I finally finished one of the big projects I was working on, and now I feel that things are returning to an equilibrium of sorts.
From here the only way to go is up. Of course, that could be because I’ve cast myself so far into the unknown that I am in such a state of risk that the fruition of that risk would represent a solidification, rather than a degradation, of my condition.
Or, in simple language: I’m betting big, and I’m betting on myself.
The tyrant and the mob, the grandfather and the grandchild, are natural allies.
I’m not terribly familiar with Schopenhauer. I know that Jung references him quite a bit in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which I wrote a review of (which can be found here) but if I ever read any of his work it would have been a small excerpt at most.
This sounds very much like a 20th century sentiment, though it’s worth noting that Schopenhauer spoke before our experiences with totalitarianism in the 20th century. Of course, his period in Europe was marked with a certain amount of turmoil (as any period in Europe tends to be), so it’s worth noting that he’s not necessarily talking about totalitarianism as we see it.
One of the things that I find interesting is the concept of a mob, precisely because I am so mild-mannered.
The idea of losing myself in a group psychological phenomena is terrifying to me. Of course, I do organized religion, and I count my experiences in worship with a Charismatic denomination among my fondest religious experiences (though I split with them on dogmatic lines; my sect doesn’t do the speaking in tongues thing prominently), which is a group phenomena at its strongest.
Nietzsche has a saying about fighting monsters and the tragic tendency that people have to turn into whatever they struggle against. It’s not necessarily an in-kind thing, but it’s interesting.
One of the most important and least discussed events in history is probably the French Revolution (in case people lose track, I’m referring to the one that happened directly after the American Revolution).
There was a major difference between the French Revolution and the American one (though, sadly for us Americans, the difference was not as pronounced), and it was that the French Revolution was more heavily emotional for the French. Where the Americans channeled their distrust toward a foreign power–this is a gross simplification, but works in the sense that they were a colony and not mainland Britain–the French had turned it inward.
There was a great outcry against injustice, and a lot of it was well-earned by a tyrant.
But the mob only succeeded in creating a succession of worse tyrants. They destroyed the laws of a corrupt system, and replaced them with chaos.
Just because the mob may reject a tyrant does not mean that they will not assign one from their ranks once they have their thirst for blood quenched, or even while the lust for destruction still rages in their veins.
I think that some of this has to do with how the mob works. We weaken ourselves to emotion, creating a vulnerability that we exploit to bring us beyond our daily patterns and lives. It breaks us free of our traditions and our heuristics.
The problem is that those things are responsible for civilization and a good part of what people refer to when they use the word “humane” about behavior.
We’re less moral than we appreciate. A lot of our “good” behavior comes from not having contemplated evil, from being afraid of it. People claim virtues where they have weaknesses keeping them from freedom, rather than an objective triumph over evil.
Both the tyrant and the mob break free of these things. Both have a capacity for destruction limited only by the words and sacrifices of honest people.
I had already picked out an aphorism for today when I realized that I had chosen one by Nietzsche yesterday.
So it’s Nietzsche all the way down then.
On a serious note, however, I think it’s worth noting that Nietzsche speaks to our times at least as much as any other philosopher. He’s all about what to do when the collapse of value structures comes rolling around, and you don’t have to look far to see examples of that in the modern day.
The lie is a condition of life.
Now, I think it’s worth noting here that I wonder if there’s a translation issue here. I’m not a tremendous scholar of Nietzsche, but I would appreciate seeing the original German (assuming that Nietzsche said this originally in German) because I figure that the intent may have been more along the lines of “Falsehood is a condition of life.”
Of course, that’s an academic point.
One of the things that Nietzsche is very open about is his cynicism about the nature of people. He has strong contempt for the weak, but the contempt he has is often understood in the wrong way.
Nietzsche views weakness as a predominantly moral phenomena. Of course, there’s a little bit of cross-over here; if you had moral virtue you would be strong, so if you’re not strong then you must lack moral virtue. It is the case in general that all people lack moral virtue, even the saints have their shortcomings.
However, I think that Nietzsche doesn’t want to condemn those who are weak due to circumstances beyond their control.
Rather, what he’s talking about is those who let themselves wallow in weakness.
