Before it was a mediocre game show, the Wheel of Fortune was a medieval self-help cliché. It explained why bad things happened to good people, why some people succeeded and others didn’t, and why power and riches seemed never to last.
In medieval art, the rota fortunae usually appears as vertical mill-wheel with the goddess Fortuna at the center. People ride up one side and down the other like a Ferris wheel. Fortuna is often depicted blindfolded: she doesn’t care who’s rising or falling at any given moment. She just keeps the wheel turning.
The idea is that earthly success has nothing to do with moral worth or spiritual merit. Influence, fame, money, comfort, social standing—all of these are the arbitrary gifts of Fortune, as easily snatched away as they were granted. You never know when you’ve reached the top and are about to fall back down.
Fortune and her wheel are frequently the targets of bitterness and anger. In “Fortune plango vulnera” (a poem from the truly riotous medieval collection Carmina Burana), the narrator “weeps for the wounds of Fortune with teary eyes, because she, rebellious, has taken her gifts away from me.” But there’s nothing at all rebellious about Fortune: she’s simply doing her job.
In Boethius’s famous Consolation of Philosophy, the cure for this Fortune-induced sorrow is to sever your desires entirely from the goods of Fortune. If you care only about spiritual and intellectual things, you can be just as happy in a prison cell as in the largest library in Rome.
But I don’t think we denizens of modernity need to go that far to learn something from Fortune’s wheel. What if we really, truly believed that poverty and illness and unemployment were the results of bad luck, not personal inadequacy? That we’re no more industrious than those “below” us, no lazier than those “above”? That the only things that are ever truly ours are not property or status but faith, hope, and love?
This doesn’t mean giving up on personal growth. But we could take a page from Boethius’s literal book and try to develop virtues that withstand Fortune’s whims: not vision or ambition, perhaps, but humility and compassion.
I think also of medieval warnings to rulers, like the last stanza of “Fortune plango vulnera”: “The king sits at the apex—let him beware ruin!” What if our rulers really, truly believed that their power was fragile, that tomorrow they could be one of the downtrodden citizens they scoff at today? What policies would Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or even Bill Gates support if they thought Fortune could snatch away not only their wealth but also their connections, opportunities, and privilege?
And that, of course, is where this all breaks down. Fortune’s wheel seems to have stalled. Today, perhaps even more so than in the Middle Ages, those at the wheel’s zenith seem to be able to dislodge themselves from its scaffolding and continue along a straight line with no regard for gravity. For paying customers, the Ferris wheel of Fortune has become a ski lift.
Riches inevitably fade? Not when investment and estate laws protect generational wealth. Power is fleeting? Not when you can rewrite the rules of upcoming elections. Status doesn’t last? Not when centuries-long ideological projects enshrine Whiteness and maleness and Christianness in unearned glory.
And if the turn of Fortune’s wheel is no longer inevitable (and perhaps it never was), then an alternative to Boethius emerges. If those at the top are not just lucky but have seized the control panel, the answer is not to look away from the carnage but to fight back. If those at the bottom are being kept there on purpose, we can’t wait patiently for the wheel to turn—we have to help them climb up. We have to deploy our humility and compassion not to escape the wheel as individuals but to reinvent it together.
And if we really get going, maybe we can topple the whole thing. Maybe we can make Fortune not the heartless dealer of riches and status but the host of a cosmic merry-go-round, doling out surprises and chance encounters and twists of fate but never targeted injustice.
Photo credit: Mike Fear, National Trust, Waddesdon Manor (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a BA in English literature and violin performance, and he completed an MA program in medieval studies at Western Michigan University in 2020. He is currently a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, which means his plans to be in school forever are working out well. When not writing, he can be found playing violin, drinking coffee, making excruciating puns, and trying to learn Old French.