Reflections on Aphorisms #62

A customarily short Sunday post. Took the day off as a rest day, and it was really good, but I’ve also gone past my bed time to write this. Oops!

Aphorism 99

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.

Wilde

Interpretation

There’s a powerful social force that drives us to be something other than ourselves.

I don’t necessarily mean this to say that there’s any conscious intent or malice, but it’s a sort of intersection of conscious and unconscious factors.

We want to look good at all times, and we’re keenly aware that we don’t always look good. At the very least, we know we could look better than we do, even if we have the (over-)confidence to not feel insufficient.

So I think there’s a hesitancy to associate who you are with your own public face. I certainly put off writing about any philosophical matters for far too long (after being more bold about it in my youth) because of this.

Internet anonymity creates a sort of dark mirror of this. Because people are freed from any risk of getting in trouble, they have a willingness to show the worse parts of themselves. Sometimes they don’t even realize it, the sides of their personality that are coming out to play aren’t the ones that they associate themselves with.

I read an article the other day about racists that leave racist organizations, and one of the things that’s interesting is that they’ll relapse not into rejoining those organizations but back into hate, even after they make the conscious effort to try to put it behind them.

Taking an uneducated guess, I’d wager that this has to do with the part of the psyche that we don’t know. Carl Jung calls this the shadow, but we can think of it more specifically in this sense as a weakness or injury that has impeded the individual.

Now, I can’t claim to be an expert on hate. It’s not something I’ve had the misfortune to be around first-hand, at least in the more narrow sense (I’ve definitely been around some spiteful, malicious people, though) that we would define as a hate group.

But the internet has a lot of people on it who revel in chaos and destruction, and one of the things that doubtless feeds into this is the lack of any solid value structure. Without a foundation, a person cannot build a shelter against the pain and uncertainty of the world.

You can reject everything, or you can accept the toxicity. In a way both are the same; you can’t reject everything without becoming a sort of archetypal Serpent, and you can’t become toxic without devaluing existence itself.

We look down on people who behave this way, who hold these views and attitudes. It’s not a matter of elitism, it’s a matter of survival. If we do not condemn them, at least in the sense that we keep them at arm’s length for our own safety, their ideas are infections and their actions are poisonous.

The internet provides a mask, and lets these people hide their nature (or, at least, show it selectively without risking too much of their own person).

However, it also gives freedom for the noble to rise up. The masks that we wear can allow even a timid person to speak with freedom, and the power of interconnection allows them to be a force for good.

It’s just important to be intentional about it.

I’ve entered a lifestyle where I depend on radical honesty. I say what I think much more than previously (to be fair, an improvement on the bare minimum is not necessarily much of an improvement, and I need to get better about that), and I try never to lie or evade.

Of course, the really important thing about this is that you need to get out of the habit of doing the expedient thing. Being honest hurts a lot more if you do things you don’t want to be honest about.

Fortunately, generally people are good spirited about dealing with open and honest people. I’ve never had anyone use my honesty against me, even when they could easily do so. Some of that comes down to luck and a habit of carefully associating with those I consider virtuous, but it’s also a matter of trust.

If people know you’re honest and that you proffer information that is significant, they don’t look the gift horse in the mouth.

That, or maybe it’s that honesty is so rare that people don’t bother asking the questions that would entrap the truthful.

Resolution

Don’t do the things that lead to having secrets.

Be intentional about doing good.

Don’t lie.

Reflections on Aphorisms #61

Short post tonight because it’s basically my bed time and I didn’t sleep super well last night (thanks, eye deciding to spontaneously malfunction).

Writer’s note: It was going to be a short post, but then I decided to do an aphorism from Nietzsche. It is not a short post. I am so tired right now.

Aphorism 97

Arrogance in persons of merit affronts us more than arrogance in those without merit: merit itself is an affront.

Nietzsche

Interpretation

I think that one of the things that helps to understand Nietzsche here is the question of what arrogance is.

Arrogance isn’t necessarily the same as insolence. It’s when one takes what one currently has and is more akin to pride with a lack of consideration of others.

People without merit who have traits of arrogance may often be written off as merely insolent, but at the very least they are unlikely to wield the sort of power that makes arrogance more toxic.

I think that if this case were reversed, Nietzsche might change his tune.

Take Christ’s parable of the forgiven debt for an example.

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the accounting, one who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him. 25 But because he could not repay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and his children and everything that he possessed, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And his master’s heart was moved with compassion and he released him and forgave him [canceling] the debt. 28 But that same slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began choking him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow slave fell on his knees and begged him earnestly, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and he went and had him thrown in prison until he paid back the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and they went and reported to their master [with clarity and in detail] everything that had taken place. 32 Then his master called him and said to him, ‘You wicked and contemptible slave, I forgave all that [great] debt of yours because you begged me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave [who owed you little by comparison], as I had mercy on you?’…

Matthew 18:23-33 Scripture quotations taken from the Amplified Bible.

In this case we see that one without merit (a debtor who had his loan forgiven) showing arrogance is incredibly distasteful.

Of course, even in this scenario there’s a benefit of a power structure, and one could argue that the unforgiving slave had earned merit in the sense that lacking debt made him superior to the slave who had not been forgiven, but I don’t think that this is any sort of merit (the parable focuses on slaves, and not aristocrats, for a reason). At least, it wouldn’t be merit in the sense Nietzsche would consider it, as he generally considers merit either in the terms of social success or in the form of moral virtue.

I think it’s safe to say that in the context of this statement, Nietzsche refers to the idea of merit as social success. After all, arrogance runs cross-purposes to virtue.

In this case, I’d generally have to disagree with Nietzsche. I’ve always found that those who are arrogant without any good cause to be get under my skin more.

One example of this is when I have students who insist that their capabilities are greater than they really are. Now, there’s a few particular reasons why this is a really painful experience for teachers.

First, if you have a benevolent interest in helping people, it hurts to have to disabuse them of notions of grandeur. This is an example of the distinction between the “nice” thing to do and the “kind” thing to do, and it’s always a painful line to walk.

One of the issues here is that arrogance is posturing. Whether it stems from confidence, ignorance, or insecurity, it looks the same on its surface.

Obviously, you need different approaches for each of these cases. Those who are arrogant due to over-confidence need to be given a realistic perspective, as do those who are ignorant of their needs, but the method for doing so differs.

It’s dangerous to confront the arrogant because you don’t know what part of the psyche feeds into that arrogance. Sometimes it’s really obvious (we’re social creatures who want to look good, so we won’t admit weakness in public; some people overcompensate), and you’re able to talk to the person and express the inner thoughts that they’re not comfortable to say themselves.

The first time I went to a student and told them “You know, I don’t think you’re really comfortable with this” I found it to be a tremendous experience. It was a relief for both of us. I was able to help the student, who had been a little disruptive in class, move toward a less embarrassing course of action for them by working with them to give them positive opportunities to prove their potential and capabilities to their peers, and I was able to start really helping this kid with what they really needed.

Sometimes this is a repressed need and people click to it, and sometimes they don’t. Both over-confident and insecure arrogance actually function in much the same way, and I think this ties into notion of psychological complexes.

Ignorance is always difficult, at least for me, to deal with because you have to confront a need that people don’t feel.

This is often a place where you can crush someone if you do it wrong. You want to make sure that you help people improve, rather than just tearing them down. I’m not good at it, although I hope I will be someday.

Speaking as a recipient of this, it can be incredibly traumatic if handled in a way that brings destruction. If the stakes are high, disabusing someone of their ignorance can be as destructive as leaving them to fail on their own.

It requires a spirit of nurturing, not one of destruction, and it’s important to remember when dealing with the ignorantly arrogant that they never mean to cause harm.

One could argue that there’s an exceptional sting to arrogance in the life of someone who is otherwise virtuous, if we wish to interpret Nietzsche’s statement that way.

I don’t think that this necessarily makes sense. Even though a vice tends to be exacerbated in its obvious manifestations by the presence of virtues in other areas (i.e. someone who is generally virtuous shows flaws more than someone dissolute, because nobody expects much of the dissolute), a flawed saint is generally more tolerable than a monster who lacks pretension.

Of course, arrogance feeds off of self-superiority. Nietzsche could be pointing this out in this statement, since those who can legitimately consider themselves virtuous have been known on many occasions to abuse their privileges to rub it in.

Resolution

Forgive the debts others owe me, because I have been forgiven.

Don’t let a virtue distract from a vice.

Help others to become more aware of who they are to turn them into who they could be.

Reflections on Aphorisms #60

I’ve been keeping up with this as a daily thing for two months now. It’s given me a great opportunity to know myself better, but it’s also helped me process what I’ve learned and what other people have said better.

I am also becoming increasingly anxious that I will repeat myself unwittingly. I find it difficult to believe, since it’s not like I haven’t taken these quotes and thought about them and written about them at length, but at the same time my memory isn’t always great. That some of my writing gets done while my brain in the littoral boundaries between wake and sleep probably doesn’t help. I think I’m going to try to move my writing more into the morning to overcome this.

Aphorism 95

Prudery is a form of avarice.

Stendhal

Interpretation

I belong to a fairly conservative religious tradition (at least inasmuch as standards of modesty are concerned; we’re a Wesleyan off-shoot), and one of the things that I found myself overcoming as I went from a youth to being a man was the difference between legalism and devotion.

One of the things that I found when I was younger is that I would object to people doing things because they were forbidden.

Now, obviously I’m faithful in the religious sense and I follow these codes in my own life (being body-shy, I can’t claim any virtue in it, and I’m not going to move anyone to prurient thoughts in any sane attire), but I think that Stendhal’s point here can be more generally directed toward legalism.

My theory, since this is what it wound up being in my own life, is that legalism is generally a product of having a code of morality, but not having the detachment from desire that is needed to follow it. If you find yourself lacking in moral virtue, it’s easier to project that failure onto others and paint them as the problem with society than it is to address the problem in your own life. This is particularly true if the lack of moral virtue exists within what Jung would refer to as the “shadow” of the personality.

Demanding that one’s code, even an absolute moral code, be applied to others by force is a sign that one has not mastered one’s own desires. Now, this isn’t necessarily a universal statement (after all, there are religions and philosophies that demand absolute worldwide devotion and make this a goal of the faithful), but in general if a desire to control others stems from emotion it’s a result of a failure to control the self.

Another element here can be wanting pleasure only for oneself. Basically the “stop having fun” front. I think that this is basically a second manifestation of the first, with perhaps a little more greed because there’s not as much of a moral foundation underneath it.

I’m not necessarily anti-prude (e.g. I don’t care for public displays of affection), but I also understand that people ought to have freedom, within only the most minimal constraints.

Resolution

Don’t be the fox who curses the grapes that grow on the high vine, out of reach.

Obey the rules laid out for me without resenting them.

Contemplate the reasons for morality, not the violations.

Aphorism 96

Progress is the mother of problems.

Chesterton

Interpretation

One of the things that I heard once is that the process of scientific advancement has been to discover new problems to replace the ones we’ve solved.

Chesterton’s what might be considered a dogmatic conservative. He’s not as stuffy and annoying as we might assume based on that title, but he still has a certain blind spot to the values and merits of change.

So with that said I don’t think he’s necessarily in agreement that attempts to improve the world generally do.

I’m more mixed in my own approach: the problem is that we see change as good when we do it, even when it’s definitely not good, and bad when other people do it, which is usually correct.

The secret is to master both agency and humility. Following this path one can actively seek to make change, but one also avoids the dangers and pitfalls of hubris.

Chesterton is a reactionary, opposed to the society-destroying changes of the early 20th century, and I think he’s actually quite a wise figure. Going against the zeitgeist, he manages to keep some semblance of sanity when everything else goes crazy, though he’s far from perfect.

I think, however, that Chesterton is after something deeper here.

Chesterton was one of the people who felt a very deep, almost mystical, spiritual connection to God, and saw the society around him losing that same connection.

This is something that we see repeated a lot in various ways, and even in a strictly secular sense something of the spiritual nature of humanity has been suppressed by modern society. Of course, you can argue all you want that spirituality is nonsense and irrational, but the counterpart to it is that we’ve also lived with spirituality being an integral part of the average person’s life from the beginning of history to the 20th century.

Part of the problem with spirituality, from the perspective of those who seek progress, is that the answers it contains are timeless. We can aspire for greater knowledge and enlightenment, but even then it remains the case that in the world of spirituality it is the timeless and eternal that is pursued, not the novel and changing. Even in times of transition in how we understand the world on a fundamental level, the goals and the imperatives of the collective unconscious, to borrow Jung’s term for it, will change at best at a glacial pace and typically not at all. It’s more of a biological part of us than we think.

Resolution

Don’t abandon the timeless truth for the fleeting passion.

There is nothing new under the sun, not in the literal sense but the metaphorical one.

A problem may go away, but problems will never be gone. (Christ: “The poor will always be with you.”)

Reflections on Aphorisms #59

Cut back on caffeine today. Feeling a lot better (at least until the headaches start), but also really kinda drowsy and tired. Please forgive any silly spelling mistakes, because I’m typing with my eyes falling closed.

Upside: I’m not tempted to stay up late watching videos on YouTube.

I should just delete my YouTube account.

Aphorism 93

It is useless to close the gates against ideas; they overleap them.

Klemens von Metternich

Interpretation

One of the ideas of history is that there are times when certain ideas and expressions will be heard regardless of the individuals; a collective guides humanity in a certain direction and nobody can really claim to have enough control to stop changes or force things along a certain path.

I don’t know that I agree with it wholesale, because it’s a little too teleological for me to accept as a historical method, but it’s also true in a sense.

There’s a prevailing spirit of the times (not in the spiritual sense, but in the zeitgeist sense), and eventually it gets going along a certain path.

I was recently thinking about the movie V for Vendetta, and the notion that there’s something very archetypal about a rogue rising readily repelling regression (or, that is, people rebelling against tyrants).

If we buy into Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious, or the more traditional notion of a fundamental nature of humanity, it goes to follow that there are times when the conditions that people are exposed to will lead them to act in certain ways.

These expressions of human volition are not necessarily predictable, but they’re nonetheless reproducible (in a scientific sense, though it is practically impossible to set up the same events twice).

This is one of the functions of the historian: they look into the past and see how people act in certain conditions.

Ideas are the most powerful expression of the zeitgeist. Actions may speak louder than words, but both flow from ideas. Without an idea, there is no action and no speech.

The great problem of ideas is that they’re contagious. We are social animals, and we spend our time trying to figure out other peoples’ ideas. At best, this is just a primal instinct, and at worst this can be deliberate sabotage or usurpation. In either case, it’s a necessary process. If we don’t look into the other, we will never fully know the self. The eye sees not its own reflection.

If you have an idea, a great idea, it cannot remain silent. There’s a Christian children’s song, familiar to me from my youth, that has the following song:

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”

I’ll spare the repetitive verses that have now come echoing back into my head, but the actual meaning here is quite sublime.

The way that cultures live and die is by ideas. The song I just mentioned carries a meme that encourages the spreading and sharing of ideas. Technically, it actually has a few separate memes in just the sentence above, but we won’t worry about that.

Von Metternich’s point is this:

An idea can penetrate anything when it’s given the chance to do so.

Resolution

Give ideas the space to grow.

Look for the idea that is common and the one that is not.

Don’t think you can control the hearts of others. That’s hubris.

Aphorism 94

All rumors about a public figure are to be deemed untrue until he threatens to sue.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I would like to think that even if I didn’t understand anything Taleb has to say I could still appreciate his pithy style.

I probably understand very little of what Taleb is saying. That’s never stopped me before and I won’t let it stop me now.

One of the best things that any good thinker keeps at their disposal is Occam’s Razor. It’s a very simple rhetorical device, and it’s been simplified to the following:

The simplest solution tends to be right.

Typically, when I look at anything said by or about public figures, the rule is: “They’re saying it to get something.”

The veracity is not significant. The truth of the matter, especially in politics, is that people say things specifically for the point of what the saying gets them.

Whether or not words have any bearing on truth is insignificant.

There’s something that Jordan Peterson once said, and I’m too tired to look it up so I’m gonna just paraphrase it and butcher it:

If you say something that you know to be true, you’re pitting your wit against the reality of a complex universe.

One of the outcomes of this is that a mature person won’t give statements which are motivated lies (or at the very least motivated stretchings of the truth) more than a moment’s notice.

So I almost fell asleep in front of the TV not too long ago, and I had the news on. I can guarantee that 80%, maybe 90% of what I heard was basically just bloviation, and about 1% of it will have any impact on my life. Not even my daily life, mind you, but my life in general.

One of the nice things about reality being so complex is that a lot of the moving pieces aren’t really moving all that much in the grand scheme of things. This is untrue in the individual’s life, but very true in the sphere of politics.

To get back to the point, look for the things you can’t say, because those are the things people don’t want you to say.

If those things are true, run.

Resolution

Say the uncomfortable truth.

The tongue is the weakest muscle. This isn’t because of a lack of physical power. It’s due to a lack of character.

Never open the mouth if the tongue tastes untruth.

Reflections on Aphorisms #58

Ugh, I’m falling back into a rut.

I’m going to make myself go get some serious exercise tomorrow morning and cut back on caffeine to try and make things easier. I’m just having issues focusing on anything, which is not a good recipe for being productive.

With that said, let’s begin.

