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The Phantom of Chance

From Fortune to Randomness in Seventeenth-Century French Literature

John D Lyons

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How the classical and medieval conceptions of Fortune shifted to the modern notion of chance

Is chance nothing more than a projection of human desire on to the world?

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Preface: The Phantom of Chance
Starting in the middle of things
The end of fortune and the rise of chance
Series Editor's Foreword
The tradition of chance
Aristotle and the third type of event
Fortuna and casus
Boethius and the wheel of fortune
Machiavelli and the dissolution of fortune
Montaigne and the sceptical challenge
1. Fortune, Mistress of Events: Corneille and the Poetics of Tragedy
Chance as cornerstone of poetics
Clitandre, and the poetics of gratuity
Le Cid and the management of chance
Miracles in everyday life
2. God in a World of Chance: Pascal's Pensées and Lettres provinciales
The Random human condition
From probability to frequency in the Provinciales
The coming of the Messiah was not an effect of chance
When the game is over
3. From Chance Events to Improbable Actions: Lafayette and the Novel
The shipwreck of romance
Everyday encounters
Silent Chance
4. The God of Suspense: Bossuet's providential history and Racine's Athalie
God's anamorphic history
Racine's tragedy of errors
5. An Accidental World: La Bruyère's Caractères
The Heart

About the Author

John D. Lyons is Commonwealth Professor of French at the University of Virginia. He is the author or editor of 13 books including: Exemplum: The Rhetoric of Example in Early Modern France and Italy (Princeton University Press, 1989), Kingdom of Disorder. The Theory of Tragedy in Seventeenth-Century France (Purdue University Press, 1999), Before Imagination. Embodied Thought From Montaigne to Rousseau (Stanford University Press, 2005) and French Literature. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010).


John D. Lyons brilliantly shows how, in both literary and religious writing of the Seventeenth Century, the quest for pattern has to come to terms with the apparently irreducible element of randomness in human life. Original in conception, broad in perspective, subtle in analysis, this is a remarkable book.
- Professor Michael Moriarty, Drapers Professor of French, University of Cambridge
John Lyons' new take on the issue of chance, supported by illuminating interpretations of major 17th- century French texts, invites the reader to rethink the enigmatic links between randomness and necessity. Beautifully written, powerfully argued, The Phantom of Chance is a major contribution to the intellectual and literary history of modern times.
- Professor Thomas Pavel, University of Chicago

Overall, this intriguing, erudite, readable study offers some beautiful examples of textual analysis and suggestive avenues for further research. Students and scholars of the period, its authors, and the limits of rationalism will be richly rewarded by Lyons’s insightful reinterpretations, particularly of Zayde and Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History.

- REBECCA C. HARMON, Grove City College, Renaissance Quarterly
Eloquent and compelling, this is a noteworthy contribution to the field.
- C.B. Kerr, Vassar College, Choice: Volume.49, No.11

[A] searching and provocative study.

- Kathleen Wine, Dartmouth College, Modern Philology Volume 111, Number 4

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