Reflections on Aphorisms #57

I feel like I’ve had a breakthrough today. It’s not one I can explain, but something just clicked and I feel like I’m a better person in some small, possibly intangible way.

I know that sounds kind of crazy, but I stand by it. I’m also feeling a little crummy, so it’s not just an elated high. I guess maybe doing more reading on mythology (currently African mythology) has helped me unlock something in my mind, or maybe I’ve just gotten into a mood.

Aphorism 91

My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.

Montaigne

Interpretation

Have I ever mentioned that I love Montaigne’s work? He’s like if you crossed Mark Twain and Socrates, and he’s just fantastic. The first great modern, and the last great classic. Impeccable.

I identify very strongly with this quote, and I think most people do. Especially in this modern day and age, a lot of people seem to be of an anxious type (myself included), and that doesn’t do us any favors.

One of the things that I’ve noticed in my own life is that I have an infinite ability to let my mind wander, and usually I let it wander into the things that I’m most afraid of.

There’s value to this. It helps prepare me for what comes next.

The problem is that usually the worst stuff doesn’t happen.

There’s a stoic injunction to contemplate the worst and then accept it, and I think that’s something to learn from here.

When I find myself worrying, I sometimes ask myself “So what happens then?”

Usually the answer is less dismal than one would think.

I’m not good about this, and I think I need to get better about it (back to my Latin teacher’s “What is this to eternity?” question again), but it’s something that provides a little opportunity to improve and I could do quite easily.

One of the other things to note here is that Montaigne had a lot more to worry about than we do, at least in general and in the severity of his worries (e.g. plague, civil war, religious conflict). Our problems are real, but how many of them really threaten us? We’ve built society primarily to protect ourselves, and we lose that advantage if we don’t keep a clear mind.

So what’s the take away?

Things are never as bad as your mind can make them.

Resolution

Be prepared, but don’t over-plan.

Keep it all in perspective: the chance of the worst thing happening is low.

Don’t over-dramatize your life. You have value, but you also are finite. Come to grips with that.

Reflections on Aphorisms #46

Ugh, the last couple days have been going the wrong direction. Not in terms of my life quality, but just productivity and the like. However, I’ve managed to secure some future opportunities, so there’s always a silver lining, and in the grand scheme of things I’m still better now than I was a few weeks ago, so I’m not going to let it get me down too much.

Without doing any math, I’m setting a goal of hitting 120 aphorisms by the end of July. I have no clue how well that will pan out, because I don’t know how many I’ll need to do per day, and four’s more or less an absolute limit for me.

Aphorism 74

Love does not dominate; it cultivates.

Goethe

Interpretation

Well, this is an ironic statement from the writer of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Of course, one could argue that the affliction that befell Werther was obsession and not love, and I think that’s Goethe’s point here.

There’s two sides to this: one is discerning what love is, and the other is looking at how one should respond to it.

I’ve never really been in a serious romantic relationship. Heck, I’ve never been in a romantic relationship. I’m not someone who objects to it on principle or anything (i.e. not a celibate), but I’ve just never found the right person in part because I’ve never looked and in part because I tend to lose myself in work.

That’s probably a personal flaw, come to think of it.

Gosh, I’d be fun to psychoanalyze.

Getting back to the point, though, I have loved in a platonic and familial sense. I would sacrifice quite a bit for my students (despite my occasional jokes to the contrary), and my family and close friends get that honor as well.

The great thing about love is that sacrifice doesn’t feel like a loss. There’s some sublime beauty that enters into it and makes it into something wonderful.

It’s the ability to give something up and make the world a better place.

If you have that, you have love.

And how does one respond to love?

Gratitude, for one thing. To transmute suffering to purpose is the magnum opus of the alchemists of old. The commonest of things found within dirt where it was least expected could be said to be love–people who have no love can only find themselves trapped within a cycle of destruction, but with love even tragedy becomes a thing that drives growth and rebirth.

True gratitude instills action.

I never appreciated my father much as a child. That’s not true.

