Reflections on Aphorisms #99

Short aphorisms tonight because it’s been a busy day. Just one and I’m going to make it relatively short (the last time I said this I wound up with a couple illustrations and well over a thousand words, and I had to delete it on revision, but I mean it this time).

But hey, I’m almost to 100. That’s a milestone!

Aphorism 139

The intention of never deceiving often exposes us to deception. (Maxim 118)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

I wish I was able to read Rochefoucauld in the native tongue and catch some of the nuance here, but I heard something interesting recently that made this maxim pop out to me.

One of the forms of deception is the “honest lie” that people tell by following the truth when it suits them.

I don’t mean that they ever tell a lie; this isn’t the same as selective honesty.

It’s a form of over-honesty.

It’s kind of like making excuses. As a teacher I used to get all sorts of reasons why students couldn’t turn work in on time or had other problems with their assignments, and the really important thing was always whether or not they’d actually tried their best and made an earnest effort.

Many students were able to come up with a compelling list of reasons, but they were also self-deceptive in their honesty.

The best way to think of the “honest lie” is to think of it as something akin to PR or spin. It’s not about telling a lie, it’s about giving information that other people don’t need because it paints you in a positive light. Of course you couldn’t do the assignment when relatives came to visit (last night), but you could have done it on any of the previous weeks going back to the date the assignment was given and posted online (last month).

Now, some of this is outside students’ control, and some of the time students were deliberately lying to me. They knew I’d check with parents, though, and I think they caught on to the fact that if they had an excuse to make it at least had to satisfy their family (and most had strict families; lying is bad enough, lying to a teacher is an atrocity!).

But the real important thing here is that we wind up deceiving ourselves with lesser truths when we should be looking at greater ones.

Jordan Peterson once spoke about oppression, and he pointed out that at a certain point the problem with people making claims of victimhood is that they’re all true. On some level everyone has experienced injustice, oppression, or setbacks that they don’t deserve to face.

However, the problem is that the view of the little truth (of being oppressed) is that it eclipses the big truth of the power that we have, in the same way that the little truth of last minute barriers in my students’ workflow eclipses the big truth of having the time and resources to complete the assignment and not allocating them correctly (in most cases).

You can avoid deception and still be lying to yourself.

Resolution

Look for the big truth, not the little truth.

Aim to live truthfully, not just without lying.

Don’t manipulate people with lies, but don’t manipulate them with truth either.

Reflections on Aphorisms #98

Making myself be really disciplined with my morning today so that I can get more than one aphorism in in the day. Still focusing on Rochefoucauld’s Maximes for now, but doing more than one lets me get a little variety in.

Aphorism 137

Cunning and treachery are the offspring of incapacity. (Maxim 126)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

I think there’s a little room to argue that the relationship here is not unilateral, but I generally agree with Rochefoucauld here.

What I have found in my own life is that when I am most honest I push myself to be the best I can be so I can live without shame. Of course I know I have my little faults; I’m not particularly industrious. 

I say this after waking up before dawn to go for a run, getting a lengthy morning walk in afterward to get tea (and more exercise), doing a significant amount of reading for coursework, writing two blog posts and change (though I still have to post one), and taking only about an hour and a half of down-time in between these things, but the truth is that today has been shaping up to be a good day compared to average. Being self-employed makes it more important to stay conscious of my faults.

Plus, now that I’m honest about it, I feel more of a need to compensate for my flaws, which is useful.

But one of the things about dishonesty is that it tends to breed other problems.

It’s very easy to become complacent with where you are when you’re not honest with yourself (the theme of the year when I was a freshman in college was “self-deception” thanks to Goethe and Tolstoy), and that makes it easy to let hubris and vanity take over.

And, of course, there’s an importance to valuing yourself. You always have the very basic thing, that you are a being of potential and inherent human value (if you belong to a religious or philosophical movement that doesn’t want everything to just end in chaos and blood), but self-esteem is more than just that. You need to believe that there’s something in particular that you can do, and it’s good to let yourself think that you’re at least passable after it. After all, God looks at his creation and sees that it is good in the Bible, and while we’re pitiable things in comparison to God the Bible also argues that we are made in the same image: the likeness of the creator.

So figure out what you make and be honest with your abilities. If you’re not good at it, get good at it. And let yourself have that confidence. Don’t fool yourself into complacency, but remember that pretty much everyone’s been able to struggle through life to get where they are. Lottery winners and trust fund babies may have had more struggle than they are often made out to have overcome, too, and if nothing else they’ll get theirs later when senescence hits like a truck.

