Like Hadrian and Augustus
Today Tolstoy asks a question so baffling it could stump even a zen koan. His question for us is how are we to reconcile the apparent freedom of the individual with a world where all else appears to be subject to the immutable laws of physics? Put another way: Is free will merely an illusion?
Every fiber of man’s being sings that he is free. We choose when to get out of bed, or not get out of bed. We choose how many episodes of The Office we’re going to rewatch instead of doing the dishes. Our consciousness must be free. Yet, in all other domains of existence an iron law seems to be at work. Drop an apple, watch it fall. Gravity does its work. Calculus is real. The execution of a certain line of code produces a certain output. Even at the quantum level the unpredictable paths of particles appear to obey a set of determined probabilities. Yet you chose to read these two paragraphs independent of any predetermined course of events because you are special.
Confronting this paradox is for Tolstoy the central question of history:
Man in connection with the general life of humanity appears subject to laws which determine that life. But the same man apart from that connection appears to be free. How should the past life of nations and of humanity be regarded — as the result of the free, or as the result of the constrained, activity of man?
Tolstoy takes four more chapters to wrangle with this question. As for me, whenever I’m presented with a difficult and impossible riddle I just remember to recall my man Marcus and be done with it.
This is the chief thing: Do not be perturbed, for all things are according to the nature of the universal; and in a little time you will be nobody and nowhere, like Hadrian and Augustus.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations