Tragedy befalls only the morally virtuous who are already on the way toward making good lives for themselves. It does not occur in the lives of fools or knaves, villains or criminals. They have ruined their own lives. There is nothing left for misfortune to ruin.
As almost everyone is subject to the occurrence of tragedy in their lives, so almost everyone is also subject to misfortunes, some more dire than others. An early death, enslavement, the agony of poverty, carried to the extreme of destitution, imprisonment, in solitary confinement, these things can completely frustrate a person’s pursuit of happiness. They result in the misery that is the very opposite of happiness. However, misfortunes may not completely frustrate, but merely impede an individual’s effort to make a good life for himself or herself. Under what conditions are we best able to overcome such misfortunes and still save our lives from the wreckage of bad luck?.
We must consider the problem the individual faces when the circumstances of his life are such that he must take into account the effects of both good and bad fortune. By fortune, it means any aspects of our lives that is beyond our control … the things that happen to us, the accidents that befall us, for good or ill. By bad fortune, or misfortune, it means the accidents or circumstances that are adverse or unfavorable to making a good life for one’s self. And by bad fortune, it means the opposite … the accidents or circumstances that are felicitating or favorable. Rather must you consider the lives of those in distress, reflecting on their intense sufferings, in order that your own possessions and condition may seem great and enviable, and you may, by ceasing to desire more, cease to suffer in your soul. One must compare one’s own life with that of those in worst cases, and must consider oneself fortunate, reflecting on their sufferings, on being so much better off than they.
A life can be ruined at birth or in infancy or childhood by extreme misfortunes of one kind or another. What is true of these early years is also true of the middle and later years in life. Extreme misfortune can be ruinous. An individual can be adversely affected. We sometimes say ‘spoiled’ in his early years by an excess of good fortune. While this extreme is not likely to be as ruinous if it occurs later, it is still possible for an excessive good fortune to be a serious impediment: for it involves highly seductive temptations. The individual who earns a bare subsistence by work is drudgery, sorely tempted to fill the rest of his hours with diverse form of sleep and play. At the other extreme, the individual who is surrounded by luxuries or who has the means of obtaining them is also subject to strong temptations that may have as adverse an effect on his life as deprivation has on the life of the unfortunate.
The stronger our moral virtue, the more likely are we to be able to make good lives for ourselves in spite of these misfortunes. The other side of the same picture is that hard luck and adversity, when the misfortunes do not cause irreparable damage or destructive deprivations, may result in the strengthening of moral virtue. Being blessed with benign conditions and affluence of unmitigated good fortune usually has exactly the opposite effect. It is more difficult to develop moral virtue under such conditions than it is under adversity, when that is not crippling or totally destructive.
Mortimer J. Adler, PhD, ‘Why strength of character is needed to head to a good life’.
Mortimer J. Adler, PhD, ‘Is anyone ever perfectly Virtuous or completely happy’.