Part of the reason why we resort to vices is that they’re easier than virtue. If you cultivate one or the other it’ll grow, but unless you’re very careful it’s easy to build vice. Only the masters can bring themselves to a state even an imperfect observer can call virtuous.

So figure out what you can do, do it, and learn how to live along the way.

It doesn’t sound easy, but it’s sort of a package deal.

Resolution

Master my craft.

Use honesty as a mirror.

Don’t let doubt destroy potential.

Aphorism 138

The malicious have a dark happiness.

Victor Hugo

Interpretation

One of the things that you observe about the really, truly evil is that they find what they are doing to be not just acceptable, but good.

I’d equate it with the satisfaction of being an artisan. One of the things that I really love about writing is that once in a while I write something and it turns out better than I thought it would be, and it gives me a chance to feel like I have birthed something great.

Evil doesn’t enjoy benign creation, but rather the creation of shrines to the self, the idolatry of the mirror.

I believe that we’re all attuned to the nature of existence. Call it a conscience, as I do, or the collective unconscious, as Jung did, Socrates’ daimonion, or anything you like, but we all have some fundamental realization that the world is greater than us and substantially driven by forces that we are not in control of, and that there is a way that we should behave in response to this.

This is the nature of tragedy that flows throughout our lives, because we are not in tune with the universe and we are not perfect beings. We will eventually face, if nothing else, the fact that we decay.

That’s really a terrifying notion. We may be familiar with the concept of finititude, but we have nothing to use to apply that concept to our own lives, except perhaps sleep. And sleep itself is imperfect, because we know that we will awaken from it. It can also hold its own terrors and mysteries.

Shakespeare got it right when Hamlet remarked that death is “to sleep, perchance to dream” but I don’t think he ever intended to give us an answer to Hamlet’s dilemma.

One of the only ways that we can protect ourselves from death is to make something that lasts beyond our time.

But that’s hard.

Not just in a “you’ll have to sacrifice” hard way, but in a “you’ll have to sacrifice and you’ll never know if it worked” way.

There’s layers of self-doubt to get through, and then one needs to make a big enough mark on reality for it to be reflected forever.

And, if you look at it that way, we’re specks of dust on a larger speck of dust.

How can we leave any legacy worth leaving?

The answer is simple: to set our expectations on what we are.

If you think about it, every human being is made up of cells that can be traced back to one progenitor. We’ve been shaped by our mothers going back for centuries and millennia. One could look at that and say that we’re the product of a biological machine, a sort of cancer that hijacks everything around us and uses it to replicate ourselves. The right (or wrong) sort of person would even go so far as to condemn us for that.

But I like to look at it and see the awe of the cosmos. We are part of something great and massive, so big that we can never hope to be more than a note in a chord in a measure in a song that resonates through time.

I’m religious, so this is something that may not resonate with everyone, but I feel a sense of God’s purpose within us. We’re motivated to live in line with something greater than ourselves.

When someone falls to evil, they replace that prime directive, the goals that God has set, with the desires that they have.

It brings its own sort of happiness, in the vein of Milton’s Lucifer, because we can be our own masters. There’s a price for that: we wind up living in hell. But hell is the place that God (or, again, the collective unconscious or daimonion if you favor a secular interpretation; this will have a different conceptual meaning but it is not all so different in execution) does not reign supreme in, so it is the one place that we can possibly hope to master. The wicked have found their paradise in a barren wasteland, because we can lord ourselves only over dust and ash.

Resolution

Always find joy in creation, not destruction.

Listen for God’s voice, and follow that path.

Don’t put myself above my place.

Reflections on Aphorisms #68

I’ve got a bad thing going on where I keep writing right next to bed-time, so it’s going to be another single aphorism night.

However, I Think this one is going to be interesting, even though the writer is anonymous. It’s an interesting point, though.

Aphorism 106

Clever liars give details, but the cleverest don’t.

Anonymous

Interpretation

Lies are a funny thing. They’re a difficult thing to do well, even though they come naturally to us.

A lie is an attempt to tell an alternative account than that which exists in the universe, and it’s something which is associated both with intelligence (since good liars need to be smart) and foolishness (because you can’t outrun reality).

One of the things that we notice is that people who are lying often go to great lengths to justify their lies, and people who are not will be very comfortable in telling a story that’s much more barebones.

I’ve studied how social engineers do things, and one of the things that’s really interesting is that they don’t actually try to tell good lies most of the time, even though they have to deceive people to do their jobs right.

Instead, they start with befriending people and only once they’ve gotten some territory will they actually tell a lie. When they do, they always keep it vague, and usually their stories pass muster. If you say there’s a problem with an elevator, for instance, that’s a lot better than saying what the problem is.

