Reflections on Aphorisms #98

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

Aphorism 137

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

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolution

Master my craft.

Use honesty as a mirror.

Don’t let doubt destroy potential.

Aphorism 138

The malicious have a dark happiness.

Victor Hugo

Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s hard.

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

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

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

How can we leave any legacy worth leaving?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolution

Always find joy in creation, not destruction.

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

Don’t put myself above my place.

Reflections on Aphorisms #90


Classes officially start for me tomorrow. I’ve already had a chance to log on and preview them, but since it’s a Sunday I haven’t gone into depth on anything. I’m hoping to get disciplined about being done with classes well before the actual due dates, so that I can devote some time at the end of each week to really reflect on and use what I’ve learned.

Aphorism 128

We have more strength than will; and it is often merely for an excuse we say things are impossible. (Maxim 30)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the things that always strikes me as odd is that people talk about how “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” in the vein of Paul, but most people actually have the opposite going on in their lives.

We do not push ourselves to our fullest and expound upon our potential. This would be difficult and unwieldy, and we are unwilling to confront the suffering that it would bring upon us. Suffering, however, is not the greatest evil.

There are very few people who actualize their potential. We possess much more strength and power than we give ourselves credit for, and even “successful” people do not bring their best selves into being. This is the cause of much of the conflict in life.

I consider myself successful, in the sense that I do not believe myself to be a moral failure, and where I have deficiencies I am remedying them. I have chosen the sacrifices that I wish to make in order to become a person who is good and God-fearing. Even then I have not lived up to the standards that I have set for myself, both morally and practically.

By what means, then, can we seek to meet our own standards?

According to Rochefoucauld, who seems in this case to be quite correct, we need to realize that a lot of the time it is not our bodies or our minds that betray us but our will.

In his Memories, Dreams, Reflections (which I have written a review of), Carl Jung talks about the case of a mother who infected her children with contaminated bathwater. She had known that the water was not pure and safe to drink, but had permitted them to do so, seemingly out of negligence. Jung discovered that she had developed a complex; she was quite happy with one of her children (her daughter, if my memory serves), but not the other (her son). The reasoning for this wasn’t a matter of mere approval or disapproval; there were correlations and associations that led to her antipathy.

The daughter died, the son survived, and she slipped into such a shattered mental state as to be institutionalized.

She would never deliberately murder her children. However, she wound up in a ward for the insane, deemed incompetent or mentally defective. There was no limit in her capacity, however. She was perfectly intelligent, and in fine physical health. It was only the fact that she had begun to loathe her role as mother and the burdens that her marriage and society had placed on her that caused her to abandon her duties.

Most of us occupy this state. There is no shortcoming in us which justifies our failings. We are actually often surpassed by those who have much better reasons to fail than we do. I recently read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken (my review), and in an interview at the end of the book she mentioned how she had chronic fatigue disorder and vertigo flare-ups during the writing process.

She’s written two award winning books (both of which have been turned into movies) with chronic health conditions that make even getting out of bed a burden. I’ve never read Seabiscuit, though I can vouch for the quality of Unbroken, and I think that her aptitude is a good model of how far the will can carry someone.

Most of us don’t have that will; I know that I certainly don’t yet. Fortunately, I don’t believe we’re static beings. We change and grow. At the very least we have seen that people are capable of disintegrating. However, every day and every hour we have experiences that change us, even in our dreams. If we capitalize on our experiences and avoid those things which bring us to moments of weakness and psychological disintegration, we can move away from weakness and toward strength.

Resolution

Find and do things which serve a greater purpose.

Don’t pretend that weakness is an obstacle.

Every time I want to stop, ask why.

Reflections on Aphorisms #88

Wrote this earlier in the day, so I haven’t had a chance to see how the day went yet. By all indications, though, today will be a good day. I forced myself to just sit on the couch and write for a few hours (a handful of ~5 minute breaks aside), which means that my productivity has hit a level that I am honestly a little surprised by myself.

