24 Talent, Luck and Courage: Same Design, Differing Outcomes

What if there are an infinite number of universes? Mathematics and advanced physics theories point in the direction of multiverses. Perhaps that’s a bias in the language of mathematics or is evidence that humans are incapable of unified physical theories. But as a thought exercise, assume that it’s true.

The first conclusion you must draw from that exercise is that Nietzsche was right – there is eternal recurrence, everything you do will be repeated in the exact same way for eternity. Why? Given that there are a finite number of elements in the universe, there are finite possible combinations of matter. Therefore, in an infinite universe, this world has been combined and ordered and acted upon in the exact same manner before – and now – and into eternity. The actions you take today will be repeated in other universes ad infinitum. You have read this essay before and another form of you is reading it now and other versions of you will read it in the future.

But the same holds true for actions not taken. In some other universe, your parents never met and had different children with different spouses. Shakespeare wrote a different version of Hamlet, one where he murdered his uncle and assumed the throne. In some universes it was a hit, in others it flopped. And in an alternative 2000, residents of Palm Beach County, FL didn’t accidentally vote for Pat Buchanan. Different actions, different consequences, different universes.

If all of this is true, if there’s a form of eternal repetition at play and every human action is merely a blip in an endless celestial simulation, where your actions have consequences, but no real meaning, then what happens to human reason? Is there a point to rationality and creativity if the flashes of brilliance you have are actually inevitable and in a grand cosmic sense, merely a repetition of what someone else somewhere in the multiverse has already done?

This is how Montaigne begins his essay about luck:

So vain and worthless is human wisdom: despite all our projects, counsels and precautions, the outcome remains in the possession of Fortune.

In his movie “Manhattan,” Woody Allen sums up the idea this way: “Talent is luck. The important thing in life is courage.” Montaigne agrees:

In many of the surer arts Fortune plays a major part. Take those creative ecstasies which transport a poet and carry him outside himself in rapture: why do we not attribute them to good luck, since he himself confesses that they surpass his own strength and capacities?

He continues:

Fortune herself reveals to us even more clearly the part she plays in all such works as these by the evidence of that grace and beauty which are found in them not only without the artist’s intention but without his knowledge. A competent reader can often find in another man’s writings perfections other than those which the author knows that he put there, and can endow them with richer senses and meanings.

In other words, the artist often has no idea what he or she is creating. And that’s where the courage comes in – only by having the courage to act absent the comfort or clarity about the meaning of that work can a human being ever create anything of value. And Montaigne takes it a step farther – a wise ruler is one who acts in the most honorable manner at all times, because ends are beyond our control. We can govern only our means:

Leaders engage in deliberation and reflection merely as a pure formality, surrendering the best part of their undertaking to Fortune and, trusting in her aid, constantly going way beyond any bounds of rational decision …. opt for the course in which is found the more honourable conduct and justice; and since we doubt which is the shorter road, we should keep going straight ahead.

Montaigne pivots here to a more specific question: should a ruler (or anyone for that matter) ever give in to vengeance? Naturally, his answer is no:

I find the most beautiful of all courses was that adopted by Julius Caesar. First he assayed making even his enemies love him by mildness and clemency: when conspiracies were uncovered he simply let it be known that he had been told about them; then, he made the very noble resolve to await the outcome without worry or fear, surrendering himself to the protection of the gods and entrusting himself to Fortune: such was the position when he was murdered.

This, of course, ties back to Montaigne’s earlier essay about death. To have the security to make a decision like Caesar’s you first need to accept and not fear your own mortality. It’s the fear of death that drives us to focus on security. Security requires us to send messages to foes and to arm ourselves for every eventuality. Montaigne concludes that the better course is simply to accept the worst, not become the worst:

It is better to be ready to face with fair assurance anything that can happen, while drawing some consolation from not being sure that it will.

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