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LUCKLESS: THE IDEA OF LUCK IN GREEK POLITICAL THOUGHT (under contract with Oxford University Press

Abstract:  The idea of luck is in the air. Contemporary authorities invoke luck to explain the arbitrariness of economic success, to emphasize our shared vulnerability to disaster, and to urge more generous policy, legislation, and governance. Economists such as Robert Frank use the idea of luck to explode “the myth of meritocracy.” “Luck egalitarian” political theorists call for the state to neutralize luck as a matter of distributive justice. Philosophers and classicists, including Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum, analyze varieties of bad luck in ancient Greek thought, and they question the ubiquitous post-Kantian view that bad luck is always undeserved. Whatever their significant differences, these scholars all view luck, whether good or bad, as a deep feature of the human experience that can befall human beings no matter what they know or do.


Approaching the idea of luck as both a psychological phenomenon and a ubiquitous rhetorical trope (rather than as a constitutive principle of the world), this book challenges the contemporary consensus. In my view, what we talk about when we talk about luck are the intellectual and emotional reactions of human beings themselves as they run up against the limits of their own knowledge and power. My approach to luck arises out of my engagement with ancient Greek political thought, especially with the work of Thucydides, Euripides, and Aristotle. Whereas Nussbaum, Williams, and many others have returned to Greek philosophy and literature for pessimistic reflections on the vulnerability of human beings to bad luck, I find that Thucydides, Euripides, and Aristotle offer, on the contrary, a skeptical, psychological, and specifically political orientation toward these issues. In their writings, luck comes to light as an intoxicating illusion, which threatens to obscure underlying realities, to provoke powerful emotions, and to corrupt judgment. While acknowledging and exploring the presence of a more traditional Greek pessimism in the thought of Sophocles and Herodotus, I show that, for Thucydides, Euripides, and Aristotle, thinking through the problem of luck’s appearance in political life should serve prudential and bold activity as opposed to trembling contemplation and humility. Viewed as a whole, the book offers a fresh yet careful examination of luck as a central idea in Greek political thought, even as it responds to contemporary discourses on luck in political theory, classics, and philosophy.

Here is a PDF of the first chapter of the manuscript. 


N.B. The titles below link to journal websites; PDF icons provide my pre-publication versions. 

The Political Significance of Luck: A Thucydidean Perspective

Daniel Schillinger, Political Research Quarterly, Online First September 2020


Abstract: Contemporary authorities invoke luck to explain the arbitrariness of economic success, to emphasize our shared vulnerability to disaster, and to urge more generous policy, legislation, and governance. According to Robert Frank, Martha Nussbaum, and Ronald Dworkin, for example, extreme bad luck can befall individuals no matter what they know or do. By reframing the idea of luck as a psychological phenomenon rather than as a constitutive principle of the world, this article challenges the contemporary consensus. My approach to luck arises out of my engagement with the political thought of Thucydides. Whereas influential interpreters present Thucydides as a witness to the crushing power of bad luck, and whereas they criticize Thucydides’ Pericles for being insufficiently deferential to bad luck, I revisit and defend Pericles’ skeptical and psychological approach to luck, and I go on to argue that Thucydides shares this approach. The pathological intellectual and emotional responses to apparent good or bad luck diagnosed by Pericles recur throughout the History and influence the evolution of the whole war. Going beyond Pericles, Thucydides shows that the appeal of luck arises out of a human need to explain, beautify, or lament what is merely haphazard coincidence, natural necessity, or awful suffering.



Entangling Plato: A Guide through the Political Theory Archive

Daniel Schillinger and Liam Klein, Political Theory, forthcoming


Abstract: Political theorists have increasingly sought to place Plato in active dialogue with democracy ancient and modern by examining what S. Sara Monoson calls “Plato’s democratic entanglements.” More precisely, Monoson, J. Peter Euben, Arlene Saxonhouse, Christina Tarnopolsky, and Jill Frank approach Plato as both an immanent critic of the Athenian democracy and a searching theorist of self-governance. In this Guide through the Political Theory Archive, we explore “entanglement approaches” to the study of Plato, outlining their contribution to our understanding of Plato’s political thought and to the discipline of political theory.

