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The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen - 1899

Chapter XI torna a Indice

The Belief in Luck

The gambling propensity is another subsidiary trait of the barbarian temperament. It is a concomitant variation of character of almost universal prevalence among sporting men and among men given to warlike and emulative activities generally. This trait also has a direct economic value. It is recognized to be a hindrance to the highest industrial efficiency of the aggregate in any community where it prevails in an appreciable degree.
The gambling proclivity is doubtfully to be classed as a feature belonging exclusively to the predatory type of human nature. The chief factor in the gambling habit is the belief in luck; and this belief is apparently traceable, at least in its elements, to a stage in human evolution antedating the predatory culture. It may well have been under the predatory culture that the belief in luck was developed into the form in which it is present, as the chief element of the gambling proclivity, in the sporting temperament. It probably owes the specific form under which it occurs in the modern culture to the predatory discipline. But the belief in luck is in substance a habit of more ancient date than the predatory culture. It is one form of the artistic apprehension of things. The belief seems to be a trait carried over in substance from an earlier phase into the barbarian culture, and transmuted and transmitted through that culture to a later stage of human development under a specific form imposed by the predatory discipline. But in any case, it is to be taken as an archaic trait, inherited from a more or less remote past, more or less incompatible with the requirements of the modern industrial process, and more or less of a hindrance to the fullest efficiency of the collective economic life of the present.
While the belief in luck is the basis of the gambling habit,
it is not the only element that enters into the habit of betting.
Betting on the issue of contests of strength and skill proceeds
on a further motive, without which the belief in luck would
scarcely come in as a prominent feature of sporting life. This
further motive is the desire of the anticipated winner, or the
partisan of the anticipated winning side, to heighten his side's
ascendency at the cost of the loser. Not only does the stronger
side score a more signal victory, and the losing side suffer a
more painful and humiliating defeat, in proportion as the
pecuniary gain and loss in the wager is large; although this
alone is a consideration of material weight. But the wager is
commonly laid also with a view, not avowed in words nor even recognized in set terms in petto, to enhancing the chances of success for the contestant on which it is laid. It is felt that
substance and solicitude expended to this end can not go for
naught in the issue. There is here a special manifestation of the
instinct of workmanship, backed by an even more manifest sense that the animistic congruity of things must decide for a
victorious outcome for the side in whose behalf the propensity
inherent in events has been propitiated and fortified by so much
of conative and kinetic urging. This incentive to the wager
expresses itself freely under the form of backing one's favorite
in any contest, and it is unmistakably a predatory feature. It is
as ancillary to the predaceous impulse proper that the belief in
luck expresses itself in a wager. So that it may be set down that
in so far as the belief in luck comes to expression in the form
of laying a wager, it is to be accounted an integral element of
the predatory type of character. The belief is, in its elements,
an archaic habit which belongs substantially to early,
undifferentiated human nature; but when this belief is helped out
by the predatory emulative impulse, and so is differentiated into
the specific form of the gambling habit, it is, in this
higher-developed and specific form, to be classed as a trait of
the barbarian character.
The belief in luck is a sense of fortuitous necessity in the
sequence of phenomena. In its various mutations and expressions,
it is of very serious importance for the economic efficiency of
any community in which it prevails to an appreciable extent. So
much so as to warrant a more detailed discussion of its origin
and content and of the bearing of its various ramifications upon
economic structure and function, as well as a discussion of the
relation of the leisure class to its growth, differentiation, and
persistence. In the developed, integrated form in which it is
most readily observed in the barbarian of the predatory culture
or in the sporting man of modern communities, the belief
comprises at least two distinguishable elements -- which are to
be taken as two different phases of the same fundamental habit of thought, or as the same psychological factor in two successive phases of its evolution. The fact that these two elements are successive phases of the same general line of growth of belief does not hinder their coexisting in the habits of thought of any given individual. The more primitive form (or the more archaic phase) is an incipient animistic belief, or an animistic sense of relations and things, that imputes a quasi-personal character to facts. To the archaic man all the obtrusive and obviously consequential objects and facts in his environment have a quasiªpersonal individuality. They are conceived to be possessed of volition, or rather of propensities, which enter into the complex of causes and affect events in an inscrutable manner. The
sporting man's sense of luck and chance, or of fortuitous
necessity, is an inarticulate or inchoate animism. It applies to
objects and situations, often in a very vague way; but it is
usually so far defined as to imply the possibility of
propitiating, or of deceiving and cajoling, or otherwise
disturbing the holding of propensities resident in the objects
which constitute the apparatus and accessories of any game of
skill or chance. There are few sporting men who are not in the
habit of wearing charms or talismans to which more or less of
efficacy is felt to belong. And the proportion is not much less
of those who instinctively dread the "hoodooing" of the
contestants or the apparatus engaged in any contest on which they
lay a wager; or who feel that the fact of their backing a given
contestant or side in the game does and ought to strengthen that
side; or to whom the "mascot" which they cultivate means
something more than a jest.
