Voltaire (born Francois-Marie Arouet) developed an existential crisis in 1755. By then, he was still in grief over the loss of the love-of-his-life Emily du Chatelet who had died six years before. He was suffering from bad physical health, both of his bad back and intestines, which led to the saying that someone cannot be a good philosopher when they are in good health (I must be a very good philosopher then 😉 Voltaire had just bought a mansion on the border between Switzerland and France, so that he could flee to Switzerland when the French politicians were prosecuting him, and he could run to France when the Swiss protestant priests were going after him. The RC Church had upscaled the prosecution of people under the Spanish Inquisition, trying once again to get control of the people who were becoming more enlightened. Voltaire knew many cases of human injustice, being a prolific author of political plays and novels, and writing to popes and kings in defence of individual victims of injustice. His eloquent rants against the oppressive establishment of kings and nobles –like the Trumps, Mays and Murdochs of his time- are well-known.
In 1755, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami flattened Barcelona, killing hundreds of thousands. This triggered Voltaire’s existential crisis. He described his crisis in a poem that went viral, ‘Poeme sur le Disastre de Lisbon’. But this poem did not only address the injustice of natural disaster but even more the narrow-mindedness and man-made disasters of his time.
Voltaire starts his poem writing: “Unlucky mortals! O deplorable earth! All humanity huddled in fear! The endless subject of useless pain! (…) We’re surrounded by the cruelties of fate, The fury of the wicked, and the snares of death. (…) All the animals, all sentient beings, born under the same law, are condemned to live in pain and die just like me. (…) Everything is at war: the elements, animals and man. We must confess: there’s evil on earth. Its source remains unknown to us. (…) Man crawls, suffers and dies – All who are born die in this empire of destruction. Our frame of nerves and bone Cannot sustain the shock of the elements: This mixture of blood and dust was assembled to dissolve. The quick, sensitive nerves nerves Were made for pain –the minister of death-, So the voice of nature tells me.” Life is an endless struggle. We inevitably face man-made and natural disasters, this is given with our biological makeup which makes us sensitive beings. Voltaire seems to agree with Hinduism and Buddhism –which he had started to study in this period in his life- that we should accept life comes as it comes, in all its darkness, pains, evil and paradoxes. Sensitive humans will experience pain everywhere, particularly beings who have their eyes and hearts open for the injustices in the world. That is a paradox: the more you fight for justice, the more injustice you will see. This was also Voltaire’s experience. If we want, all of us can experience and see these pains around us, the pains of rejection, and of political oppression. And also the pains of random fate, the destructive powers of nature, in storms and disasters. A century later, Schopenhauer would be indebted to Voltaire in his philosophy of evil.
After 1755, Voltaire’s work may be regarded as a structural unravelling of our human attempts to deny or avoid the raw, faulty, painful and dark sides of natural and man-made worlds and disasters. In his poeme, he differentiates three different ways how we try to alter reality.
First, scientists try to explain the situation. They project their pre-conception of the world as a machine on reality, and when something goes wrong in reality they try to find the mechanical causes of it. Everything is Humean cause and effect, including any evil that we encounter. If we feel things happen randomly –including near-miss plane crashes, homophobic attacks, Brexit, or storms like Irma-, that is merely the result from not having scientifically examined the situation good enough. Voltaire doubts this paradigm. Of course, retrospectively we can always find a “reason” why something happened. But this line of cause-and-effect did not always happen necessary, there seems space for randomness. For example, it is not necessary for this piece of sand to be precisely lying here; if it would be one millimetre aside, the universal order would not suddenly change (except when you believe in magical thinking such as chaos theory). Nature and world events are not completely a closed system.
There is abundance in nature and world events, with some branches of events becoming successful and others not: we need to see actions as a family tree, Voltaire writes, where some branches of the family will not have many descendants and will die out, while others have many descendants – consequential effects- and continue. As we are mortal beings with limited senses, we cannot identify which lines of cause and effect are necessary and which are random. Thus: “We know nothing and fear everything, Nature is silent – we appeal to her in vain.” Thus, we can try to intellectualise and scientifically explain what happens to us, and this may give us some consolation and may help us to improve our ways of living to prevent some possible future events, but we will never be able to understand everything.