Aphorism 92

In summary, modernity replaced process with result and the relational with the transactional.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Newton sparked a shift in our understanding of the world toward a modern empirical “rational” model.

Jung’s work with archetypes has become so significant in our day and age, because the change is so fundamental that we left a lot of things behind in our haste.

Now, it’s worth noting that the modern view probably presents a better objective picture of the world. It’s blind to everything outside our senses, and as a result it tends to result in less bias.

However, the shift from the classical and ancient to the modern also deprived us of things.

Alchemy, for instance, when understood psychologically, provides a series of changes and alterations that can impact the mind. The four steps of classical alchemy (darkening, whitening, yellowing, reddening) each reflect a life process; losing innocence, finding virtue, and so on and so forth.

Now, there were alchemists who believed in literally making things into gold, but even they were enlightened to the psychological nature (or willfully blind to it) of the field because of the notion of “as above, so below” that pervades alchemical thought.

This “as above, so below” is what we lost in the transition to the modern age.

The alchemists associated everything with great mythical and religious mysteries. Nothing existed without a will guiding it, a divine spark of being that led it to act in the way it did.

The work of Newton and Einstein serves us a whole lot better when we wish to accomplish things, but it lacks the integration with a cohesive worldview that the alchemists enjoyed.

When Taleb says we have replaced the process with the result, he refers to how we have stripped the psychological valence from everyday things.

The word “profane” actually serves as an antonym to the word “holy” in its function. We have stripped the mysteries of life of their sacred meaning, and we do so at our own peril. Think of the mystery of conception and child-birth (now considered little more than a biological process) or the mystery of the sun and moon cycles. These dominated myth, and are often given value by even relatively secularized and ecumenical religions.

A diagram showing an overview of common sacred and profane elements over time. Made by me. The faded colors on the modern side indicate increased individual variance.

The concept of the sacred and profane still exists, though it is hidden in different language and the responses have changed. We have some common elements between them (namely, social elites are always associated with being sacred figures, outsiders or ignorant people are considered profane), but the actual functioning of this is different.

Some of this stems from the fact that individuals have a greater latitude for independent moral judgment in the modern age, creating a greater variance in what is classified as sacred or profane. Part of it is also simply down to the fact that reason-based worldviews, though often flawed, should not require as much dogmatic conviction as, say, a faith-based worldview would. In thepry, dogmatic conviction is supposed to be diametrically opposed to rational thought, though it is never too far off in practice.

One of the things that has also changed here is the relationship. Some of this has to do with increased size of social circles, but it also comes down to what is sacred.

Most “sacred” (here referring to both religious and secular cultural expressions) traditions place a strong value on the family, and this is what archetypal thought goes back into. The family serves as a model for future interactions outside the family, because it is the most familiar unit of relationships (see the etymological relation?) but also the earliest that most people have conscious experience of.

A strictly rational worldview, however, doesn’t necessarily view relationship as being terribly important. So long as one fulfills obligations, and obligations are fulfilled in return, the transaction is completed to mutual benefit.

Falling more in the ancient than the modern camp in this issue, I think that this was a defining reason for my stressed relationships with many of my more modern-minded family members. Coming from a position that I have always held where certain things are expected in a relationship (with some degree of flexibility to respect the individual; i.e. you wouldn’t ask the same things of every mother or every brother), the fact that many of my family members felt and experienced love in a more transactional way was lost on me as a youth.

Now, I don’t want to condemn this; the people that I find to be like this are often great role models, but the difference in communication creates perceived deficiencies.

I think it’s also fair to say that we’re not wholly modern. Or, perhaps, that the modern worldview has not wholly dominated the collective conscious expression of humanity.

Resolution

Be patient with those different from myself.

Don’t forget to speak the same language as other people.

Reflections on Aphorisms #57

I feel like I’ve had a breakthrough today. It’s not one I can explain, but something just clicked and I feel like I’m a better person in some small, possibly intangible way.

I know that sounds kind of crazy, but I stand by it. I’m also feeling a little crummy, so it’s not just an elated high. I guess maybe doing more reading on mythology (currently African mythology) has helped me unlock something in my mind, or maybe I’ve just gotten into a mood.

Aphorism 91

My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.

Montaigne

Interpretation

Have I ever mentioned that I love Montaigne’s work? He’s like if you crossed Mark Twain and Socrates, and he’s just fantastic. The first great modern, and the last great classic. Impeccable.

