Reflections on Aphorisms #30

Forced myself to write a little more today to make up for some previous short entries. I’ve now been doing this for basically a month straight, and it’s been really good. I think it’s helped me find my compass a little better than I had been.

Aphorism 50

In a conflict, the middle ground is least likely to be correct.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

We falsely praise compromise as a virtue because we associate it with the ability to change one’s mind when better evidence is presented. This doesn’t necessarily mean that compromise is worthless, but I think people don’t understand what a good “compromise” really is.

It is difficult to actually realize an improvement by moderating one’s values. It is much easier to achieve such a thing by remaining true, but being realistic. To permit one’s values to be breached, even in part, will only lead to resentment.

Settling for a compromise only leads to two unhappy parties, rather than one.

Compromise leads to a decreased ability to adapt.

Instead of accepting the fact that one’s values may not actually improve the world, and that they should be reconsidered, instead the half measures are blamed rather than a flaw in their foundation. We can see this in basically every political issue in modern American politics. The compromise only creates a further point of contention, and both sides claim the success of their views and the failure of the other’s.

The solution to this is to concede rather than to compromise. Of course, one should never sacrifice one’s highest values lightly, but it may be better to have a short-term defeat then a long-term compromise that adds up to be equally bad. Don’t take a half-measure if the half-measure is not substantially better than having nothing.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not calling for extremism. Go only to the point at which desired effects are achieved, not further. Going too far for the sake of avoiding compromise is not any better than compromise.

Rather, one should fight vociferously to achieve their goals until those goals are achieved.

One should also think carefully before forcing others into a compromise that will breed resentment. This is a great way to amplify every ill, and should be avoided.

Resolution

Identify what would satisfy.

Eat until you are no longer hungry, but do not continue past that point.

Never sacrifice a value for expedience.

Aphorism 51

For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.

Goethe, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

I value humility highly. I believe that being humble is a great way to guard against being wicked.

I do not think that Goethe (especially the Goethe of his later life) disagrees with this. However, being humble in and of itself is not necessarily a goal.

There are those who assert that the biblical injunction to be meek is more properly rendered as being able to use power, keeping it restrained. It is not a virtue to be harmless if one has no other choice.

So it is that being humble means recognizing one’s potential and capacities but not fooling oneself into believing that one is living up to their potential. Otherwise, it is just a lack of confidence.

I think that this is what Goethe is referring to when he says that someone must regard himself is greater than he is to achieve what is demanded of him. He must see that he has what we would call a heroic potential, I must be willing to struggle to bring that into being.

In my own life, I have been struck by the need do this. As someone who would happily think of himself as ordinary, I need to keep in mind that my potential is incredible and constantly move it forward. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be where I am today, I don’t think I would have believed you. At the same time, it was the striving that I did five and ten years ago that has gotten me where I am. Where I will be in five years is a direct result of what I do today.

It is necessary to blend many ideas of the self together. The past self, weaker and less experienced but also with more potential, the future self, who will reap the rewards of today’s labor, the current self, who must act in accordance with both the past and the future, and the hero, who represents the fusion of all three into one personage, must act as one.

This is a tremendous force, and it requires faith and will to bring it to bear.

Resolution

Bring myself into balance with my past and my future.

Do those things which fall into the domain of the hero.

Live as if I could one day command millions.

Aphorism 52

No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

People have a problematic relationship with the truth. Even those with the best intentions often have difficulty figuring out what it is, and emotions can complicate things. We generally consider sticking to the truth as a moral good, but it is a good which we are oft-tempted to subordinate to other purposes.

The most natural thing in the world is to defend self. Even someone who holds themselves in low esteem still grates at the offenses of anyone else.

We like to defend ourselves against criticism, even if it is deserved. In this ironic fashion, we impede our own growth.

I find out that I work as a freelance or independent game designer my first response to any criticism of something I have done is to come up with five thousand justifications as to why it is the best thing to do. Many of these justifications will be things that only occur to me once it was time to defend my work. While this is not such a grievous falsification, it shows this general mood well, and it also lets me to see if myself into thinking that I am better than I am.

