Essay 36. On Fatalism
Lao Tzu. Goethe. Faust. How-to books.
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Essay 36. On Fatalism
In Essay 33, The Corg, I said that my attitude toward history was fatalistic. Whatever my attitude is, history does not care. It is my own life that depends on my attitude to it. But does it?
The power of idea, like the power of hurricane and earthquake, has manifested countless times throughout history.
What is idea, after all? We have a word for it—idea—but is it anything tangible, measurable, and empirically detectable? What is fate, for example? I have mentioned it many times in the previous Essays. Does the word signify anything, and if so, can we change our fate?
Such confusing ideas as equality, justice, democracy, and truth have been causing endless arguments turning into fights and upheavals. If instead we use terms inequality, laws of the land, system of government, and opinion, the arguments subside because what the second set of ideas signifies is definable and demonstrable. Inequality is measurable (Essay 31, On Poverty ), the laws (often ambiguous) of the land are listed, the system of government (often paralyzed) can be explored in action, and an opinion can be tested and compared with other opinions and facts.
There is a great inequality between ideas. Some ideas are deemed false. Some are concepts and abstractions that people can easily agree on. Others are sacred by definition. Genealogy of ideas can be traced. They are used productively by professionals and can generate progeny of other ideas. Others, in use by prophets and commoners, seem to be an eternal source of squabble and perplexity. There is a simple reason for that: any large numbers of objects—whether peas or people—always deviate from the average. Evidently, no large and free community can come to complete agreement on anything, except within narrow congregations, cliques, and circles. Professional terms are defined for narrow layers of professionals and this is why some ideas of a narrow usage work fine.
From the positivist standpoint, which demands a proof for everything, fate should be rejected. However, considering how much such illegitimate idea as fate influenced the fate (see, we just can't do without this word) of many people, we at least have to linger a little before throwing it out.
Is fate just a synonym of current or future reality? It was, in Greek mythology, where three Moiras (Parcas in Rome) divided the labor of spinning the thread of human life, assigning content to it, and cutting in due time. The handcraft metaphor clearly confirms that the initial idea of fate had been the same as life itself and the divergence happened later, when people started asking questions about the entire technology of existence and whether some profit could be made on improving it. Manuals are still in demand, see Appendix 1.
Greek tragedy, for example, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, presents a more rational than esoteric form of fatalism. The tragedy, as the myth itself, has meaning because the plan, revealed by an oracle, comes from credible authors: gods. The actual events can be compared with the plan, like a theoretical prediction with a scientific experiment. To rationalize fate, it turns out, we have to believe in gods. Fatalism seems to have meaning only in context of a larger doctrine and this may be true about any other esoteric belief. Not accidentally, fate is often discussed in connection with religion or Marxism, i.e., when there is very little room left to discussion. Otherwise (environment, human race, European Union) it simply means the future.
The Greeks, it seems to me, developed a metaphoric understanding of human nature and environment, which was an evidence of knowledge in the state of spit between art and science. Metaphor alone could not satisfy human mind, curious and restless, which tried to look at the hidden side of things, to see how they were attached to each other, what was inside, and name everything there by different words. After Aristotle, metaphor went with poetry that maintained the view of the world as a whole. Science took the things under a magnifying glass, one by one, isolated, with endless skepticism, ignoring the rest of the world and leaving no room for metaphor. It is a purpose of all these Essays to analyze how and why the neo-metaphoric view of the world makes sense.
The numerous residents of ancient Pantheon represented major types of personality and patterns of human behavior. That was, probably, a common trait of all polytheist religions consisting not of rules and commandments, but of examples, exceptions, and illustrations. The intricate pantheons of Maya and Aztec mythologies look like first encyclopedias comprising all important aspects of human existence.