For the first few years of my life, I had no gripes with my father. We were incredibly close (him, my brother, and I; I’m a twin), but as we grew circumstances changed. When I look back at early memories, the joys of those days are fragmentary, and if I could choose the memories I would keep only those.

However, at a certain point the relationship grew more distant. As an adult, I can pinpoint these things even without really discussing them with him. He changed jobs; the new job had a longer commute. My brother and I started going to school, and had more work to complete at home. We stopped reading together, because we could read independently.

There was more stress on all sides, and by the time of my adolescence my relationship with my father was strained (it would remain so until I finished college, and even at times the rift lingers in ways I have to consciously prune).

However, when I look back at the whole picture, I am struck by the love that my father has and has always had for my brother, my mother, and I. The dedication and attention that he paid us and the multitude of ways that he showed it often went unappreciated, and there’s some awkwardness in the middle, but the model itself is solid.

When you love people, you do what you know you can to make their lives better. Making their lives perfect is beyond your means, but that’s no reason not to strive.

Resolution

Let love conquer all suffering.

Never underestimate the diversity of faces love can wear.

Remember that a good sacrifice is g0od.

Aphorism 75

We are the children of our age, but children who can never know their mother.

Logan Pearsall Smith

Interpretation

I think that the prevailing spirit of our age is Chaos. That may sound trippy and New Age, but I assure you that it’s not as far out as one would believe.

Look at our society and its rate of change, the loss of familiar icons and social structures and institutions.

Life is chaos, and as close to the platonic ideal as one will find anywhere.

We stand in the midst of things we cannot change, thinking of things we cannot understand, taking actions we cannot really do.

It is the word, order, which we live by. Even the word, however, has become scattered and confused. This is the stuff of the Tower of Babel, and we should take great caution to guard against the transformation of language. This is not because language should not change, but because we should not change it.

One of the greatest challenges we have is this:

How do we put our lives into words?

This is what great poets and thinkers have attempted since humans learned that bashing the right types and shapes of rocks into each other can leave marks that can bear information. Heck, they may have even done that before they learned how to write it down, the spoken word banishing into the oceans of unremembered past.

Really, that’s kind of incredible.

The modern age is the time when we have done away with myth. We have abolished the chains that have held us down, and sailed away on a sea of blood and tears to seek fortune among burnout desires.

Postmodernism is no better; the only difference is that they choose not to sail, or recognize that they are on a sea at all.

The problem is this:

The myth is the sum of all the gods and all the heroes.

Carl Jung had an interesting conception of the unconscious leading to the myth, and the unconscious being that thing which winds up being called God, the daemon of Socrates, spirits, and so forth.

I don’t know that I agree with him here.

However, there is a truth to the notion that the myth gave us bearing on the world, and that we have shut off part of our inner lives when we denied the myth the chance to blossom.

That is not necessarily wrong. It may lead us into a new golden age.

However, it has also cast us into the odious sea, and we will not be the same when we find shore.

Resolution

Do what you have to do to change the unknown into the known.

Embrace the myth, but don’t get lost in it.

Don’t stray too far from shore; here there are dragons.

Aphorism 76

The middle sort of historians… spoil all; they will chew our meat for us.

Montaigne

Interpretation

Ah, some good stuff.

So, I actually wanted to teach history. Like, a lot. My favorite teachers in school were always my English teachers and my History teachers, and of the subjects I probably had more of an interest in the latter.

Then I learned something.

When you teach history, you don’t teach history. You teach an interpretation. You regurgitate the sludge that is currently believed by some stuffy professor who wouldn’t know what the sunlight was if it turned his bloodsucking body to dust.

If part of the price of education is selling yourself into wage slavery at the altar of educational standards (which is an oxymoron in some ways), at the very least you should feel good about what you teach.

I no longer wish to teach history. Preparing to teach it has taught me that what we call “teaching history” is indeed teaching an interpretation. This is perhaps more true at the elementary and secondary levels (my own college-level history courses were phenomenal and gave facts and context rather than interpretations), but I have never really been close to teaching history at a higher level.