A more honest response would be to internalize the sort of polite response that one gives a well meaning critic. To accept others’ feedback, and then immediately compare it to your own original motives, is to listen to what has been said. Otherwise, you get defensive and then you lie.

It is also worth noting that takes cultivated personal virtue to ward off other indignity without resorting to deception. Too often, we see people whose first response to criticism is to slander someone else. This shows weak character, and not much of a mind. This sounds harsh, but I will admit that I am of this tendency myself. I simply rarely get a chance to use it.

To remain honest under pressure is a sign of integrity, the ability to always act in accordance with one’s guiding values. Acquiring this integrity provides one with a bulwark against making expedient but destructive choices.

I’ve been listening to Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Amazon affiliate link), in which he recounts his time living under a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini. One of the things that I find interesting is that he is able to discern how his critics are responding emotionally and falsely accusing him because he has disturbed their quietude, not because he has actually done the things that he is accused of (whether or not he had).

Resolution

Act with honesty, even in the face of shame.

Don’t attack others because I have been hurt.

Never assume that I will be virtuous.

Aphorism 53

Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

This ties in, to a degree, with the subject of our previous aphorism. There is the potential for a great deal of self-contradiction in the human mind. One of the most powerful forces that can lead to this error is belief. As such, it is important to always examine whether a belief is being held in line with truth.

This is a difficult thing to do, as it requires earnest discussion with those who disagree with you. This makes it unpalatable to most people. It is much easier to pretend to debate, or to debate those who are in agreement with the conclusion you have already reached, than it is to enter at your own risk. It requires a respect for the person you are talking with which exceeds the strength of your own stubbornness.

I find that when I believe something I have a hard time rationally assessing the surrounding details. This isn’t a novel phenomenon, but it is something that is pretty common. There’s a really low-level breakdown of it in more detail than I care to go into here:

A great simple breakdown, if a little over-simplified.

There are various reasons that people give for this tendency: an evolutionary biology perspective that says that you will believe what you believe in light of conflicting evidence because it is better to remain with your in-group, traditional abstract vices like hubris, psychoanalytical concepts like the ego and superego.

However, the truth is this:

Everyone is willing to die for their beliefs, they just might not realize that they’re the ones killing themselves.

This is why all major religions have a large tradition of faithful doubters; people who challenge the assertions of the faith but do not leave it. They’re necessary for the health of any large group. I’m fairly orthodox in my perspective, but I see the merit of constant questioning in all things.

Resolution

Build my convictions on solid ground. Test the ground first.

Pay attention to emotion. It can be easily overlooked.

Be careful with beliefs, they cut like knives.

Reflections on Aphorisms #25

Aphorism 42

If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

When the philosopher Montaigne was asked why he had such a close relationship with his best friend, Étienne de La Boétie, he gave the explanation that it was “because he was he, and I was I.”

The best friendships don’t need a concrete reason to exist. They should come to provide mutual benefit, but not from any particular interest.

By this I mean to say that a good friend doesn’t just appreciate their friends for what their friends do for them. There’s a mutual benevolence best summarized as the idea the everything that everyone does is beneficial for their friends.

When one friend triumphs, so should their other friends.

The best way to see if a friendship is true or not is to check if there is compulsory gift-giving or debt involved in the friendship. Everything that people do should come out of voluntary desire to help their friends and be in community with them.

Otherwise, you end up with less of a friendship and more of an association. The relationship becomes one of indebtedness rather than one of working toward the benefits of belonging to a group.

I also think that it’s not possible, or at least not something that is a good used of people’s time, to figure out exactly what makes a relationship work. There should typically be no one factor. The complexity is something that does not mesh well with cognitive limitations.

My Life

In my own friendships, I find that my relationship with any individual differs from my relationship with any of my other friends. With some friends, my relationship may seem on its surface to be vitriolic (with the recognition that this is all in good fun). With others, it is respectful and traditional.