After the colorful and comfortable (probably, more so for Greeks than for Aztecs and Maya) diversity of paganism, the monotheistic religions put human mind under a severe stress out of which the quest for secular understanding was born, with its unstoppable division into sciences and narrow fields. In the cultural marketplace, a postmodern Poptheon has been erected in place of the Pantheon of artists and writers of pre-computer era. Monotheism, like any monopoly, is something any hedonist secretly loathes. Really, one God leaves you no alternative! It smells of fate and fate smells of death.
If fatalism is a belief in an existence of some plan, design, and general course of life which is impossible to change, then fate may have an interpretation other than a mystical power or the will of gods. It could be simply genetically predetermined component of personality, acquired but ossified habits and patterns of behavior, impenetrable social walls, and even the laws of thermodynamics, sometimes taking form of Murphy's Laws. With such understanding, we do not need any observations of the actual course of events because the laws of nature work always. The snag, however, is in the "always."
Not only all the most general laws of nature are thin on specifics, but, more important, they never deterministically include the variable of time. The fact of limited duration of individual life—death, to put it bluntly—is the major inspiration of arts and philosophy, whether we fear or deny our absolute end. It is a mystery exactly because of the uncertainty of timing. "Always" is only a figure of speech as far as any individual life is concerned. To say that a law of nature is timeless is to say that it is probabilistic. We can die any moment, but more probable later than right now.
We call the events that will never happen impossible . There are no specific laws of nature, however, concerning how soon possible events do happen. If we take chemistry, for example, where the question of time is crucial, the prediction is based on a combination of timeless laws of nature, i.e., thermodynamics, and practical observations that can be trivialized as: if the circumstances are favorable, it happens sooner, and if not, it happens later. In other words, it is better to sell umbrellas on a rainy day than to sell sand in a sand desert. Similarly, in everyday life, if we know a probability of a certain event, we can in many cases tell if a somewhat different event is more probable or less probable.
Therefore, we can change our fate, within some limits, by studying technical books of the kind listed in Appendix 1. But can we change our desires that guide the selection of techniques? Our fate is what we really want and if our abilities and character do not fit our desires, we can hardly realize our dreams, especially, the wildest ones. Buddhism and Taoism both offer a working solution: give up your desires. If anything can insure a long life of any religion, it is the difficulty to follow all its commandments.
My personal time scale is limited. What about historical one? On the historical scale, there is a large, almost infinite, resource of time. It is being eaten out (see Essay 2), but is supplied fresh every morning, anyway, although always in the same strictly measured quantity.
There is a certain similarity between an individual and society. On a larger scale, there is a form of historical fatalism called historicism.
Historicism, which is closely associated with holism, is the belief that history develops inexorably and necessarily according to certain principles or rules towards a determinate end (as for example in the dialectic of Hegel, which was adopted and implemented by Marx). (Steven Thornton).
If a person moves toward a definite end, according to inexorable laws of nature, so may large collections of persons known as societies. Individual civilizations and cultures are definitely as mortal as any human being and as capable of self-perpetuation and breeding. It is difficult to deny that any positive knowledge has a flavor of fatalism: whatever your intent, the things will run according to the laws of nature. The controversy arises when fatalism clashes with its twin brother Free Will. The difference between both is not as radical as one can imagine: fatalism is a Big Brother's (or Big Father's) free will.
The observation that people and nations seem to be cast into different molds raised the question: can we change our molds? The entire continuous spectrum of answers has been generated with time. The problem of fatalism would be of no interest if we were fatalistic about it. In fact, all we care about is how we can control our life. How to make a million overnight? How to preserve youth and beauty? How to cure cancer? How to have it all? These down-to-earth questions are quite different of those posed by existentialism (see Essay 27, The Existential Sisyphus).
Existential questions are always individual. The problem I am seriously interested in is the historical fatalism: when we see that society, from our point of view, takes a wrong, dangerous, or simply boring course, should we resist it in our hearts or accept the change? The future generations will find the result as fait accompli, anyway, and will learn about the change only from history and not from their own experience. For them, "wrong" and "dangerous" will have a different meaning. Does it make sense to resist the historical fate instead of surrendering one's will to some powerful collective forces that would not ask for consent later? But this is a different topic. Here I am looking at my own life.
