Saturday, February 11, 2006

"A king is the slave of history."

now reading: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The war is on again as Book Three begins. I love the first chapter of Book Three, Part One, which is entirely a philosophical musing on whether historical events, and any events, are fated to be. No act, no politician's idea, no emperor's mistake, no general's accomplishment is the cause, that elusive "cause" of a war, something that the historians nevertheless seek, Tolstoy suggests.

"We inevitably resort to fatalism to explain the irrational phenomena of history (that is to say, phenomena the reasonableness of which we do not understand)." -- p. 731

And isn't the temptation to fatalism a great one? I have been indulging in it a lot lately as I try to puzzle about my life and why I came to Korea, and why now, and why I stayed working for Borders as long as I did, and how I wouldn't have met the people I met and had the experiences I had if it had been any other way. So many decisions that I couldn't explain to myself at the time I made them led me to the place where I am. Who could blame a person for sometimes thinking it must have been meant to be this way? It just must have! Logically I should have done so many other things so many different ways!

Synchronicity is a very appealing doctrine, of which I have become more and more fond of late. When I was working in Chestnut Hill I turned around one night after picking up all of the books to be reshelved that had been strewn around the psych & social sciences sections, and suddenly another book had appeared in the middle of the floor. I swear no one had come by, no customer, not even an employee who could have dropped it. It quite literally came across my path and I picked it up. It was Deepak Chopra's then-new-in-hardcover The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire. I read the inside flap and the mild irritation of "where did this book come from?" fast became curiosity as I noted the book was about finding the meaning in the coincidences in one's life. I clearly had to take the book home and read it that night!

It was a good book. I've given the idea of trusting in so-called coincidences a lot of thought since then. It's not supernatural, per se, but it just strikes me as too metaphysical for the agnostic foundation I have laid for myself. But I find myself going with the flow so often in life, and that flow guides me and does not seem to come from any idea I generate within myself.

"Consciously man lives for himself, but unconsciously he serves as an instrument for the accomplishment of the historical, social ends of mankind." - p.732

Now, this is much like the Lewis Thomas - Noam Chomsky sort of notion that humans are working toward some greater end we can't see or possibly conceive of. When you watch the ants build the anthill, isn't each ant carrying its weight, pursuing its own individual struggle, although we from above see it as clearly a group effort producing an end result? If you haven't read Thomas' The Lives of a Cell, do so. It's brilliant. So the anthill functions like an organism, he says. And Chomsky, who is obviously just brilliant beyond brilliant at all times, has theorized about this with regards to humans' development and use of language, that we are furthering some end we don't, we can't know about.

"History, that is, the unconscious, common, swarm life of mankind uses every moment of the life of kings as an instrument for its own ends." - p. 732

I'm rather fond of this philosophy. It's hard to resist its pull. I had no idea I was going to come across it in Tolstoy. Yet, it seems that I'm not sure how much I agree with Tolstoy here. It's hard to wrap my mind around the inevitability of historical events; don't you want to think things like, say, September 11th could have been avoided?

He does say that, though. If Napoleon hadn't taken offense at Russia's demand of withdrawal, there'd have been no war. If there hadn't been a French Revolution, this war wouldn't have happened. If the sergeants had refused to serve a second term, no war.

"And so there was no single cause for the war, but it happened simply because it had to happen. Millions of men, renouncing human feelings and reason, had to move from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries earlier hordes of men had moved from east to west slaying their fellows." - p. 731

Isn't it also inevitable, then, that we wonder why?

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