One of the other factors here is that while friends fill needs, I don’t make friends because they feel my needs. A friend is a friend because they’re worth being with in their own right. It’s an association with other people who seek to pursue the good life, and are willing to cooperate in that interest, but who don’t necessarily help me out all the time.

The relationship is reciprocal. My friends benefit me and I hopefully benefit my friends. Much like with my students, I desire that my friends become better tomorrow than they were today. This isn’t out the spirit of condemnation, but rather an Earnest desire that everyone become part of a better world.

Resolution

Stay in touch with my friends.

Every day, ask myself how I can be a good friend to someone else. Then do it.

Do everything for the sake of improvement.

Aphorism 43

The intelligent man finds almost everything ridiculous, the sensible man hardly anything.

Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

One of the things that I find interesting is the relationship between intelligence and success. In my experience, it is not those who are celebrated for their intelligence who are the happiest.

Now there is an exception to this, of course. People often say that those who are incredibly successful must be incredibly smart. I think this is not a bad premise to work from, but I don’t think it would match the sort of IQ testing that we use to determine intelligence. I’m not entirely denying the value of IQ test here, but there’s a danger to them, because they fail to account for the whole of the individual and should not be used for most judgments (there are extreme cases which may differ, but they don’t matter to 95% of people).

One of the things about intelligence (as measured on paper) that contraindicates success is that it is often accompanied by arrogance. Intelligence leads to certainty that one who lacks the ability to call up massive amounts of information lacks.

The problem is that intelligence is not necessarily accompanied by sound judgment. The ability to use information well can suffer when too much information is gathered, and what we consider to be intelligence is prioritized over the ability to think deeply.

Goethe was one of the early Romantics, though he had a schism with the movement later in his life. One of the philosophical tenets of the Romantics centered around the role of emotion-linked intelligence, sometimes referred to as “genius” by the Romantics, as the proper guide of human life.

I believe it was in Jonathan Haidt’s work that I read about some research conducted on people who had no emotion due to brain injuries. What they found was that being emotionless does not lead to good decision-making.

Reason and sensibility is emotional. This is contrary to how we often think about it, but really what we considered to be success or failure is always associated with happiness. It’s also worth noting that this is a failure of reason, but since we don’t ever comprehend enough to be truly capable of reasoning with pure logic it is probably better to reason with gut feelings.

Reason based on intellect is going to be flawed. Pursuing an objective universe based on the work of brains that fail to be anything of the sort will always fail. We don’t value things inherently; we only value things because of what they mean to us. Figuring out a process is not the same as figuring out a value.

Intellect tends to be more about ruling out events than predicting events. The smartest people will be wrong about things more than a few days in the future more often than not, unless (and sometimes even if) they have the humility to appreciate the limits of their own predictive capability.

My Life

I would much rather lack intelligence but accept sensible limitations than have unlimited intelligence but no sense of my own nature.

Some of this is because previously I functioned in the opposite mode. I never claim to have great intelligence, at least not without a twinge of irony and a sardonic tone. However, I definitely wanted the world to work in the way that I understood. Growing older and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to appreciate that that is not sensible.

I think of it this way:

How many people woke up on December 7th, 1941 thinking that United States would enter World War II as a result of events that would happen that day? How many people expected the economy to crash in 2008?

There were people who saw the likely outcome, but they would not have predicted the specific events that lead to those more extensive outcomes unless they were looking at them personally.

Intelligence is limited by the senses, one of which is emotion. It’s also limited by perspective. We have one fixed vantage point at any time. We are unaware, regardless of how intelligent we are, of such a vast majority of the universe that what we know is hardly worth mentioning. We would think of ourselves as mewling infants if we had the right perspective.

In that sense, the sensible expect only one thing: that they cannot be certain.

Reflections on Aphorisms #5

Another day, another bunch of aphorisms. I’m hoping to get on a schedule of just doing an aphorism or two as a morning routine (namely, reading them in the evening and writing about them in the following morning), but if I’m being honest I can’t get the reflection process down to a consistent amount of time.

That’s probably better than forcing it, though.

Aphorism 7

Writing is the art of repeating oneself without anyone noticing.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I’m not sure if Taleb is being sardonic here or not, but I’m going to treat this as a sort of double edged statement.

On one hand, we know that the brain is relatively poor at taking in abstract information. It requires repetitive exposure to a complex concept or environment to form what we would call an accurate picture, and even then you need some variance in input data or you can end up with a faulty understanding.

It also helps to have solid arguments based on facts, and rather than just blurt out all the information at once and then try to address all the points at the end. The interspersed presentation means that you do wind up going through a cyclical presentation that leads to some duplication of previous ideas.

The other side of the coin is that writers often blather, especially those of us who are paid by the word or are particularly verbose. However, our brains get bored of hearing the same thing over and over, and to make our work “worth it” we need to keep people from realizing that we generally don’t have that many good ideas.

My Life

This is basically me, though I think it’s a little more complicated. I believe in constant revision and analysis, so I often repeat myself.

There’s also the blog format I’ve used for much of my writing, which requires a certain repetitive element because even entries in a series of posts are not necessarily going to be read together, so important concepts need to be repeated.

There is an upside to this, however, which is that you move toward perfecting your ideas. As a teacher, I often found myself wishing I had taught differently and finding a better method after finishing a lesson.

Writing is like that too. You stay dynamic, but you lean on the same core body of work. If you do too much variety you wind up devaluing your own expertise by stretching it too thin.

Resolution

Make what I have to say be worth reading, perhaps even more than once.

Keep in mind that I have my limits, and balance novelty with depth.

Consider whether what I have been said has already been said better. Learn from exemplars.

Aphorism 8

Late resounds what early sounded.

Goethe, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Goethe was one of the earliest members of what in America we just call the Romantic movement (technically he was part of the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany), and while he wasn’t necessarily a true member in the sense that he “grew out of it” as it were, he was nonetheless quite influential in the form of his Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, the latter of which I’ve had to read more than twice in my college career.

One of the ideas of the Romantics is that you have an inner guiding star that you should follow, which sort of sounds like me when I’m waxing poetic.

However, it’s worth thinking of them as being somewhat reactionary. They were among the first nationalists (before most of the negative things began to be associated with nationalism), and really believed in finding a cause, even if it meant finding destruction along with them.

Another way of putting it is that they’re very into the “die young, leave a beautiful corpse” way of life. The Sorrows of Young Werther sparked a suicide wave that would make 13 Reasons Why look like a palliative (though that doesn’t make either good for society), though now we can look at it in a little more detached a fashion–Goethe himself was the basis for Werther, and he was attempting to chronicle his mistakes, so the protagonist’s suicide was actually a hypothetical exercise in idiocy in an otherwise autobiographical work, one that Goethe himself tried to make a counter-example rather than a role model.

To get to the aphorism, however, I think that this really does tie in with the Romantic period’s prevailing philosophy in the sense that greatness tends to start early. If it’s something that’s put off, odds are it will stay put off forever.

My Life

I’m not sure I’ve followed this well. I’m still “young”, but I’m probably not young enough to be on the earlier side of this analysis.

However, I think there is something to be said here by translating it away from the language of time and into the language of procedure: “What is begun will likely continue.”

Basically, if one behaves like a child forever, one will be treated like a child forever. If one is wise in youth, they will stay wise.

I don’t know that this is an absolute, but it’s certainly something that’s measurable and observable in life. My friends who were highly disciplined in college about doing what was meaningful for them (even if that meant dropping out of college) remain on a path that brings them meaning, and those that were not find themselves in flux and with less success.

I, as someone who falls in the middle of this equation (I am good at doing what has been suggested for me, but not at finding my own path), find myself in a situation now where I have a chance to really make a name for myself and find opportunity.

Resolution

Seize the day and work toward greatness.

Strive to do today what I want to do tomorrow.

Make plans to build a better future, but don’t worry about what comes next.