I considered myself a fatalist since my youth. I don't think I clearly understood what fatalism was, however. My life lay ahead, unknown and untested.
I have never been a fatalist in the sense that I believed in a certain plan of events that could not be changed. Whatever we do or do not and whatever happens afterwards, there is no way to know whether it was anticipated by any plan unless we know the plan itself. The true fatalist, probably, believes that it does not matter whether we know the plan or not because the actual unfolding of life is always identical with the plan, but a skeptic like myself can rely only on a reasonable evidence.
Neither a practicing nor a secular fatalist, I still feel drawn toward the concept of fate—like many generations before me. If science has no qualms discussing the fate of the universe or humankind, why should I? The scientific approach to fate also presumes the existence of some plan, not signed and sealed at some otherworld office, but revealed to a curious and diligent observer.
I may have a fate of a kind, after all. In terms of evolutionary drawers (Essay 32, The Split), fate may mean simply a larger drawer which I under no conditions can leave. I am able, nevertheless, to move between a few smaller dwellings of my own will. The concept of fate as a set of limiting principles—i.e., establishing impossibility of something—looks quite respectable for a scientist. It is our fate never to make eternal motion, for example. This is very far from the common concept of fate, however. Fate must say, yes, this is what is going to happen. Oracles cannot predict what is not going to happen. And so the oracle of Delphi tells Croeusus, king of Lydia, that if he attacks the Persians, he will destroy a mighty empire. And in fact, he did: he lost his own kingdom. The treacherous prophesy was, probably, prompted by a plethora of precious gifts that Croesus had sent to the oracle before asking his advice.
In my youth at least three oracles predicted that I would end up badly, which, in terms of limiting principles, meant not to end up well. I was about twelve years old when a hairdresser said that my tough hair was a sign of bad temper and I would have problems. The other was the dean of the college faculty ( I was in my twenties) who said essentially the same when I had tried to seek justice on behalf of another student. Much later, disturbed by my listening to BBC in English on short-wave radio, my father was more specific, predicting that I would get into prison. All three had an ample experience with hair, students, and Soviet system, respectively.
Outside Russia, fatalism is exemplified by Russian roulette. I read about a version of it very early, in The Fatalist, the last chapter in a short novel entitled A Hero of our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. How early? My grandmother had given me the book when I was about five years old and could understand only pictures. One of the first books I ever read, it was with me through all my school years. For half of those years I could not fully understand it, however.
Pechorin, the "Hero of our Time," was an extreme individualist. Since individualism was anathema in Soviet Russia, the term "redundant man" (out of place, useless) was instead applied in school textbooks . The novel, extraordinarily innovative for 1840, is available online in English and is much worth reading. The main character of The Fatalist suggests the test and runs it:
"Gentlemen, why this idle argument [about fate]? You wish for proof: I propose we test it out on ourselves whether a man can do what he wants with his own life, or whether the fateful moment has been preordained for each of us . . . Who wants to try?"
The composition, laconic style, and sense of doom in the book still seem modern. Next year after the publication, at the age of 27, Lermontov, one of the most gifted writers Russia ever knew, was killed on a duel.
When I was leaving Russia for good, after a decade of being in a limbo, Lermontov's words sounded in my ears:
Прощай, немытая Россия,
Страна рабов, страна господ,
И вы, мундиры голубые,
И ты, им преданный народ.
Writing this Essay, I begin to understand that I was infected with virulent individualism, probably, at the age of six, when I learned to read. I could not inherit it: none of my relatives displayed it at any substantial degree. But why fatalism? Individualist believes that his fate does not depend on other people.