I identify very strongly with this quote, and I think most people do. Especially in this modern day and age, a lot of people seem to be of an anxious type (myself included), and that doesn’t do us any favors.

One of the things that I’ve noticed in my own life is that I have an infinite ability to let my mind wander, and usually I let it wander into the things that I’m most afraid of.

There’s value to this. It helps prepare me for what comes next.

The problem is that usually the worst stuff doesn’t happen.

There’s a stoic injunction to contemplate the worst and then accept it, and I think that’s something to learn from here.

When I find myself worrying, I sometimes ask myself “So what happens then?”

Usually the answer is less dismal than one would think.

I’m not good about this, and I think I need to get better about it (back to my Latin teacher’s “What is this to eternity?” question again), but it’s something that provides a little opportunity to improve and I could do quite easily.

One of the other things to note here is that Montaigne had a lot more to worry about than we do, at least in general and in the severity of his worries (e.g. plague, civil war, religious conflict). Our problems are real, but how many of them really threaten us? We’ve built society primarily to protect ourselves, and we lose that advantage if we don’t keep a clear mind.

So what’s the take away?

Things are never as bad as your mind can make them.

Resolution

Be prepared, but don’t over-plan.

Keep it all in perspective: the chance of the worst thing happening is low.

Don’t over-dramatize your life. You have value, but you also are finite. Come to grips with that.

Reflections on Aphorisms #56

I’m going to do something a little out of the ordinary today and focus on a quote from something that I read that isn’t really an aphorism for one of my reflections. It’s a quote from Clyde W. Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link), and I found it very interesting for its clarity.

Typically I’ve tried to gravitate toward short aphorisms, but I’m beginning to exhaust the ones that I have at my disposal that speak to me, so I’m probably going to wind up going over a greater range.

This is both exactly what I hoped would happen when I started doing this, and something that I feel a certain amount of hesitation over. Ironically, I don’t even keep close track of who reads these, so this may just be me writing for myself anyway. Lest I sound vain, I do this as part of a self-improvement exercise, and I’m not able to work diligently without some accountability, so the publication of my thoughts is a necessity toward a different end than fame or success. Still, I won’t object to any money thrown my way.

Aphorism 90

Across time and throughout the world, the hero strides out of myths and legends as the one who has ventured beyond the security of the present into an uncertain future, there to claim some victory or boon for humanity left behind.

Clyde W. Ford

Interpretation

The Hero, in an archetypal sense, turns chaos into order. That is what they do.

I do not believe that I have ever heard the notion of the hero expressed as a traveler in time before. That is something that is an important concept, because time and space have both unique and parallel expressions in consciousness.

I like the notion of the hero moving into an uncertain future, which speaks to me in a way that I don’t often hear.

We have a tendency to think of stories as something static, something that gets set in stone and never changes.

Of course, there’s also Reader Response Theory, which argues that stories are always what people make of them, but I don’t like holistic approaches to understanding because they’re never as good as what you come to piecemeal.

The truth is somewhere in-between. Stories have the intended meaning of the author (RRT doesn’t deny this, but basically ignores it) and their more immediate purpose and meaning in our lives.

There’s a link here in the form of the archetypal, Jung would say the collective unconscious, elements that are common across all times and places. People can see the archetypes and connect to them, even if they are not aware and conscious of what the archetypes are.

A lot of these archetypes are most clearly expressed in myth–which does not mean that myths are simple and primitive–because ancient myths carry meaning for us only in the sense that we are aware of it. There are things that an American will see that would never occur to an ancient Arabian, or African, or Asian, or Greek mind. There are things that were very important in the original context that have fallen away from our knowledge (and knowing these can allow us to make even more connections which sometimes are obvious in their universal quality only once we awaken to them).

But the real thing here is that the Hero moves from the current unbearable world into the world of chaos and potential. It’s a cosmic force, in the literal sense; it is the sun rising in the east and falling in the west, being brought across the sky on a fiery chariot.

And this is why we have anything good at all. Everyone is a hero when they move the world in a better direction. It is the act of sacrifice for a noble purpose, even if the sacrifice seems insignificance (sacrifice is, loosely defined, merely giving up something in the tangible present for intangible benefit), and this is what builds society.

The Hero is the basic unit of life. We can choose to rise to the call or fall into squalor.

Resolution

Step into the uncertain future.

Sacrifice now, feast later.

Tell the stories that lead to the way of life.

Reflections on Aphorisms #55

Another shorter Sunday reflection, this time on Pascal.