However, before 1755, Voltaire seemed to plea the opposite, for education and reason as ways to overcome our animalistic flaws. This opinion brought him in many intellectual fights with the philosopher Rousseau, who wrote that educational and rationalising attempts like these are precisely the reason why people become corrupted. After his existential crisis, Voltaire’s philosophy seems to come closer to Rousseau, although he would never openly admit this. Several centuries later, we seem to have become now even more adamant in believing that we can control and know everything –and possibly we have indeed progressed in certain areas- but still airplanes are vulnerable to possible disaster, and humans are vulnerable to hate and violence. There will always be something we cannot control or explain. There will always be failure, and our illusion to explain and control situations too often make things worse.
Second, some people say that we are the cause of everything that happens to us, albeit in material, spiritual or religious explanations of the events. People said it was pride that caused the Lisbon disaster. People say that the disastrous hurricane Irma is the result from the climate-denying politicians in America. Some individuals suggested that I should get the message from being in a plane that nearly crashed, and I should become aware how I am living my life as this caused my near death experience in the plane. A Freudian even told me to investigate my death wish. So I caused this plane to crash almost? This sounds too narcissistic to me. Such ways of reasoning help to psychologically personalise impersonal fate and random events. Like Janoff-Bulman says: to be able to live our daily life we need the idea that events are not random but explainable and that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Something bad happened to me, so I must be bad? This way of reasoning helps to continue our illusions in daily life, but we have no logical justification for this. Like Voltaire wrote: “As the dying voices call out, will you dare to respond, To this appalling spectacle of smoking ashes with, This is the necessary effect of the eternal laws (…) Seeing this mass of victims will you say God is avenged. Their death is the prices of their crimes? What crime, what fault had the young committed who lie bleeding at their mother’s breast? Did fallen Lisbon indulge in more vices than London or Paris which live in pleasure?” In my airplane which almost crashed last week, there were babies. Did these babies ask or even cause the plane to nearly crash? Let’s hide for the killer babies!
We read the same way of ridiculous reasoning in the modern book of Rhonda Byrne, “The Secret”. Things happen for reasons which may be hidden to us, but we can learn to see why things happen and we can even learn how to control it. She calls this the law of attraction: you attract what you intend. So apparently, I asked for my plane to crash or for a homophobic assault, and the people in Florida attracted Irma. Of course, having a positive mindset will help us to see life more positively and to focus more on positive possibilities; this is what psychologists call “self-fulfilling prophecies”. Byrne’s way of reasoning also cannot be refuted: it is unfalsifiable, as all failures will be reinterpreted as a confirmation of the theory (Karl Popper would have been furious about Byrne!). For example, if something does not work out, we say “apparently I did not have a right enough intention and a next time I must try harder”, and the theory is confirmed again. Scientific research has proven that the law of attraction does not work statistically, and it only works when you add these logical fallacies. However, I do understand the wish in a personal and explainable universe: it is frightening and overwhelming to realise that things can happen to us for no personal reasons and that we are mere vulnerable and mortal beings. The problem is that we can severely hurt each other when we apply Secretian ways of thinking to others, and for example tell them “you are not only victim of this situation, but you have consciously or unconsciously asked for this”. This is severely unethical. I do not only suffer from the trauma of being a victim of a near-miss plane-crash but also of people telling I apparently asked for it myself even though they cannot precisely tell how I asked for it (“just study yourself well enough and you will find the reason why this happened to you”). Apparently, we people have not progressed much in our reasoning since Voltaire’s era.
