‘Those who aspire to command history seem to dream either of eliminating the intervention of accidents, of great men and chance encounters, or of rebuilding society according to a global plan and discarding the heritage of unjustifiable traditions […]. Reason teaches us precisely the opposite – that politics will remain the art of the irrevocable choice by fallible men in unforeseen circumstances and semi-ignorance.’
- Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals
The greatest artistic exploits of the Italian Renaissance were made by three masters: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, and Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino. Take a random walk through Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, and it will not take you long to spot the overwhelming influence these incidental competitors, and to some extent rivals, had on each other’s work.
Da Vinci, the inventor and scientist, set the standard for visual objectivity in painting, introducing atmosphere, depth, and the perception of three-dimensionality through the scientific study of light and shadow; chiaroscuro. Michelangelo embraced that realism, and in his sculptures and later frescoes, glorified the human body in a style that would inspire the subsequent movement of mannerism. And Raphael, the youngest of the three, adopted light and shade, anatomy, and dramatic action into paintings that became the cornerstone of Renaissance humanism.
All because three great men randomly met, in the random city of Florence and the random year of 1504. The Dutch would call this ‘geluk bij een ongeluk;’ a happy accident. The rest of us, less sentimental, would call it chance.
Chance is a random occurrence we cannot reasonably, quantifiably explain. A medieval, messy word we associate with horoscopes and casinos, the elderly and the equally unsalvageable romantics. It implies randomness and ambiguity, two notions for which there is no room in a world whose intricate clockwork we have wound up to run with nanometric precision. Thus our preference for another, more sophisticated word: probability.
If chance is the likelihood of an event happening, probability is the carefully calculated numerical estimate of that likelihood. The difference is subtle, the implications significant; if chance implies randomness, probability implies control.
It was within the setting of perhaps one of the most controlled political and academic environments, in Stalinist Soviet Russia, that mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov developed the first modern theory of probability… by chance. He had initially started out as a historian, but his need for unequivocal proof rerouted him to mathematics. He transformed probability into a respectable discipline of mathematical analysis, and applied it to statistical and quantum mechanics, engineering, astronomy, poetry, and music. But his greatest, most humbling revelation was this:
‘We can’t have positive knowledge of the existence of the unknowable.’
In eighty-four years, Kolmogorov survived a revolution, two World Wars, and the Cold War. He learned firsthand that life does not unfold in an ephemeral zone of zero-measure probabilities.
Or as Forrest Gump’s mother better phrased it, life, is like a box of chocolates. No matter how fancy your theory, ‘you never know what you are going to get.’ But sometimes, just sometimes, what you get is three great artists and one of the most revolutionary movements in the history of art and philosophy.
There is another theory I very much like, called the ‘random walk,’ which relies on math to formalize successions of seemingly random events, like stock market fluctuations, molecular diffusion, neural activity, and population dynamics. Its premise is quite beautiful:
If two men were to lose one another in a large forest, their best chance would be to get drunk, so that their stumbled steps would follow the most random, unpredictable path; the one most likely to lead them to one another.
It was indeed a random walk that brought Alberto Santos-Dumont, a man who dreamt of flying and invented the first practical dirigible airship, and Louis Cartier, the greatest jeweler of Paris’s Belle Époque, together in 1904. Their friendship spurred the invention of the first modern wristwatch.
Another random walk that caused mold to overrun Alexander Fleming’s culture of Staphylococcus aureus in 1928, leading him to discover penicillin and introduce the age of modern antibiotics.
A random walk that crossed the paths of John Nash, who developed his equilibrium point in game theory in 1951, and Thomas Schelling, who applied it in ‘The Strategy of Conflict’ in 1960. Their work, combined, guided the decision-making process that peacefully ended the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963.
Probability is quantifiable, reliable, replicable, predictable. It is comforting, but it is not real. Control is an illusion to which life is too vastly beautiful to conform.
The value of a great man is not to predict these chance encounters, but to seize them.
To buy a box of chocolates.