I understood fatalism—when I was able to understand it my way—not as the acceptance of the general course of life ( I can always find reasons to protest) but as a belief that any tangled, stressed, and confusing situation will be resolved on its own, as I understood much later, simply because the stress cannot last by the laws of thermodynamics. It is always temporary by definition. The solution—not the causes of the situation—should be accepted because it would always be for the better. It is the stressed and confusing situation which is bad, exhausting, dangerous, and warning of tragedy. However “better,” it is a pessimistic view.
The best known literary proponent of paranoid optimism was Pangloss, a character of Voltaire's Candide, who believed that everything happened for the best in this best of worlds.
"Well, my dear Pangloss," said Candide, "when you were hanged, dissected, severely beaten, and tugging at the oar in the galley, did you always think that things in this world were all for the best?" "I am still as I always have been, of my first opinion," answered Pangloss; "for as I am a philosopher, it would be inconsistent with my character to contradict myself;..." Candide, Chapter XXVIII.
That kind of belief was certainly possible only if supported by a doctrine, without which there is no philosopher.
If such a doctrine existed for my early optimism, it would incorporate the idea of Goethe about happiness. It is the state out of which no movement seems to have any attraction and in which we want time to stop. From the point of view of science, this may look like a thermodynamic minimum, i.e., the state of the lowest energy from which there is no spontaneous exit. It is a marble at the bottom of a wok. It is the opposite of stress, but it does not last, either, in life and history, by the same reasons as stress. Life and society are evolving complex open systems.
The marble reaches its happy state on its own. The non-equilibrium world of human existence, however, is not the same as the world of marbles and utensils. It is more like the world of Lewis Carroll where you have to run in order to stay on the spot. The picture, at least in the Western tradition of active life, should be turned upside down.
In the actual thermodynamics of happiness along Goethe, the way to happiness is arduous. It is like climbing a mountain until, at the very top, there is no more mountain to climb. Naturally, one can live on the top of a mountain but for a short time. A blast of wind can knock one off the bliss. In practice, a creative personality has to explore the entire landscape to make the bliss recurrent.
For the Greeks, happiness had no metaphor: it was one of primary and self-evident categories, without the backside, and a measure of other things. Goethe, who lived one hundred years after Newton and Leibniz, in the world where the divergence between art and science had already happened, was looking for complexity of simple things. In his pursuit of individual freedom, combined with elitist mentality, he saw happiness as non-competitive leadership. It was the happiness of the settler on the open frontier. It was the happiness of the winning army general and successful CEO. The opposite idea of happiness has been that of Taoist non-action (wu wei ), i.e., following the natural course of things. The difference between both was like to have and to have not, but a healthy philosophy should better include both.
I believe now that our personal fate depends on the position of our character on the scale between Faust before the devil comes to help him and Faust at the end of his life. I never wanted to command or judge people, and I certainly had something of a Taoist type, although it came to me not from Chinese philosophy but from Dhammapada, an important book of my youth. A combination of Taoist and Faustian genes, like a love-hate relationship, cannot make anybody happy. Life becomes a constant search for a more comfortable position on a steep slope. I suspect that extreme individualism has a backside: do not touch me and I will not touch you. This makes either active or passive life equally difficult.
Whether we are closer to a CEO or a Taoist hermit, our actual life will be strongly determined not only by our socio-genetic makeup, but also by how many other potential emperors and hermits are nearby, see Essay 35, Crowds and Elites, Bottlenecks and Demons. Life is very much different in highly active and competitive societies, as compared with the saturated and sleepy ones.
I am about to say something truly sacrilegious.
I have an impression that the individualistic nature of the modern American society is greatly exaggerated. It has become a myth. When people are admitted to an open and honest contest, they enter it alone. But in a society of big numbers and mass production, the impossibility of direct democratic contest in a sufficiently small circle of people, who can see and hear each other and finish their business in reasonable time, limits individualism. People have to form alliances and attack hostile camps, divide and conquer, and do all kinds of things suggested by Machiavelli and warned against by Lao Tzu. But this is what Western civilization is about: action, competition, progress, bottlenecks, and demons. The more energy consumed, the more wasted. The more mass production, the more loss. The more progress, the more phony. And yet, this civilization of pushbuttons and price tags has an incredible seducing power because it makes every hermit to feel as comfortable about mundane needs as an emperor of the past. No, it is not the Epicurean ideal yet because it is afraid of death.