In its simple form the belief in luck is this instinctive
sense of an inscrutable teleological propensity in objects or
situations. Objects or events have a propensity to eventuate in a
given end, whether this end or objective point of the sequence is
conceiveD to be fortuitously given or deliberately sought. From
this simple animism the belief shaDes off by insensible
gradations into the second, derivative form or phase above
referred to, which is a more or less articulate belief in an
inscrutable preternatural agency. The preternatural agency works
through the visible objects with which it is associated, but is
not identified with these objects in point of individuality. The
use of the term "preternatural agency" here carries no further
implication as to the nature of the agency spoken of as
preternatural. This is only a farther development of animistic
belief. The preternatural agency is not necessarily conceived to
be a personal agent in the full sense, but it is an agency which
partakes of the attributes of personality to the extent of
somewhat arbitrarily influencing the outcome of any enterprise,
and especially of any contest. The pervading belief in the
hamingia or gipta (gaefa, authna) which lends so much of color to
the Icelandic sagas specifically, and to early Germanic
folk-legends, is an illustration of this sense of an
extra-physical propensity in the course of events.
In this expression or form of the belief the propensity is
scarcely personified although to a varying extent an
individuality is imputed to it; and this individuated propensity
is sometimes conceived to yield to circumstances, commonly to
circumstances of a spiritual or preternatural character. A
well-known and striking exemplification of the belief -- in a
fairly advanced stage of differentiation and involving an
anthropomorphic personification of the preternatural agent
appealed to -- is afforded by the wager of battle. Here the
preternatural agent was conceived to act on request as umpire,
anD to shape the outcome of the contest in accordance with some
stipulated ground of decision, such as the equity or legality of
the respective contestants' claims. The like sense of an
inscrutable but spiritually necessary tendency in events is still
traceable as an obscure element in current popular belief, as
shown, for instance, by the well-accredited maxim, "Thrice is he
armed who knows his quarrel just," -- a maxim which retains much of its significance for the average unreflecting person even in the civilized communities of today. The modern reminiscence of the belief in the hamingia, or in the guidance of an unseen hand,
which is traceable in the acceptance of this maxim is faint and
perhaps uncertain; and it seems in any case to be blended with
other psychological moments that are not clearly of an animistic
For the purpose in hand it is unnecessary to look more
closely into the psychological process or the ethnological line
of descent by which the later of these two animistic
apprehensions of propensity is derived from the earlier. This
question may be of the gravest importance to folk-psychology or
to the theory of the evolution of creeds and cults. The same is
true of the more fundamental question whether the two are related
at all as successive phases in a sequence of development.
Reference is here made to the existence of these questions only
to remark that the interest of the present discussion does not
lie in that direction. So far as concerns economic theory, these
two elements or phases of the belief in luck, or in an
extra-causal trend or propensity in things, are of substantially
the same character. They have an economic significance as habits
of thought which affect the individual's habitual view of the
facts and sequences with which he comes in contact, and which
thereby affect the individual's serviceability for the industrial
purpose. Therefore, apart from all question of the beauty, worth,
or beneficence of any animistic belief, there is place for a
discussion of their economic bearing on the serviceability of the
individual as an economic factor, and especially as an industrial
It has already been noted in an earlier connection, that in
order to have the highest serviceability in the complex
industrial processes of today, the individual must be endowed
with the aptitude and the habit of readily apprehending and
relating facts in terms of causal sequence. Both as a whole and
in its details, the industrial process is a process of
quantitative causation. The "intelligence" demanded of the
workman, as well as of the director of an industrial process, is
little else than a degree of facility in the apprehension of and
adaptation to a quantitatively determined causal sequence. This
facility of apprehension and adaptation is what is lacking in
stupid workmen, and the growth of this facility is the end sought
in their education -- so far as their education aims to enhance
their industrial efficiency.
In so far as the individual's inherited aptitudes or his
training incline him to account for facts and sequences in other
terms than those of causation or matter-of-fact, they lower his
productive efficiency or industrial usefulness. This lowering of
efficiency through a penchant for animistic methods of
apprehending facts is especially apparent when taken in the
mass-when a given population with an animistic turn is viewed as
a whole. The economic drawbacks of animism are more patent and its consequences are more far-reaching under the modern system of large industry than under any other. In the modern industrial communities, industry is, to a constantly increasing extent, being organized in a comprehensive system of organs and functions mutually conditioning one another; and therefore freedom from all bias in the causal apprehension of phenomena grows constantly more requisite to efficiency on the part of the men concerned in industry. Under a system of handicraft an advantage in dexterity, diligence, muscular force, or endurance may, in a very large measure, offset such a bias in the habits of thought of the workmen.
Similarly in agricultural industry of the traditional kind,
which closely resembles handicraft in the nature of the demands
made upon the workman. In both, the workman is himself the prime mover chiefly depended upon, and the natural forces engaged are in large part apprehended as inscrutable and fortuitous agencies, whose working lies beyond the workman's control or discretion. In popular apprehension there is in these forms of industry relatively little of the industrial process left to the fateful swing of a comprehensive mechanical sequence which must be comprehended in terms of causation and to which the operations of industry and the movements of the workmen must be adapted. As industrial methods develop, the virtues of the handicraftsman count for less and less as an offset to scanty. intelligence or a halting acceptance of the sequence of cause and effect. The industrial organization assumes more and more of the character of a mechanism, in which it is man's office to discriminate and select what natural forces shall work out their effects in his service. The workman's part in industry changes from that of a prime mover to that of discrimination and valuation of quantitative sequences and mechanical facts. The faculty of a
ready apprehension and unbiased appreciation of causes in his
environment grows in relative economic importance and any element in the complex of his habits of thought which intrudes a bias at variance with this ready appreciation of matter-of-fact sequence gains proportionately in importance as a disturbing element acting to lower his industrial usefulness. Through its cumulative effect upon the habitual attitude of the population, even a slight or inconspicuous bias towards accounting for everyday
facts by recourse to other ground than that of quantitative
causation may work an appreciable lowering of the collective
industrial efficiency of a community.
The animistic habit of mind may occur in the early,
undifferentiated form of an inchoate animistic belief, or in the
later and more highly integrated phase in which there is an
anthropomorphic personification of the propensity imputed to
facts. The industrial value of such a lively animistic sense, or
of such recourse to a preternatural agency or the guidance of an
unseen hand, is of course very much the same in either case. As
affects the industrial serviceability of the individual, the
effect is of the same kind in either case; but the extent to
which this habit of thought dominates or shapes the complex of
his habits of thought varies with the degree of immediacy,
urgency, or exclusiveness with which the individual habitually
applies the animistic or anthropomorphic formula in dealing with
the facts of his environment. The animistic habit acts in all
cases to blur the appreciation of causal sequence; but the
earlier, less reflected, less defined animistic sense of
propensity may be expected to affect the intellectual processes
of the individual in a more pervasive way than the higher forms
of anthropomorphism. Where the animistic habit is present in the
naive form, its scope and range of application are not defined or
limited. It will therefore palpably affect his thinking at every
turn of the person's life -- wherever he has to do with the
material means of life. In the later, maturer development of
animism, after it has been defined through the process of
anthropomorphic elaboration, when its application has been
limited in a somewhat consistent fashion to the remote and the
invisible, it comes about that an increasing range of everyday
facts are provisionally accounted for without recourse to the
preternatural agency in which a cultivated animism expresses
itself. A highly integrated, personified preternatural agency is
not a convenient means of handling the trivial occurrences of
life, and a habit is therefore easily fallen into of accounting
for many trivial or vulgar phenomena in terms of sequence. The
provisional explanation so arrived at is by neglect allowed to
stand as definitive, for trivial purposes, until special
provocation or perplexity recalls the individual to his
allegiance. But when special exigencies arise, that is to say,
when there is peculiar need of a full and free recourse to the
law of cause and effect, then the individual commonly has
recourse to the preternatural agency as a universal solvent, if
he is possessed of an anthropomorphic belief.
