Ludwig Wittgenstein was a genius like few others. Born into one of the wealthiest families of his time, he donated his fortune and instead went on to become one of the giants of 20th-century philosophy.
He was commanding and passionate and, quite often, misunderstood. As his friend Georg Henrik von Wright recalled in a conversation about him:
“He once said he felt as though he was writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men.”
Given that his primary subject was the philosophy of language, which is notoriously messy and contradictory (in no small part due to Wittgenstein's influence), this likely isn’t the biggest of surprises.
But more so than perhaps other philosophers, as much fascination as critics and historians take in his work, they also find much appeal in how he lived.
Beyond growing up wealthy, he was mentored by the great Bertrand Russell, he once stepped away from philosophy to teach in primary schools in Austria, he was an officer on the front lines of the First World War, and he once again left philosophy to help out in the Second World War.
There’s little doubt that these experiences shaped his views on life, too. At 27, for example, when he was fighting in the First World War, he wrote some thoughts in his notebook that partially illuminate his later belief that life (and philosophy) wasn’t about made-up problems but about living.
This is illustrated by one of the most striking passages he ever penned:
“Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy. For life in the present there is no death. Death is not an event in life. It is not a fact of the world. If by eternity is understood not infinite temporal duration but non-temporality, then it can be said that a man lives eternally if he lives in the present.”
The Problem of Indulging Storification
Human beings are storytellers. We don’t see or observe things as they are but we impose a narrative line on the events in our life to add order to them.
Like all great stories, our stories, too, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It creates the illusion that we are living in the temporal duration, as Wittgenstein called it — one that exists in the flow of time.
There are theories in both philosophy and in physics that suggest that this flow of time is a blurring in our perception that stops us from seeing reality as it is — that time doesn’t exist — but we can look to an even simpler line of reasoning to understand Wittgenstein’s point.
Given that we are the omniscient narrators of life, we trust that the existence of the past and the future is as real as the existence of the present. After all, our imagination allows us to both see the past and envision the future.
We can look back on regrets, and we can construct a world in which we are not alive or happy or successful or fulfilled or (input a different desire here) even though both of these are abstractions that concern us with a made-up internal world with all its problems while ignoring the real, outer world.
Any lack of satisfaction we experience in life is born from this predicament: We are so attached to an imagined inner story about who we are, causing both anxiety and fear, that we forget that the world in front of us isn’t at all dictated by this story; it simply is, in both its beauty and its simplicity.
The biggest problem, however, is that this outer world (that is only truly experienced in the present), while stunning and complete if attention is paid to it, is also — in a way — empty and silent and, sometimes, lonely.
What, then, do we do? We create an imaginary friend in our mind to continue telling us the story about this and about that. Think of how often, when by yourself, you are simply there in a particular moment rather than stuck in a loop of thought dominated by a voice in your head that keeps you company. It’s likely not very often.
While this voice can bring with it occasional pleasantries, like a treasured memory or a meaningful daydream, most of the time, what it does is make us feel self-conscious and insecure, stressed and fearful.
In the present, none of these things exist because none of these things are real. What exists is simply your environment and what it has to offer. And often, what it has to offer is far more important than a false narrative.
There is nothing but now, and in that now, there is rarely dissatisfaction.
Death as a Means to Eternal Life
When you think about it, contrary to Wittgenstein's reasoning, being truly, utterly present is a form of death. It means that you have to kill the voice that tells the story in your mind — a voice many of us are intimately attached to.
At the same time, however, Wittgenstein is right: There is no such thing as real, tangible death that happens in our life; and because this death doesn’t happen, neither are many of our future anxieties (which are often directly and indirectly influenced by a fear of death) based in any objective reality; there is only the death of the narrator.
When you don’t live linearly in time, or in non-temporality as Wittgenstein termed it, then there is just a universe of change. This universe doesn’t bother drawing artificial boundaries that distinguish between our idea of past and future, nor is it concerned with what we call life and death. It just moves and acts according to processes that govern it, turning from one state to another.
This alteration of states is something that we are a part of, and this something can be loosely termed the eternal, as Wittgenstein also referred to it.
Unfortunately, until we stop the narration, this eternity passes by us every waking moment without us noticing. Instead of seeing ourselves as a dance of this majestic process, one that isn’t defined by made-up problems, we revert into the company of the voice we are too scared to detach ourselves from.
But the truth is that the only way to get out of the cycle of dissatisfaction is to first accept the death of this voice and sacrifice its company so that it no longer blocks us from the actual reality.
This is, of course, not easy, and for most people, always keeping the voice quiet is a skill that lies beyond feasibility. That said, everyone can do a little more to at least pay attention to the right things when the reminder strikes rather than taking the easy way out.
It’s been commonly noted in psychology research that humans report the highest satisfaction when they are completely lost in some activity around them rather than in the imagined struggle that goes on in their mind.
When they are in harmony with the universe as it continues to transition, they are able to look beyond the incomplete stories constructed by their mind to fully engage with the real story that is unfolding all around them.
What is important and eternal is in front of us, but to really connect with it, we need to sacrifice the comfort of our imagination.
The truth be told, this is a taxing way of saying what we have all already heard or realized at one point or another: We should be more present.
Do the lives that many of us lead, with our jobs and our daily demands, make this easy? Of course not. Modern societies are designed to compromise now for tomorrow, and the choice has already been made for us.
Nonetheless, many of us can do more than we currently do — we can make a greater effort to live in the real world rather than the narrated one because it’s ultimately the latter that is the cause of the problems that dissatisfy us.
By occasionally welcoming the death of the voice we so closely associate with, we can, paradoxically, live beyond death, and we can experience the change and the transitioning of the universe as it occurs around us in a way that is striking and meaningful and truly, utterly captivating.
Wittgenstein’s conclusion was that philosophy had spent so much time making up its own problems that it got detached from the only problem that truly mattered — the problem of being and living.
We, too, are habituated from birth to do this. We make up things in our mind, we add coherence and reason to what we make up, and we then spend so much time living there that we forget that none of it is grounded on a solid foundation — that we are looking in the wrong direction.
It’s often been said that what we most want we already have. This couldn’t be truer when it comes to living in what we think of as the flow of time.
We are not here to run from one illusionary problem to another; we are here to see, and experience, and love, and trust what is present — right now.