Third, Voltaire’s hardest attack was on people who were saying after the Lisbon disaster “all is well in the best possible of all possible worlds”. That is, they did not only believe that everything happens for a reason, but also that whatever happens is for the best. Something else could have happened, but that would have been worse. The Lisbon Disaster, the storm Irma or my near-miss plane crash were the best possible scenario. For example I “could learn from this” or “develop character”. Voltaire became furious in response to these arguments: “What! Do you think this universe would be worse, Without the pit that swallowed Lisbon? Are you sure that the great eternal cause, The Creator and Knower of all things, Could not have thrown us in this miserable world, Without volcanoes seething under our feet? Do you set this limit for the Supreme Power? Would you forbid Him for exercising mercy?” Voltaire ridiculed this way of reasoning particularly in his book “Candide” (Candide meaning “naïve” in French); the main character asks at the end of the book: “So you are still saying we live in the best possible world, even after we barely survived the earthquake in Lisbon, we were prosecuted, we were hanged, we were enslaved, we were…” In modern spiritual reasoning, the figure of God has been replaced by terms like “The Universe” or “Spirit”, but the reasoning is similar. Apparently I have to learn something in life, therefore these things happen? Nonsense! The problem lies in the word “therefore”: bad things can happen AND I can subsequently learn something from them, but I have no evidence at all that bad things happen TO teach me something.
Many of my clients seem to reason in such ways, when they are confronted with a life-threatening disease: “Apparently, I must learn something from my cancer”. My answer can sometimes be very direct: “I personally think that you MUST learn nothing, but you may decide to be wanting to learn something”. Bad things happen AND we have the freedom to learn about life from them.
This is what Karl Jaspers wrote in 1913: we are confronted with countless numbers of “boundary situations in life”. These situations can tell us about the nature of life: there will always be failures, struggles, fights, counter-currents and paradoxes in life. It is up to us to subsequently accept this nature of life, and let this enlighten our life, by living life to the fullest within our given limitations. We can live a meaningful and satisfying life, even in the most dire situations, like Viktor Frankl described about his personal concentration camp experiences in his book “Man’s search for meaning”.
Boundary situations can remind us of this potential that we always have. This is not a necessary potential, like a naïve cause-and-effect way of reasoning, but as humans we have at least the freedom in our mind to find a more meaningful perspective or intention towards the situation; possibly this more positive focus could even help us to realise unexpected parts of our potential. My systematic reviews of empirical studies confirm that individuals are often indeed able to find more meaningful perspectives in dire situations and experience “post traumatic growth”. However, this does not mean that these events had to happen to help them grow: being reminded of our potential by possibly random life events is not the same as being forced to use our potential by our life situations.
Where does Voltaire leave us? Scientific explanations are limited, we cannot personalise events, and we cannot say that we live in the best possible world.
First, Voltaire suggests us to set aside our attempts to avoid or deny reality as it reveals itself. Even though these attempts may be understandable –as these are our efforts to cope with disasters-, they will not help us on the long term. Instead of searching for a system in reality, we can start assuming that there is no system and doubt all attempts trying to find a system. We are aware of the limitations of our human faculties of sensing and reasoning. Like Voltaire allegedly once said: “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Thus, Voltaire suggests phenomenological bracketing before Husserl wrote about this at the end of the 19th century. Voltaire writes at the end of his poem: “With the balance in hand, he [the philosopher Bayle] teaches me to doubt, He, great and wise enough to need no system, Has destroyed them all and battles even himself. (…) So what is the verdict of our greatest mind? Nothing: the book of fate is closed to us.”
Second, we need to stay open and let nature and events unfold itself, in all its beauty and evil and without us attempting to reinterpret, like Voltaire wrote “be without system” (“etre sans Systeme”). This is a way-of-being that the existential-phenomenologist Levinas seems to refer to in his works in the 20th century. Levinas wrote that our immediate experience in reality is prior to all the intellectual and emotional “systems” that we put on our experiences. Like Jaspers wrote some decades before Levinas, there will always be something in our experiences that will not fit the system that we try to enforce on reality: there is always something, someone or Someone not fitting or different, an “alterity”. Our philosophy should not start with examining our systems, but alterity –that what does not fit in our cognitive-emotional system but which has a strong appeal and authority to us. Events like the Lisbon Disaster, 9/11, near-miss airplane-crashes or homophobic attacks are strong experiences which have an undeniable immediacy in their experiential nature. These events can remind us of how reality may be before we put our systems on it, the failures of our mind and the eternal struggle that life inevitably confronts us with even though we do not want reality to be this way. Voltaire’s later works focus at such life-enlightening events, all reminding us to keep an open mind for reality as it emerges. Similar ideas can be found in the works of the later philosophers Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger.