The extra-causal propensity or agent has a very high utility
as a recourse in perplexity, but its utility is altogether of a
non-economic kind. It is especially a refuge and a fund of
comfort where it has attained the degree of consistency and
specialization that belongs to an anthropomorphic divinity. It
has much to commend it even on other grounds than that of
affording the perplexed individual a means of escape from the
difficulty of accounting for phenomena in terms of causal
sequence. It would scarcely be in place here to dwell on the
obvious and well-accepted merits of an anthropomorphic divinity,
as seen from the point of view of the aesthetic, moral, or
spiritual interest, or even as seen from the less remote
standpoint of political, military, or social policy. The question
here concerns the less picturesque and less urgent economic value
of the belief in such a preternatural agency, taken as a habit of
thought which affects the industrial serviceability of the
believer. And even within this narrow, economic range, the
inquiry is perforce confined to the immediate bearing of this
habit of thought upon the believer's workmanlike serviceability,
rather than extended to include its remoter economic effects.
These remoter effects are very difficult to trace. The inquiry
into them is so encumbered with current preconceptions as to the
degree in which life is enhanced by spiritual contact with such a
divinity, that any attempt to inquire into their economic value
must for the present be fruitless.
The immediate, direct effect of the animistic habit of
thought upon the general frame of mind of the believer goes in
the direction of lowering his effective intelligence in the
respect in which intelligence is of especial consequence for
modern industry. The effect follows, in varying degree, whether
the preternatural agent or propensity believed in is of a higher
or a lower cast. This holds true of the barbarian's and the
sporting man's sense of luck and propensity, and likewise of the
somewhat higher developed belief in an anthropomorphic divinity, such as is commonly possessed by the same class. It must be taken to hold true also -- though with what relative degree of cogency is not easy to say -- of the more adequately developed
anthropomorphic cults, such as appeal to the devout civilized
man. The industrial disability entailed by a popular adherence to
one of the higher anthropomorphic cults may be relatively slight,
but it is not to be overlooked. And even these high-class cults
of the Western culture do not represent the last dissolving phase
of this human sense of extra-causal propensity. Beyond these the
same animistic sense shows itself also in such attenuations of
anthropomorphism as the eighteenth-century appeal to an order of
nature and natural rights, and in their modern representative,
the ostensibly post-Darwinian concept of a meliorative trend in
the process of evolution. This animistic explanation of phenomena
is a form of the fallacy which the logicians knew by the name of
ignava ratio. For the purposes of industry or of science it
counts as a blunder in the apprehension and valuation of facts.
Apart from its direct industrial consequences, the animistic
habit has a certain significance for economic theory on other
grounds. (1) It is a fairly reliable indication of the presence,
and to some extent even of the degree of potency, of certain
other archaic traits that accompany it and that are of
substantial economic consequence; and (2) the material
consequences of that code of devout proprieties to which the
animistic habit gives rise in the development of an
anthropomorphic cult are of importance both (a) as affecting the
community's consumption of goods and the prevalent canons of
taste, as already suggested in an earlier chapter, and (b) by
inducing and conserving a certain habitual recognition of the
relation to a superior, and so stiffening the current sense of
status and allegiance.