To talk about this particular statement, I think it’s worth paraphrasing in terms of original sin.
The lie can be understood not only in a literal sense, namely that people lie all the time and lying is often easier than truth-telling from a psychological perspective. It is much easier to avoid pressure than accept it.
The other side of this is a figurative archetypal sense. The unknown isn’t a lie in and of itself, but our perceptions of the world are riddled with falsehood and profligacy.
Any deliberate act to do anything other than fight against the slide toward falsehood, which is itself a parallel for the grand process of entropy, is to embrace both the nature and the doom (fate) of the world. Of course, that seems like it’s totally natural, but it’s also at odds with human purpose.
Nihilism, which Nietzsche decries (despite occasionally being viewed as a nihilist himself due to his statements about the death of God–he was mourning God, not attempting blasphemy), sees nothing wrong with entropy and death. In many ways, it’s the most natural philosophy, in the sense that someone who looks at the world in a strictly rational sense will be struck by meaninglessness.
Values coming from something concrete are worth having. Nietzsche argues that we must create our own, but also presents this as a feat impossible for humans. Jung argues that we’re approaching an age of the individual in which we will need to rethink our senses of value in the same way that major social changes have always required change.
As someone who is traditionally religious, I don’t have this same struggle in my life, though I will admit to have given it a lot of thought because my strength in my religious convictions is nearly matched by the strength of my doubt and weakness.
However, this much is true: Life is full of entropy, and the lie is one of many forms of decay that this can take.
The author must keep his mouth shut when his work starts to speak.
Nietzsche is often overlooked as a novelist. Admittedly, I’m not terribly familiar with his work, but I think that one of the things that Nietzsche does really well is to write without preaching in novels like Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Of course, Nietzsche was somewhat unbalanced, and there are definitely places where he doesn’t seem to follow his own advice (perhaps out of frustration), but there is something to be said for the idea that a story should tell itself.
One of the things that I’ve always been bothered by is the morality play.
Even in my youth I found myself being critical of contrived plots and deliberate lessons in stories (barring Scripture, where I considered it justified for its religious purposes though not necessarily satisfying as a storytelling method), even though I did not have what could be described as a sophisticated manner of interpretation.
Pretty much the only work of this sort which escaped my ire was Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, although this could perhaps be forgiven because the preachy interludes were part of a framing narrative directed toward the ruler.
One of the reasons for this, as I’ve come to understand it over the past twenty years, is that the stories hold in themselves such great meaning that an explication is often needless. Carl Jung would say that this occurs in the expression of archetypal ideas: things so timeless and so inherent to the human condition that they’re immediately obvious to the reader.
Another hint here is the presence of polemical narratives.
Polemical narratives can be great when they’re not overt. I barely (but fondly) recall Machiavelli’s The Prince, and more solidly remember Par Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich from my college days as examples of books that showed what not to do in life.
None of these stories (The Prince is not perhaps a story, but there’s a lot of deep subtext and it can be understood as a story through the right historical perspective) overtly condemns the subject of the story, and as a result they are able to make their point clear through a variety of methods.
The Prince is presented as a how-to guide to leadership, but has satirical and sardonic points throughout. The Dwarf shows us an example of the sort of horrid person who represents the worst parts of ourselves, and whose motivations and actions echo our own moral weakness. The Death of Ivan Ilyich decries a society that is corrupt and debased, which achieves an air of propriety without actually being morally decent.
They’re all great works.
Take, on the other hand, the works of Ayn Rand. Anthem is a tremendous expression of an important idea, but Rand never misses an opportunity to snipe at and belittle her opponents. In her fiction and her non-fiction, she diverts from the core of the issue to make sure that people know what she’s aiming at. She’s got a mind that could rival almost any other modern thinker, but is so consumed by this knowledge that her potential is left fallow most of the time.
I choose Rand as an example here, but that’s because Rand is actually a good writer whose weakness gets the better of her. You could look at half a dozen modern writers publishing books this year and see a lack of talent pumping out political or cultural screeds that attract people based on their appeal to their coreligionists (because even the secular works of such writers have a cultic quality), and that’s the sort of thing that Nietzsche decries.
A good work speaks for itself. I think of Harry Potter as an example of this; despite being a work intended for children it manages to include deeply heroic and archetypal themes that bind some of the meaning of reality within its pages.