At the time of writing I’ve written around three-thousand words (perhaps even a good chunk more) and it’s not even noon.

Aphorism 126

The evil that we do does not attract to us so much persecution and hatred as our good qualities. (Maxim 29)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

The other day (link to my post), I wrote about Rochefoucauld’s observations on jealousy and envy and I think that there’s some truth to it when you view it by means of this maxim.

I think that it’s particularly true in modern society, and perhaps in Rochefoucauld’s society too, that people have a tendency not to focus on the negatives that people do.

Some of this stems from good, some from evil.

On one hand, we ignore the faults in others because it would be hypocritical of us to condemn them. We still have faults in our own persons, and it is right that we hold off on a certain degree of judgment. We may also be overly optimistic, trusting others and giving them grace when their actions do not line up with their ideals. That we don’t know for sure what their ideals are is a problem that keeps me up at night, but it’s a matter for deeper philosophy than I have a desire to get into before noon.

We may also lack the virtue required to see faults for what they are. If we do something wrong, we justify and rationalize it, or at the very least shamefully hide it. When we see others in the same sin, we defend them as we would defend ourselves. We argue that it isn’t so bad. We come up with a legitimate goal that it furthers. We ignore it so we do not have to confront it.

More dangerously, we may also feel that it is not our place to help our fellow humans. We can look at those adrift and argue that we were never appointed as their moral arbiters. Of course, we should not trample on the freedoms of others.

There’s an idea in certain interpretations of Judaism and Christianity that there’s a provision of free will because God wants humanity to be free to choose or reject the divine will. All the evil and suffering in the world exists because without the ability to suffer we would never be able to reject God. Suffering flows from rejection of God, but a perfect world would be the destroyer of all virtue because nobody would do anything except absolutely surrender to God.

To force others to morality has the same effect as removing their free will. It may be necessary in certain cases (e.g. to prevent the violent from preying on the innocent), but it is not a morally good act of itself outside the context of protecting people.

One of the reasons why we turn criticism of people toward their virtues is that a flawed virtue is obvious but also something which is acceptable to talk about. If you tear into someone for being an alcoholic, you look cruel. If you point out that someone who is generally honest lied about something important, you look like a defender of those poor souls that they might exploit without your warning. You can argue that you are not condemning their character (even though you are) and instead claim that it is all about their actions.

Nobody is perfectly virtuous. My best “virtues” come from a lack of temptation and appeal rather than mastery of the self. I am sure that this is replicated in other people. When I was a youth, people praised me for my pursuit of wisdom, but I was really more afraid of being a fool than I was desirous of wisdom.

In this light, what is the correct course of action?

To recognize virtue in others and praise it.

To recognize vice in the self and in others and seek to eliminate it.

To speak openly without condemnation or flattery.

Resolution

Seek to pursue virtues where I have vices.

Don’t forget that evil motives can drive seemingly good actions; they corrupt them entirely, but that is not immediately obvious.

Grant some grace. Some. Do not go so far that you permit people to become victims.

Reflections on Aphorisms #87

Lots of work to do, got most of it done. What hasn’t been done can get done tomorrow.

That’s a good place to be in.

More weird dreams. I wonder if there’s a sort of Jungian “Once you find out the meaning, the dreams will stop” thing going on for me right now.

Aphorism 125

To establish ourselves in the world we do everything to appear as if we were established. (Maxim 56)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in myself and in many students is that there’s a tendency to posture as if one is better than one is.

I mean, heck, I just got into grad school by using a writing sample that received probably the most editing of anything I’ve ever written in my life, and which took the usually freeing writing process and turned it into something a little bit painful.

I’m proud of it, but it definitely isn’t the sort of effort I can really put out reliably, which is half the reason I’m going back to school.

So there’s an irony there: the pressure to get into a spot where I can improve myself requires that I look good.

