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.”)

Freedom through Responsibility

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Pearson’s personality archetypes, particularly the Sage, which is at odds with some of the other stuff I’m writing about and requires a different approach, so I can’t get these thoughts out without really going into this separately.

One of the interesting things about the Sage is that they’re often associated with a lot of somber, rules-oriented thoughts, but many of the heroic examples of the Sage are going to be characters that enjoy their lives quite a bit. They’re not Puritans–or at least not Arthur Miller’s unhappy, scheming Puritans–but rather they’ve discovered freedom that is deeper than mere anarchic desire.

To the wise Sage, true freedom comes through responsibility, through recognizing the path that leads away from evil (however one wants to define evil; I’m a big fan of the simplified “infliction of deliberate harm” method as a short-hand), and through following the rules required to do what is right.

In a sense, the Sage who isn’t a total flaming wreck recognizes that there are rules that they need to follow, but that these rules serve an end. With that knowledge in mind, they can do something that is more potent than just going after perfect adherence to the rules that govern them.

The reason why this is important is that a mature Sage discovers the freedom to do what they need to do without having it consume them. They know what costs actually reside beneath the surface of their actions, and they can take responsibility for them. They make informed decisions that provide them with a brighter outlook for tomorrow than what was had for today.

This is part of living a happy, fulfilled life, and it is only possible when one finds meaning, or purpose. Victor Frankl, the famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor, notes that many of his patients made a tremendous recovery from devastating depression or anxiety when they were able to find a sense of purpose.

The Sage can find that purpose, and they hunt for the way to fulfill the role they must take on.

When they do this, they are freed from doubt, uncertainty, and all matter of trivial privations. They face challenges that are worth overcoming, and never created by their own mistaken actions.

However, without that core, there is nothing to guide life, and no reason to do anything other than live in the moment. It is responsibility, to society, to others, even to ourselves, that gives us hope.

This responsibility can’t be handed down from above, like the disastrous totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century attempted to do. Like over-sweetened foods, the efforts of these ideologies to control their prisoners often revolved around the notion of purpose–that the individual’s responsibility lies in the collective.

But it is only a small fraction of people, if any, who can find purpose for themselves in the machinations of such a regime. Real purpose is found through introspection, exploration, learning.

Too often we see people living lives of chaos. Their goals are unset, their purpose unclear. Devoid of responsibility they embrace only oblivion. This may provide some momentary satisfaction, but it never compares to the products of finding and accepting a purpose.

Likewise, it is important to remember that purpose is about finding something outside of the self. While self-improvement can be a valid route to purpose (for instance, I find that my current attempts to lose weight have a high amount of meaning in my life), it is not enough in and of itself. My weight loss is meaningful to me because it gives me an ability to pursue my other sources of purpose–writing, God, teaching–rather than as an end of itself.

To bring us back to the topic of the Sage, we can consider this: if you have purpose, but no rules to live by, you will be no more likely to achieve your goals than someone with no rules. Small challenges can be overcome by instinct; otherwise our species would have died out a long time ago.

Meaningful challenges–the ones that give us a reason to exist–require us to embrace the wisdom that comes with accepting our limitations. That includes knowing when to subordinate our judgment about what is right and wrong, which can become corrupted by our desires, to established codes (I’m religious, so you can take a wild guess as to how I do this), and also acknowledging the limitations of our perceptions.

However, the Sage goes beyond this: you do not just embrace the limits, but also what they allow you to do. It’s about recognizing the merits of the rules, which also allows you to find whether or not the rule itself has value. It’s very easy to know the consequences of the rules, and what the rules present, but when you can point to a rule and say what it does for you, it will be more effective.