At no point does Rowling stop to lecture the reader about personal faults or failings (with the possible exception of the Dudleys, but they’re more comedic figures than morality play villains), and the result is that there’s a little more nuance and a push to explore and examine the point behind the pages, instead of just consuming passively.
Short post tonight because it’s basically my bed time and I didn’t sleep super well last night (thanks, eye deciding to spontaneously malfunction).
Writer’s note: It was going to be a short post, but then I decided to do an aphorism from Nietzsche. It is not a short post. I am so tired right now.
Arrogance in persons of merit affronts us more than arrogance in those without merit: merit itself is an affront.
I think that one of the things that helps to understand Nietzsche here is the question of what arrogance is.
Arrogance isn’t necessarily the same as insolence. It’s when one takes what one currently has and is more akin to pride with a lack of consideration of others.
People without merit who have traits of arrogance may often be written off as merely insolent, but at the very least they are unlikely to wield the sort of power that makes arrogance more toxic.
I think that if this case were reversed, Nietzsche might change his tune.
Take Christ’s parable of the forgiven debt for an example.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the accounting, one who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him. 25 But because he could not repay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and his children and everything that he possessed, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And his master’s heart was moved with compassion and he released him and forgave him [canceling] the debt. 28 But that same slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began choking him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow slave fell on his knees and begged him earnestly, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and he went and had him thrown in prison until he paid back the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and they went and reported to their master [with clarity and in detail] everything that had taken place. 32 Then his master called him and said to him, ‘You wicked and contemptible slave, I forgave all that [great] debt of yours because you begged me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave [who owed you little by comparison], as I had mercy on you?’…
In this case we see that one without merit (a debtor who had his loan forgiven) showing arrogance is incredibly distasteful.
Of course, even in this scenario there’s a benefit of a power structure, and one could argue that the unforgiving slave had earned merit in the sense that lacking debt made him superior to the slave who had not been forgiven, but I don’t think that this is any sort of merit (the parable focuses on slaves, and not aristocrats, for a reason). At least, it wouldn’t be merit in the sense Nietzsche would consider it, as he generally considers merit either in the terms of social success or in the form of moral virtue.
I think it’s safe to say that in the context of this statement, Nietzsche refers to the idea of merit as social success. After all, arrogance runs cross-purposes to virtue.
In this case, I’d generally have to disagree with Nietzsche. I’ve always found that those who are arrogant without any good cause to be get under my skin more.
One example of this is when I have students who insist that their capabilities are greater than they really are. Now, there’s a few particular reasons why this is a really painful experience for teachers.
First, if you have a benevolent interest in helping people, it hurts to have to disabuse them of notions of grandeur. This is an example of the distinction between the “nice” thing to do and the “kind” thing to do, and it’s always a painful line to walk.
One of the issues here is that arrogance is posturing. Whether it stems from confidence, ignorance, or insecurity, it looks the same on its surface.
Obviously, you need different approaches for each of these cases. Those who are arrogant due to over-confidence need to be given a realistic perspective, as do those who are ignorant of their needs, but the method for doing so differs.
It’s dangerous to confront the arrogant because you don’t know what part of the psyche feeds into that arrogance. Sometimes it’s really obvious (we’re social creatures who want to look good, so we won’t admit weakness in public; some people overcompensate), and you’re able to talk to the person and express the inner thoughts that they’re not comfortable to say themselves.
The first time I went to a student and told them “You know, I don’t think you’re really comfortable with this” I found it to be a tremendous experience. It was a relief for both of us. I was able to help the student, who had been a little disruptive in class, move toward a less embarrassing course of action for them by working with them to give them positive opportunities to prove their potential and capabilities to their peers, and I was able to start really helping this kid with what they really needed.
Sometimes this is a repressed need and people click to it, and sometimes they don’t. Both over-confident and insecure arrogance actually function in much the same way, and I think this ties into notion of psychological complexes.
Ignorance is always difficult, at least for me, to deal with because you have to confront a need that people don’t feel.
This is often a place where you can crush someone if you do it wrong. You want to make sure that you help people improve, rather than just tearing them down. I’m not good at it, although I hope I will be someday.