I hope to come back to this contradiction between competition and individualism once again.
I often heard from my father the Russian equivalent of the French Que sera, sera (Что будет, то будет). In this form, fatalism was an essential component of traditional Russian mentality. In the mythology of American westerns, it took, curiously, the form of "The man's got to do what the man's got to do," all the more, the happy end was granted. My fatalism was based on my very natural for the young age and Soviet (and Hollywood) premise that life was written along a scenario with happy end for each episode. Youth is as inebriating a doctrine as Christianity, Islam, and Marxism can be at times.
My belief in fate was essentially the belief in an unlimited time given to me. I would never test my fate with a loaded revolver, as the character in The Fatalist (and Lermontov himself) did, but I could too easily let myself get into a jam and watch with curiosity my own wriggling and attempts of self-extrication that would only get me deeper into the mess. Nevertheless, the moment of resolution always came with time.
Even after 30, I still believed that I could get out of any mess. I learned that every trauma of failure healed, given enough time, and the only serious peril for me could come from the lack of time. And, of course, the imminent lack of time is our ultimate fate. Fate is as subjected to aging, gloom, and general disappointment in life as people who believe in it. Fate is our reflection in the mirror. The words “characters is destiny” have been attributed to various sources from Heraclitus to Napoleon, of which the former is the oldest source.
Now I understand that my form of fatalism had a good deal of arrogant but lazy individualism in it: a very disrespectful way to interpret Taoism and Buddhism. Haste is the enemy of anything lasting and procrastination is a friend of nothingness.
Nevertheless, I am still fatalist in the sense that my personality is something as useless to fight as the laws of nature. I cannot change the deep and general causes of events, neither can I ward off their consequences, nor can I change myself. This is why I tend to avoid acts of extraordinary effort, subconsciously mumbling que sera, sera. Of course, the true reason could be just a lack of energy caused by the Taoist genes.
I am telling myself that only extraordinary things are worth extraordinary efforts, but extraordinary things are such only because they are hard and near impossible to reach. The vicious cycle of this reasoning is not a good philosophy for America. But let us turn to the Faustian philosophy:
der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,
I translate this as:
Only those deserve freedom as
they deserve life
I find it rather harsh and inhuman. It sounds to me like "Arbeit macht frei." No, to fight daily is not freedom, it is slavery.
But Faust, one of the first surrealist works, has no single rational interpretation. This is not Lorelei.
Any form of fatalism is very bad for a highly competitive society where only the philosophy of fight brings advancement. And yet I am not quite sure that fight should be worshipped because sooner or later one faces a stronger contender than himself. Should I do something I enjoy doing or something that I hate but need to do in order to defeat my fate? What is my fate? Being myself or being like somebody else? Fight speeds up the arrival at the equilibrium with the pool of contenders and finding somebody's true value (level of incompetence, as in Murphy's laws).
I would not recommend Lao Tzu to anybody in America. Besides, it contains a profound contradiction: written by a hermit, it is an instruction to a leader!
Fortunately, besides the bleak theory, there are some more promising pragmatic aspects of fatalism.
I believe that this world exists because the laws and forces of nature are mostly compensating each other—otherwise the world would collapse into dead calm long ago. If there were adverse as well as favorable laws, one could use the latter to move forward, as the sailor uses tacking to go upwind and jibing to go downwind. The two modes of movement exploit two completely different laws of fluid dynamics and disable the third law that forbids sailing directly against the wind. One cannot sail "through the eye of the wind," as sailors say, but this is all we cannot do and there are plenty of other things that we can, with the positive final effect.
