Reflections on Aphorisms #24

Tried to push myself harder today. Fell back into a rut with my same order versus chaos schtick that I need to get away from; I believe it’s very accurate, but it’s also not enough by itself to fully explain things and to delve deeper I will need to break out of the rut.

Aphorism 40

Art is a one-sided conversation with the unobserved.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

This is not my first attempt to reflect on this aphorism, put previously I have never been satisfied by the conclusions that I reach.

There’s a question of what is the “unobserved” subject of art. This is what has always been the sticking point for me when I try and think about this. Is the unobserved that which does not fit neatly into an empirical understanding of the universe? Is it that thing peculiar to the artist which they cannot fully explain? Is Taleb just blowing hot air?

There’s also another question of the unobserved. Is the unobserved that thing which we are striving to move toward? Is it that interstitial space between order and chaos that we spend much of our lives in? Personally, I like this as my interpretation, though I don’t think it’s the original point.

When I was in college, I study studied Romantic literature. No, that doesn’t mean literature about people falling in love with each other, though such events often happened in Romanticism’s key works. Rather, it was a sort of protomodern movement. It focused heavily on experience as the basis for understanding, but in an emotional sense. It wasn’t about being rational and calculating, but always focused on what people felt.

One of the great things emphasized in Romanticism is the notion of the sublime. The sublime can be beautiful, but it would be better described as terrible. Not in the sense that has a negative value for people, but rather in the sense that it defies our comfort. It should scare us. There’s a great painting of a man standing looking out over a valley from the top of the cliff, painted by Caspar David Friedrich. This is often used as the examplar of romantic art.

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, from Wikimedia Commons. In public domain.

In this painting, the foggy valley represents an encounter with the sublime; anything could exist within the clouds, and the potential excites the mind. There is danger, too, in the potential to be lost in the fog.

The biblical commandment to “fear God” is possibly an injunction to view Him as a sublime being; to remember that there is not only beauty but also unlimited power contained within.

I think this is the sort of thing that Taleb is referring to. More earnestly than others of art (the Romantics valued honesty, even if they did not care about certainty), they represented the notion that their goal was the pursuit of the unknown. They never sought to hide this, indeed they professed it with great vigor.

The predominant difference between the Romantics and the modern is that what they sought to do with emotion, we do with reason.

My Life

I consider myself in some ways an artist. Much of my work is what I would describe as technical, in the sense that I am not pursuing anything outside what has already been done, but that I am merely trying to do it slightly better than the other guy.

However, I do try and pursue art as well. I don’t write prolifically in what we would call an artistic sense. I have written some poetry, I sometimes write stories, though not as much as I say I will (bringing my action in line with my word is a key priority for me), but I do often work on games that focus on storytelling.

I think that storytelling can lead to the greatest expressions of art. Some of that comes from the fact that it’s the form I do most, so I have perhaps a subtle bias in that direction. However, I think that storytelling doesn’t just refer to writing stories. It’s any creative endeavor which has as its purpose the act of communicating information.

This active communication extends Beyond what one does without intent. If someone asks me how my day was, I seldom tell them a story.

Resolution

Embrace art as heroic.

See the act of creation as the act of discovery.

Don’t ignore the mysteries of life.

Aphorism 47

How good bad music and bad reasons sound when we march against an enemy.

Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms.

Interpretation

There is a concept of the other that is often talked about in humanities. I think that sometimes it is taken to a platonic ideal and not fully appreciated for its nuance, but the basic notion is this:

People consider others to be either part of the in-group, and therefore friends, or part of the out-group, and therefore enemies.

Nietzsche is keenly aware of this. He faced no small amount of ostracism in his personal life, in part because he was willing to challenge accepted norms.

I had to read some Nietzsche when I was in college, and it was some of this work that focused on moral development, that is, how morality developed in societies. I do not know how well did Nietzsche’s work actually follows what happened. At the time, I thought that he sounded quite bitter. I don’t think I understood anything of his biography, nor did I really understand what’s this work.

One of the interesting things that I read then that stuck with me was the idea of resentment.

I was familiar with the notion of resentment on a very basic level, but I never understood it philosophically. I believe that resentment is a fundamental part of human nature. That doesn’t make it good, and I think that if everyone were able to suppress their resentments we would live in a much better world.

The thing about an encounter with the other is that it is easy to tally up resentment when chances for civil contact are limited. People are already predisposed to fear that which is unfamiliar, so a mixture of resentment and fear can quickly create hatred.

We identify this process with chaos. I’m a believer in the idea that there is an association between order and chaos as parts of a diametrically opposed process. People don’t consciously appreciate this balance unless they have been made aware of it.

The other creates the sort of existential chaos, they are constant reminder of the unknown. Order is represented by that which is known as the in-group.

It is this that makes up Nietzsche’s bad music and bad reasons. Something which a rational person would reject may seem necessary when chaos intrudes on order.

This is not solely responsible for the totalitarianism that nearly killed us all in the 20th century, but I believe that it’s at least closely related. Both extremes breed fear, but in chaos this is associated with the unknown and in order this is associated with oppression.

The unexamined response is to pursue the opposite extreme. If everything seems chaotic, then surely more lot and Order must be the solution. Of course, this is a failure of reasoning. It is actually an induction into more chaos, as now further changes are being pursued instead of a better understanding of what is here already.

Governance does not make society.

In some ways, a totalitarian government creates more chaos with its arbitrary concentration of power into an individual. It may be dressed in the language and styles of tradition, but it creates no more certainty.

It is the society that swings dangerously back toward order. On an individual level, in countless day-to-day interactions, people begin to lose their tolerance for the unknown. It is as if there is a balance of order & chaos that must be preserved, and the centralization of power into one arbitrary figure or institution makes it so that no other uncertainty can be permitted.

Because people cannot trust their governance to provide order, they return to the trappings of order. Arguments that worked well for the past, the styles and social conventions that served that predecessors well, return to visit the sins of the fathers upon their children. These are representations of archetypal order, and the best tangible manifestation of order you can find if others are denied to you. They are also outdated, at least some of the time.

There’s also a second point here to be made entirely independent from the question of order and chaos. It is the question of “mine”. If there is one trait that humanity has perfected over the years, it is greed. We have managed to find an infinite capacity within ourselves for desire.

Desire is good at a fundamental level. Without it, we would never dream. Even a certain amount of self-serving greed can be helpful when channeled through the right lens. It is a balance against completely losing oneself in the collective or in apathetic nihilism.

The problem is that desire leads us to immorality. What we want to take is elevated to a higher value then our moral values. I call this the “mine” question. We’ve all seen children who will attach themselves to a particular object and fixate on it. Even if it belongs to someone else, they will consider it their personal property.

This is not necessarily worrying when they are at a young age, because it is a part of the process of psychological development to realize that such things are not true and would bear disastrous consequences.

The problem is that we grow up still believing that we know the answer to the “mine” question, and our preferred answer is that it’s all ours.

All that we need is a better pretense to satisfy our desire. If we are socialized to the point that we are willing to pretend to behave, but we do not really have the virtues that lead us to see the danger in our actions and desires, we will cling to anything that seems like it justifies our actions.

I think there are also ties to Hannah Arendt’s statement about acting in place of thinking here, but I already covered them just yesterday, so I’m not going to retread the same ground.

My life

It sounds petty in light of the greater scope I’ve covered, but this topic makes me think about my diet.

I have a serious problem with willpower. Admittedly, I’m currently in a state for my diet is actually being followed, or at least mostly so. I’ve lost a few pounds I found in the previous few months, but not yet so far back on the routine that I am not tempted by every little thing.

Often, I will justify my decisions that I make to pursue what brings me the most pleasure immediately instead of follow the plan that I know the dogs to the best outcome. This generalizes all the way up, so my tendency to argue that going to the gym means that I can sneak a few chocolates throughout the day is mirrored by a similar tendency toward rationalizing decision-making in the big picture.

I think that it’s important that people lead examined lives as a defense against this. Of course, there’s always the danger that people who believe they are philosophizing are instead rationalizing. However, I believe that we’re better off striving than falling into laziness. Besides, failure is a common experience. To argue against trying to think may actually just be thinly-veiled rationalizations assuming that people cannot become more skilled at the process of thinking.

It is also important to consider what is good. I don’t just mean what we like, but rather what is good for us.

To continue the example, I only rarely feel any particular concern about my weight, since I don’t usually have any health issues or feel like I can’t accomplish what I want to accomplish because of my weight. However, I know that if I am disciplined about diet and exercise I will achieve a better potential than I can otherwise.

The seed which has sprouted into much rationalization is that I cannot be entirely certain about this.

As such, when I am out of breath or tired, I will say “but I am suffering from allergies” or “but I didn’t sleep well last night” to mask the symptoms of a less than ideal lifestyle. That’s a rationalization.

When I’m disciplined and at the top of my game, I am not out of breath or tired. It simply requires seeing beyond what I can immediately conceive as desirable and thinking to the second order consequences of things.

What are the consequences of what I am doing?

That is the question we should ask.

Resolution

Learn to despise bad music when it comes has a comforter.

Never rationalize things that cannot stand on their own merit.

Don’t be afraid of others because they are different.

Reflections on Aphorisms #23

I had some spontaneous thoughts earlier about the Good Samaritan, but I’m also going to keep up the reflections on aphorisms.

I’m finding this to be a very meaningful process, and I’d encourage anyone to do the same. I’m using a fair amount of time on it, but since I’m now a semi-professional writer I don’t think that’s too much of a sacrifice.

Aphorism #38

Regular minds find similarities in stories (and situations); finer minds detect differences.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Maslow’s axiom is truer than most people realize.

People like things to be easily understood and explained away. When we understand the universe, we are confident. When it surprises us, we are lost to perdition. One of the best ways that you can make yourself feel certain his to relate what is currently important things that had importance in the past. I’m not just referring to tradition here. Rather, the way that we view the world tends to become unyielding over time.

We have an intuitive understanding that our worldview hardens and becomes brittle. In his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Amazon affiliate link), Jordan Peterson uses the example of a businessman who is called into his boss’s office to discuss his performance. At first, he expects great praise and is already prepared to negotiate with his boss for a raise.

However, his boss tells him to pack his stuff and prepare to leave the company, as his service will no longer be required. What the businessman saw as positive contributions to the company were instead overbearing, and his co-workers developed resentment towards him that he had earned with his hypocritical criticism of other people and his inability to be a member of the team.

This is the sort of realization about ourselves that we have a hard time coming to.

Carl Jung describes it as the Shadow, truths about ourselves that are not consciously recognized. They are not obvious to us without intentional searching, sometimes because they are so painful that we choose not to think about them and sometimes because we are less self-aware than we believe ourselves to be.

When everything in the current is similar to everything in the past, we can ignore self-examination. Assuming that we are already marginally successful, the logical assumption is that we will continue to be successful. However, the world is a changing and chaotic place.

It is better that we put our fingers to the pulse of the universe, to be aware of the changes that it brings our way. It requires more effort than staying blindly with tradition (not to be rude to tradition; what has worked typically continues to work), but since we will enter into territory that no one else can help us through, at least not that we know of, it is important to reach that level of self-awareness.

This is the goal of philosophy. It is the art–it is worth noting that an art is not less dignified than a science–of attempting to understand the universe. Of course, the first good philosophical assumption is usually that one knows nothing, or at least that one can be certain of only a very little part of the universe.

This is not to surrender to chaos. Philosophers still expect the sun to rise every day, they simply admit that it would be foolish to assume that everything will always be as it has been.

My Life

I’m not honestly sure how this applies to my life. I like to think that I’m pretty productive, and that I’m aware of what goes on around me and how it changes from the previous things. I certainly make a conscious effort to keep an eye on it. However, this is one of those things where you can’t really know how good you are at something. Even others may be fooled in the short-term by how they perceive you to be, so that what they tell you does not match what you really are. They may assume based on their perceptions of you something which is not fully based on truth, but rather on how they value you.

When I say value here, I do not necessarily refer to basic idea of appreciation, but rather the role that you play in someone else’s life. People have sometimes told me that I seem quite intelligent. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, since I have simply devoted more time to the art of the word than most other people my age have. Since we typically consider communication a sign of intelligence, they are naturally predisposed to assume that I am smart.

Lest I seem overly humble, I have come to the conclusion that I may be up above average, I simply do not believe that I am so smart as to be exceptionally intelligent. I consider it good fortune on my part, and the product of a good education. Occasional spurts of self-discipline contribute to this as well.

Resolution

Don’t fall into a rut.

Do not fear chaos, but seek to master it.

Make every day a chance to grow.

Aphorism #39

It is far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than to think.

Hannah Arendt, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

In an ideal world, thought and action are linked. However, there is nothing natural about this. There is no rule that one must think before they act, and that their actions will follow what they have thought about.

In extreme circumstances, where order or chaos becomes predominant, it becomes difficult to think. The prevailing mode becomes an overriding fashion. For chaos, we often see this reflected in the mob mentality, I didn’t order we see the abandonment of personal responsibility and the complete submission to authority.

In both extreme chaos and extreme order, the tendencies to forego moral responsibility–to abandon contemplation and examination–lead to terrible outcomes. We return to the primal fallen state, guided by instinct instead of morality.

If people think while in these states, they tend to focus on rationalization, making sense of an untenable situation. Life, that is to say the true life of meaning, cannot exist in either extreme. They are machines which consume, not environments which nurture. People excel in the middle ground, though it is not necessarily easier to live there. It is only there that they can pursue heroism (without great sacrifice).

It is worth noting that while Arendt writes about the totalitarianism of the 20th century, it is not necessary to have such extremes in governance to achieve similar disorders in an individual’s life. We are capable of creating our own tyranny in our spirits. The same goes for chaos that extends beyond that which is useful for nurturing growth.

My Life

I have always felt drawn to philosophy, but I have not always been good at living life. Not only is it difficult to appreciate one’s circumstances, but it also requires language with which to discuss greater things. Despite my desire to live a life of wisdom, I rarely had terms in which to consider the success of such an endeavor.

I think the single greatest success with my adult has been coming to an understanding what’s the balance between things. This has moderated the oft-fiery temperament of my youth, I think it helps me live in accordance with my values. I’m not perfect, of course, but I feel like I can honestly say that I continue to improve, which is really the best humans can hope for.

At various points in my life, I have felt myself sinking into either exceptional order or exceptional chaos to the point of dysfunction. Only recently have I had the understanding to see those for what they are. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, haven’t really had any situations that put my new convictions to test as significantly as those events tried me.

Some of this may be my newfound stoicism, and increased degree to which I can philosophically appreciate the world, but I do feel blessed and fortunate that is the part of life that I find myself in is one without any raging storms.

I follow politics, and in my youth I would allow myself to be consumed by fervor. I was convinced that my way of seeing things was correct. I believed that anyone who disagreed with my views must have simply been idiotic, because they could not appreciate the true nature of existence. While I remain convinced that most of my beliefs are correct, because if I feel they are incorrect I change them, I have gained more empathy.

I appreciate more of myself as well, since I now have a conscious understanding of why I believe what I believe, and I understand why others disagree with me when they do disagree with me. This has been a humbling process, not because of any failure on my behalf (I was merely young and naive), but because it has been an awakening to how much more complex the universe is.

Resolution

Stand outside the mainstream when the mainstream becomes extreme. (This is Montaigne’s great achievement)

Don’t be afraid of the unknown; don’t be attached to the known.

Be always at the start of an adventure.

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.