One of the things that this ties into is a sort of peculiar injunction to honesty. The best lies lack details because they can’t match reality (at least, not on purpose).

By leaving out details, you give enough room for the people on the receiving end to fill in the picture you paint. In a sense, you use a falsehood cloaked in the reality which is known to other people.

After all, how much do any of us really know about our surroundings? Probably not all that much, even if we’re trained for situational awareness. We have a lot of heuristics, however, and our heuristics are fairly broad so that we can adapt to as many situations as possible. You want to be flexible enough to manage almost anything, not left in the dust when the smallest change occurs.

The problem is that this provides a sort of extension of proto-reality, potential presents and futures that cover the space beyond our senses.

E.U= Expected Unknown. Graph by myself.

The diagram above indicates a sort of diagram of how I conceive the mind’s state in the universe.

It’s “not to scale” as it were, in the sense that I’ve chosen the angles to make the diagram neatly legible rather than as any sort of statement about how the mind works.

In the center you have the heuristic, and the heuristic would actually extend as a full circle and overlap with validation.

This is the way we think about the world.

Notice that the heuristic extends into the unknown; this is a reflection of the unconscious and the role it plays in shaping the psyche, and is where subconscious bias and other formative factors that we aren’t necessarily aware of play.

Part of the heuristics section is the validation. This is the place where our perceived current and past realities match our expectations. Although this appears to be getting broader, it’s worth noting that the degree to which this is actually part of our heuristics may be inflated by the fact that we are generally conscious of those things which we expect.

Again, the representation here is not to scale.

We have the expected future out front. This is where our expectations meet reality in a relatively accurate fashion. If I expect for the sun to come up tomorrow, and I am correct, then this is an assumption based on my heuristic that I can safely put in the expected future.

Think of this as the prediction spot.

Next you have the expected unknown (E.U. in the chart). These are the places where we know that something will happen, but we aren’t sure what. Although I’ve diagrammed this as a relatively small portion, I think that for many people, especially people like me who tend to navel gaze, this is actually a large part of our minds and heuristics. Think about it this way: I don’t know that my commute in the morning will be pleasant, so I plan for it being potentially painful.

Last, we have the blind unknown. To a certain degree this is shaping our heuristic, but it represents all of the past, present, and future that we are not consciously aware of. This is a place with very real meaning, but we cannot discern or decipher it. This is certainly under-represented on the graph. It should probably extend in all directions beyond the heuristic and known.

A good lie plays with the expected unknown. If I know that the elevator may break, and that it is important to keep it maintained, I will not question an elevator maintenance crew showing up at my facility once in a while. I may not even question them moving around, since they may have to talk to people to do their jobs. I don’t know this for sure, but it’s logical enough.

If the person who’s showed up to fix the elevator tells me that they’re there because the elevator keeps getting stuck on Floor 3 and they’re going to need to talk to Mr. Smith in his office, the lie has gotten a lot more complex. If someone says the wrong thing next time or if there is no Mr. Smith (or worse, no Floor 3), it will cause the obvious conflict with reality to pop to the forefront.

Resolution

Check my heuristics.

Don’t lie.

Don’t use information to obscure reality.

Reflections on Aphorisms #62

A customarily short Sunday post. Took the day off as a rest day, and it was really good, but I’ve also gone past my bed time to write this. Oops!

Aphorism 99

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.

Wilde

Interpretation

There’s a powerful social force that drives us to be something other than ourselves.

I don’t necessarily mean this to say that there’s any conscious intent or malice, but it’s a sort of intersection of conscious and unconscious factors.

We want to look good at all times, and we’re keenly aware that we don’t always look good. At the very least, we know we could look better than we do, even if we have the (over-)confidence to not feel insufficient.

So I think there’s a hesitancy to associate who you are with your own public face. I certainly put off writing about any philosophical matters for far too long (after being more bold about it in my youth) because of this.

Internet anonymity creates a sort of dark mirror of this. Because people are freed from any risk of getting in trouble, they have a willingness to show the worse parts of themselves. Sometimes they don’t even realize it, the sides of their personality that are coming out to play aren’t the ones that they associate themselves with.

I read an article the other day about racists that leave racist organizations, and one of the things that’s interesting is that they’ll relapse not into rejoining those organizations but back into hate, even after they make the conscious effort to try to put it behind them.

Taking an uneducated guess, I’d wager that this has to do with the part of the psyche that we don’t know. Carl Jung calls this the shadow, but we can think of it more specifically in this sense as a weakness or injury that has impeded the individual.

Now, I can’t claim to be an expert on hate. It’s not something I’ve had the misfortune to be around first-hand, at least in the more narrow sense (I’ve definitely been around some spiteful, malicious people, though) that we would define as a hate group.

But the internet has a lot of people on it who revel in chaos and destruction, and one of the things that doubtless feeds into this is the lack of any solid value structure. Without a foundation, a person cannot build a shelter against the pain and uncertainty of the world.

You can reject everything, or you can accept the toxicity. In a way both are the same; you can’t reject everything without becoming a sort of archetypal Serpent, and you can’t become toxic without devaluing existence itself.

We look down on people who behave this way, who hold these views and attitudes. It’s not a matter of elitism, it’s a matter of survival. If we do not condemn them, at least in the sense that we keep them at arm’s length for our own safety, their ideas are infections and their actions are poisonous.

The internet provides a mask, and lets these people hide their nature (or, at least, show it selectively without risking too much of their own person).

However, it also gives freedom for the noble to rise up. The masks that we wear can allow even a timid person to speak with freedom, and the power of interconnection allows them to be a force for good.

It’s just important to be intentional about it.

I’ve entered a lifestyle where I depend on radical honesty. I say what I think much more than previously (to be fair, an improvement on the bare minimum is not necessarily much of an improvement, and I need to get better about that), and I try never to lie or evade.

Of course, the really important thing about this is that you need to get out of the habit of doing the expedient thing. Being honest hurts a lot more if you do things you don’t want to be honest about.

Fortunately, generally people are good spirited about dealing with open and honest people. I’ve never had anyone use my honesty against me, even when they could easily do so. Some of that comes down to luck and a habit of carefully associating with those I consider virtuous, but it’s also a matter of trust.

If people know you’re honest and that you proffer information that is significant, they don’t look the gift horse in the mouth.

That, or maybe it’s that honesty is so rare that people don’t bother asking the questions that would entrap the truthful.

Resolution

Don’t do the things that lead to having secrets.

Be intentional about doing good.

Don’t lie.

Reflections on Aphorisms #53

This will be a short post today because I am trying out a new software for editing. I’m not 100% sold on it because I’ve lost a lot of writing because it doesn’t have any auto-saving functionality. The web plugin didn’t check if the page has refreshed between starting and finishing working, and once I clicked save and it did not.

So it wasn’t the best of days.

Aphorism 86

One often contradicts an opinion when what is uncongenial is really the tone in which it was conveyed.

Nietzsche

Interpretation

This is an interesting truth.

What people don’t realize is that being unpleasant makes everything worse.

If the best project in the world required collaborating with someone truly distasteful, it would not be the best project in the world.

I almost never swear. There are few places where swearing adds proper emphasis, and many where it causes emotions to run ragged.

However, I think it comes down to a lot of things. Other than my tendency to whine (which is something I am better about), I try to be polite and helpful around people. There are limits to this, but I’ve found being pleasant and a little cooperative gets more results than you’d expect from being useful. The sacrifice required for this is minimal. Fifteen minutes a week earns interest.

There’s a connection to politics. I migrated across political affiliations before deciding just not to have any. The reason for this is simple: I cared more about victory than principle. Then I realized that everyone that I was looking up to was flawed. There are very few honest politicians. If you align with any faction, you align with a lot of snakes.

So I don’t. This change made life better.

I’ve found that many abrasive people hide issues. Whether it is emotional, social, or practical, something feeds that attitude. There’s room for lenience–people have bad days–but if there’s a habit, it’s a red flag.

Nice people suck as friends. You want people who are honest. No exaggeration.

Look for people who give productive criticism. They have a good outlook. They don’t flatter and don’t denigrate. 

You may notice that these people are wrong. They will not judge your opinions. Return the favor. Life will get a lot better.

You may notice that you agree with people. See if they’re jerks. If they are, do the kind thing and let them know politely. Everyone wins. If they become hostile, it’s their loss, not yours. You can’t befriend everybody. If they improve, you’ve helped them and yourself.

There is one exception: blunt honesty. Telling the truth should be the priority. Just don’t put a negative spin on it. Sincerity to help, not to harm. Take your frustrations out on paper or canvas, not people. Know when to pull a punch.

My high school Latin teacher had a phrase he loved to repeat:

“What is this to eternity?”

Nothing that bothers you is worth burning other people for.

So don’t.

Resolution

Be kind, not nice.

Don’t tear down what isn’t worthy of destruction.

Master frustration, release it without hurting anyone.

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.