Random Riches - Sergius KODERA

Taking chances: Girolamo Cardano (1501-76) on gambling, the art of memory, and magic

Girolamo Cardano (1501-76) was one of the towering polymaths of the sixteenth century. He acquired fame for all kinds of things. As a medical doctor, he published an encyclopedic amount of texts on medicine, astrology, mathematics, magic and natural philosophy in general. Cardano was also one of the spiritual fathers of stochastics, that is, probability calculation. De ludo aleae , his seminal work, secured Cardano a lasting position in the history of mathematics.

Yet, the De ludo aleae is more than a theoretical text: it contains detailed accounts of various types of games as well as minute descriptions of the different inclinations of gamblers. Luck here depends as much on a particular form of ingenuity and craft as on mathematical calculations. Cardano, therefore, emphasizes the role of continuous practice as well as the systematic training of the memory as decisive factors to predict the scores. This particular art, a combination of theoretical knowledge and craftiness, served Cardano's own and highly practical ends: in particular, it was intended to ward off the financial damage that gamblers usually incur. Not a very amazing predicament, if one considers that the author of the De ludo aleae for long periods of his life he seems to have suffered from addiction to betting.

My talk will focus on a close reading of Cardano that allows us to place early modern gambling in a context that bears striking affinities to today's perception of the socio-cultural aspects of gambling.

Sergius KODERA
is Head of the Department of Cultural Studies at the New Design University, St. Pölten, and Senior Lecturer at the University of Vienna’s Department of Philosophy. He publishes on the history of Renaissance thought.