Of course, this has a positive side-effect. I’ve improved myself and forced myself into a sort of initiation on the road to further improvement.

But it does feel kind of silly.

There is a darker side to this, namely the use of posturing rather than actual improvement.

This isn’t actually unique to this field.

One of the ways to conceive our lives is as a heroic struggle, basically Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I don’t think that this by itself is sufficient to cover everything, but it’s enough to really get one thinking about the role we play in our world.

If we look at life as a series of challenges that we must overcome on the way to something greater, we have three things that really need to happen:

  1. One must overcome their challenges.
  2. One must find the way (Way, perhaps).
  3. One must turn that into betterment.

There is room for deception at each of these steps, both self-deception (Jung’s Shadow) and deception of others for personal gain.

The problem with deception is that it’s very hard to keep your stories straight. Once one walks the way of deception they lose the way of the hero, or the Way. Let us not forget that Christ uses the terms “the way, the truth, and the life” in a strong statement of divinity, illustrating the importance of finding the right path for life as being equal not only to truth but also to life itself, and to an extent as a way of finding God. Note that this is something of a theological blunder, so don’t read too much into it. I just don’t have better words right now. The Way, understood as an archetype or otherwise, is just very important.

There’s something to be said for the idea that strength attracts strength. We desire the desirable, unless some charity works within us. For this reason we often try to posture and present our best face forward, trying to be that which we are not so that we can enjoy the privileges of that which we wish to be.

Resolution

Be the real deal.

Don’t deceive.

Find the Way and take it as far as it leads.

Reflections on Aphorisms #76

I’ve decided to spend some time going over François de La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes (Project Gutenberg link). I’m not going to necessarily do them exclusively for a while, but I’m going to pick through the ones that interest me and give them my treatment.

My dream life has become more vivid of late. I always view that as a mixed bag. I’m a fan of the Jungian theory that many dreams are messages from the unconscious mind, and they’re not always a sign that things are going well. On the other hand, I enjoy having dreams and they haven’t seemed particularly malign, so I’m hoping they hold some hidden potential for me.

Aphorism #114

We have all sufficient strength to support the misfortunes of others. (Maxim 19)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

I like to rant a lot about vices and the limits of humanity, but today I want to take a more positive approach and talk about what we’re good for.

I generally believe that people have a self-deceptive view of themselves that glosses over failings and projects them on others (or elements within the self which are innocent of vice), and that tends to make for a depressing subject matter. I swear I’m more upbeat in person.

But one of the things about this failure to perceive the self is that it also means that our virtues go unnoticed.

One of the things that people don’t realize is that they have power that enables them to be good.

I see a lot of people who fall into nihilistic and bitter philosophies. They oppose things for the sake of opposing them, falling into an Adversary archetype (which is something that merits discussion at a later date).

These people often have an under-developed sense of their own potential and their own virtues. It’s worth noting that it is possible for a person to lack virtue, even as the potential for virtue is ubiquitous.

One of the things that I feel people have a duty to do is to help others. I don’t mean this in the sense of an obligation, though people who don’t do it definitely place themselves in peril for doing so, but rather a sort of Way. To help others is to fulfill part of our larger purpose for being. You don’t have to, but if you don’t you’re playing with fire.

And the reason for that is that you’re not using your strength.

Jordan Peterson talks a lot about this, so I owe him credit for some of the foundation of this idea, but I think that there’s another thought that I don’t believe he’s developed strictly in this context.

As humans, we’re both independent and interconnected in ways that are impossibly complex. There’s a collective unconscious, which is both a product of long-term biological and social developments and a reflection of the zeitgeist.

When we help others, we’re reacting to that unconscious. We’re connecting to the being–psychologically understood–of humanity at large. It’s a way to shape our minds, to bring us closer in union. Of course, there is always some danger in this. Drowning people are dangerous, and you can expose yourself to things that you don’t want to expose yourself to. You really have to be strong to help others. If you’re weak, you will join them in suffering, but do nothing to ameliorate their condition.

