Time and wisdom. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse; The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli
Siddhartha is a Brahmin's son who goes on a journey of self-discovery involving fasting, meditating, courtesans, a river and the trials of parenthood. He ends up as a wiseman by realising that the world is an illusion to the extent that all doctrine and theory, even that of the Buddha, is illusory.
'Wisdom,' as Siddhartha learns, 'is not communicable.' The real lesson of the book is practical. You learn by living. As Hesse said, 'Siddhartha does not, in the end, learn true wisdom from any teacher, but from a river that roars in a funny way and from a kindly old fool who always smiles and is secretly a saint.'
What Siddhartha learns is based on a distancing from the world, a retreat, following the eight-fold path of Buddhism but then departing from it and from living a selfless life. The book mirrors the eightfold path and eventually Siddhartha reaches the state of concentration when he achieves wisdom.
Time is not real... and if time is not real, then the dividing line that seems to lie between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil is also an illusion.
True enough. Physics also tells us that time is an illusion. We know time in our daily lives because of entropy. That is the way hot passes to cold, but never the reverse. Molecules wiggle around. Heat is passed between them. Thus, entropy.
Or, in the words of Carlo Rovelli,
Thermal agitation is like a continual shuffling of a pack of cards.
Which means that what we experience as time, with direction, inevitability and causality, is not real. At the deep "grammar of the universe" level, it is the endless shuffling of atoms. It's like watching people dance and calling it marching.
The illusion we suffer is from assuming the base rate of the universe was a particular, specific ordered state which then changed to another one. In reality, it was one random configuration leading to another.
Measuring the universe is inevitably imprecise, and gives us the illusion of time, or moving from one state to another. Rovelli calls this blurring.
If I could take into account all the details of the exact microscopic state of the world, would the characteristic aspects of flowing of time disappear? Yes.
As the Duke of Wellington said, 'The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.'
We know the universe roughly, and give it a narrative, a model, just we know roughly what happened at Waterloo. If we tried to describe the actions of every individual there for the whole duration of the battle it would become a morass of information with no direction or unity.
So it is with the universe.
The trouble is, that while cause and effect do not exist fundamentally, Rovelli points out neither do cats. And we must still concern ourselves with them.
The illusion is real. Time does exist. It is as real to us as the colours only insects can see or the imaginary pack hierarchies which dogs impose upon their household humans.
Just as Stoicism is a narrow interpretation of virtue ethics with lessons for us all but most relevant and useful to rich or ambitious people, Siddhartha propounds a detachment unattainable to most of us.
The true path to enlightenment is one of isolation. The world of appearances is transitory, but it was not so transitory that Siddhartha's son didn't have to be raised by a single mother or that the activities of the villages and merchants he knew were necessary to keep him and the ferryman in work.
If we did not live under the illusion of the world, many of us would not live at all.
There are many important lessons for us to learn from Siddhartha, not least the importance of thought and silence, of waiting and anticipating, of accepting the world and being part of its flow.
Ultimately, it is not a model for living, any more than the notion of time is a model for fundamental reality or Stoicism is a model for an entire society.
What it does teach us is that wisdom is personal, and we have to climb the first mountain if we want to climb the second. Without the sin there is no redemption, without youth no age, without worldliness no detached understanding of the true reality.
'In every truth,' Siddhartha tell us, 'the opposite is equally true.'
Time both is and is not an illusion.