In 2001, the novel “The Alternative Hypothesis” was published, written by the French novelist and playwright Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. The conceptual novel has similarities to the 1998 film “Sliding Doors.” The framework of both are alternate timelines that spring from a seemingly innocuous change to a single moment in time. In “Sliding Doors,” the film portrays the two starkly different life-paths the heroine takes depending on whether she catches or misses a certain train. “The Alternate Hypothesis” depicts the two versions of a moment that is altogether more historic, a moment that it is, according to Eric-Emmanuel Schmidt, “the minute which changed the course of history.” It was when, in 1908, the Director of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts chose to reject the second application of a 19-year old German boy whose most fervent dream was to become a painter. The shock that followed this rejection caused the young Adolf Hitler to live off-the-grid for years, spending nights in homeless shelters, his bitterness steadily growing at what he perceived to be a conspiracy against him, eventually leading to his radicalization into racist ideology and ultimate demagoguery. In the alternate timeline, Hitler is overjoyed at being accepted to the Vienna Academy and there finds emotional fulfillment in painting. In this alternate timeline, “Adolf H” never becomes a dictator and there was no Second World War.
(As an aside, when presented in summary, the novel feels problematical because its thesis seems to absolve a monster of responsibility. By showing Hitler as being ‘determined,’ we unburden him of the fault that follows agency. It’s similar to suggesting that Soviet premier Brezhnev was responsible for 9/11, because by deploying Soviet troops to Afghanistan in 1979, he inadvertently created the Mujahidin resistance force that would later spin-off into Al-Qaeda. Returning to the novel, however, a closer reading of the book shows that Eric-Emmanuel Schmidt’s intent was more subtle. In the alternate timeline, Adolf H at one point says in a letter “I admit the part of the other in the constitution of my destiny.” Adolf Hitler is constantly threatening to emerge from within Adolf H, so much so that Adolf H seeks out Freud in order to overcome this part of himself. Schmidt’s message, in fact, is that nothing is pre-destined, each new moment presents us with a new opportunity to choose our fate and determine our character. The book is in the tradition of the existentialists like Camus, who, in “The Plague,” reminded us that the capacity for monstrous evil is within all of us if certain circumstances align; all it might take is a few twists of the cogs of fate.)
The philosopher Thomas Nagel also writes about the role of luck in how we assign blame in his paper “Moral Luck,” published in 1976. Nagel talks about the case of the motorist who drinks too much and loses control of his car and mounts the sidewalk and kills a pedestrian. The motorist in this case is squarely to blame and the crime is manslaughter. But if the sidewalk is empty at the time, he will likely be charged with no more than a DUI and reckless driving. Here too, we have two alternate timelines – one where a pedestrian is standing on the sidewalk and one where she is not – and even though the driver’s bad actions are identical in each case, he will receive a lengthy prison term in one and, in the other, probably little more than a driving ban. A similar case would be a person who fires a gun at their enemy, only to have the bullet hit a bird who happens to swoop between them. Where the bullet hits the bird, and the enemy survives, the charge is attempted murder, but where the bird flies in another direction and the bullet hits the enemy and kills him, the charge is murder. That the law provides a longer sentence for murder than attempted murder is an acknowledgement by the legal system that punishment is largely dependent on luck.
The role of outside forces has a powerful effect on our lives. We are each the sole survivor of a hundred million sperm involved in the act of our conception. Once we are born, our body’s predisposition to certain diseases is determined by our genetic inheritance. As we grow, our chances of economic prosperity are at least partially controlled by the country in which we were born and raised. As we mature, the sort of partner we attract is influenced by our congenital physical attributes (tall, short, pretty, able, differently-able). And as we venture out into the world, our life-choices are determined by countless billions of moments outside of our control. We are, in some ways, more like events in a deterministic landscape than agents charting our own course in life.
The theme of this blog is how bringing into our consciousness the awareness of our own death, what the Romans termed Memento Mori, can help us not only develop gratitude for the things we already have in life but also act as a spur to vigorously pursue our life-projects. But how can we achieve these things with so much outside of our control?