Speaking as a recipient of this, it can be incredibly traumatic if handled in a way that brings destruction. If the stakes are high, disabusing someone of their ignorance can be as destructive as leaving them to fail on their own.
It requires a spirit of nurturing, not one of destruction, and it’s important to remember when dealing with the ignorantly arrogant that they never mean to cause harm.
One could argue that there’s an exceptional sting to arrogance in the life of someone who is otherwise virtuous, if we wish to interpret Nietzsche’s statement that way.
I don’t think that this necessarily makes sense. Even though a vice tends to be exacerbated in its obvious manifestations by the presence of virtues in other areas (i.e. someone who is generally virtuous shows flaws more than someone dissolute, because nobody expects much of the dissolute), a flawed saint is generally more tolerable than a monster who lacks pretension.
Of course, arrogance feeds off of self-superiority. Nietzsche could be pointing this out in this statement, since those who can legitimately consider themselves virtuous have been known on many occasions to abuse their privileges to rub it in.
Forgive the debts others owe me, because I have been forgiven.
Don’t let a virtue distract from a vice.
Help others to become more aware of who they are to turn them into who they could be.
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.
One often contradicts an opinion when what is uncongenial is really the tone in which it was conveyed.
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.
Be kind, not nice.
Don’t tear down what isn’t worthy of destruction.
Master frustration, release it without hurting anyone.
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.
In a conflict, the middle ground is least likely to be correct.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the Bed of Procrustes
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.
Identify what would satisfy.
Eat until you are no longer hungry, but do not continue past that point.
Never sacrifice a value for expedience.
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
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.
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.
No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.
Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms
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).
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.
Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.
Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms
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:
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.
Build my convictions on solid ground. Test the ground first.
Pay attention to emotion. It can be easily overlooked.
Tried to push myself harder today. Fell back into a rut with my same order versus chaos schtick that I need to get away from; I believe it’s very accurate, but it’s also not enough by itself to fully explain things and to delve deeper I will need to break out of the rut.
Art is a one-sided conversation with the unobserved.
Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes
This is not my first attempt to reflect on this aphorism, put previously I have never been satisfied by the conclusions that I reach.
There’s a question of what is the “unobserved” subject of art. This is what has always been the sticking point for me when I try and think about this. Is the unobserved that which does not fit neatly into an empirical understanding of the universe? Is it that thing peculiar to the artist which they cannot fully explain? Is Taleb just blowing hot air?
There’s also another question of the unobserved. Is the unobserved that thing which we are striving to move toward? Is it that interstitial space between order and chaos that we spend much of our lives in? Personally, I like this as my interpretation, though I don’t think it’s the original point.
When I was in college, I study studied Romantic literature. No, that doesn’t mean literature about people falling in love with each other, though such events often happened in Romanticism’s key works. Rather, it was a sort of protomodern movement. It focused heavily on experience as the basis for understanding, but in an emotional sense. It wasn’t about being rational and calculating, but always focused on what people felt.
One of the great things emphasized in Romanticism is the notion of the sublime. The sublime can be beautiful, but it would be better described as terrible. Not in the sense that has a negative value for people, but rather in the sense that it defies our comfort. It should scare us. There’s a great painting of a man standing looking out over a valley from the top of the cliff, painted by Caspar David Friedrich. This is often used as the examplar of romantic art.
In this painting, the foggy valley represents an encounter with the sublime; anything could exist within the clouds, and the potential excites the mind. There is danger, too, in the potential to be lost in the fog.
The biblical commandment to “fear God” is possibly an injunction to view Him as a sublime being; to remember that there is not only beauty but also unlimited power contained within.
I think this is the sort of thing that Taleb is referring to. More earnestly than others of art (the Romantics valued honesty, even if they did not care about certainty), they represented the notion that their goal was the pursuit of the unknown. They never sought to hide this, indeed they professed it with great vigor.
The predominant difference between the Romantics and the modern is that what they sought to do with emotion, we do with reason.
I consider myself in some ways an artist. Much of my work is what I would describe as technical, in the sense that I am not pursuing anything outside what has already been done, but that I am merely trying to do it slightly better than the other guy.