Third, we need to unmask false philosophies and religions which enforce their system onto people: “Forced religion is not religion: it should convince, not force.” (Voltaire in: Traite sur la Tolerance). Some authors have said that Voltaire was atheist, similarly to philosophers he influenced, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Yes, Voltaire criticised all organised religions –Christianity, Judaism and Islam-, and some of his religious parodies even sound racist and islamophobic or anti-Semitic in my modern ears. However, these authors could not have been more wrong: they mistake Voltaire’s refutation of naïve and oppressive types of religion for complete denial of anything spiritual or religious. In many other texts, he wrote about the freedom of religion, and about the importance of believing in something bigger than ourselves and our systems.
Voltaire even established his own church, called “Deo Erexit Voltaire”, erected for God by Voltaire. The religion in this church was most likely mainly about rituals and texts reminding the believers to have an open mind for reality as it reveals in our experiences, without imposing our systems on these experiences. Rituals and ceremonies can stimulate a sense of awe for the beauty of the universe, how things happen and how we are who we are. It seems better applicable to call Voltaire a deist, an agnost or even refer to nature religion. Voltaire was full of awe for the mystery of the universe, and how things have emerged as they have emerged in the Creation. But without attempting to make his sense of awe into an absolute explanation. His sense of awe was not a scientific explanation, it was his free stream of experiencing and being. Voltaire’s religiosity was in-between the extremes of the naïve religious dogmatists and antitheists, like his tomb tells about him: he fought the atheists and the fanatics (“Il combattait les athees et les fanatiques”).
Fourth, we need “balance”, as Voltaire wrote in the poem. With this, he does not refer to the Aristotelean vice of modesty or middle-class bourgeois conservatism: “just be always in the middle, and avoid the extremes in life, and you’ll be fine”. As a person, Voltaire was the opposite of such a conservative system: he was a person of extremes, not afraid of provocation. (He would have made a good punk!) He tried to live life to the full –with romantic escapades, wild parties, continuous travelling, exploring as many different fields of study as possible, and fighting against many types of injustice. However, he balanced by not becoming fixated in positions and systems. Balancing means always questioning the systems that you live in, a system of thinking, daily life habits, or our societal constellation. Balancing also means accepting our limitations and embracing the eternal struggle that life inevitably confronts us with. Furthermore, this also means tolerating paradoxes ambiguities and ambivalences which we come across on our journeys through life.
Balancing also implies being able to hold apparently paradoxical positions, which actually do not oppose each other but can be seen and combined as two different dimensions, such as combining scepticism towards religion with awe for the universe and its possible mysterious Creator, or fighting atheists and fighting religious fanatics at the same time. This is a cornerstone of my personal philosophy, and I have written much about this “dual attitude” (eg 2014, “Meaning and life’s givens” in JPSC). In my forthcoming handbook on meaning in life, I will describe the history of “meaning in life for sceptics”, and without explicitly referring to him, Voltaire is one of the clear examples of this. Yes, it is possible to live a meaningful life while being sceptical, as I will show below.
Fifth, Voltaire criticises simplistic ideas about meaning in life: “Man is a stranger to himself, He wonders: ‘What am I? Where am I going? Where am I from?’ We are atoms tormented in this murky soup, Swallowed by death like the playthings of fate, With eyes to see and guided by thought, We thinking atoms have measured the heavens, We rush towards the infinite, Though we neither see nor know ourselves. This world, this theatre of pride and error, Is full of unfortunates who speak of happiness, They complain while seeking well-being, None of them wants to die or be reborn. Sometimes, in our lives consecrated to pain, The hand of pleasure wipes away our tears, But the pleasure flies, passing like a shadow. Our sorrows, regrets and losses are without number, For us, the past is a sad memory, And the present awful if there is no future, And the sleep of the grave takes every thinking being.”