For the Stoics, luck was seen as having a singularly antagonistic role in human affairs. The Romans personified luck as a Goddess and called her Fortuna. She was physically represented on the back of coins and in countless statues, always holding a cornucopia (a fictional goat’s horn from which emanated countless treasures) and a rudder (because she was apt to change direction abruptly and leave you in her wake without notice). Sometimes she was blindfolded, or blind, reminding us of the tenuous link between good fortune and deserving cases.
For the Stoics, Fortuna was a thief who spent her days stealing lives, fortunes, careers and anything else she could get her hands on. For Seneca, “there is nothing which Fortune does not dare.” He saw the Goddess as fickle and cruel, taking pleasure in disrupting any expectations of continuity, justice or pity that we might have from life.
Some of Seneca’s thoughts on Fortune appear in “De Consolatione ad Marcia,” the essay on grief he wrote to a wealthy Roman woman called Marcia on the third anniversary of the death of her son, Metilius. Marcia’s grief was still all-consuming at the time and Seneca’s intention in writing to her, as the title gives away, was to console. For Seneca, Marcia’s grief was not the result of ungoverned emotion but a failure of apprehension. For him, Marcia’s grief flowed from her (mistaken) belief that she lived in a world where good-hearted young men with the closest of bonds to their mothers should not die suddenly. For Seneca, Marcia’s pain was as deep as her conviction that tragedies like hers should not exist.
The “De Consolatione ad Marcia” counsels us that we can have no certainty about life with Fortune on the prowl, nor can we be complacent about our own or our loved one’s life-spans. “No promise has been given you for this night…no promise has been given even for this hour,” wrote Seneca. His advice to Marcia and the wider audience reading his essay was to take time each morning with a praemeditatio, a meditation on all the ways in which Fortune could attack us in the coming day. The benefit of the praemeditatio was to offer an inoculation against the worst of mental suffering that could follow coming tragedy.
For the Stoics, the answer to how to deal with Fortune (fate) was to assume it had already won. Don’t assume your child, career, savings or life will still be yours tomorrow. If you surrender your ownership to these, there is nothing for Fortune (fate) to steal. Or, to put in into a modern context where Fortune/fate is not personified: because no ground we stand on is free from the endlessly shifting tectonic plates of fate, we must assume that we, and anything we have, might be swallowed whole by the metaphorical earth at any time. It is similar to the prescription for fear given to young GIs arriving in the battlefields of Europe in the Second World War: “the only way to fight the fear is to assume you are already dead.”
The obvious problem with the Stoics’ framing device is that, by assuming a contingency to everything in our lives, we alienate ourselves from the very act of living. For men of affairs like Seneca, it also seems impractical. He was, at different times: tutor to the Emperor, politician, investor, lawyer and philosopher, and accomplished most of these roles with such excellence that the mark he made on history endures two millenia later. The success of life-projects to this degree requires deep commitment and engagement with life.
How can we reconcile Fortune/fate with our ambitions to become our best self in this one-and-only life? I would tentatively offer an alternate framing device to the Stoics. While it is possible to see Fortune/fate as a thief, it’s also possible to see her as a provider, for what is taken away must first be gifted. Will Fortune/fate take our lives one day? Undoubtedly, yes, and probably in a way we won’t expect. But she first gifted that life to us. And if she took our marriage from us through the infidelity of our spouse, she also gifted us our spouse to begin with, and if and when we meet someone new, she will gift us that person too. Fortune/fate is nothing less than a partner with whom we can have an active engagement throughout our life-journey. And while it is true that there are billions of ways that Fortune/fate determines our lives for us, countless of those ways are working in our favor. With this perspective, we can begin to feel a measure of gratitude for the things we have been sent.
The next time you make a list of the people and things in your life for which you are grateful (an alternate way to start each morning to the praemeditatio), it’s useful to remember how each item on your list was a gift of fate. This can also build a measure of excitement for the life-projects we are planning as we dwell on the countless ways in which Fortune/fate might push us closer to our path.