Aristotle's Psychological Approach to the Idea of Luck

Daniel Schillinger, The Review of Metaphysics, September 2019

Abstract: My reading of Physics 2.4–6 shows that, for Aristotle, the idea of luck (tuchē) refers to an explanation or a description of action as opposed to a cause of it.  More precisely, the idea of luck is invoked when an unexpected outcome appears to have a striking effect on human flourishing in the eyes of some agent or observer.  Aristotle’s psychological approach to the idea of luck has important implications for his ethical thought.  Viewed as an explanation, luck does not necessarily nullify voluntary action.  On my interpretation of Nicomachean Ethics 3.1, Aristotle argues for an expansive conception of voluntariness that encompasses all actions knowingly initiated—even many actions undertaken in lucky or unlucky circumstances or issuing in lucky or unlucky effects.  Aristotle thereby illuminates the seriousness of agency and the task of practical wisdom—to deliberate and to act in accordance with circumstance and to take responsibility for one’s own actions without invoking bad luck as an excuse.

With Steel or Poison: Machiavelli on Conspiracy

Daniel Schillinger and David Polansky, Interpretation, September 2018


Abstract: Machiavelli’s life, times, and writings converge on the topic of conspiracy. Yet Machiavelli’s treatment of this topic is both more expansive and more complex than scholars have recognized. Attending to Discourse III.6, among other central passages, we argue that the significance of conspiracy for Machiavelli’s political thought lies in its connection to founding. In his analyses of historical conspiracies, Machiavelli shows what founding requires in practice; at the same time, the ubiquitous occurrence of conspiracies across historical and political contexts reveals the contested and contingent status of political order. Ultimately, Machiavelli depicts and analyzes conspiracies because he aims not only to investigate but also to produce new beginnings. Toward this end, Machiavelli deploys a novel rhetoric that challenges the reader to adopt a conspiratorial outlook, if not to become a conspirator himself.

Aristotle, Equity, and Democracy

Daniel Schillinger, Polis, September 2018


Abstract: Aristotelian equity (epieikeia) has often been relegated to scholarly discussions of retributive justice. Recently, however, political theorists have recast equity as the virtue of a sympathetic democratic citizen. I build on this literature by offering a more precise explanation of equity’s internal structure and political significance. In particular, I reveal equity’s deliberative dimension. For Aristotle, equitable citizens, statesmen, and legislators correct or go beyond the law, as appropriate, not only when they render retrospective judgments about matters of punishment or distribution, but also when they deliberate about future-oriented questions of legislation or political action. In addition, I show, more concretely, the role of equity in democratic citizenship. Drawing upon the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, I argue that the Athenian demos exemplified equity when it brought about the reconciliation and the amnesty of 403 BC. Attention to this episode clarifies the conceptual linkages between equity, deliberation, sympathy, and democracy.

Luck and Character in Machiavelli's Political Thought

Daniel Schillinger, History of Political Thought, December 2016


Abstract: Is Machiavelli’s virtuoso responsible for his character? A number of scholarly authorities insist that Machiavelli ascribes to the man of ‘virtue’ the capacity to shape both his own nature and those of his fellows freely and at will. Putting this claim to the test, I show that even a virtuous character is, in Machiavelli’s own view, internally vulnerable to fortune. At the same time, Machiavelli argues that the experience of serious misfortune can, paradoxically, push the princely individual, and a republic led by such individuals, to develop virtue.

Occasional Pieces

Accountability after Insurrection: Classical Athens and the United States

Daniel Schillinger and David Polansky, The Washington Post, February 4, 2021

Expendable Bodies: Reading Sophocles' Philoctetes Now

Daniel Schillinger, Public Seminar, June 25, 2020

What Thucydides Can Teach Us: Ancient Reflections on a Time of Plague

Daniel Schillinger, Public Seminar, April 20, 2020

Book Chapters

"Every Form of Death": Thucydides on Death's Political Presence

Daniel Schillinger, in Political Philosophies of Aging, Death, and Dying, 2021

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