syncretist stew that became the American culture of chance—a culture at ease with uncertainty, doubtful that diligence offers the only path to success, and suspicious of the idea that money means moral worth. For the bettors and believers who embrace this perspective, chance represents a portal of possibility, not a heresy to be demonized or a statistical probability to be managed. They are Fortuna’s children, and a glance at her career in the Old and New Worlds provides a perspective that is missing from most accounts of our history.


In ancient Rome, Fortuna began as a fertility goddess but soon came to embody prosperity in general, as well as a basic principle of potentiality. She merged with the older Greek divinity Tyche, whose devotee Palamedes, the mortal grandson of Poseidon, supposedly invented dice and dedicated the first pair, made from the ankle bones of hoofed animals, to her. The iconography of Fortuna linked her with emblems of abundance but also with uncertainty and ceaseless change: she carried a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables yet stood on a ball or turned a wheel that rotated her beneficiaries. “Changeable Fortune wanders abroad with aimless steps, abiding firm in no place; now she beams with joy, now she puts on a harsh mien, steadfast in her own fickleness,” Ovid wrote in his Tristia, after he had been forced into exile. “I, too, had my day, but that day was fleeting; my fire was but a straw, and short-lived.”

But Fortune did not fit well with Christian ideas of Providence. To early Christians, the divine plan unfolded as mysteriously as the fluctuations of luck, but however remote the planner or apparently perverse his decrees, his purpose was ultimately benign. Boethius, unjustly imprisoned in the sixth century after a distinguished public service career, endorsed this idea in the Consolation of Philosophy. “Well, here am I, stripped of my possessions and honors, my reputation ruined, punished because I tried to do good.… Why should uncertain Fortune control our lives?” Lady Philosophy appeared in Boethius’s story to explain that behind the apparent caprices of Fortune, divine Providence governs all things with “the rudder of goodness.” Chance was “an empty word,” Lady Philosophy said. After all, “what room can there be for random events since God keeps all things in order?”

The Tax Collector, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, c. 1615. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

The Tax Collector, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, c. 1615. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. 

This was the traditional Christian argument that would be repeated for centuries. Based on faith in a transcendent cosmic order, the lesson taught its students to look for the silver lining in clouds of gray. In Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale,” Theseus reminds his subjects after an extraordinary series of violent reversals of fortune that “the First Mover of the First Cause” determines all outcomes in accordance with an overarching plan. But even pious Christians sometimes found it difficult to submit to the perversities of fate. Fortuna, unlike Jehovah, could be propitiated through ritual, and her presence survived in the magical belief system that formed the foundation of the medieval church—the vernacular faith that sacraments and sacred artifacts could bring material luck in this world as well as spiritual luck, or grace, in the next.

Beginning in the fifteenth century, Protestant reformers assaulted these rituals as part of a broader war on the medieval culture of chance. Taking their cues from John Calvin, theologians disparaged Fortuna, deriding belief in her powers as a pagan excrescence on the Church. “There is no such thing as fortune or chance,” [emphasis in original] Calvin announced in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, as “even things seemingly most fortuitous”—a branch falling from a tree and killing a passing traveler, or wildly unequal divisions of wealth and poverty—are subject to divine will. Only by God’s “secret plan,” Calvin wrote, do “some distinguish themselves, while others remain contemptible.”

Predestination coupled with the Calvinist emphasis on the innate depravity of mankind preserved a sort of spiritual democracy since eve­ryone was equally base in the sight of God. But when liberalizing theologians began to emphasize human beings’ capacity to save themselves, success started to mean the convergence of personal merit with the Providential plan, consecrating prosperity acquired through individual ambition. As early as 1653, when dissenting sects proliferated amid the English Civil War, a female sectarian confessed that she could not stand to see her neighbors prosper, as it meant they had prayed more than she had. For the upwardly mobile, as well as for the already prosperous, Providence surrounded affluence with an aura of sanctity.

But the continued precariousness of existence sustained a belief in Fortuna, and the need for propitiatory rites at her shrines, especially as the faith in paganistic Catholic rituals declined among English Protestants. Amid the changes wrought by the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the exploration of the New World, everyday life in the early modern era remained full of uncertainty. Crime and catastrophe abounded in places like London, where the high incidence of fire made reversals of fortune a routine event. In the mid-sixteenth century, one chronicler observed, “He which at one o’clock was worth five thousand pounds and, as the prophet saith, drank his wine in bowls of fine silver plate, had not by two o’clock so much as a wooden dish left to eat his meat in, nor a house to cover his sorrowful head.”