However, I do try and pursue art as well. I don’t write prolifically in what we would call an artistic sense. I have written some poetry, I sometimes write stories, though not as much as I say I will (bringing my action in line with my word is a key priority for me), but I do often work on games that focus on storytelling.
I think that storytelling can lead to the greatest expressions of art. Some of that comes from the fact that it’s the form I do most, so I have perhaps a subtle bias in that direction. However, I think that storytelling doesn’t just refer to writing stories. It’s any creative endeavor which has as its purpose the act of communicating information.
This active communication extends Beyond what one does without intent. If someone asks me how my day was, I seldom tell them a story.
Embrace art as heroic.
See the act of creation as the act of discovery.
Don’t ignore the mysteries of life.
How good bad music and bad reasons sound when we march against an enemy.
Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms.
There is a concept of the other that is often talked about in humanities. I think that sometimes it is taken to a platonic ideal and not fully appreciated for its nuance, but the basic notion is this:
People consider others to be either part of the in-group, and therefore friends, or part of the out-group, and therefore enemies.
Nietzsche is keenly aware of this. He faced no small amount of ostracism in his personal life, in part because he was willing to challenge accepted norms.
I had to read some Nietzsche when I was in college, and it was some of this work that focused on moral development, that is, how morality developed in societies. I do not know how well did Nietzsche’s work actually follows what happened. At the time, I thought that he sounded quite bitter. I don’t think I understood anything of his biography, nor did I really understand what’s this work.
One of the interesting things that I read then that stuck with me was the idea of resentment.
I was familiar with the notion of resentment on a very basic level, but I never understood it philosophically. I believe that resentment is a fundamental part of human nature. That doesn’t make it good, and I think that if everyone were able to suppress their resentments we would live in a much better world.
The thing about an encounter with the other is that it is easy to tally up resentment when chances for civil contact are limited. People are already predisposed to fear that which is unfamiliar, so a mixture of resentment and fear can quickly create hatred.
We identify this process with chaos. I’m a believer in the idea that there is an association between order and chaos as parts of a diametrically opposed process. People don’t consciously appreciate this balance unless they have been made aware of it.
The other creates the sort of existential chaos, they are constant reminder of the unknown. Order is represented by that which is known as the in-group.
It is this that makes up Nietzsche’s bad music and bad reasons. Something which a rational person would reject may seem necessary when chaos intrudes on order.
This is not solely responsible for the totalitarianism that nearly killed us all in the 20th century, but I believe that it’s at least closely related. Both extremes breed fear, but in chaos this is associated with the unknown and in order this is associated with oppression.
The unexamined response is to pursue the opposite extreme. If everything seems chaotic, then surely more lot and Order must be the solution. Of course, this is a failure of reasoning. It is actually an induction into more chaos, as now further changes are being pursued instead of a better understanding of what is here already.
Governance does not make society.
In some ways, a totalitarian government creates more chaos with its arbitrary concentration of power into an individual. It may be dressed in the language and styles of tradition, but it creates no more certainty.
It is the society that swings dangerously back toward order. On an individual level, in countless day-to-day interactions, people begin to lose their tolerance for the unknown. It is as if there is a balance of order & chaos that must be preserved, and the centralization of power into one arbitrary figure or institution makes it so that no other uncertainty can be permitted.
Because people cannot trust their governance to provide order, they return to the trappings of order. Arguments that worked well for the past, the styles and social conventions that served that predecessors well, return to visit the sins of the fathers upon their children. These are representations of archetypal order, and the best tangible manifestation of order you can find if others are denied to you. They are also outdated, at least some of the time.
There’s also a second point here to be made entirely independent from the question of order and chaos. It is the question of “mine”. If there is one trait that humanity has perfected over the years, it is greed. We have managed to find an infinite capacity within ourselves for desire.
Desire is good at a fundamental level. Without it, we would never dream. Even a certain amount of self-serving greed can be helpful when channeled through the right lens. It is a balance against completely losing oneself in the collective or in apathetic nihilism.
The problem is that desire leads us to immorality. What we want to take is elevated to a higher value then our moral values. I call this the “mine” question. We’ve all seen children who will attach themselves to a particular object and fixate on it. Even if it belongs to someone else, they will consider it their personal property.
This is not necessarily worrying when they are at a young age, because it is a part of the process of psychological development to realize that such things are not true and would bear disastrous consequences.
The problem is that we grow up still believing that we know the answer to the “mine” question, and our preferred answer is that it’s all ours.
All that we need is a better pretense to satisfy our desire. If we are socialized to the point that we are willing to pretend to behave, but we do not really have the virtues that lead us to see the danger in our actions and desires, we will cling to anything that seems like it justifies our actions.
It sounds petty in light of the greater scope I’ve covered, but this topic makes me think about my diet.
I have a serious problem with willpower. Admittedly, I’m currently in a state for my diet is actually being followed, or at least mostly so. I’ve lost a few pounds I found in the previous few months, but not yet so far back on the routine that I am not tempted by every little thing.
Often, I will justify my decisions that I make to pursue what brings me the most pleasure immediately instead of follow the plan that I know the dogs to the best outcome. This generalizes all the way up, so my tendency to argue that going to the gym means that I can sneak a few chocolates throughout the day is mirrored by a similar tendency toward rationalizing decision-making in the big picture.
I think that it’s important that people lead examined lives as a defense against this. Of course, there’s always the danger that people who believe they are philosophizing are instead rationalizing. However, I believe that we’re better off striving than falling into laziness. Besides, failure is a common experience. To argue against trying to think may actually just be thinly-veiled rationalizations assuming that people cannot become more skilled at the process of thinking.
It is also important to consider what is good. I don’t just mean what we like, but rather what is good for us.
To continue the example, I only rarely feel any particular concern about my weight, since I don’t usually have any health issues or feel like I can’t accomplish what I want to accomplish because of my weight. However, I know that if I am disciplined about diet and exercise I will achieve a better potential than I can otherwise.
The seed which has sprouted into much rationalization is that I cannot be entirely certain about this.
As such, when I am out of breath or tired, I will say “but I am suffering from allergies” or “but I didn’t sleep well last night” to mask the symptoms of a less than ideal lifestyle. That’s a rationalization.
When I’m disciplined and at the top of my game, I am not out of breath or tired. It simply requires seeing beyond what I can immediately conceive as desirable and thinking to the second order consequences of things.
What are the consequences of what I am doing?
That is the question we should ask.
Learn to despise bad music when it comes has a comforter.
Never rationalize things that cannot stand on their own merit.
Don’t be afraid of others because they are different.
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
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.
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.
Pursue constant little goals.
Do not obsess over the result of any single action.
Diversify my portfolio of worthwhile deeds.
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.
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.
Be able to speak about what I need to speak about.
Hold no deception toward myself.
Seek to understand the meaning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tomorrow I’m going to get back into doing multiple aphorisms per day. Until then, this is the last single aphorism reflection for a while.
So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.
Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Viking Book of Aphorisms
One of the things that keeps drawing me to Nietzsche is that he manages to make good on what Rousseau claims to do in his Confessions. Nietzsche may not always be right, and probably is not always even good, but at the very least he is interesting.
Nietzsche is a firm believer in the individual, and while he his work is often corrupted for the purpose of collectivists, he believes heavily in the purpose of finding one’s own destiny. It is this that the psychoanalyst Carl Jung would take from his teachings and apply to his concepts of the self.
I disagree with Nietzsche in general, but not in particular. Receiving praise may actually mean that one is a visionary, pursuing one’s path does not necessarily result in any ostracism. Of course, he is correct in a sense. Sometimes pursuing goodness and purpose, particularly in the realm of morality, does come with social rejection. This is especially true in a corrupt society.
The fact that Nietzsche believes this way may come from two points:
That he was frequently misinterpreted, and
That he didn’t manage to make many friends on account of his willingness to make bold statements.
One of the things that sent out to me from this is a counterpoint from the Bible. In Galatians, there is a statement about the “fruit of the Spirit” found in believers’ lives.
In a secular sense we might call these the virtues that come from good living and philosophical examination, though they are presented strictly as religious goals.
The fruit of the Spirit consists of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The writer of Galatians then states: “Against these things there is no law.”
Now I believe that verse itself could be subject to interpretation, in that it is ambiguous as to whether there is no law which bans those virtues, or whether any law that decides to ban those virtues is itself not lawful. Personally, I lean to the former interpretation.
In the sense that virtues and social praise coincide, it is actually possible to walk the path of virtue, be oneself, and be praised for doing so.
It is simply that most people are not willing to elevate themselves to virtue because it comes at other personal prices.
I haven’t posted anything about music in a while, so I’ll bring up Project 86’s song “My Will be a Dead Man” which talks about the conflict between desire and moral life, in lieu of wasting too much of the reader’s time on the particular prices that come with virtue.
Part of the reason that I disagree with Nietzsche is because I do not feel that this assertion that he makes is backed up in my own life. Other than some people who have questioned my judgment in minor decisions, I do not generally find that people judge me when I make decisions that I find to be the best. As such, I have walked my own way, and others seem to approve. Now, I am open to the idea that I may be incorrect, and that I will need to change this opinion at some point, but until some tremendous evidence comes, I am comfortable in contradicting Nietzsche.
I do think, in some ways, that it is correct in part. When I left my teaching position to return to school, something which I feel an intense personal draw to do, several people expressed consternation. However, I do not think so much that this was disapproval of me as an expression of my importance and influence in their lives.
One thing that I think confuses people is that we draw too much association between what we consider good and bad events in our lives. It is the tendency to focus on the immediate consequences rather than the more nuanced effects of any action which leaves us with problems determining what we really believe and want.
This confusion is the root of many ills.
Make mistakes costly, then avoid making them.
If what you do attracts attention, it is probably significant.
When you make a decision, pay attention to how others respond. It is not necessarily how they respond, but that they respond, which you should observe carefully.
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.
It takes less time to learn how to write nobly than how to write lightly and straightforwardly.
Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Viking Book of Aphorisms
Nietzsche has interesting thoughts on writing. I’m actually surprised to see how profound they are, not because I disparage Nietzsche, but because they are sublime.
Writers are often focused on appearances. When people focus on appearances they do not always consider fundamentals. One of my observations is that students often use thesauruses when they write in ways that do not improve their writing one iota. This is because they pursue writing has something to impress others with.
What I have discovered as a writer, especially one who is currently planning to write multiple books more or less simultaneously, is that it is not the writing itself that matters. That is not actually correct, but it is a simplified version of the truth.
The good writer doesn’t without their writing. They do not sweat individual pieces of punctuation they do not obsess before anything in there text or at least, if they do, it is not their highest priority. The highest priority is to convey information that is worth knowing.
If there is one thing that I could teach students who want to learn how to write well, it is that they must focus on what needs to be said. Nothing else matters.
We teach formulaic writing in this day and age. There’s nothing wrong with this, I even recommend it. However, when you teach writing in that way, the formula is merely to free students from worrying about the adiaphora, to remove their concerns about what they have to do so that they can do what they have to do.
We assign praise to those who present the greatest prose, but we should praise those to present the best ideas.
I have written over a million words in my life. This is the verifiable count. Since I tend to squirrel of my lots of little writings on various projects, organization is not my strong suit, and I do not care to waste too much time on metrics, I do not know how much I have actually written. It seems likely that I may have actually written more than 3 million words in my life, but I do not want to making erroneously exaggerated claim, as much rather stick to the known and conservative estimates.
I have found it I am happiest writing when I feel comfortable with this subject and I do not feel the need to describe what I am talking about. It’s not that I don’t like giving definitions and descriptions, but rather that what I have found to be most authentic is the writing which a reader will get without me needing to explain it.
I am guilty of the high and lofty school of writing. When I was in high school, I wrote an essay for a teacher in AP English class. one of the pieces of feedback that I received in the margin was a simple question: “When does this sentence end?”
I was proud of myself for writing a sentence that had lasted for more than a quarter of a page without encountering any grammatical difficulties. As an exercise in writing it was impressive. It was also foolish. There was no benefit to the reader from my having written such verbose sentences. Indeed, I don’t know that that sentence despite its length actually delivered any meaning beyond what a simple short sentence could provide.
I had forgotten that the best points are made in simple statements. It is natural that more complex concepts require more complex writing, but over-complicating writing does not make the point any more sophisticated. Simple statements for simple ideas. Long statements for complex ideas. This is natural.
However, the real master can convey the complex idea with a simple statement.