Friday, April 2, 2010

The wagers of charity

Nosing about in various articles on the statistical notion of standard deviation, I happened on a "review" of the mid-16th century Liber de ludo aleae by Cardano (this is the dude who, among other things, invented the idea of imaginary number). It contains the following quotes from the book:
...in times of great anxiety and grief, [playing games of chance] is considered to be not only allowable, but even beneficial.

..in times of great fear or sorrow, when even the greatest minds are much disturbed, gambling is far more efficacious in counteracting anxiety than a game like chess, since there is the continual expectation of what fortune will bring.

In my own case, when it seemed to me after a long illness that death was close at hand, I found no little solace in playing constantly at dice.
Cardano's life-style throws some light on this:
Cardano was notoriously short of money and kept himself solvent by being an accomplished gambler and chess player.
I myself have never understood the interest so many people have in dice games and slot machines, for instance. Such things bore the pants off me. My attitude is: if good luck wants to come to me, I won't shut the door in its face, but nor do I want to spend time running back and forth in the road, trying to meet up with luck before the neighbors do.

Recently, Sloterdijk has been putting the idea about that possibly "greed" is not the most accurate description of what motivates bankers who blow away other people's money in speculation. He suggests that the motive may instead be "to get something for nothing". Greed, in contrast, is a drive to get more and more, and more than enough. To want to get something for nothing is more akin to gambling. I could add that Pascal, in proposing his wager, revealed himself to be both intellectually lazy and morally calculating - a gambler, in fact.

As I remember, the passage in which Sloterdijk mentions that idea is in Du mußt dein Leben ändern. Unfortunately, I made the mistake yesterday of lending my copy to someone over Easter - and of course one day later I need it in order to double-check a reference. Though I rarely lend out a book important to me, I usually regret it for the reason given. Curiously, this appears to be a case of getting nothing for something. The something is that I have introduced someone to Sloterdijk, the nothing is what I now have in place of the book.

I experience this kind of thing not infrequently, it seems to me - doing good, then regretting it. But then I don't really expect to do something for nothing. It just may be that the wages of charity is mutual resentment. A pari mutuel, where if anyone wins everyone wins, and contrariwise.

3 comments:

Ø said...

Have you got your book back yet?

Stuart said...

Not yet. So maybe I can get a bit more gripe mileage out of the subject.

empty said...

Well, there! You've got both gripe mileage and, presumably, the satisfaction of introducing someone to a favorite writer of yours. What's all this about "nothing"?