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Belmont Club

It’s a Wonderful Life

October 5th, 2011 - 6:28 pm

Steve Jobs is dead.  The New York Times adds, “He was 56. The death was announced by Apple, the company Mr. Jobs and his high school friend Stephen Wozniak started in 1976 in a suburban California garage.” The tributes and memorials will come thick and fast. But what is the worth of a man’s life?

Jeff Jacoby at the Boston Globe was coincidentally musing on David Horowitz’s search for meaning in life, little anticipating that the same issues would apply very soon to Steve Jobs. David Horowitz, a former leftist, departed Marxism without abandoning atheism. Nevertheless Horowitz doesn’t mind dying and nothingness, says Jacoby.

[Horowitz] writes admiringly of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher whose “practical wisdom” was that life’s torments — and tormentors — should be faced with equanimity, since oblivion is the common fate of all. “Be not troubled,” advised the emperor, “for all things are according to nature, and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere.” It is a passage Horowitz quotes several times. He is at peace with the prospect of dying, he says, “comfortable with the idea that soon I will be no one and nowhere, and comforted in a stoic way by the knowledge that it doesn’t add up.”

Is he, though? As Horowitz notes, even Marcus Aurelius was “haunted” by the implications of a world without transcendent meaning. If the universe is nothing but “a confused mass of dispersing elements,” the great Stoic wrote — if there is no God, no perfection, no possibility of redemption — why do we hunger to live? Why do we have such hopes for the future?

Maybe because we want to control it; because we want to make a positive difference and be certain of the fact before we die.  For surely we make some difference.  Even Marcus Aurelius, who predicted he would be “no one and nowhere,” finds himself quoted by Horowitz, Jacoby, and the Belmont Club centuries after he died.

Had Marcus Aurelius not taken the trouble to be either Roman emperor or philosopher then we would have no one to quote, or at the least quoted someone else. For good or ill, the ancient Stoic’s life changed at least this page; for if Aurelius had never existed then what would be written above? Something different surely.

One of the reasons given for the difficulty of traveling back in time is that the past matters; the past is privileged with respect to the future. “The arrow of time, or time’s arrow, is a term coined in 1927 by the British astronomer Arthur Eddington to describe the ‘one-way direction’ or ‘asymmetry’ of time.” One explanation for this is based on the “grandfather paradox,” which asserts that if we could travel back in time we might alter the conditions which gave rise to us in the first place.

The idea of changes rippling through is captured by the experience of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. In the throes of despair he is shown by his guardian angel how much poorer the world would have been without him.  Unfortunately we don’t have a movie called It’s a Horrible Life, in which Hitler’s personal devil shows the tyrant how much better the world would have been without him.

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