Belmont Club

It's a Wonderful Life

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.

Ray Bradbury’s short story, A Sound of Thunder, argues that even butterflies cannot live without consequence. “A hunter named Eckels pays to go travelling back into the past on a guided safari to kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex. As the party waits to depart they talk about the recent presidential elections in which an apparently fascist candidate, Deutscher, has just been defeated by the more moderate Keith, to the relief of many concerned.”

After the party arrives in the past, Travis (the hunting guide) and Lesperance (Travis’s assistant) warn Eckels and the two other hunters, Billings and Kramer, about the necessity of minimizing their effect on events when they go back, since tiny alterations to the distant past could snowball into catastrophic changes in history. The hunters must stay on a path to avoid disrupting the environment and only kill animals which were going to die at that moment anyway.

But of course they stray from the path and tread upon a butterfly; and when they return to the present the hunters find their world immeasurably the worse for changes whose ripple-on effects sprang from that single event. But why should it be always be for the worse? Why could not Bradbury have written a tale about how stepping on an ancient butterfly would lead to a world without war, cancer or hunger? The Greeks, after all, had Pandora’s box, from which all the evils of the world flew. Why can we not go back and crush the Serpent in the Garden or fasten Pandora’s fateful box shut?

It is hardly possible to take a train or go to the mall without witnessing a world that Steve Jobs has mightily reshaped. On every corner are people jabbing at their phones, making appointments, laughing, receiving bad news, finding a store via GPS, and doing things they might otherwise never have done without that long ago California garage.  But what is impossible is to predict what will come of it all in a hundred years.

“I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to ground, I know not where.”  And that perhaps, is how things were meant to be.  Since we can never know the end of all things, the lives of all men — even atheists — and perhaps especially them, are to a greater or lesser extent, acts of faith.  For unless we live a wholly animal existence, each of us acts as if we made a difference — according to the difference we wish to make.

Rest in peace, Steve. And though we cannot know where it all leads, I think the difference that you made will be remembered in what used to be called glory, the time when things are weighed and found good.

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $3.99

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