Reflections on Aphorisms #15

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 22

The person you are the most afraid to contradict is yourself.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Our relationship with ourselves is odd. We clearly generally view ourselves by default as the most important person in the universe but we are also willing to sacrifice much of ourselves sometimes for things which we find of little meaning for us, which we consider tragic, and sometimes for things we find to hold more meaning that ourselves, which is heroic.

There is an expression, which I hate, which says to “be true to yourself” in a sort of pithy fake intellectual want-to-be-wise meaningless statement.

The worst part of this is that it is not far from the truth. It merely just presented in the way which manages to be antithetical. What people say be true to yourself, they typically mean do what you want. However, our short-term minds often fail to match our long-term persona. It leads us to a point where we leave ourselves with no option but to violate our convictions because small decisions that we make on impulse violate the underlying code.

This does not mean that we are blind to the Sword of Damocles which we hang above our own bed. We are fully aware when we say to find ourselves, that we can make decisions which lead us astray. We simply prefer platitude to conviction.

When I was in college, I took a course called “The Human Event” as part of an honors curriculum. It was divided into two parts, a general first semester Symposium followed by a more specific second semester, in which I chose to focus on the humanities. It was in the second semester, with a tremendous professor, that learn to appreciate you manatees capability for self destruct. It is not that we do not know what we want, that we do not know why we want it and how best to achieve it. This is what many elite thinkers fail to realize.

People are not generally wrong about what they want, and they are not generally choosing things which go against their own interest. It is merely that their interests are complicated.

People make decisions which seem irrational because they have more than one decision to make and their choices rely on multiple factors. They merely choose the option which best fits the various conflicting elements of their psyche and their existence.

My Life

As someone who has recently left a job that I love, not in the petty manner of love of gaining immediate pleasure from but rather in the deeper meaning of having value to my very core of my existence, I found that even though the path which I am currently on is one which promises great potential and great opportunity, being what we might call a real life example of the Hero’s Journey, it is still incredibly painful to leave behind something which has formed such a large part of my identity, something which I truly found meaning within.

As such, I feel acutely attuned to this saying. It reflects the pain that I feel, the pain which is good to feel, the pain of being forced to choose between one good and another.

If it were a choice between one thing with no meaning, and one with meaning, there would be no pain. However, it is when one has to choose between two equal goods that decisions become truly difficult. It is a difficulty which I wish to experience with consistency for the rest of my life.

Resolution

Be in a place where every big decision requires meaningful sacrifice.

Metaphorically speaking, do not worry about what I am eating for breakfast.

Embrace what is difficult when it also bears purpose.

Reflections on Aphorisms #14

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 21

It takes less time to learn how to write nobly than how to write lightly and straightforwardly.

Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Nietzsche has interesting thoughts on writing. I’m actually surprised to see how profound they are, not because I disparage Nietzsche, but because they are sublime.

Writers are often focused on appearances. When people focus on appearances they do not always consider fundamentals. One of my observations is that students often use thesauruses when they write in ways that do not improve their writing one iota. This is because they pursue writing has something to impress others with.

What I have discovered as a writer, especially one who is currently planning to write multiple books more or less simultaneously, is that it is not the writing itself that matters. That is not actually correct, but it is a simplified version of the truth.

The good writer doesn’t without their writing. They do not sweat individual pieces of punctuation they do not obsess before anything in there text or at least, if they do, it is not their highest priority. The highest priority is to convey information that is worth knowing.

If there is one thing that I could teach students who want to learn how to write well, it is that they must focus on what needs to be said. Nothing else matters.

We teach formulaic writing in this day and age. There’s nothing wrong with this, I even recommend it. However, when you teach writing in that way, the formula is merely to free students from worrying about the adiaphora, to remove their concerns about what they have to do so that they can do what they have to do.

We assign praise to those who present the greatest prose, but we should praise those to present the best ideas.

My Life

I have written over a million words in my life. This is the verifiable count. Since I tend to squirrel of my lots of little writings on various projects, organization is not my strong suit, and I do not care to waste too much time on metrics, I do not know how much I have actually written. It seems likely that I may have actually written more than 3 million words in my life, but I do not want to making erroneously exaggerated claim, as much rather stick to the known and conservative estimates.