Early modern responses to the randomness of experience ranged widely, from the Calvinist denial of chance to the skeptical despair of Shakespeare’s Gloucester: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.” Renaissance humanism denounced resigning oneself to chance. Secular individualists like Machiavelli argued that ingenious men might court Fortuna, adapt to her moods, and ultimately bend her to their will. Another individualist of the era, Hamlet, refuses “to suffer / the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and seeks vengeance against his father’s murderers.

Despite occasional revolts, faith in Fortune endured in a variety of ways, even in the language that people used to describe their circumstances. The word “happiness” has long been linguistically dependent on chance. The thirteenth-century English substantive “hap” derives from the old Norse “happ,” meaning “chance” or “good luck.” The verb “happen” and the adverb “haply” (by chance) emerged from this root in the fourteenth century, as did “happy,” which originally meant “prosperous” and by the sixteenth century had acquired the connotation of contentment. Happiness, in short, happens to you. Its incidence can be cultivated but never contrived, its blessings courted through the use of talismanic items like the amulets, charms, omens, and portents that pervaded early modern England. Suffused with hope and foreboding, these objects took the form of everything from base effluvia to mundane detritus: urine, graveyard dirt, pebbles, chicken feathers, fingernail clippings, glass beads, and cowrie shells.

In colonial America, the idea of Fortune flourished in all cultural strata: the indigenous, the enslaved, and the colonists themselves. French Jesuits in the late sixteenth century observed the Iroquois, the Huron, and the Seneca using caribou bones and peach pits to divine the will of the cosmos. In 1705, a Dutch trader in what is now Ghana noted that the natives consulted their gods “by a sort of Wild Nuts, which they pretend to take up by guess and let fall again.” The Africans who were enslaved and sold to American colonists would bring their divination rituals to the new continent. In fact, the development of the American culture of chance depended on the African presence in the population and the receptivity of American colonists—including the educated elite—to African beliefs. The prominent planter William Byrd regularly consulted a black conjurer, Old Abram, to keep him informed about the future progress of one of his amours. In the malarial bottomlands along the Chesapeake, Virginia planters like Byrd kept “fortune books” full of magical and astrological lore regarding the means of assuring luck in love, marriage, sex, health, and travel.

European, American Indian, and African conjuring traditions exerted a persistent fascination for the inhabitants of the New World as the facts on the ground remained fortuitous, unprovoked peril an everyday occurrence, and resignation to God’s plan sometimes difficult to sustain. In the emerging coastal cities, fortune-tellers thrived and “dream books” designed to crack oneiric codes with interpretive formulas proliferated. In the Southern colonies, high-stakes gambling mirrored the risky business of scratching out a living in a raw, new country. Games of chance provided early Americans with opportunities for recreational conjuring—a secular form of divination that still yielded clues to the cosmos and the gambler’s place in it.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the emerging worldview of the American gambler coincided with the revival of classical literature among the educated classes. Generations of Americans imbibed the lessons of ancient authors about the arbitrariness of fate. “Until he is dead, do not yet call a man happy, but only lucky,” wrote Herodotus. An ethic of Fortune persisted among the literate elite as well as among less articulate folk—a conviction that misfortune visited the worthy along with the licentious, that no necessary link existed between virtue and reward, and that the wisest course of action was stoic resignation to the decrees of fate.

It costs a lot of money to be rich.

—Peter Boyle, 2002

From the stoic point of view, immunity to the vanities of wealth and honor improved one’s endurance of disappointment and even disaster. The pursuit of earthly good fortune, which in the Declaration of Independence would become the pursuit of happiness, was a fool’s errand. Happiness was fleeting and beyond human control. Fortune ruled all: blockheads grew rich, fools and fops were dear to women while men of wit and spirit languished. “Wisdom is often found guilty of folly, and ingenuity of error,” as a writer in the New York Weekly observed in 1796. Merit never guaranteed a reward, and good fortune remained as inscrutable as God’s grace.