Therefore, I can give my fatalism a more accurate definition: no wind, no sailing. What is really useless is to sail without wind. My habit of leaving the decision to fate means only that at the dead calm the wind is beyond my power.
Although I cannot recommend my fatalistic philosophy to anybody, I suspect that all the inspirational examples of winning through individual persistence prove only one thing: there were at least two different laws of nature, and the person was flexible enough to use them both in different ways. In short, there was wind. If there was wind, there was the open race for the Fate Cup.
Is my position pessimistic or optimistic? Clearly, pessimism and optimism are not the opposites but just the two ends of the same scale, like cold and heat, darkness and light, order and chaos.
One way to understand somebody's position is to look at its opposite. Fatalism, remarkably, has not one but two other ends of its scale, as if it were a two-dimension object. One "other" end of the fatalistic scale is a complete unpredictability of the future, which I reject. The other "other" end sounds like an advertisement of a mouthwash: "You can do it! Just try hard, knock on every door, and leave no stone unturned. If you want it very much, you will get it." No, if I know that it is impossible to sail through the eye of the wind or at dead calm, I am completely fatalistic about it. My fatalism is a direct consequence of inability to form a network of links with other people. I cannot raise an army of wind blowers. Character is fate.
The most powerful laws of nature tell us about what is impossible. One of them, commonly disputed, is that it is impossible to change one's own nature for the reason that, by definition, our nature is what is impossible to change. The eternal human obsession with snake oil and how-to books is an oblique acknowledgment of this simple truth.
What is possible to do in times when the wind of history drops dead before changing its direction is to wait. This is why we are given the blessing of old age: it brings, unbelievably, the ability to wait. The curse of the old age is that there is no time for anything but waiting.
My boat has always been overloaded with books and dreams, but it is still the cargo I hesitate to jettison, in spite of leaks. I can now do what I was never able to do before: wait. I can do what is senseless.
1. How to control your fate:
Out of 38,217 titles with the keywords how to (Barnes and Noble, May, 20002) , the top of the best-selling list includes:
How to Be a Great Lover *
How to Sculpt Your Ideal Body, Free Your True Self,
and Transform Your Life with Yoga *
How to Give Her Absolute Pleasure *
How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate *
How to Make
Love All Night: And Drive Woman Wild *
How to Win Friends and Influence People *
How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of
Comfort Cooking *
How to Become
a Rainmaker: The Rules for Getting and Keeping
Customers and Clients *
How to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With (which
assumes a possible dramatic discord between human
and canine fates). *
* Take Control of Your Life: How to Control Fate, Luck, Chaos, Karma and Life's Other Unruly Forces * Awaken the Giant Within : How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical amp Financial Destiny! * Risk-Takers: How to Make Your Destiny Reality * God the Astrologer: Soul, Karma, and Reincarnation--How We Continually Create Our Own Destiny *
Already, as we can see, the great problem of modern times arises: the discovery that to rescue man from destiny is to deliver him to chance. [Originally published in 1951]
3. Johann Wofgang von Goethe, Faust:
The last monologue of Faust:
A marshland flanks the mountain-side,
4. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Translated by Richard Wilhelm/H.G.Oswald (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching: The Book of Meaning and Life, Penguin 60s Series):
is the Man of Calling.
5. Wu wei applies, probably, to a philosophy of a steady-state civilization. Whether the Western civilization of things can still come to this state, remains unclear. Regardless of any cosmic issues, the following verse (translated by Richard Wilhelm) strongly resonates in me.
and handling the world:
6. A beautiful example of looking ahead and sensing the ugly fate: Bernard Lewis anticipating in 1990 the conflict between the Muslims and America.
Some links are dead, which in
the Googlezoic Era does not matter.
Essays 1 to 56 : http://spirospero.net/essays-complete.pdf
Essays 57 to 60: http://spirospero.net/LAST_ESSAYS.pdf
Essay 60: http://spirospero.net/artandnexistence.pdf