Little bit of trivia: the programming language Pascal (named after, well, Pascal) was the first that I had any experience with. Not sure if that matters to anyone, and I probably couldn’t write a line of Pascal if my life depended on it now, but it’s kinda funny. I heard someone talk about it like it was one of those old “back in the day” languages not too long ago.

Aphorism 89

Desire and force between them are responsible for all actions; desire causes our voluntary acts, force our involuntary.

Pascal

My biggest gripe here is–and I’m willing to bet that it comes down to this being out of context and maybe not translated well–that Pascal doesn’t explain the difference between desire and force.

For instance, I have a desire and a need to eat. I always eat as a voluntary act, but all the same it is not optional. If I don’t feel like eating, and I have gone days without food (say, for instance, if I am ill), I will eat food out of respect for my needs.

I guess the better distinction here is voluntary and involuntary.

I’ve studied a lot of Carl Jung’s work, and one of the things that goes into Jung’s work is this assumption that the self is made up of a conscious, known, element and an unconscious, unknown, element. This is a simplification, but it’s good enough for a layman like myself when discussing less serious topics.

One of the things about the notion of a voluntary act is that it’s something that we choose, but the degree to which we choose something versus being forced into it is uncertain.

I would posit that there are things which appear voluntary which are actually forced (e.g. by our unconscious urges and desires), and things which appear involuntary which are actually chosen by the same mechanism.

Take, for example, the notion of a Freudian slip (Freud was Jung’s mentor). This is the idea that one can consciously undertake an act, but the execution is dependent upon the unconscious agreeing to the proceedings.

A great common example would be the act of speaking or writing while one’s mind is on another subject and talking about the real subject rather than the topic of the conversation. I do this from time to time as a writer, and if you’ve read much of my writing you’ve probably seen it in a place or two.

Jung takes it a bit further (though one could argue that most psychoanalysts do) by arguing that it’s not just the surface level stuff but also ties into selective memory, mishearing/misreading things, and so forth.

Kazuo Ishiguro touches on this a lot in his novel The Remains of the Day, where it’s clear that the narrator is intentionally avoiding the memory of certain things that he or members of his household have done in the past.

The Freudian slip in daily life may be overstated because a lot of what often slips out is not truly unconscious but rather suppressed in the conscious (e.g. not wanting to reference something embarrassing or inconvenient), but it’s worth talking about nonetheless.

But I ramble.

I think that what I want to get at here is that I challenge Pascal’s assertions that we can form a neat dichotomy around force and desire. I believe in the concept of free will, but also that it is limited. I believe that people have free will in the sense that they choose available decisions around the circumstances they’re in. It’s possible for people to be in situations where their decisions are made for them by the unconscious, and therefore not technically using their free will, and to this extent a certain portion of all actions are deterministic.

Resolution

Be aware of what I do, and how I came to do it.

Don’t fall victim to the temptation to classify.

Remember that words are markers for concepts, and concepts do not reflect reality.

Reflections on Aphorisms #54

Aphorism 87

When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.

Oscar Wilde

Interpretation

Remember that Wilde is not writing as a religious man. This may have more to do with myth, fable, and literary allusions than religious matters.

There’s a common mythic motif of being careful about what one wishes for.

I think there are two forms that this takes and they’re each distinct:

The first is the folly in the request. This is what happens when someone asks for something that they wouldn’t really want.

For instance, if you ask for a fancy mansion, you’re stuck maintaining it. You might not have the means to do so, so the getting is moot.

We often overlook the steps between our position and our goal when we are filled with desire. This does us no favors.

What we truly long after is not what we desire, but the success and comfort that comes with getting the object of our affections. The best way to cultivate this is self-improvement, not pursuit of wealth.

The second is the folly in the result. Sometimes getting what we want changes us for the worse.

The best example of this can be found in the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, immortalized by T.S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral.

King Henry II makes a remark about wanting to be rid “of this turbulent priest” (formerly a close friend), and the knights around him oblige the remark by killing Becket.

Henry finds this to be little recompense, however, and is forced to prostrate himself and turn to penitence. Whether his grief is authentic or false, he still is humbled by the consequences of his desire.

This is a classic tragic arc.

There’s an intersection of both types of wrong desire in the King Midas story: wanting all the gold in the world, he gets the power to turn everything he touches to gold. Quickly Midas realizes that gold is not the thing he truly wants (folly in the request) and that he’s also ruined his appreciation for what he had and created new problems for himself (folly in the result).