I have found it I am happiest writing when I feel comfortable with this subject and I do not feel the need to describe what I am talking about. It’s not that I don’t like giving definitions and descriptions, but rather that what I have found to be most authentic is the writing which a reader will get without me needing to explain it.

I am guilty of the high and lofty school of writing. When I was in high school, I wrote an essay for a teacher in AP English class. one of the pieces of feedback that I received in the margin was a simple question: “When does this sentence end?”

I was proud of myself for writing a sentence that had lasted for more than a quarter of a page without encountering any grammatical difficulties. As an exercise in writing it was impressive. It was also foolish. There was no benefit to the reader from my having written such verbose sentences. Indeed, I don’t know that that sentence despite its length actually delivered any meaning beyond what a simple short sentence could provide.

I had forgotten that the best points are made in simple statements. It is natural that more complex concepts require more complex writing, but over-complicating writing does not make the point any more sophisticated. Simple statements for simple ideas. Long statements for complex ideas. This is natural.

However, the real master can convey the complex idea with a simple statement.

Resolution

Write with purpose.

Don’t bury my point beneath wasted words.

Think of goal before thinking of means.

Reflections on Aphorisms #13

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 20

“I believe the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.”

Dostoevsky, quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Dostoevsky is probably one of my favorite writers. Carl Jung trash talked the writers of philosophical novels in his book Modern Man In Search of a Soul (Amazon affiliate link), arguing that they explained too much. On the contrary, I believe that philosophical novelists like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy represent valuable insights to how we feel about ourselves.

Human ingratitude is a common idea. We are limited in many ways by an inability to appreciate. Some of this is only natural. Gratitude must be learned. My experience working with children has taught me this. There is also the fact that what we consider to be good for us is not always good for us, and that what is considered to be harmful may actually be quite beneficial. We make for ourselves images of our own reality.

The problem is that we are idolators. We never truly consider what we need instead worship what seems to bring a satisfaction. Most of the time this is sufficient. After all, satisfaction often is tied to something good, at least in a first-order effect. If we eat we will no longer be hungry. However, the world is not simple.

The exact point at which our ability to appreciate breaks down may very well be unique to each individual some people besides themselves bemoaning the consequences of something they once believed to be good, feeling deceived and tricked by reality itself. Others, incapable of appreciating the immediate effect, never pay attention to what they have. The truth, painful as it is, is the I have seen very few people who are truly happy in every sense of the word. I believe this to tie directly to the problem at hand.

My life

I have learned as an adult to be that much more thankful for what I have. I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the worst deprivations known to people but also I have learned to see what I have rather than what I do not have.

This does not mean I never want anything, and I can’t claim to be a savvy consumer who never wastes money on things that wind up being unfulfilling, but it does mean that what I want does not feel like a necessity.

There was a time when entitlement was a buzzword. It may still be, I simply do not expose myself to so much foolishness as I did in my youth. I think that’s a great antidote believing that the Universe owes you something is to remember what you’ve might not have. I am a fan of the stoics. Sometimes I find myself to be a better member of their company than others, but key lesson that I have is that you are responsible for how you feel much of modern martyrdom is elective. There is no rule or oppression that holds most of us down. It is only ourselves.

Resolution

Appreciate what I have.

Do not envy.

Tear down idols in my life.

Reflections on Aphorisms #12

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 19

At any stage, humans can thirst for money, knowledge, or love; sometimes for two, never for three.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

The notion that one has to choose priorities is not new. I believe there’s a saying in the Bible that one cannot love both God and money. At very least, it is attributed to the Bible.

I don’t know if it’s necessarily Fair to make so absolute statements about human motivation. One thing that I is that there tends to be almost archetypal layers of being that drive station. This is to say that people have stages of their life in which the desire certain things, and these are not necessarily easily categorized by simply describing them as, say, wealth or family.

However one thing that I have observed, and which seems brilliantly clear, is that people are poor judges of themselves. Shakespeare’s Brutus, in the play “Julius Caesar”, says about himself that the eye sees not its own reflection. This is a metaphor that Brutus uses to explain that he does not pass judgment on himself, or rather, does not allow himself to make judgments as to his own virtue, because it is not something which is easily knowable. It would seem natural the person that we know best is our self, but in reality we tend only to see the first order effects of our actions. It is those around us see who we truly are because they have to deal with the consequences we create.

To get back to the original point, there’s something to be said for the pursuit of the Balanced Life, but it is also something which is unnatural. It is a common tragic trope that a character cannot deal with all the parts of their life that they need to deal with. Because we go through immense changes over the course of Our Lives, the inability to truly assess our own motives and to accurately prioritize many factors of our being poses a great threat to us. This is one of the reasons why the suffering of a tragic hero is so cathartic.

My Life

I often used Carol Pearson’s psychological archetypes (Amazon affiliate link) to teach the Hero’s Journey to my students. The reason for this is that represents transition through a hierarchy of needs.

In my life right now, I am focusing on pursuing knowledge, figuring out more the truths of reality while also mastering my trade of writing and teaching.

One thing that’s interesting about Pearson’s archetypes is that she presents the notion that a highly successful person achieves balance, but each archetype has a sort of order in which they come.

The ideal is to transcend the limitations that come with uncertainty. In the works of Jung and other analytical psychologists, there’s often this concept of a balance between order and chaos.

In my own life, I seek to find the balance between these things. Having too much order breeds limitation. One never learns how to truly live if one only follows rules. Too much chaos, one and can never really pursue purpose. It is lost inside the void.

Pearson presents the Sage and the Fool as the final archetypes in development. We would associate these with wisdom. The Sage pursues the right order of the universe, and the Fool its potential.

When I was a child I was referred to as old for my age. Some people even called me wise, though I believe this was perhaps more because I parroted what they wanted to hear than because of any particular merit of my own upon later reflection. In any case, I value wisdom highly, something that has been impressed upon me since I was a child reading the Bible story of King Solomon.

To get back to the point, I think that there is a distinction between setting a goal, which can be clearly focused on something like wealth or family, and finding meaning, which is more holistic in nature.

Resolution

Work towards clear goals.

Reorient frequently enough that I do not lose sight of what is important.

Go beyond what is comfortable.

Reflections on Aphorisms #11

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 18

You know you have influence when people start noticing your absence more than the presence of others.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

This quote stuck out to me. Part of having influence is not necessarily this Machiavellian notion of control, but rather making yourself useful or interesting. The result of that is that there is an incentive to help others. Influence isn’t necessarily about being on top, but it’s about being part of life.

One of the things that I’ve noticed, when I worked with kids, is that outside of a strict social hierarchy whether or not someone is important tends to come down to whether or not they provide something to other people. As someone who considers himself a fan of capitalism, this is not that different from my approach to business. The act of changing things makes you influential. From there, you can decide whether you want to be positive in your influence or negative, if you are clever enough and wise enough to choose to do so.

It’s worth noting that tell that doesn’t necessarily say whether it is good or bad to be influential. Sometimes you want to be the quiet unnoticed person, though I think this is rarer than some people would suggest.

Part of the challenge that comes with influence is the responsibility it carries. Choosing to be quiet and unnoticed can often be a self-deceptive escape from responsibility. At the very least, he can be a waste of potential.

In this context, it is almost always better to be influential than not.

My life

In my own personal life, I found it beneficial to always be doing small favors for people. This started because I am too polite to say no when met with a reasonable request, but not only do I find it enjoyable, but has the added side effect of making people generally like me or at least pretend to like me so they continue to do favors for them. In any case I do not obsess over the issue because pretending to like someone and liking them have very similar effects.

I have also found that the inverse corollary of this is important. If you don’t have an impact on someone and you are not influential, it creates a situation that most people would prefer not find themselves in. I think this often with students I’ve had. Children are surprisingly honest, though not necessarily by choice. When someone who is not influential is absent, children will mention but they did not even notice the absence.

One of the important psychological needs is the need to feel significant. This is often made too much of, but there is some truth to it. I often wonder if the people who my pupils would not notice missing realize this. Generally they tend not to be the happiest of their group, whether teachers or students themselves.

Resolution

Behave in a way that is meaningful to others.

Identify needs and meet them.

Do today what will be felt tomorrow.

Reflections on Aphorisms #10

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 17

Mediocre men tend to be outraged by small insults but passive, subdued, and silent in front of very large ones.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that people who think they have something to prove try very hard to do so.

When I was a teacher (this no longer applies to me as of today, and I hope to be a teacher again once the current arc of my saga draws to a conclusion), I noticed that students who were under-performing would rarely deny their greater problems, but would make up for it with bluster in meaningless things.

I think that some of this comes from the following notion: if one has not done the due diligence to find priorities and work on them, they won’t fix them. However, there is a universal desire to be good, or at least above average. One student (who was actually decent, but created a sort of cult of mediocrity around himself) created a scatological analogy by saying that he was the “turd that floats to the top”, but this isn’t actually how mediocre people tend to react to their own mediocrity.

Instead, status symbols and irrelevant comparisons are the main point, while the things that should take a high priority are left more or less ignored.

My Life

I’m perfect and have nothing to change.

I kid. One of the things that I’ve noticed about myself is that I have a tendency to sweat the small details. I remember when I was in college and working on my PHP-based interactive fiction platform that I was trying to figure out the most optimal way to do things well before I actually had a working prototype.

The kicker here is that the whole system was, to my knowledge, never subject to more than a single user at a time. So, basically, I was going over the small things.

This isn’t quite the same as bearing insults, but I think it follows. Taleb talks about “Mediocristan”–the place in which events have a very predictable range of consequences–and “Extremistan”–the counterpart in which events can have incredibly unpredictable outcomes–frequently in his work.

I spend a lot of time ignoring Extremistan for Mediocristan, and the consequence of this is that I sweat over little things that aren’t going to have a lot of impact (like whether I eat 400 or 415 calories at a meal).

It’s not that I intentionally ignore big-risk things, but I run into human limitations because of my focus on things that bear little risk and little reward.

I do think that in a personal sense, though, I’m good about insults. I’m willing to accept criticism, and I’ll even accept a certain amount of unproductive criticism (working with kids does that to you) without sweating it.

Resolution

Don’t focus on small things for more than they’re worth.

Remember that your first impression is designed to give you a good feel for what things are.

Organize your priorities and cut the wasteful expenditures.

Reflections on Aphorisms #9

Today I’ve just got one aphorism to discuss, and it’s not one that I took from a book of aphorisms.

It’s Virgil’s old time-honored quote “Omnia vincit amor” (Love conquers all) that has been on my mind recently (the sixteenth aphorism, by my count, that I will give my treatment to).

Interpretation

I went back and read the context of this one, in part because it’s important to make sure that you get the feel for the right kind of love that’s being discussed when you’re translating from classical languages.

In this case, Virgil’s talking about love in sort of the common English sense: romantic entanglement, mostly.

Whenever I hear a lot of discussion of love, my thoughts go to Corinthians and its breakdown of love, but Virgil here is talking about something distinct from what the Apostle Paul was talking about.

In this case, it’s talking about romantic love, but also about passion, and making a rather bold statement.

Now, I think there’s two ways to interpret this:

  1. This is bluster of the sort that lovers engage in.
  2. This is a philosophical statement about the world.

From the context, it almost seems like this is more the former than the latter. However, in a sort of Chesterton-choosing-to-enjoy-the-fine-things-of-life manner I think it’s also philosophical.

Omnia vincit amor could be viewed almost in a way as a sort of carpe diem, the notion that passion should be respected and followed rather than just suppressed.

My Life

I’m a life-long bachelor. It’s not that I’ve never contemplated having a romantic relationship, it’s just that I’m not hugely invested in getting into one.

I’m getting older, though, and I’m being forced to realize that I’m not necessarily on the path I want to be on forever. Especially as I look within myself I realize that I’m somewhat of a self-absorbed person, not in the sense that I’m necessarily vain and petty, since I am quite conscientious in most ways, but that I like to sort of plan around me and not necessarily other people.

And I often feel quite bad about that and get self-conscious about it, which is a sort of natural consequence. I’m capable of empathy and whatnot, I’m just very introverted and if I weren’t sort of naturally sensitive I’m sure I’d be a huge pain in the butt to be around (as it stands I’m usually able to avoid harming anyone’s feelings because I’m so soft, unless I get riled up).

All absolutes suck.

It’s a rule.

They’ll never account for everything.

As such, I don’t think I agree with Virgil’s statement. People are powerful, and passion can lead them to great things, but love isn’t some metaphysical guiding force.

However, I long for the state of mind in which I could agree with Virgil.

Resolution

Don’t suppress passion.

Seek meaning outside myself.

Open my shell.

Reflections on Aphorisms #8

Just one today, but it’s one that I can write about a fair deal.

Aphorism 15

To become a philosopher, start by walking very slowly.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed Of Procrustes

Interpretation

I don’t think this is meant to be taken in a strictly literal sense, though it might not be the end of the world to do so.

I think it has to do with understanding value.

If you value things that are related to activity, you will live a life of activity.

This is not bad. Actions prove ideals.

However, ideals cannot flow from actions (or, perhaps it is better to say: ideals that are good do not typically flow from action).

By pursuing action rather than ideal, you put the cart before the horse.

Philosophers devote intentional time and effort to deliberate thought, and they are willing to invest the time to do so. That’s time spent reading and reflecting, time spent ruminating on concepts.

If you want to become a philosopher, taking a more passive approach is good. You don’t observe when you are obsessed with the change you want to bring.

My Life

I was (briefly) nicknamed “The Terminator” in high school because I have a tendency to power-walk, a trait which, when combined with a trench coat, led to the nickname. I also tended to be fairly expressionless because I was lost in thought most of the time, but I don’t think that was the origin.

The fact that I am a mostly harmless nerdy kid probably contributed to the end of the nickname, since the only way that anyone was in danger because of my actions was myself on account of poor diet (I wasn’t fantastically overweight, but the only way my diet could have been considered balanced would have been if I held it funny).

In any case, I hope that this does not disqualify me from being a philosopher. I still have a tendency to be ruthlessly efficient, and I try to avoid navel-gazing over everyday events.

Of course, the reason why I do this is because I know that I have the counter-part to it in me. I have the Millenial fixation with losing sleep over something that happened over a decade ago (like basically anything I did in middle school which I can still remember; embarrassment seems to be a strong driver of memory, which I should know from reading so much psych), and I have to work hard to not spend too much time looking into an infinite void of potential and doubt.

In any case, I think I definitely need to consider slowing down a little, not necessarily in terms of work but in terms of other things. I’ve noticed that I’m afraid of being bored, and I’m not sure that’s a way I want to be.

Resolution

Be willing to commit to quiet.

If my cat were still around, I’d spend time cuddling her. As is, a quiet cup of tea may have to suffice.

Cut out noise, find signal.

Reflections on Aphorisms #7

Another day, another bunch of aphorisms.

I’m moving up to four, because I think that’s a good number for a day. I don’t know if I’ll keep this pace forever, but today’s a day I feel like doing more writing than usual.

Aphorism 11

To understand how something works, figure out how to break it.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

One thing I remember from a book on psychology is that there is a tendency to ignore that which works as expected.

Many of the things which we observe are the product of processes that are opaque to us.

When something breaks, we get to see inside it in a special way. We do not even need to break it entirely, but just contemplate the breaking, anticipating what the consequences of an unusual event would be on something we otherwise take for granted.

My Life

I tend to be prone to anxiety, so I maybe have an alternate side of this equation: I obsess over how things can break, and that means I don’t always even see how they work.

However, I think there’s also something to be said for my life being a product of a comfortable routine. I tend to do the same things day after day.

One of the things that also could be applied to this is that I’m so prone to rigidity that I don’t permit myself a chance to consider what could otherwise be if something were to change.

We often think of people who view the world as opportunities for the strong to triumph over the weak as cynical, but there’s also something to be said for looking for vulnerabilities so that they can be healed: this is the origin of all reform.

Resolution

Don’t fear chaos.

Subvert my expectations.

Search for weakness everywhere.

Aphorism 12

A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Much of what we regard as innovation comes from trying to do something without following previous paths.

For every person who has managed to invent a new technology by incremental improvement, there is another person who has found the way by going through a paradigm shift from others’ approaches.

For a darker twist, prophets don’t have the good sense to leave good enough alone. The saying that no man is a prophet in his own country is because the prophets get killed in their own countries.

Also, Taleb’s known to be something of a contrarian, and one could probably point out that seeing differently does not necessarily differ from seeing in a special way.

My Life

A friend of mine told me that I was a man of vision the other day.

I’m not entirely sure what that means.

I do, however, identify with the being blind to what others see.

I’ve never felt a need to follow others or conform (aside from the agreeable part of my personality, which is strong; the difference is that I hate confrontation, not that I like conforming), and that may have something to do with it.

I also have a spirit of “I’ll do it myself.”

Like, as a game designer I want to make my own thing. I’ve occasionally built off of something someone else created, but only for smaller projects.

When I take inspiration, it’s often from the most minute of sources. I’ll borrow a dice mechanic, but not a lot of the intervening structure.

That’s not to say I throw everything away and strive to be different, I just have no qualms with ignoring how other people do things. Often I blend a bunch of little pieces together.

Resolution

Go against the flow.

Look beyond conventional wisdom.

Never forget that what you know to be right is not necessarily right.

Aphorism 13

The man who listens to reason is lost: reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.

George Bernard Shaw, quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

I think that this ties in to the things that Taleb said about approaching from vulnerabilities in the sense that we tend to look at things from a very fixed perspective.

Shaw is an interesting figure, given that he tended to be a bit of a political loudmouth in his day, and he was perhaps one of the people who we would consider a defender of reason, which makes this quote seem paradoxical.

Chesterton would argue that Shaw just doesn’t have any consistent worldview, and the two were frenemies in that way, but I think there’s maybe something more deep here.

Shaw isn’t saying that logic is bad, but that we have a tendency to rationalize. Our reasoning is easily bent to corrupt purposes, rather than the best path.

My Life

I am someone who tends to be what I would describe as “rational” in focus.

I don’t have the hubris to believe that everything I believe or think is correct. This may not be clear to an outside observer (after all, I write prolifically about my life and what I think), but keep in mind that most of my writing is more of an exercise in holding myself accountable than an exercise in proclaiming mastery in wisdom and knowledge (when I write a book, that’ll be the statement of mastery).

I was thinking about this the other day, because my intuition is really repressed. It’s not that I don’t get feelings about things, it’s that I’ve become so used to just squelching them that I ignore what could be good opportunities to break out of patterns (e.g. not applying for freelancing work for basically forever until it just fell into my lap).

Resolution

Don’t justify things. If they can’t stand on their own, they shouldn’t stand.

Break the mold and throw it away.

Follow passion.

Aphorism 14

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates, quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

For most of my life I’ve thought this was sort of self-serving.

However, now I think I interpret it differently.

This is perhaps history’s most profound way of saying “Don’t be an idiot.”

We like to see this saying as a cornerstone of Western philosophy, but I don’t think that the Greeks necessarily thought of their philosophy in the same way that we do.

I think they were going after better ways of life (this is non-controversial), but that there wasn’t really any elevation to it. Being a philosopher was just another way to say that you were prominent in public morality and ethics, not that one was set apart.

My Life

I like to think that my life’s pretty well examined.

Of course, I don’t know how true this is, strictly speaking. I’ve got a lot of things that I have to work through, and I’m pretty self-reliant in my efforts.

I’ve often thought about psychoanalysis. I’ve never been psychoanalyzed, and I don’t (believe myself to) have any symptoms of psychological disruption. That’s not to say that I’m particularly free of vice, but my vice is natural and mainline (e.g. I’m typically pretty lazy and I don’t resist the temptation of sweets well).

I’ve read a lot of Jung (relative to the average person), and also some of his followers’ work, a little Freud, and other modern psychology books, and not just the pop psych stuff. This has just been for casual enjoyment, not as a student or future practitioner, but I find it interesting.

I often find that I’m more interesting than I think I am, and my motives are more complex than I believed them to be. I often have vivid dreams that I’m willing to say are my subconscious, and I’ve often seen recurring symbols and patterns in them. Not just the common “Oh crap, I’m late to class!” anxiety dream, but some really surreal things.

For instance, I’ve noticed animal symbolism; the cat seems to represent some aspect of my subconscious, and mythical and realistic cats feature prominently in my dreams as guides. Birds are another recurring symbol, often of chaos or naive desirous destruction (think of the depiction of Frankenstein’s monster accidentally killing an innocent–something which is a later invention and not in the original story–I often play such a role, often to a hawk or eagle).

There are places that feature prominently in my dreams as well; my childhood home (no surprise there), but also places that I know but have never seen. I was told as a child that nobody could invent something wholly from their own mind and would require a stimulus to invent something. This bothered me quite a bit, because my vivid dreams, which my studies of Jung have convinced me are a function of the subconscious, have been with me most of my life, and have indeed dwindled and fallen off over the years.

When I was a child, I was often convinced that these dreams had a prophetic quality, that there was something about the dream world that could reflect unseen elements of a larger reality. I only raised these beliefs once or twice, and both times the response was such that I never mentioned them again.

The story of Joseph, who interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh, was one that resonated strongly with me for this reason. As a devout Christian, I follow the orthodox position that God sent Joseph the gift of interpreting dreams, but that does not mean that the Jungian method of viewing the dream as a channel to the subconscious is necessarily incorrect, and psychoanalysis may actually have a very similar practical effect.

Of course, fortune tellers can always be right if you wait for the situation to fit the prediction.

Resolution

Don’t do anything I can’t explain (though I don’t have to justify it).

Look deeply at things.

Never run when a walk suffices.

Reflections on Aphorisms #6

Another day, another set of reflections.

Aphorism 9

What I learned on my own I still remember.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

There’s a stark difference between education and learning.

One of the foundations of learning is engagement. If someone doesn’t pay attention, they don’t learn.

A lot of our school system is based on things that aren’t engaging to students, which is why the focus is on rote repetition and memorization (though less so than in the past, and our level of engagement is perhaps no higher).

Another part of this is that there’s an element of activity in doing, rather than just passive reception, which fosters greater memory.

My Life

I read incessantly. More or less incessantly. Okay, I read a lot. Not infinitely, but certainly more than average. I’ve been aiming for a book a week, and I don’t necessarily keep up with that on a micr0-scale but I certainly keep it up on a yearly scale.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that I don’t remember a majority of what I learned in school. I’ve probably forgotten a lot of what I learned on my own as well.

However, it’s certainly a lot less painful to forget something I read than something I paid to learn.

Oh, and of course, the few things I remember from school were the most interesting to me. Anything I was forced to learn I only remembered if it turned out to be surprisingly pleasant.

Montaigne may have been right.

Resolution

Be surprised by some new learning every day.

Strive to learn, and learn outside my bubble.

Do, don’t observe.

Aphorism 10

“For example” is not proof.

Yiddish proverb, from The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

One of the things that I discussed with an acquaintance today is how modern history curriculum sucks because it tries to be causal.

They try to justify their existence by looking at patterns and then putting together links and a chain of events.

I’ve been reading through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Incerto, and the current book I’m on, The Black Swan (Amazon affiliate link), covers this as one of the fallacies of reasoning that stem from human limitations.

I think it’s also a tendency to like to justify knowledge beyond just what it is good for. Knowing things is beneficial, but people have this tendency to be restless with information, to stretch and interpret it until they are left not with the original but rather an interpretation of it, having forgotten the objective fact in favor of the worldview’s supporting pillar.

This has self-evident risks, because if the process goes wrong it can go dreadfully wrong.

My Life

I am guilty of having “For example” in my top ten phrases.

Now, to be fair, I tend to use it literally in the sense of providing an example.

I don’t typically care to win arguments.

No, that’s untrue.

I don’t typically care to argue. When I do I like winning.

But I don’t argue, and most of the time I give an example it’s not to prove my point but simply to clarify what I mean.

With that said, I’m not making this an “agree with every aphorism” thing but rather a “reflect on every aphorism” thing, and I think I’ll partially disagree with this.

Evidence is good.

Bad evidence is bad.

Resolution

When I give an example to try to prove something, I will make sure it actually proves my point.

Don’t mistake the tree for the forest.

Trust with hesitation.