Playing the hand one was dealt taught resignation but also hope. “Patience, and shuffle the cards,” Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, and the phrase soon became a colloquial expression in English. This advice underwrote what became a foundational American myth—the possibility of starting over, even of reinventing the self—but it also resonated with religious longings for what centuries later the theologian Martin Buber would call “the grace of beginning again and ever again.” Despite the emphasis on Providence in Protestant Christianity, the ethic of Fortune remained consistent with much in both Jewish and Christian traditions, in particular the words of Ecclesiastes: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Through the end of the eighteenth century, much of the British American population knew this passage and endorsed the worldview it articulated. Fortune’s adherents included farmers and artisans, goodwives and tavern wenches, orthodox Christians and enlightened stoics. Whatever their differences, they agreed that God’s ways were not our ways and that those who prospered in this world might well fry in the next. Jesus himself had advised his followers that they should take no thought of the morrow, for raiment or shelter, and should lose all in this world to gain salvation in the next—advice that could resonate with the gambler’s insouciant disregard for security.

Despite its durability, the ethic of Fortune faced unprecedented challenges during the second half of the eighteenth century. Even as they quoted Ecclesiastes, many literate British Americans embraced a new, secular model of the self as a rational, autonomous individual acting in harmony with natural laws. The older cosmology had included a mysterious realm only accessible through sacred play; the new cosmology, on the other hand, was more predictable, more pliable to human will. This vision of a well-ordered universe lay behind the rationalism of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence as well as the United States Constitution.

The Protestant war on Fortune, declared by John Calvin centuries earlier, also allied itself with Newtonian science, whose practitioners were less interested in denying chance than in containing it. By the end of the eighteenth century, Jacob Bernoulli, Adolphe Quetelet, and other statisticians had developed modern probability theory, reducing chance to a predictable outlier or a standard deviation. Both statisticians and devotees of “rational religion” hastened the shift from a respectful and even fearful Renaissance vision of Fortune as a goddess to a modern, more confident understanding of chance as a condition to be managed. A calculating cast of mind assumed that mastery of circumstances depended on access to large quantities of information. Since gamblers lacked access to this information, calculators distrusted them. “Nature’s admonition is to avoid the dice altogether,” Bernoulli wrote. “Everyone who bets any part of his fortune, however small, on a mathematically fair game of chance acts irrationally.” In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith was equally critical of gamblers, advancing the classic critique of lotteries: the house always wins.

As the culture of control spread, the appearance of a natural order and a regulated system concealed the arbitrariness of money as a measure of value. The concealment served the emerging stock markets, which were well suited to the deployment of statistics. Adept at anticipating aggregate movements of capital, successful stock traders searched for regularity rather than singularity, averages rather than divine miracles. In this, they typified the new calculating spirit of capitalism.

Meanwhile, educated Americans increasingly associated the culture of chance with backwardness, ignorance, and passivity. Conjuring and fortune-telling were pushed to the poorer, darker margins of the population. The process belonged to a recurring historical pattern that inclined the affluent to Providence and the lower classes to Fortune. As Fortuna acquired a darker hue, she became less respectable in the eyes of prosperous Americans, yet the very marginality of black conjurers gave them an exotic appeal: they could claim a secret knowledge unavailable to the dominant calculus of risk and profit.

Outside the circles of the educated elite, homage to Fortune survived. Those employed in hazardous occupations, such as sailors, felt no need to be furtive when visiting Fortuna’s shrines. When the fortune-teller Molly Pitcher of Boston died in 1813 at seventy-five, the local police records reported that, “Her fame as a fortune-teller was known throughout the world. No vessel arrived on the coast, but some of its hardy crew visited Molly.” She lived on a lonely road near High Rock with the bleached bones of a beached whale washed up at the gate of her cottage—an emblem of nature’s caprice. Molly peered into tea cups and read the leaves, but also eavesdropped on her clients’ conversations with her servant girl as they waited in her ante room. As always, those more vulnerable to Fortuna’s slings and arrows were more likely to beseech her aid; increasingly, the truly fortunate denied her existence by insisting that “you make your own luck.”