Voltaire suggests here, that in response to the sorrows of our bitter life, we often flee to hedonism and illusions about our Eternal Meaning Of Life or about a Life After Death. These are our ways of overcoming our sadness of death and evil. However, these hedonistic experiences and illusions ultimately fail, when confronted with death: they cannot factually overcome death, although they can give us a temporary feeling that we can. All this focus on the self –what am I? Where am I going? Where am I from?- is mere pride and error. We cannot know any answers for certain. In the 21th century, this has possibly even become worse with the invention of a full “happiness industry” (William Davies, 2015). But ultimately we have to admit that we have no absolute answers: “we remain a stranger to ourselves”. The only thing we know for certain is that we will suffer and die.
In my forthcoming book on Meaning in Life, I will argue that the question about the individual meaning in life became for the first time in history popular around the 16th century. Before, only philosophers or church fathers asked questions about individual meaning, and they subsequently gave their answers to the laymen. Ordinary beings were expected to take their position in the great chain of being: if you are born son of farmers, the meaning of your life is to be a peasant. You were not exposed to alternative systems, thus you accepted this system as you did not know any better. If you did question this societal-divine-cosmic order, the church would condemn you and the nobles could expel and prosecute you.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment started questioning and doubting these pre-given systems. For the first time in history, ordinary people started to ask the question “how can I determine and live a meaningful life, without being told by others or by my place in society where I was born?” For example, Voltaire was expected by his parents to become a lawyer or judge, but he refused to do so and it took a big personal battle to live the life he wanted as author. Liberation was not a positive experience for everyone. Many problems arose after liberation from the social expectations, as people were missing the guidance of others telling how to live their lives, and even worse, people did not really know themselves and what their meaning was: “man is stranger to himself”. Voltaire described how people struggled to determine their own meaning, by seeking mere pleasure and engaging in unethical actions without the fear for eternal punishment. Other people turned to philosophers and clergy who offered their systems, and they became even more rigid than ever before like the Spanish Inquisition. Voltaire rejected this hedonism and neo-conservatism similarly as the old oppressive system in which individuals were told how to live their lives.
Sixth, Voltaire did not end by merely saying that we should accept life as it is, and not to clamp ourselves onto false belief systems. He finishes his poem as follows: “Once a caliph, in his final hour, Prayed to God whom he loved, ‘I bring thee, O only and almighty king, That which in your immensity you lack, Faults, regrets, pain and ignorance’. But he could have added hope.” The last word of this sad poem is hope. Voltaire describes hope as: “One day all will be well – this is our hope. All is well today – this is the illusion”. To be able to live our daily life, we need to hope (like Janoff-Bulman wrote something similar in the 20th century, and which has been empirically proven in many empirical studies). Here is Voltaire’s duality: scepticism and hope can go hand in hand. We can hope that we can live a meaningful life, we can hope that God exists, etc. He wrote for instance: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” This is how we can live a meaningful life despite –and possibly thanks to- our scepticism to life. As we do not know what is absolute truth, we can only hope for it. In our daily life, we live our lives with the illusion as if we know what is true, although we are aware that this is just an “as-if”, an illusion, and not absolute truth.
Many philosophers such as Nietzsche have elaborated Voltaire’s philosophy of as if. The 19th century philosopher Vaihinger believes that it is not worth asking whether religious and metaphysical doctrines are true in an objective sense, since this cannot be discovered. We should only ask whether it is useful to act ‘as if’ they were true. Vaihinger was not interested in ontological truth, but about the practical importance of belief systems: in his ‘as if’ philosophy, he accepted and justified patently false fictions as pragmatic non-rational solution to problems that have no rational answers, such as questions about how to live a meaningful life. I think that Vaihinger could not have foreseen the emergence of our “alternative truth era”, in which obviously inaccurate tweets from a deluded president are taken more serious than long lines of scientific research. Voltaire would have disagreed with Viahinger, as Voltaire promoted duality: we may need some illusions to be able to live a meaningful life in this world of pains and sorrows, but simultaneously we need to keep our scepticism. We can hope that things MAY become well, but we cannot say that things ARE well. Some people can hope that whatever Trump says MAY be true, but we cannot say that his tweets ARE true. We need to critically analyse all belief systems. This is where we could find a balance: live a meaningful and satisfying life, while critically questioning ourselves.
