Mysteries of Life: Searching for an explanation. Finding it

The past six years. They have prodded me multiple times to ask the question, “How has this happened?” and then delve into any rational, comedic or scientific theory which satisfies me for a day or so. Until I find another theory.

Instead of subtracting and replacing previous theories, I tended to stack them up, thinking that mass will equal completion, finality. That “Aha!” or just “Ah!” moment when all the complexities seem to be resolved.

Then, last night, I read a passage in a major work of fiction which, I feel sure, settles all those questions.

At first, yearning for a continuation of the story — the last chapter ended in a death which pulled me apart, as it always does — I started to skim what seemed like dense philosophy. I was not up for it.

Until I noticed what I was attempting to avoid was unavoidable. Apparently, the writer had witnessed my six-year struggle to answer the question, “Why?” by answering the question. He deserved my attention.

I slowed down my reading to absorb it thoroughly. (I’ve taken the liberty of breaking the single long paragraph into several; the thing is so deeply packed with breathtaking observations, I found I needed to pause here and there before I understood them.)

The totality of causes of phenomena is inaccessible to the human mind. But the need to seek causes has been put into the soul of man.

And the human mind, without grasping in their countlessness and complexity the conditions of phenomena, of which each separately may appear as a cause, takes hold of the first, most comprehensible approximation and says: here is the cause.

In historical events (where the subject of observation is the actions of people), the most primordial approximation appears as the will of the gods, then as the will of those people who stand in the most conspicuous historical place — the historical heroes.

But we need only inquire into the essence of any historical event, that is, into the activity of the entire mass of people who took part in the event, to become convinced that the will of the historical hero not only does not guide the actions of the masses, but is itself constantly guided.

It would seem to make no difference whether we understand the meaning of historical events this way or that. But between a man who says that the people of the west went to the east because Napoleon wanted it, and the man who says that it happened because it had to happen, there is the same difference as between the people who maintained that the earth stood still and the planets moved around it and those who said that they did not know what upheld the earth, but knew that there were laws governing its movement and that of the other planets.

There are not and cannot be any causes of a historical event, except for the one cause of all causes. But there are laws that govern events, which are partly unknown, partly groped for by us. The discovery of these laws is possible only when we wholly give up looking for causes in the will of one man, just as discovering the laws of planetary movement became possible only when people gave up the notion that the earth stands still.

–Paragraph one, Volume IV, Part Two, Chapter I of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace


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