System, oversystem, no system (note 1/3): Jacques

I start off a small series of tangentially related notes with an extended quote from one of my favorite books:

Jacques knew neither the word vice nor the word virtue. He claimed that we were all born at a good or an evil hour. When he heard the words reward or punishment he used to shrug his shoulders. According to him reward was the encouragement of the good and punishment the fear of the wicked. How could it be otherwise , he used to ask, if we have no freedom and our destiny is written up above? He believed that a man follows his path towards glory or ignominy as ineluctably as a boulder with consciousness of its self might roll down the side of a mountain, and that if the series of causes and effects which form the life of a man, beginning at the first moment of his birth up to his last breath, were known to us, we would remain convinced that he had only ever done the inevitable.

I have often argued the contrary with him but to no avail and without success. What does one say to somebody who says: ‘Whatever the sum total of the elements I am composed of I am still one entity. Now one cause has only one effect. I have always been one single cause and I have therefore only ever had one effect to produce. My existence in time is therefore nothing more than a series of necessary effects’?

According to this system one might imagine that Jacques neither rejoiced in nor despaired of anything. But that was not, however, quite correct. He acted more or less like you and me. He thanked his benefactor so that he might do him more good and got angry with the unjust man. When people pointed out to him that this was like a dog biting the stone that hurt him, he would say: ‘No, the stone that the dog bites will not correct itself but the unjust man is often corrected by the stick.’

Like you and me he was often inconsistent, and inclined to forget his principles, except, of course, in the moments when his philosophy dominated him and then he would say: ‘That had to be so because it was written up above.’ He tried to anticipate misfortune and while he showed the greatest disdain for prudence he was always prudent. When misfortune struck he came back to his motto and was always consoled by it.

Diderot, Jacques le Fataliste, trans.  Henry.

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One comment on “System, oversystem, no system (note 1/3): Jacques
  1. […] Such a deprecated approach to life, but hypocrisy is the best way of having your cake and eating it too without violating the laws of thermodynamics.  Saint #1 (a fictional character: so what) Saint of Reason is a Refuge at Least When not Inconvenient: Jacques; see previous. […]

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