The stoics teach that being too close to what we desire is dangerous. It begins to control us. Getting what you want may actually be subordinating yourself to it.

Resolution

Don’t desire things; strive for discipline and all else follows.

Live so that your desires serve you, not vice versa.

Guard your desires carefully: don’t let evil join their midst.

Aphorism 88

We can do noble acts without ruling earth and sea.

Aristotle

Interpretation

One of the common fallacies about goodness is that people have to be great (in stature) to be good (in spirit). Now, I’m as much a believer as anyone that good deeds tend to be rewarded, and a lot of success can come down to making the right decisions consistently enough that they pay off.

However, there are connections to Aristotle’s point to be drawn here.

First, those people whose success is tied to their virtue must practice that virtue before they are successful, and continue to practice that virtue when their fortunes waver.

They do not have rule over their lives, but they still do the right thing precisely because it is right.

Second, there are people who are moral who never receive any tangible reward for their good lives.

The reasons for these are complex. One part of it is that I think that the external signs of success are often not tied to the internal acts of morality. Being highly moral may not lead to having more money, but it does lead to liberation from the want of money.

Another point to be made here is that anyone has the potential to choose the moral path. Even the lowest person by society’s standards has a chance to do something that would help another person. Heck, a smile and a kind word goes a long way to make things better, and that’s practically free.

One of the things that Jordan Peterson once said is that a lot of his work with young people has been to encourage them to try their best, and that a lot of them have never heard an encouraging word in their life.

My own experience confirms this. A lot of people go through life without ever experiencing the mercy of compassion. Surprisingly, they don’t always become bitter, so you can’t look at someone and see clearly whether or not they have the support they need.

I think that this is one of the best places that anyone can take a simple step toward virtue: find someone who is struggling and speak a benediction into their life. Give them a chance to appreciate themselves. Lift them up.

Resolution

Use words that build up others.

Don’t judge success by the car someone drives.

When in doubt, remember that no good act is too small to be worthy.

Reflections on Aphorisms #53

This will be a short post today because I am trying out a new software for editing. I’m not 100% sold on it because I’ve lost a lot of writing because it doesn’t have any auto-saving functionality. The web plugin didn’t check if the page has refreshed between starting and finishing working, and once I clicked save and it did not.

So it wasn’t the best of days.

Aphorism 86

One often contradicts an opinion when what is uncongenial is really the tone in which it was conveyed.

Nietzsche

Interpretation

This is an interesting truth.

What people don’t realize is that being unpleasant makes everything worse.

If the best project in the world required collaborating with someone truly distasteful, it would not be the best project in the world.

I almost never swear. There are few places where swearing adds proper emphasis, and many where it causes emotions to run ragged.

However, I think it comes down to a lot of things. Other than my tendency to whine (which is something I am better about), I try to be polite and helpful around people. There are limits to this, but I’ve found being pleasant and a little cooperative gets more results than you’d expect from being useful. The sacrifice required for this is minimal. Fifteen minutes a week earns interest.

There’s a connection to politics. I migrated across political affiliations before deciding just not to have any. The reason for this is simple: I cared more about victory than principle. Then I realized that everyone that I was looking up to was flawed. There are very few honest politicians. If you align with any faction, you align with a lot of snakes.

So I don’t. This change made life better.

I’ve found that many abrasive people hide issues. Whether it is emotional, social, or practical, something feeds that attitude. There’s room for lenience–people have bad days–but if there’s a habit, it’s a red flag.

Nice people suck as friends. You want people who are honest. No exaggeration.

Look for people who give productive criticism. They have a good outlook. They don’t flatter and don’t denigrate. 

You may notice that these people are wrong. They will not judge your opinions. Return the favor. Life will get a lot better.

You may notice that you agree with people. See if they’re jerks. If they are, do the kind thing and let them know politely. Everyone wins. If they become hostile, it’s their loss, not yours. You can’t befriend everybody. If they improve, you’ve helped them and yourself.

There is one exception: blunt honesty. Telling the truth should be the priority. Just don’t put a negative spin on it. Sincerity to help, not to harm. Take your frustrations out on paper or canvas, not people. Know when to pull a punch.

My high school Latin teacher had a phrase he loved to repeat:

“What is this to eternity?”

Nothing that bothers you is worth burning other people for.

So don’t.

Resolution

Be kind, not nice.

Don’t tear down what isn’t worthy of destruction.

Master frustration, release it without hurting anyone.