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Aristotle deals with luck or fortune in his Physics (ch. 2). He distinguishes luck from mere chance. Luck applies only to human actions whereas chance applies to any natural event. Each is contrasted with what happens from some human or natural cause. Fortune or luck is what happens beyond the intended effect of my actions, for instance, if I should go for a walk to get some fresh air and find a hundred-dollar note. That is good luck. If I should trip over and hurt myself, that is bad luck. Both events are from extrinsic causes that lie outside my control (me as the cause of what happens). A chance event is one that happens outside the usual course of things, i. e. outside nature as the cause of things that happen. Thus a horse running in the field by chance falls and injures itself. But if the horse eats the grass in the field that is not by chance but by reason of its nature as a horse. We might say it was bad luck for the horse to fall and hurt itself, but we say that only by analogy to ourselves. We are more likely to say this if the horse is somehow connected with what we are doing such as running it in the Melbourne Cup. Then it is clearly my bad luck.
Luck, therefore, lies outside the range of causality as we exercise it. Our control of things as well as the natural causality in other created things is not complete. So many things can happen to us and to natural things that are extrinsic to these orders of causes. From this perspective, then, they are luck or chance. We call this perspective the order of secondary causes. In this order accidents do happen. But nothing lies outside the control or providence (conscious direction or causality) of God. He is thus called the First Cause. From the perspective of God nothing happens by chance or rather things do happen by chance but not outside the control of God. God's omnipotence and universal providence does not change chance happenings into naturally occurring ones, or luck into humanly controlled events. But both the events that lie within our control and those that do not are within the control of the Creator of all.
Hence it is true to say that luck is Divine Providence, for everything that happens does so from Divine Providence as the ultimate cause of things that happen to us as humans and to all creatures. Thus luck is by Divine Providence but no more than things that happen in the usual course of things.
Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted December 2000. It was published in Universitas, No. 8 (2000).
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