As regards the point last named (b), that body of habits of
thought which makes up the character of any individual is in some
sense an organic whole. A marked variation in a given direction
at any one point carries with it, as its correlative, a
concomitant variation in the habitual expression of life in other
directions or other groups of activities. These various habits of
thought, or habitual expressions of life, are all phases of the
single life sequence of the individual; therefore a habit formed
in response to a given stimulus will necessarily affect the
character of the response made to other stimuli. A modification
of human nature at any one point is a modification of human
nature as a whole. On this ground, and perhaps to a still greater
extent on obscurer grounds that can not be discussed here, there
are these concomitant variations as between the different traits
of human nature. So, for instance, barbarian peoples with a
well-developed predatory scheme of life are commonly also
possessed of a strong prevailing animistic habit, a well-formed
anthropomorphic cult, and a lively sense of status. On the other
hand, anthropomorphism and the realizing sense of an animistic
propensity in material are less obtrusively present in the life
of the peoples at the cultural stages which precede and which
follow the barbarian culture. The sense of status is also
feebler; on the whole, in peaceable communities. It is to be
remarked that a lively, but slightly specialized, animistic
belief is to be found in most if not all peoples living in the
ante-predatory, savage stage of culture. The primitive savage
takes his animism less seriously than the barbarian or the
degenerate savage. With him it eventuates in fantastic
myth-making, rather than in coercive superstition. The barbarian
culture shows sportsmanship, status, and anthropomorphism. There is commonly observable a like concomitance of variations in the same respects in the individual temperament of men in the
civilized communities of today. Those modern representatives of
the predaceous barbarian temper that make up the sporting element are commonly believers in luck; at least they have a strong sense of an animistic propensity in things, by force of which they are given to gambling. So also as regards anthropomorphism in this class. Such of them as give in their adhesion to some creed commonly attach themselves to one of the naively and consistently anthropomorphic creeds; there are relatively few sporting men who seek spiritual comfort in the less anthropomorphic cults, such as the Unitarian or the Universalist.
Closely bound up with this correlation of anthropomorphism
and prowess is the fact that anthropomorphic cults act to
conserve, if not to initiate, habits of mind favorable to a
regime of status. As regards this point, it is quite impossible
to say where the disciplinary effect of the cult ends and where
the evidence of a concomitance of variations in inherited traits
begins. In their finest development, the predatory temperament,
the sense of status, and the anthropomorphic cult all together
belong to the barbarian culture; and something of a mutual causal
relation subsists between the three phenomena as they come into
sight in communities on that cultural level. The way in which
they recur in correlation in the habits and attitudes of
individuals and classes today goes far to imply a like causal or
organic relation between the same psychological phenomena
considered as traits or habits of the individual. It has appeared
at an earlier point in the discussion that the relation of
status, as a feature of social structure, is a consequence of the
predatory habit of life. As regards its line of derivation, it is
substantially an elaborated expression of the predatory attitude.
On the other hand, an anthropomorphic cult is a code of detailed
relations of status superimposed upon the concept of a
preternatural, inscrutable propensity in material things. So
that, as regards the external facts of its derivation, the cult
may be taken as an outgrowth of archaic man's pervading animistic sense, defined and in some degree transformed by the predatory habit of life, the result being a personified preternatural
agency, which is by imputation endowed with a full complement of the habits of thought that characterize the man of the predatory
The grosser psychological features in the case, which have
an immediate bearing on economic theory and are consequently to
be taken account of here, are therefore: (a) as has appeared in
an earlier chapter, the predatory, emulative habit of mind here
called prowess is but the barbarian variant of the generically
human instinct of workmanship, which has fallen into this
specific form under the guidance of a habit of invidious
comparison of persons; (b) the relation of status is a formal
expression of such an invidious comparison duly gauged and graded according to a sanctioned schedule; (c) an anthropomorphic cult, in the days of its early vigor at least, is an institution the characteristic element of which is a relation of status between the human subject as inferior and the personified preternatural agency as superior. With this in mind, there should be no difficulty in recognizing the intimate relation which subsists
between these three phenomena of human nature and of human life; the relation amounts to an identity in some of their substantial
elements. On the one hand, the system of status and the predatory
habit of life are an expression of the instinct of workmanship as
it takes form under a custom of invidious comparison; on the
other hand, the anthropomorphic cult and the habit of devout
observances are an expression of men's animistic sense of a
propensity in material things, elaborated under the guidance of
substantially the same general habit of invidious comparison. The
two categories -- the emulative habit of life and the habit of
devout observances -- are therefore to be taken as complementary
elements of the barbarian type of human nature and of its modern
barbarian variants. They are expressions of much the same range
of aptitudes, made in response to different sets of stimuli.