It is a relief, then, to see that the wise Montaigne sees this same path that I detest as a mark of a bad historian.

The reason for this is simple.

The whole point to learn the past is so that we don’t repeat it.

However, if we had actually learned from the past, we wouldn’t be in danger of repeating it anyway.

Yet, time and again, despite historians’ efforts the world keeps going awry.

Now, you could say that it’s not the historians’ fault, or at least not the fault of their concept of history, since other people don’t listen to them.

However, there’s something interesting that you can find in the history of history. I’m something of a scholar of the 20th century, though I still can’t decide why because it always leads me down morose paths (see the previous reflection).

At the start of the 20th century, in the 00’s and 10’s, historians were making their predictions and it looked a lot like the predictions they made in the 20’s and 30’s. In the 40’s and 50’s, they made predictions that looked a lot like their predecessors.

They actually were listened to, at least the ones in mainstream academia, and yet the counsel they gave wound up making things worse.

So where’s the problem here? Where’s the disconnect?

They had top-down central planner hubris. They had the guts to believe that they knew the inscrutable secrets of the universe. They had schemas and heuristics and traditions and citations and expert testimony and blood on their hands.

And we teach the same “history” today.

Resolution

Teach only if you put your skin in the game.

Remember that the greatest judgment is reserved for those who lead others away from the right path.

If you think you see, remember that you could be wearing crummy glasses.

Reflections on Aphorisms #43

Time for another set of reflections on aphorisms. Today was more productive than yesterday, though there were a few setbacks. My new goal is to make tomorrow more productive than today.

At this point, who knows how much I’ll have improved by Friday?

Aphorism 68

Force is not a remedy.

John Bright

Interpretation

Well, this is certainly a goldmine.

There’s three things that I think we should look at here:

The “force” of fitting things into the human mode.

The “force” of political systems.

The “force” of our own wills.

The first is probably the most dangerous. We have a way of contemplating the world that is human-centric. This is only natural, because it’s where our values lie, and I’m a proud human supporter, so I don’t think it’s immoral either.

The problem is that our world is not cultivated and improved like a bonsai garden. There’s a line in C.S. Lewis’ work about Aslan, who’s sort of a God/Christ figure that takes the form of a sapient lion.

“He’s not a tame lion.”

Barring the commentary about God, it’s also true about the universe. We’ve got our views and perspectives on the universe, but in the end we’re grasping at straws. To grasp is better than to abstain (and we may even by fluke get close to truth), but it is still mere grasping.

The force of political systems is something that’s become a big concern for me recently. I hate talking politics, but I feel like something has to be said.

The first step in making the world a better place is to remember that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and it’s not just a literal hell. We’re coming off of a century where the action of government created the closest thing one can imagine to the metaphysical state of Hell, and we’re pretty close to doing it again.

Everyone should take a step back and ask if their actions really work, abandoning all pretense of coercion or forcing others into compromises. It’s going to (perhaps literally, at least spiritually) kill us all if we don’t.

Last but not least is the force of our wills.

One of the concepts that haunted me in my youth and later came to be known by me in more practical, identifiable terms is the archetypal notion of the Dragonslayer.

The Dragonslayer is an archetype that is defined by tragic confrontation; it’s embodied by Beowulf, Captain Ahab, Coriolanus, and even Christ (in a sense, since the sacrifice of the cross came with spiritual torment as well and would have shattered Christ’s lessers).

It’s what a person looks like when they bring their full force of will to bear on a problem, and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that where we see the Dragonslayer we rarely see slain dragons, or at least not ones that were slain without great sacrifice.

The will itself doesn’t do anything. It’s the sacrifice that does. Trying to use force when surrender is called for can doom the Dragonslayer to destruction.

Resolution

Don’t point at others’ things and say “Mine!”

Remember that it is sacrifice, not willful opposition, that makes the world go ’round.

Before knocking down the door, check if it’s locked.

Aphorism 69

There is nothing useless in nature; not even uselessness itself.

Montaigne

Interpretation

I’m not quite sure what the best way to approach this is, but I feel an affinity for Montaigne so I think I understand what he’s saying here.

Side-note: Apparently everyone who reads Montaigne thinks they have an affinity for Montaigne, so take this with a grain of salt.

The idea here is that there’s a purpose to everything, at least in terms of utility (though not necessarily cosmic destiny; that’s going too far).

One of the important things here is understanding that it’s a matter of perspective. You can look at things a bunch of different ways, and there are ways to view things that definitely have a negative impact (e.g. catastrophizing) or a positive ways.

It’s a call to see the silver lining in the clouds, basically.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay. You want a visual metaphor? I’ll give you a visual metaphor!

Another point is to engage in some lateral thinking. We’re in an incredibly complex system and things work together in ways that are more complicated than the individual parts (and even the individual parts may have more to them than they at first seem to carry).

One of the things that seems counter-intuitive is that working less may wind up being more productive, because overworking oneself leads to burnout and fatigue.

Case in point: uselessness (at least in the right context) is useful. It’s good to delegate tasks to others as is fit and also to embrace a little time for rest and relaxation, so long as it does not become destructive to other opportunities and endeavors.

The secret is this: there is no secret. (Welcome to cliche-town!)

Really, though. It’s not about becoming obsessed over some grand secret, some alchemist-esque magnum opus that will lead you away from the rigors of everyday existence. It’s not about some grand third-eye awakening (though there’s also a mystery to everything that the strictly rational miss out on).

You just have to realize that you don’t know as much as you think you do, and broaden your search.

Resolution

Never assume that you know what something is for.

There is a utility to be found in everything.

Adapt to what is around you, and remember that a change in context can be a change in everything.

Reflections on Aphorisms #32

I’ve been trying to get back into reading Montaigne’s essays. They’re a hard thing to get back into the swing of if you let your inertia slip. I figured I’d take one of the quotes from Montaigne that I highlighted in my volume and go over it today.

Montaigne’s tower. Image from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Henry Salomé.

Aphorism 55

To follow another is to follow nothing: “Non sumus sub rege: sibi quisque se vindicet.

Montaigne

Interpretation

The Latin portion of this quote comes from Seneca (probably not a coincidence that I would highlight this passage, though my conscious appreciation for Seneca is newborn), and from a larger section of the text in which Montaigne talks about the adoption of philosophical tenets.

I’m somewhat of a follower, insomuch as I have found myself in a situation where I have managed to find people that I agree with, at least in part. Jung, Montaigne, Taleb, and the like are all right in at least part of their assays, their attempts to understand the universe.

In the sentence prior to this statement, Montaigne says that he can agree with people without subjecting his self to oblivion because he has come to an agreement by reaching his own conclusions that match theirs.

There’s truth to this.

Followers make poor members of society.

One of the things that I’ve noticed in almost every book on success is that there’s a tendency for successful people to be servant leaders; they take initiative and do things, but they operate with their own priorities subordinated to others’.

There’s a reason why it makes sense to do this: on one hand, the leader still comes out on top (and so it is that servant leaders are looked to as successful people, because their ability to serve makes them valuable), but it also is very pro-social.

The reason why I bring this up is that servant leaders don’t follow. They lead (and not from behind).

Being able to lead and take initiative is what is required to come to one’s own opinions. If you don’t have this, you will be pulled into the philosophical position of a follower, always floating in the wake of a large movement.

In my own life, I had a long process that led to me becoming who I am today philosophically. I’m fairly agreeable, and I also tend to believe whatever I’m reading at the moment (though not in place of larger existing notions, merely a sort of credulous trust), so I have this follower trend in me. I’m also not the most self-starting; I’m plenty industrious when given directions, but not what one would call a natural leader.

It took a lot for me to begin to pursue my own path. Some of that is a sign of humility (good) and understanding that other people knew more than me (true), but some of it was also sloth (bad) and feeling unworthy of complex judgment and inspection (false, hopefully).

The greatest skill people can have is to be able to make decisions. Preferably they’d do this well, but making decisions instead of going along passively is good by itself.

Resolution

Act, don’t react.

Lead for the benefit of others.

Inertia is either miserable or great; do what it takes for inertia to be great.

Reflections on Aphorisms #18

Aphorism 27

One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.

Anton Chekov, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

When I go through the Viking Book of Aphorisms, I just open it to a random page, or to something that thematically aligns with what I’ve been discussing, but I don’t typically pick out an aphorism as particularly profound. I do try and choose ones that look fruitful, but often I just choose something that serves as a starting off point for something else.

This aphorism, however, is one that particularly stands out to me. It aligns with my interests, I guess one could say. One of the notions that I’ve struggled with as I’ve grown in understanding is how one deals reality. I’m an objectivist (no relation to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), meaning that I believe that there is unifying underlying truth, but I also have the good sense to recognize that I am limited as a person by what I am capable of perceiving.

One oft-neglected factor in this is the question of how one even goes about figuring out what is right and wrong and what is good and what is not.

Chekov raises a very good point here. There’s limitations in our perception that stem from things which are deep beyond the point of comprehension. To draw a comparison to science, there are things which are common knowledge today like many of the advancements in chemistry, which would have been absolutely unimaginable two-hundred years ago. While I am certain that many people can recognize revolutionary changes when they occur, how many of us have noticed smaller evolutionary changes? How many of us have the wherewithal to assess them correctly?

There’s a “love of the new” that I believe to be one of the most dangerous elements of our social culture. Take, for instance, our smartphones, the harbingers of the interconnected age. There is great value in this, namely all of the opportunity that it provides, but it also brings with it tremendous risk. We have changed our way of life so tremendously in the past Century that is going to have second-order effects that we are not even prepared to discuss.

Think about the fact that we no longer are able to check out from our daily life and enjoy quiet moments. Without deliberate effort, those who have never known to seek such a thing will now never benefit from it: they cannot discover it by accident, unless they are incredibly fortunate.

However, it is important not to idolize tradition.

While we bemoan the loss of private spaces and being contemplative, there are benefits to this constant connection to others.

I think that we do not give people enough credit. Those of us who choose to carry constant interruption devices have not done so in base ignorance. Rather, we recognize that there is an opportunity to being reachable by anyone at any time it is a trade, one whose outcome will only be made clear once the deal is complete. As such, I do not believe in reactionary overzealous abstention.

We would do well to remember to be humble. No man may know what tomorrow may bring.

My Life

I have learned is sort of humility over the years. I do something which I know to be at least not wrong, and I do not worry about the outcome.

There’s something of Kant’s categorical imperative in this, though I am not as hardcore as Kant. If you do what you know brings good, it doesn’t matter if individual actions have much fruit. Overtime, the law of averages will apply. It is the whole, not the part, which brings results.

Resolution

Pursue constant little goals.

Do not obsess over the result of any single action.

Diversify my portfolio of worthwhile deeds.

Aphorism 28

Most of the grounds of the world’s troubles are matters of grammar.

Michel de Montaigne, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

I find myself recommending the essays of Montaigne to everyone I meet. This may be a testament to the quality of Montaigne, or may simply show me to be relatively simple, with only one thing on my mind at any time.

This quote is a grand illustration of Montaigne’s wit, at least in my opinion. I envy his ability to create such short statements which also hold such deep meaning while keeping a flippant air.

People have always had communication problems. In the Bible, this is what makes Able preferable to Cane. Able listens to what God desires, while his sinful brother does what he believes will be pleasing to God.

While on the surface Montaigne may seem to be talking about mere copy-editing, the deeper meaning is clear. We do not understand how to communicate with ourselves and each other in a way that improves the world.

There is a Greek concept of the Logos which carries into ancient Gnostic perceptions of the world. It is even influential in Abrahamic religions, as they are at themselves based around the notion of a single omnipotent knowing creator, and in some interpretations may even be referred to as the Logos.

The Logos as a divine concept is associated with the word, with knowledge. Our understanding of the world is the first step in our ability to change it. If you cannot comprehend something, you cannot work willfully with it.

There’s a deeper social level to this that needs to be explored. Much of our life is seen through the lens of other people. Even our perceptions of ourselves are influenced by how other people view us. If we cannot communicate, we cannot understand.

My Life

I am, of course, as an English teacher by trade inclined to see the value of good grammar. Communication, likewise, falls into my domain of specialty, even if I have not acquired such a mastery of it as I would like. What I find has been the greatest problem of my adult life is figuring out what my problems are and getting them to a point where I can communicate them.

Only once that first step has been completed have I found myself able to make changes that improve my life.

This has also been a key part in overcoming what I would describe as anxious tendencies within myself. I do not know if I suffer from them any more than the average person, but I frequently find myself in a place where worry overcomes the ability to act. Being hyper-conscious and continuously vigilant in identifying what I truly desire and what I truly suffer from has been key.

Being able to explain something, even if only to oneself, makes all the difference.

Resolution

Be able to speak about what I need to speak about.

Hold no deception toward myself.

Seek to understand the meaning.

Aphorism 29

To take upon oneself not punishment, but guilt–that alone would be godlike.

Friedrich Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

I believe that it is a fundamental part of human nature that leads us to avoid blame. There are strong social benefits to being blameless, and stark consequences for being in error.

However, being able to accept blame ties into the notion that I just discussed earlier of communicating clearly. Guilt is the consequence of the wrongness of an action. If sin is falling short of moral perfection, guilt is the consequence of that. Guilt is the fall that accompanies error.

If one managed to find what brings suffering, and remove the consequences, they would essentially undo entropy. This is likely impossible.

It is equally impossible to transfer guilt from one person to another. The act which causes harm is a product of moral agency.

To illustrate:

If I were to throw trash in the street, it would have a wide-ranging variety of negative consequences. It might harm the environment. It might start a downward spiral of disorder, with other people more likely to litter on account of my example. It harms property values, as no one wishes to live in a neighborhood full of trash. Each of these is likely a negligible impact from a single action, but by the time you add up many small consequences, the harm caused by even a small negligence may become quite profound.

If someone were following behind me, they could pick up my trash and throw it away. Assuming that they followed relatively close behind me, they might even be able to entirely prevent the consequences from taking effect. In a sense, the only consequence would be that someone had to pick up after me, which has a much less profound cost, we could hope. Obsessing over the butterfly effect is not a good use of time. However, if a police officer were to see me do this, they would not consider me less of a litterer because someone followed behind me cleaning up.

The person who cleaned up after me could remove my consequences, essentially taking the punishment (except that which society place is upon me on account of my guilt), but they cannot remove my moral agency in the situation.

My Life

I have never been a practicing Catholic. I spent a semester student teaching at a Catholic school, and it was an experience that interested me in religion beyond just my own personal practice. The Catholic Church talks about mysteries hidden within the example of Christ and other events portrayed in the Bible, something which my own Protestant upbringing did not ever mention.

The greatest mystery of them all, at least as I see it with my limited understanding of the Catholic mysteries, is how Christ managed to take responsibility for believers’ sins.

I believe that it is this which Nietzsche talks about.

As someone who works with children, I often find myself wishing that I could impart my own moral superiority upon them. This is not possible, which is probably for the best, since those who believe themselves possessed of moral superiority usually do not actually have such an advantage over others.

However, it pains me when I see people make the same mistakes that I made in my own ignorance.

If everyone could share with everyone else the heights of their virtues, the sum of their ability to improve the world and avoid sin, they would make the world a better place, perhaps even the dreamed-of utopia.

Resolution

Accept what I earn, good and bad.

Seek to do that which bears no guilt.

Remember that the goal of moral perfection is in the self, but that the benefit is for everyone.

Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1

I have been loosely interested in the works of Montaigne for a while (i.e. I knew of his name), but I was not yet ready to read them for myself; I just hadn’t worked up the interest and have a lot of other stuff on my reading list.

Continue reading “Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1”