Reflections on Aphorisms #71

Aphorism 109

In the city, time becomes visible.

Lewis Mumford

Interpretation

I finished a Great Courses audio-book on the history of common people today, so this aphorism seems particularly applicable to me.

One of the things about people is that we alter the entropy around us. We might temporarily stall it, intentionally hasten it, or even just modulate it, but the effect becomes stronger as we come together.

In a rural village for most of the history of humanity, life remained the same for decades or centuries at a time. People came and went, as did their structures, but the actual lifestyle stayed the same, even as regimes and beliefs changed.

I don’t think the same is true today to the same extent, but mostly because our standards of what constitutes a small settlement have changed. I think of the small town where I would visit my grandmother as a child.

Barring a visitor center, I don’t think that there has been any significant construction since the last time I visited, which was before I was an adult.

There’s no need for it. The population is small, and while the individuals and businesses may change over time the actual buildings themselves do not. The library where I spent so much of my youth remains in the same state it was when I left it last, the grocery store down the street and the hotel across town are still where they were, and will likely be there for the next decade. There’s no stimulus to change the substance of the town.

Admittedly, there were stimuli that could change the environment, but in these cases they were often not human in origin: fires, earthquakes, famines, and the like that displaced people may have changed the landscape, but people would either settle back into the same lifestyle elsewhere or move to a city.

Only where people concentrated did one see a vast amount of differences over time. Cities have a lot of people, and they concentrate resources. Building, especially the luxury of deconstruction and reconstruction, becomes a pastime and then a necessity.

Each person contributes more to the change until the chaos–or conversion of chaos into order–reaches a critical point and things are put into motion.

And just because this works on a macro-scale doesn’t mean it’s absent in smaller examples of life.

Think about how much of your time you spend actually working toward something valuable. If you represented it as a percentage, is it in the double digits? I know that for much of my life mine has been low–perhaps even as low as the single digits during my youth and college years–though it’s gone up quite a bit in my more recent years (teaching has a way of converting your free time into time spent laboring toward a goal, though not always in a way that feels productive).

As you bring that number up, you’ll find it having an increasingly great impact. I read or listen to audio-books for possibly as much as 20% of my waking hours each day. I have learned more this year than I have in my last two years combined, and not for lack of trying.

So push yourself. Do everything you can. Don’t forget to live a little (100% productivity is a great path to burnout), but if something you do has no meaning figure out a way to eradicate it and replace it with something that does.

Resolution

Stop doing worthless things.

Remember that change increases exponentially, not linearly.

Sleep, eat, drink. Then wake up and accomplish something.

Reflections on Aphorisms #67

Well, I’ve been on a bit of a historical kick recently, so let’s start today with an aphorism about history. My bedtime’s coming up soon, so if I only wind up with one aphorism (as has been the norm this week), please forgive me.

Aphorism 105

The major fact about history is that in large part it appears criminal.

W. E. Arnold, Jr.

Interpretation

In many cases, I like to try and look up some of the more obscure figures featured in books on aphorisms to try and integrate some parts of their biography into their picture.

Whoever W. E. Arnold, Jr. is, they’re not very good at being found, and as far as I can tell this quote is found only in a handful of selections of aphorisms (namely the Viking Book of Aphorisms and the Faber Book of Aphorisms, which are fundamentally the same text) and nobody has taken the effort to fully explain who exactly they are referring to. I’ve even seen this quote attributed to a Thomas Arnold, but I have uncovered no clue of the aphorist’s identity other than his name.

So, basically, I can’t read context into this to give a deeper background.

I will say, however, as a student of history that this generally rings true.

I think that there’s a couple elements to this:

First, the past carries traditions and ideas that are different than ours.

Second, the truth of the matter is that we’re worse than we like to think.

As much as humanity shares key core foundations, it also has expressed itself in dramatically different ways over recorded history, and doubtless for a good time before that.

Behavioral psychologists have stated that every expression is the product of stimulus and response. While this is not wholly incorrect, it’s reductive in its understanding of human minds.

Jordan Peterson, author of Maps of Meaning, which I highly recommend to anyone looking for an introduction to Jungian-style psychology, argues that the behaviorists missed one key detail: perception.

It is this which gives us the differences from our predecessors, because our perceptions have changed. We still respond to the good and the bad in fundamentally similar ways, but we have redefined what they are.

Sometimes, in the case of phenomena like religion, we even introduce new concepts that we can group stimuli into. A Christian perspective is very different from the pagan ones of the Classical world, and the Abrahamic religions came to prevalence largely because of the ways that they viewed suffering and success. By encouraging incredible degrees of sacrifice and commitment, and actively forbidding the practice of other worldviews, they were able to stamp out almost every other major worldview across a whole continent (and beyond).

Because the system is so complex, it’s difficult to categorize. Sometimes the people of the past did things that would seem barbarous to us, but which served practical and ritual purposes no more malign than the act of brushing our teeth.

At times, they did things that we can aspire to, but for motives that would disgust our sensibilities.

We don’t have to pass judgment on them, though I am convinced that the denizens of the past never achieved peak moral virtue just as we the living have not.

And this is another point: oftentimes when we look at bad people in history, they were bad by their day’s standards. We certainly have people around the world today who will go down in history as villains unless their worldview goes on to predominate all others.

Sometimes they weren’t condemned in their time. Nobody complained about Julius Caesar’s borderline genocidal war of aggression in Gaul, or at least nobody who amounts to anything (and, when they did complain, it was to oppose Caesar rather than decry his abuse of the Gauls).

However, it’s worth noting that we have the same people in our world.

Joseph Campbell once wrote that “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells are within you.”

Now, you can say what you will about Campbell. I view him as somewhat of a flawed personality, but one who was nonetheless brilliant. He falls somewhere between Freud and Jung on the scale of “Brilliant but crippled by neurosis and brilliant but too far beyond what has come before” of tragic genius.

Campbell was definitely correct in identifying the archetypal element of consciousness, though he definitely leaned toward the New Age style of thought that there was a universal trend toward good that we don’t see played out in reality.

This quote, though, is incredibly strong, and it’s the last part that I want to look at, namely the notion that all the hells reside within a person.

This is, of course, analogous to the Jungian shadow, the part of the psyche that we repress, but it’s also something beyond it. All people engage in conscious malice–evil–and have that within their nature. We may simply be blind to our own fault, making us unconsciously evil, but it should be self-evident if we look within ourselves as well as evident from the laws passed down to us that we engage in behaviors that are destructive with no real gain.

Of course, people are also noble, and it is worth pointing out that there can be no nobility without the opportunity for the opposite (this is, in part, the point of Job), and the conflict between nobility and evil is a struggle which is hard-fought by people throughout history.

Resolution

Rise above human nature.

Pay attention to how my perception shapes my decisions, and how my desire shapes my perception.

Don’t overlook the reality that others are complex.

Reflections on Aphorisms #51

It feels weird to think that I’m already more than half-way to a hundred of these. That’s enough time to start making it a habit, but it’s also an example of a little thing done daily that I think is making me a better person.

I don’t know how to quantify the improvement I’ve felt in my happiness and practical ability to work, but it’s there, and it’s enough to matter.

Aphorism 82

Prayer does not change God, but it changes he who prays.

Kierkegaard

Interpretation

It’s worth noting before we get into things that Kierkegaard is not trying to diminish the power of prayer.

Think of it this way: Kierkegaard isn’t necessarily saying that God is deaf to intercession, but rather that intercession is not always acceptable.

The act of prayer, even in the most secular interpretation, has merit in the admission that the object of one’s desire is outside the perceived limit of one’s agency.

Of course, if you’re religious you may believe that prayer is a way to meet an end, and I personally fall in that camp (although I don’t believe that there’s a guarantee that prayer will be answered for faith alone).

But one of the things that would logically follow at least the Christian concept of God is that there should be constant divine intervention against all evils.

I think Jordan Peterson describes this Abrahamic concept best in one of his sections in his book 12 Rules for Life (my analysis of the chapter) where he talks about vulnerability and weakness.

Part of us being free and having value, within the framework of a universe in which there is an omnipotent God, is that God must let us work within our own limitations and limit intervention in our world. Peterson uses the analogy of a child who is made to be perfect and invincible. By transforming the child from a vulnerable living thing to an invulnerable icon, one destroys the child.

I personally believe this is the reason why God permits evil to exist. To remove it entirely would be to remove the spirit of the hero from the world, to annihilate our ability not only for wickedness but also for good, for sacrifice, for transcendence.

Prayer is humbling oneself before God. Praise is also humbling oneself before God. Whether or not you can expect divine intervention, it has a way of grounding one in a mindset that accepts the wicked and the good as parts of being.

Resolution

Pray constantly.

For every evil there is a chance to do good. Do that good.

Never curse, never pass sentence on that which is not of your self. That is the domain of God.

Aphorism 83

Nature hath no goal though she hath law.

John Donne

Interpretation

One of the things that I frequently see people talking about is a particular notion that there’s an end-point to history or the universe.

Often these people talk about teleological reasons for being, or some universal trend of progress that defies what we know the objective rules of progress to be.

I’m also not talking about a defined end here; there may well be an end (some apocalypse, the heat death of the universe, our whole world being a projection of our consciousness that ends with physical death, and so forth: take your pick), but the problem is that it’s treated as something which every process works toward.

I mean, if you look at entropy in a broad sense, I guess you could go that way, though that’s kind of a morbid way to view it, and it’s the opposite of how the people I’m referring to talk.

The world around us is chaotic and disordered by default, at least by any perceptible human qualifier. All the archetypal stories tell us this: that the unknown is going to be unexpected. There would be no reason to fear the dark if it always contained merely the absence of light.

People set goals. The rest of reality generally doesn’t (a possible exception being animals, though their goals are not as complicated as ours), and that’s one of the key things that makes people different. We can contemplate a future endpoint which is more desirable than the current state, and we can do so in quite an abstract capacity. We know, for instance, that we can plan for the future by saving money.

Of course, such things are always flawed by the complexity of the system we’re in and our own limitations, but it’s possible to pin things down relatively close to reality. Precision is where things get tricky, but broad generalizations are often correct (see what I did there?).

Nature, on the other hand, is not a conscious entity. It is not even an entity, though we’ve created an abstraction that looks like one because we have a problem with conceptual null spaces.

If nature is anything, it’s a network of independent agents.

All of these, of course, have laws that are in operation around them. The discovery of Newton’s natural laws marked a shift from alchemical and mystical notions of the world and natural philosophy to modern science, and part of the reason for that is that it marked a shift from goals to laws.

Previously, people thought that nature worked in predictable ways because it wanted to.

Now, we know that it moves in predictable ways because the very nature of the motion of the universe is patterned in those ways.

That’s a very important, even revolutionary, idea.

Resolution

Don’t attribute to design what belongs to chance.

Remember: Brains make patterns, often incorrectly.

Don’t forget: Newton didn’t find what he found on purpose.

Reflections on Aphorisms #13

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 20

“I believe the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.”

Dostoevsky, quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Dostoevsky is probably one of my favorite writers. Carl Jung trash talked the writers of philosophical novels in his book Modern Man In Search of a Soul (Amazon affiliate link), arguing that they explained too much. On the contrary, I believe that philosophical novelists like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy represent valuable insights to how we feel about ourselves.

Human ingratitude is a common idea. We are limited in many ways by an inability to appreciate. Some of this is only natural. Gratitude must be learned. My experience working with children has taught me this. There is also the fact that what we consider to be good for us is not always good for us, and that what is considered to be harmful may actually be quite beneficial. We make for ourselves images of our own reality.

The problem is that we are idolators. We never truly consider what we need instead worship what seems to bring a satisfaction. Most of the time this is sufficient. After all, satisfaction often is tied to something good, at least in a first-order effect. If we eat we will no longer be hungry. However, the world is not simple.

The exact point at which our ability to appreciate breaks down may very well be unique to each individual some people besides themselves bemoaning the consequences of something they once believed to be good, feeling deceived and tricked by reality itself. Others, incapable of appreciating the immediate effect, never pay attention to what they have. The truth, painful as it is, is the I have seen very few people who are truly happy in every sense of the word. I believe this to tie directly to the problem at hand.

My life

I have learned as an adult to be that much more thankful for what I have. I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the worst deprivations known to people but also I have learned to see what I have rather than what I do not have.

This does not mean I never want anything, and I can’t claim to be a savvy consumer who never wastes money on things that wind up being unfulfilling, but it does mean that what I want does not feel like a necessity.

There was a time when entitlement was a buzzword. It may still be, I simply do not expose myself to so much foolishness as I did in my youth. I think that’s a great antidote believing that the Universe owes you something is to remember what you’ve might not have. I am a fan of the stoics. Sometimes I find myself to be a better member of their company than others, but key lesson that I have is that you are responsible for how you feel much of modern martyrdom is elective. There is no rule or oppression that holds most of us down. It is only ourselves.

Resolution

Appreciate what I have.

Do not envy.

Tear down idols in my life.