09 December 2017

Somerset Maugham on risk

W. Somerset Maugham
(1874 - 1965)
W. Somerset Maugham was one of Britain’s most popular fiction writers during the 1930s. He is somewhat neglected now, although his novels are still occasionally turned into films. His short stories often express the precariousness of life.

Somerset Maugham’s attitude to risk may be gleaned from his story ‘The Portrait of a Gentleman’, which describes a (presumably fictitious) book about poker. The author of this book is said to have
no patience with the persons who condemn the most agreeable pastime that has been invented, namely gambling, because risk is attached to it. Every transaction in life is a risk, he truly observes, and involves the question of loss and gain. ‘To retire to rest at night is a practice that is fortified by countless precedents, and it is generally regarded as prudent and necessary. Yet it is surrounded by risks of every kind.’ [1]

This attitude to uncertainty, and taking chances, may be compared with Nietzsche’s approach to risk-taking, as expressed in The Gay Science:
the secret of realising the largest productivity and the greatest enjoyment of existence is to live in danger! Build your cities on the slope of Vesuvius! Send your ships into unexplored seas! [2]

1. W. Somerset Maugham, 65 Short Stories, William Heinemann, 1976.
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, section 283.