Seventh, Voltaire’s phenomenology and sense of awe led him to an approach to meaning in life that was new to his time. Without pre-given systems, he tried to stay open for whatever life brings and to embrace its twists and changes, its beautiful and nasty experiences. His later religious texts breathe a sense of respect, fear and wonder for the miracle and mystery of life. He had experienced death and life’s limitations very close, and in response to this he seemed to have developed this sense of awe. He embraced the opportunities and risks that life brought him, which literally brought him all over Europe, meeting people from the street to the highest kings and rulers. His biography clearly proves this, as described in the brilliant biography by Pearson: “Voltaire almighty, a life in pursuit of freedom”. Voltaire lived life to the fullest, and with full intensity. Voltaire possibly stood at the start of a vitalistic movement, which attempts to live life intensively. Tristan Garcia wrote in his book “La vie intense – Une obsession moderne” how since the Enlightenment people have started to search for an intensive life, exploring all experiences, depths and particularly heights in life.
Eight, not scepticism but fighting for just social communities is Voltaire’s final answer. Voltaire wrote the novel “Candide” two years after the poem. In this book, he ridicules the idea that we can always find a system in the world and events around us, and that whatever happens is for the best. At the end of the novel, the reader cannot believe in the optimistic and deterministic systems anymore, and must become sceptical. However, similar to the poem, scepticism is not Voltaire’s last answer. In the last pages, he describes how the main character Candide has started a commune to live together with others and Candide told others that instead of philosophising, they should do like him: cultivating our garden (“Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”) This is pragmatism for daily life. Without food we will die. We must focus on our survival. Do what is needed. Possibly also have positive illusions about the world which we need to be able to continue without being overwhelmed by life’s sorrows and pains, but without absolutizing these illusions. Possibly also be hedonistic, but without becoming totally superficial. Voltaire has possibly sketched here a very modern lifestyle. Similar down-to-earth lifestyles can be found at the end of modern classic novels, such as Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X” and Michel Houellebecq’s “Possibility of an island”. We could even recognise this in postmodern movies from directors such as David Lynch. Balancing, pragmatism, scepticism while living life to the fullest and experiencing life as meaningful within life’s limitations, without any pretentions but open for the unexpected and the unexplainable.
Many of Voltaire’s plays, including Candide, end with the creation of a positive social community. Voltaire’s own biography also shows how he created his own community on his estate Ferney-Voltaire, between France and Switzerland, with the church Deo Erexit Voltaire in the middle. He offered work for farmers (admitted, while he got rich himself from selling the crops), with fair payment and humane living circumstances and even a church. Many later political philosophers have tried to build similar communities, such as Frederik Van Eeden’s Walden in the Netherlands, Karl Marx, and housing coops in the UK and all over the world. Thus for Voltaire, being pragmatic and living a meaningful life seemed to ultimately mean living a life harmoniously with others, and helping others. Voltaire’s ultimate personal meanings focused on establishing social values, revealing injustice and fighting for justice, freedom and equality.
Thus, both in his work and particularly his life story, one can see the importance of the fight for tolerance and justice. This could be justified pragmatically, as “tolerance has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage.” Similarly pragmatic, my review of hundreds of empirical studies confirm that such social and higher meanings such as fighting for justice are associated with larger and longer-lasting psychological and physical well-being than materialistic and hedonistic and self-oriented meanings. However, Voltaire also ethically justified the fight for justice, in a way that resembles the later philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to some extent. Voltaire described both in his poem and in his play Candide that we should let go of our systems and perceive life as it comes.
This is a different type of meaning in life than what we are used to think of in Anglosaxon countries: this is what French call “sense”, which is derived from the Latin word sentire, perceiving (Instead the term “meaning” comes from the Dutch-German “meinen”, which later became “moyen” in French, which can be interpreted as: common, medium, average.) Voltaire phenomenologically perceived the world and its events in their totality extremes and paradoxes, and he did not try to explain it with his own preconceived systems.
