William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

On Coincidence And Fortune: Why So Many One-Eyed Generals?

Kutuzov is at the left.

Kutuzov is at the left.

Plutarch opens his Life of Sertorius with these two sentences:

It is perhaps not a matter of surprise, if in the lapse of time, which is unlimited, while fortune is continually changing her course, spontaneity should often result in the same incidents; for, if the number of elemental things is not limited, fortune has in the abundance of material a bountiful supply of sameness of results; and, if things are implicated in a dependence upon definite numbers, it is of necessity that the same things must often happen, being effected by the same means.

Now, as some are pleased to collect, by inquiry and hearsay, from among the things which accidentally happen, such as bear some likeness to the works of calculation and forethought: such, for instance, as that there were two celebrated Atteis, the one a Syrian and the other an Arcadian, and that both were killed by a wild boar; that there were two Actaeons, one of whom was torn in pieces by his dogs and the other by his lovers; that there were two Scipios, by one of whom the Carthaginians were first conquered, and by the other were cut up root and branch; that Troy was taken by Hercules, on account of the horses of Laomedon, and by Agamemnon by means of the wooden horse, as it is called, and was taken a third time by Charidemus, by reason of the Ilians not being able to close the gates quick enough, owing to a horse having got between them; that there are two cities which have the same name with the most fragrant of plants, Ios and Smyrna, and that Homer was born in one of them and died in the other: I may be allowed to add to these instances, that the most warlike of commanders and those who have accomplished most by a union of daring and cunning, have been one-eyed men, Philippus, Antigonus, Annibal, and the subject of this Life—Sertorius; he whom one may affirm to have been more continent as to women than Philip, more true to his friends than Antigonus, more merciful to his enemies than Annibal, inferior in understanding to none of them, but in fortune inferior to all; and, though he always found Fortune more hard to deal with than his open enemies, yet he proved himself her equal by opposing the experience of Metellus, the daring of Pompeius, the fortune of Sulla, and the power of the whole Roman state; a fugitive and a stranger putting himself at the head of barbarians.

To this list of cylopsian colonels can be added Nelson, who gave us that most useful of phrases “turning a blind eye”, World War II’s Archibald Wavell, who dared outshine Churchill and who paid the price, Moscow’s tenacious defender and ruiner of Napoleon Marshal Kutuzov, defender of the heretical Jon Hus (the forerunner of the protesting Martin Luther) the Czech Jan Zizka, who in death and by his own order was turned into a drum so that his followers would ever follow his beat, Admiral Don Blas de Lezo, Spain’s greatest naval hero (it would have been Alonso Pérez de Guzmán if not for a spot of unfortunate weather), who beat back the Brits at Columbia. Even Odin, the chief Norse God, had unocular vision: the loss of his eye was voluntary; he exchanged exterior for interior vision. Come to think of it, it’s not clear whether the all-seeing Horus should be added to this list. Ask your dollar. Doubtless there are others (my knowledge of Asian commanders is limited).

The question is are these coincidences or are these meaningful? Plutarch says the former. He dismisses gently those who “are pleased to collect, by inquiry and hearsay, from among the things which accidentally happen” as if some guiding force caused the collection, for this is what must occur if there is meaning in any collection: some agency—God, say, angels or demons, a.k.a. the gods—must act to bring about the events. One-eyed generals, says God, must exist to teach men lessons; thus, sayeth the Lord, I shall cause the eyes of certain warriors to be put out, so that in their blindness all shall see.

There are other explanations. Some 1,600 years before Bernoulli, Plutarch intuits the law of large numbers, saying that “spontaneity should often result in the same incidents” given the opportunities to occur are large. This is not to say probability is causative, but that so many great commanders should be half blind is therefore not surprising given man’s warlike nature. Generals start as Lieutenants, the best are tested in battle, and battles are places where pieces of men’s anatomy go missing. Those men not able to overcome their loss are scarcely heard from again; the most tenacious treat their wounds with disdain; they not so much persevere but conquer themselves—and then their enemies.

Of course, both explanations could be true; there simply is no way to tell from the “data”.

10 Comments

  1. Moshe Dayan is a more recent example.

  2. Watch where you go with this. Evolution is based on patterns seen. Questioning the quality of data and conclusions based entirely on patterns could get one in trouble with the so-called scientists of the world. On the other hand, psychics are in with you on this—looking for patterns and making inferences makes them big bucks.

    Missing eyes are easy to see. Wonder what else is missing from war-torn generals? Perhaps, too, a general would wear an eye-patch to look formidable, whether or not he needed it?

  3. Coincidences do happen.

    Packing such a profound phenomena into so many words qualifies pretty much any sentence for The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

    For details see: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/
    For winners see: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/lyttony.html

  4. Xiahou Dun is famous as a great General blinded by an arrow in 3rd Century China.

    In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms he is portrayed as being hit in the eye, pulling out the arrow and as a result his eyeball comes out from its socket, caught on the arrow’s barb.

    Filial piety requires a son to respect his body bequeathed upon him by his parents, and so rather than throw the eye away, he devours it.

  5. In regione caecorum rex est luscus.
    – credited to Desiderius Erasmus

  6. Like I always say, life is roughly half luck and half what you make of it.

    JMJ

  7. Of course, both explanations could be true; there simply is no way to tell from the “data”.

    So, could one argue for the explanations by way of philosophizing or theologizing?

    To disagree with the above is to claim that (1) one can ascertain evidence/data to show that “God, say, angels or demons, a.k.a. the gods—must act to bring about the events,” or that (2) one can show the said events with a certain alikeness had not happened.

    I am reminded of the following. The Men Who Has Been Cured of HIV!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gero_H%C3%BCtter

    http://www.livescience.com/48015-berlin-patient-hiv-treatment.html

    A rare event! One might ask how/why the cure befell the man. Some people might explain that it’s God’s will or it just happens, which, imo, is an explanation of no explanation. This sort of explanations are of little interest to the scientific researchers in this case.

  8. Made me think of John Bell Hood, and many of the other Civil War generals maimed similarly. Hood’s injuries may be more a symptom of audacity and luck; there’s no denying he was a brave man, but not much of a strategist, I guess.

  9. Bravo. Some of best work of Plutarch and of Briggs.

    My sense of justice makes me wish fortune had been kinder to Sertorius. He DESERVED to defeat that vulgar megalomaniac Pompey!

    But as a Christian, I reckon his demise was providential: If he hadn’t been treasonously murdered, it probably wouldn’t have been long before he was dictator of Rome, and things may have turned out very differently…

  10. Mr Briggs,
    “Wavell devised a plan for the British evacuation of India and called it “Operation Madhouse” (with, I think, an alternative strategy called “Operation Bedlam”). Military rather than political plotting was really his forte. He was a field marshal who in 1943 got the viceroy’s job almost by accident after Anthony Eden turned it down. His biographers describe him as taciturn, awkward, cautious, shy, stoic, and hopeless in company. He lost an eye while serving with the Black Watch in 1916. Churchill, with whom he never got along, said that meeting him was like being “in the presence of the chairman of a golf club”

    “As it turned out, “Operation Madhouse” was a good term for the British departure from India, the operation supervised to a very quick timetable by Mountbatten after Wavell was prematurely sacked. At least half a million people died in the slaughter following partition. Perhaps it could have been done better; perhaps it could have been done worse. When the time comes – soon – the same will be said of Iraq.”

    (The Guardian article by Ian Jack on “Other Men’s Flowers”)

    Churchill was right about India.
    He had a dislike of authority, both men did, which he admitted was his own failing. There’s nothing else like the military when it comes to authority. None of them like authority THEY are the authority. I”t goes with the territory.”

    Cyclopsism with a C is a genetic condition where babies are born without eyes.
    This seems to be unfortunate but not a good description for the likes of Lord Admiral Nelson et al…. If their eyes were “put out” they are not cyclopses.
    Perhaps you were being poetic.

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