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Cleopatra’s Nose

May 19, 2011

In 1669 the writings of the famous French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, were published posthumously.  Entitled Pensees (Thoughts), the work was basically a defense of the Christian religion but also included some random conclusions about the human condition and life in general.  One of those thoughts has always fascinated me.  Pascal remarked, “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”  

Ancient coin with Cleopatra's image

Had her nose been smaller, he felt, she would have lacked the dominance and strength of character which, in the physiognomy of her times (and the seventeenth century by the way), a large nose symbolized.  Without her impressive olfactory projection, the great men of Rome, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, would not have fallen under her spell, great civil wars would not have been fought, and today we might be speaking Latin.  A stretch, maybe, but who knows.  History is linear, it goes from point A to point B, no one has figured out how to go in the other direction, yet.

 However, those of you who have attended one of my presentations around town know that I am a big believer in the Contingency Theory of History.  This theory suggests that occasionally a small event may cause history to change course, resulting in different outcomes. 

Stephen Jay Gould, Paleontologist

It is a theory first suggested by a Harvard paleontologist, Steven Jay Gould, who once wondered what would have happened if on the day that life on this planet started it had been raining instead of sunny.  How would life on Earth have been affected?  That, perhaps, is a question better left to theologians

 Let me give a clearer example from history.  The King and Queen of France hated each other.  They had married at a very young age, spoke different languages and had vastly different personalities.  After a couple of decades of marriage, they barely saw or spoke to each other.  One day, the King was out doing what he liked best – hunting.   Scores of people herded all kinds of living things towards him, so he could shoot them.  In the middle of this slaughter, a freak snowstorm hits. 

Louis XIV, the "Sun King"

The King and his entourage needed to find shelter.  The only place nearby was the Queen’s chateau.  He knocked on the door and was allowed to spend the night.  Nine months later, a son was born, a son who became Louis XIV, the greatest king in French history.  No snowstorm, no son, no “Sun King” . . . thus a moment of contingency.


I am wondering if the vast readership of this blog would care to comment on this.  Perhaps post examples from your own history or the history of this area that you think are good examples of contingency.  Stay away from the “I met my husband when he stepped on my foot”  or the “Uncle Jim should have looked left when he looked right” stories – everybody has one of those.  Think of a small moment in time that had big consequences.  I will be interested to see what you come up with.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2011 10:28 pm

    Here are a couple from the 1960s:

    The decision to allow children to participate in the SCLC/ACHMR “Birmingham Campaign” was controversial and easily could have been vetoed. Without the energy and spirit of the schoolchildren, though, (and without the shocking footage of them being attacked by police dogs and fire hoses), the campaign could well have fizzled, leaving King’s organization broke and discredited. Who knows where the movement might have gone from there. Did Birmingham gave the idea of non-violence enough credence to get the country to 1965 with much less hostility than would have been possible otherwise?

    Around the same time, many Birmingham leaders were pursuing the idea of merging some number of area municipalities into “One Great City”. The fear-mongering and political scheming prevented an honest referendum, but even so, the voting was surprisingly close, with a majority in Homewood favoring the prospect of becoming part of Birmingham. Imagine where we might be today if somehow Birmingham, Homewood, Mountain Brook and other nearby municipalities were actively pursuing common interests instead of bickering and bleeding each other. Dr. Whiting published a nice little volume about that campaign.



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