During the early nineteenth century, as divination rituals took the recreational form of gambling, homage to Fortuna became more commonly confined to the alehouse. Its seedy habitat made gambling a convenient target for moralists. As religious revivals swept in waves across the landscape, an evangelical ethos began to envelop American culture, sanctioning more rigorous ideals of self-mastery. Critics of gamblers at first stressed the links between gambling and stock speculation, but gradually narrowed their focus to the moral plight of the individual gambler. As the historian Ann Fabian has observed, the gambler became the embodiment of illicit risk, implicitly cleansing the speculator of that taint. As Wall Street sanitized speculation as “investment,” and the mere manipulation of money through complex financial instruments became a path to self-made manhood, gambling continued to be stigmatized by society.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, c. 1900. United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division, Washington D.C.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, c. 1900. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division, Washington, DC.

Mason Locke Weems, whose early biography of George Washington introduced American readers to the story of the cherry tree, condemned gambling’s effect on the “social body.” While he warned of the impact of gambling on the community, the cautionary tales he told concentrated on the gambler’s destruction of his family and himself. Weems’ gamblers ref­used to toil, pissed away their patrimony, courted public scorn, and committed suicide. Weems challenged his readers to show him “one single gambler, who has lived and died rich.” Even moralists like Weems had absorbed the idea that money measured personal worth. To be without it was to be nobody.

For reformers, gambling threatened the very existence of the self, especially if the self was defined through hard work. Gambling posed powerful temptations to laziness, as a Baltimore poet suggested in 1815 in “The Lottery”:

She seems to give to all who ask
Without imposing labour’s task
The idle as the busy bask
Alike in the sunshine of her mask.

The poem presents the lottery as a traditional female temptress, a provocation to male anxiety and desire. With her false promises of easy money (her sunshine is only a mask), she threatens to entrap the unwary and drain them of their vital substance. The ethic of self-mastery, nurtured in the bosom of the bourgeois family, was the alternative to self-depletion.

But for every self-made man trudging on to his destiny, there was a shapeshifting confidence man trying to get rich quickly through manipulation and deception. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville compared American commerce to a “vast lottery” and marveled at Americans’ relish for risk. During these antebellum decades, Americans added bluffing and three-card draw to poker, strategies that let the gambler manipulate appearances but also start over, both of which appealed to shapeshifting tricksters in a country where people were encouraged to reinvent themselves. Speculators and gamblers, pretenders and posers, all swarmed at the feet of Fortuna. Yet by the 1850s, Fortune’s main role was to be a target of anti-gambling invective. As a Unitarian minister complained some years after the Civil War, “Fortune is still a goddess, and to her shrine throng the devotees of pleasure,” playing with “the dice-boxes of destiny,” and ignoring “the divine import of money.” Cash had become what it is today: a sacred cow.

Over the course of the next hundred years, Fortuna’s devotees included vagrant intellectuals and artists from William James to Robert Rauschenberg, who cultivated openness to cosmic possibility and enlarged the modern meaning of Fortune from mere money to pure potentiality. As always, followers of Fortune could also be found among the gamblers and other marginal types who constituted the sporting crowd. In recent decades, their numbers have dramatically increased as gambling has gone mainstream and become a major industry. Gambling revenues reached $84.7 billion in 2005, nearly double what they had been only ten years before, and mostly all from legal casinos and lotteries. The emergence of gambling as mass entertainment can be traced to several sources, including the willingness of cash-strapped state governments to substitute gambling revenues for taxation and the decline of job security among gamblers themselves—in a contingent labor market, where one can be dismissed for reasons having nothing to do with one’s performance, the disjunction between merit and reward is more painfully apparent than ever. If hard work gets you nowhere fast, why not have a fling with Fortune?

Without sentimentalizing gamblers, it is possible to imagine that some of them still sustain the alternative moral outlook encouraged by the sporting crowd for much of our history—the notion that a true gambler never passed up a bet at long odds or a loan request from a tapped-out friend. The gambler from this view could be an exemplar of the reckless generosity that the theologian Paul Tillich called “Holy Waste.” Few theologians of Fortune matched the eloquence of Harlem Pete, the author of a dream book published in 1949. “If you want to be rich, Give! If you want to be poor, Grasp! If you want abundance, Scatter! If you want to be needy, Hoard!” Neither Jesus nor Fortuna could have put it any better. The willingness to relinquish control over outcomes—to play—promoted the insouciance toward money that lies at the core of the culture of chance. This outlook arose from an insight common among Fortuna’s children: the recognition that you don’t get what you deserve. You get what you get.

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