As his texts and personal life show, what emerges from this open perception of the world is a fight for justice, freedom, equality and tolerance. That is, when confronted with the evil in the world –seeing the pain from other human beings, face to face- this is our most meaningful answer. The pain of others –in Lisbon, after the storm Irma, in nearly crashing airplanes and homophobic attacks- is immediate and intense, and cannot be denied or avoided. This immediacy –before we put our belief systems on it- calls us to pragmatic action for justice.
I have recently experienced unexpected negative life events, such as a near-miss plane crash. I have tried not to put my theoretical or spiritual belief systems on these events. I simply stay with the fact that this happened. These events have given me the opportunity to reconnect with what is ultimately important for me, and to become sensitive again for the pains and injustices of others against which I want to be fighting. Most of all, these events have made me feel deeply connected with the people around me. I have received so many warm words of support and recognition, that they fill me with love and life. I feel connected more than ever before.
Of course, these events are also deeply frustrating and saddening, but my frustration and sadness tell more about my belief system than about life. I can try to say “I should (not) have done this or that”, but these are just false retrospective explanations for the unexplainable. The only I can do, is to remain silent, open my arms, and let the stream of life flow through me: what comes will come, I will answer how I can answer, and I will do what needs to be done.
My reading of Voltaire has opened my eyes for what he calls the genealogy of events. He suggests that in life, endless numbers of events happen. Some events will cause other events, and some events will not lead to anything else. Like the near-miss airplane crash did not lead to my death –this possibility did not happen- but it led to me writing this text for example. Events are like a family tree: some branches of the family stop as children die or do not get children, while other branches progress as they are followed by other generations. This resembles Darwin’s Origin of Species, in which Darwin assumed that given unlimited time and unlimited variations, combined with a survival of the fittest, some options will be successful and further develop while others will be unsuccessful. In our universe, there are endless numbers of options and events, where some are part of a long chain of cause and effect, and others are not.
Thus, both Darwin and Voltaire assume that the universe is not completely determined but there is freedom, both in nature and in people. Before species emerge or events unfold, there is a potentiality, or like Heidegger writes: being is being-in-possibilities (“Da-sein ist Da-sein-konnen”). Some possibilities will be realised, others will not. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle explicated such a sense of possibilitas/dynamis, but this experience of potentiality seemed to disappear during the Enlightenment, as the full universe became explained as systems and mechanisms. Voltaire fought this reductionist deterministic view, and together with Aristotle and Buddhists, he tried to make his readers aware of the dynamic Being of life.
I call this “the abundance principle”, which can be the source of a deep sense of awe. Anyone who has ever been in a rainforest will immediately understand what I mean by abundance. In jungles, there are unlimited numbers of plants, trees, animals, bugs, etc. There are unlimited possibilities, with many shoots and small young trees. Only a few of these possibilities will actually make it into big trees. But these small trees still contribute to the totality and abundance of the rainforest. A large tree has been small once: without small trees which fail, other trees would not have succeeded. Like the seed of men: some will fertilise the eggs of a woman, but most seed will die; however, the likelihood of success would have been nihil if there would have only been one seed. Life needs abundance to flower. Similarly, negative events are the result from the same abundance that results in fulfilling life events. This totality, potentiality and abundance of life is what I am in awe of. My experiences of recent negative life events have made me in awe of the universe, similar to what the later Voltaire described after his existential crisis. It is this stream of life that makes life worth being lived, even if this stream also brings rocks and sticks which may hurt.
Events like this make me immediately and undeniably aware of this stream of life. I am full of awe for all life events and nature. I even search for situations in which I can become more aware of this abundance, for example by going on holiday in the rainforest, like the author Thoreau writes about his decision to retreat to the forest: “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life (…) and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” (Thoreau, 1854, p.25). This is life. And I am in awe for it.
You can find an English translation of Voltaire’s Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon here: