One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.Anton Chekov, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms
When I go through the Viking Book of Aphorisms, I just open it to a random page, or to something that thematically aligns with what I’ve been discussing, but I don’t typically pick out an aphorism as particularly profound. I do try and choose ones that look fruitful, but often I just choose something that serves as a starting off point for something else.
This aphorism, however, is one that particularly stands out to me. It aligns with my interests, I guess one could say. One of the notions that I’ve struggled with as I’ve grown in understanding is how one deals reality. I’m an objectivist (no relation to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), meaning that I believe that there is unifying underlying truth, but I also have the good sense to recognize that I am limited as a person by what I am capable of perceiving.
One oft-neglected factor in this is the question of how one even goes about figuring out what is right and wrong and what is good and what is not.
Chekov raises a very good point here. There’s limitations in our perception that stem from things which are deep beyond the point of comprehension. To draw a comparison to science, there are things which are common knowledge today like many of the advancements in chemistry, which would have been absolutely unimaginable two-hundred years ago. While I am certain that many people can recognize revolutionary changes when they occur, how many of us have noticed smaller evolutionary changes? How many of us have the wherewithal to assess them correctly?
There’s a “love of the new” that I believe to be one of the most dangerous elements of our social culture. Take, for instance, our smartphones, the harbingers of the interconnected age. There is great value in this, namely all of the opportunity that it provides, but it also brings with it tremendous risk. We have changed our way of life so tremendously in the past Century that is going to have second-order effects that we are not even prepared to discuss.
Think about the fact that we no longer are able to check out from our daily life and enjoy quiet moments. Without deliberate effort, those who have never known to seek such a thing will now never benefit from it: they cannot discover it by accident, unless they are incredibly fortunate.
However, it is important not to idolize tradition.
While we bemoan the loss of private spaces and being contemplative, there are benefits to this constant connection to others.
I think that we do not give people enough credit. Those of us who choose to carry constant interruption devices have not done so in base ignorance. Rather, we recognize that there is an opportunity to being reachable by anyone at any time it is a trade, one whose outcome will only be made clear once the deal is complete. As such, I do not believe in reactionary overzealous abstention.
We would do well to remember to be humble. No man may know what tomorrow may bring.
I have learned is sort of humility over the years. I do something which I know to be at least not wrong, and I do not worry about the outcome.
There’s something of Kant’s categorical imperative in this, though I am not as hardcore as Kant. If you do what you know brings good, it doesn’t matter if individual actions have much fruit. Overtime, the law of averages will apply. It is the whole, not the part, which brings results.
Pursue constant little goals.
Do not obsess over the result of any single action.
Diversify my portfolio of worthwhile deeds.
Most of the grounds of the world’s troubles are matters of grammar.Michel de Montaigne, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms
I find myself recommending the essays of Montaigne to everyone I meet. This may be a testament to the quality of Montaigne, or may simply show me to be relatively simple, with only one thing on my mind at any time.
This quote is a grand illustration of Montaigne’s wit, at least in my opinion. I envy his ability to create such short statements which also hold such deep meaning while keeping a flippant air.
People have always had communication problems. In the Bible, this is what makes Able preferable to Cane. Able listens to what God desires, while his sinful brother does what he believes will be pleasing to God.
While on the surface Montaigne may seem to be talking about mere copy-editing, the deeper meaning is clear. We do not understand how to communicate with ourselves and each other in a way that improves the world.
There is a Greek concept of the Logos which carries into ancient Gnostic perceptions of the world. It is even influential in Abrahamic religions, as they are at themselves based around the notion of a single omnipotent knowing creator, and in some interpretations may even be referred to as the Logos.
The Logos as a divine concept is associated with the word, with knowledge. Our understanding of the world is the first step in our ability to change it. If you cannot comprehend something, you cannot work willfully with it.
There’s a deeper social level to this that needs to be explored. Much of our life is seen through the lens of other people. Even our perceptions of ourselves are influenced by how other people view us. If we cannot communicate, we cannot understand.
I am, of course, as an English teacher by trade inclined to see the value of good grammar. Communication, likewise, falls into my domain of specialty, even if I have not acquired such a mastery of it as I would like. What I find has been the greatest problem of my adult life is figuring out what my problems are and getting them to a point where I can communicate them.
Only once that first step has been completed have I found myself able to make changes that improve my life.
This has also been a key part in overcoming what I would describe as anxious tendencies within myself. I do not know if I suffer from them any more than the average person, but I frequently find myself in a place where worry overcomes the ability to act. Being hyper-conscious and continuously vigilant in identifying what I truly desire and what I truly suffer from has been key.
Being able to explain something, even if only to oneself, makes all the difference.
Be able to speak about what I need to speak about.
Hold no deception toward myself.
Seek to understand the meaning.
To take upon oneself not punishment, but guilt–that alone would be godlike.Friedrich Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms
I believe that it is a fundamental part of human nature that leads us to avoid blame. There are strong social benefits to being blameless, and stark consequences for being in error.
However, being able to accept blame ties into the notion that I just discussed earlier of communicating clearly. Guilt is the consequence of the wrongness of an action. If sin is falling short of moral perfection, guilt is the consequence of that. Guilt is the fall that accompanies error.
If one managed to find what brings suffering, and remove the consequences, they would essentially undo entropy. This is likely impossible.
It is equally impossible to transfer guilt from one person to another. The act which causes harm is a product of moral agency.
If I were to throw trash in the street, it would have a wide-ranging variety of negative consequences. It might harm the environment. It might start a downward spiral of disorder, with other people more likely to litter on account of my example. It harms property values, as no one wishes to live in a neighborhood full of trash. Each of these is likely a negligible impact from a single action, but by the time you add up many small consequences, the harm caused by even a small negligence may become quite profound.
If someone were following behind me, they could pick up my trash and throw it away. Assuming that they followed relatively close behind me, they might even be able to entirely prevent the consequences from taking effect. In a sense, the only consequence would be that someone had to pick up after me, which has a much less profound cost, we could hope. Obsessing over the butterfly effect is not a good use of time. However, if a police officer were to see me do this, they would not consider me less of a litterer because someone followed behind me cleaning up.
The person who cleaned up after me could remove my consequences, essentially taking the punishment (except that which society place is upon me on account of my guilt), but they cannot remove my moral agency in the situation.
I have never been a practicing Catholic. I spent a semester student teaching at a Catholic school, and it was an experience that interested me in religion beyond just my own personal practice. The Catholic Church talks about mysteries hidden within the example of Christ and other events portrayed in the Bible, something which my own Protestant upbringing did not ever mention.
The greatest mystery of them all, at least as I see it with my limited understanding of the Catholic mysteries, is how Christ managed to take responsibility for believers’ sins.
I believe that it is this which Nietzsche talks about.
As someone who works with children, I often find myself wishing that I could impart my own moral superiority upon them. This is not possible, which is probably for the best, since those who believe themselves possessed of moral superiority usually do not actually have such an advantage over others.
However, it pains me when I see people make the same mistakes that I made in my own ignorance.
If everyone could share with everyone else the heights of their virtues, the sum of their ability to improve the world and avoid sin, they would make the world a better place, perhaps even the dreamed-of utopia.
Accept what I earn, good and bad.
Seek to do that which bears no guilt.
Remember that the goal of moral perfection is in the self, but that the benefit is for everyone.