Reflections on Aphorisms #2

I’ve made a resolution to start examining aphorisms on a daily basis, and here’s the second day of that. You can read the first day’s reflections here, and I’ll keep them coming for at least a while.

As always, I like to have a format, as follows:

  1. Aphorism
  2. Interpretation
  3. My Life
  4. Resolution

In addition to Taleb’s work, I’m breaking out an old copy of the Viking Book of Aphorisms, edited by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger that was published through Barnes and Noble in 1993. My best friend got it for me when we were both in college, and I’ve never really given it as much attention as I should have. As far as I can tell, this (affiliate link) is the closet offering on Amazon for a similar edition. In any case, I don’t think that most of the aphorisms contained within would be impossible to find elsewhere, but it’s a pretty decent volume.

I’m also continuing the numbering across sessions, so keep that in mind.

Aphorism 2

You cannot express the holy in terms made for the profane, but you can discuss the profane in terms made for the holy.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (Amazon affiliate link)


I think that this is generally a pretty straightforward quote, but there’s something that I’ve heard that is interesting.

The term “holy” in its more traditional religious sense refers to something which is set apart and dedicated to God.

Profane, on the other hand, is sort of an antithesis of holiness. The Bible describes figures like Esau and Lot as profane. It isn’t even so much that they are wicked in their hearts (though that can be a consequence) as that they don’t take the necessary steps to set themselves apart from the world and can therefore be corrupted by it.

I think there’s something to be said for our society in this; I recall being in a college level class where in the course of a discussion the concept of sin came up, and there was actually at least one person who didn’t even know what the word meant.

If you don’t pursue the holy, you can’t find it. It’s not something that comes by accident: even if you are inspired to suddenly become holy, the inspiration requires following action to be brought to fruition.

My Life

I’m not sure how precisely this fits to my life. I don’t tend to swear very often; I don’t think there’s a single expletive in my entire published work, which because I write obsessively and without thought of reward has swollen to quite an amount. Some of that’s growing up in a Holiness tradition, where we simply weren’t allowed to cuss (though minced oaths were tolerated by some of the less strict families), and some of that’s just personal preference.

However, I think that there’s a deeper meaning to this than just spoken and written language. Language is a catch-all for consciousness. We might be able to have consciousness without language (I’m not enough of a brain scholar to make authoritative statements on the matter), but they are strongly correlated together where both exist simultaneously and are inextricable from each other.

If you don’t intentionally contemplate the holy, you will be stuck with just the profane.


Consider my words carefully, choose things that build up the divine spirit in myself and others.

Spend time contemplating holiness, cultivating it deliberately within my life through thought, word, and deed.

Guard my mind against the influences of the world where they might corrupt my purpose and vision, and my relationship with God.

Aphorism 3

The essential matter of history is not what happened but what people thought or said about it.

Frederick William Maitland, from the Viking Book of Aphorisms


Maitland lived in the late 1800’s and very early 1900’s, but this saying seems like something out of the zeitgeist of more contemporary society.

While I’m interested in seeing the context, the point of analyzing an aphorism is to free-associate, so I’m going to hazard being wrong on Maitland’s intent and go on my own bent here.

There’s an expression that history is written by victors (which may be overrated in its own right), but I think that there is an defense to be made about the dissociation between history and fact.

I’m not any sort of conspiracy theorist who states that the fundamental outline of history books is incorrect, but I’m also enough of a historian myself to know that history is something which is made by filling in gaps. We live in a day and age when information is essentially free and unlimited, and so much is preserved that it seems unlikely that there will be many mysterious events in fifty years unless people want to keep them mysterious deliberately.

If you travel back five hundred years you find yourself in a place where it’s not possible to preserve and store information for posterity. How people fill in the dots is a key part of figuring out what really happened, but the truth of the matter is that there isn’t all that much that we can do.

Our histories are a reflection of our beliefs; both in a “we are driven into perceiving certain patterns by the very nature of our consciousness and experiences” sense and a “we see things the way we want to because we want to” sense.

History in this sense is a mixture between attempting to gather facts and figuring out the narrative you wish to create from them, and it makes for interesting events.

My Life

I have often thought about the persistence of memory and the way that my own self-concept has changed. This past week has been one of incredible change for me, and it’s one that has shook me to my foundations. I’ve made decisions about who I want to be, and I’ve cast my fate to the stars, to speak poetically (don’t worry, Mom, I’m not into astrology), and actually taken concrete steps toward them despite my historical risk aversion.

The point being that my own recognition of my own existence is driven by the current moment, not the facts of the past. Some big things are inescapable, or at least would have large consequences for ignoring them (see: bank accounts, rent checks), and they occupy a lot of my mental energy.

However, I’m sure there are thousands of little things that I’ve never thought of when making decisions. Today on my commute I thought of a game I made back in my freshman year of college (or maybe the summer before or after), and I realized that I’ve probably started two dozen independent game projects over the course of my life.

Even in this moment, as a historian of myself, there are things that escape me.

Part of me blogging like this is an effort to be that historian of myself, at least inasmuch as I feel comfortable doing so for the whole world (and I’m a believer in radical openness, so that’s most things that don’t influence the privacy of others).


Consider my own life as something which I am witnessing from a subjective perspective.

Work to reduce the differences between my self-perception and my own past by taking stock of what I’ve done with my life.

Think about how I can move toward important events in my life.