The great news is that we have that strength within us, which is what Rochefoucauld is identifying here.

Resolution

Bolster my strengths.

Never assume that I can’t help.

Remember that others make me, and I can impact others.

Reflections on Aphorisms #75

Another day, another thought. I’m really kind of tired and worn out after so much crunch. Even though I haven’t really been getting more done than usual, I’ve been forcing myself to focus on single projects, which tends to exhaust me more than spreading my efforts out.

I’m also just generally forcing myself to work a little further ahead, at the cost of putting off some of the stuff that I’d normally be publishing now so that I can get it out on a more regular schedule going forward.

Aphorism 113

The man who lives free from folly is not so wise as he thinks.

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the things that I find interesting about folly is that the people who obsess over being fooled are often the ones who wind up falling for things that a more rational observer would not put any credit in.

There’s a storytelling trope, going back to Aesop’s writings about the Fox who wants to think of himself as more clever than he is, that the person who values his own self-enlightenment usually closes the pathways to true enlightenment.

It’s worth noting that in the Biblical story of Solomon, Solomon values wisdom, but he seeks it outside himself, requesting it from God.

A lot of the time people want to live their lives in such a way that they try to make sense of everything in the context of the rules they create.

I think we see some of this in secular philosophies, both the modern and especially the postmodern (despite its insistence to the contrary) where there’s a desire to put the universe in a rational box. The problem is that while there may be nothing wrong with the desire to do this, it can become a force that corrupts what capabilities we have to judge.

When we try to live without folly, we really deny ourselves anything which we judge to be without value or meaning. We are poor judges of this. There is a value to almost everything, and the question is whether it holds value to us at a given moment or not.

I think of music as one of these “grand follies”, though Chesterton identifies quite a few in the course of his work (like a good cigar or glass of wine, neither of which would fit my preferences) that are a little more nuanced than my own preferences.

Of course, music in many ways has meaning as a reflection of the pattern of the universe and a form of communication, but let’s put that aside for a minute.

Looking at music strictly as an aesthetic phenomena, it has two roles: beauty and manipulation.

The beauty is “folly” by many definitions. This is the sort of thing people deny themselves, deriding it as pleasant but not worth time.

Of course, music also allows us to manipulate our perception, because our brains respond to it. If I want to get stuff done, I put on loud, fast music that pumps me up. If I’m in a melancholy or contemplative mode, I’ll listen to something like what I’m currently listening to (currently a piece off of a modern TV soundtrack, but I’ll use classical music just as readily).

I love this song. Lost and Milowda from the same album are great too.

However, the effects of something like this quickly fade. Barring a handful of classics, acclimation tends to quickly erase any connotation that a song may have.

So we’re left with just the pleasant feelings that we get from the music.

This is the sort of “folly” that people deny themselves thinking that they would have to sacrifice something valuable to appreciate.

I’m no hedonist by any means, but I also think that there’s an importance to sitting back and celebrating what is good in the universe; there’s not all that much of it, and we should devote ourselves to making as much as possible.

When we let our neuroses get the better of us, we don’t do that.

When I was a child I never wanted to leave the house to go anywhere. I wasn’t agoraphobic or anything like that, I just wouldn’t go out. The pleasures I could get around the house and my comfort in familiar environments outweighed my willingness to explore and experience new avenues.

Those who resist “folly” without evaluating it often wind up living like I did as a kid. They deny any untested experience based on the limits of what they are capable of conceiving. This causes them to miss out on many things.

Resolution

Don’t assume the hostility of the unknown.

Except in matters of vice, step beyond boundaries.

Abandon pride.

Reflections on Aphorisms #74

It’s been a long, but triumphant day.

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.

Aphorism 112

The tyrant and the mob, the grandfather and the grandchild, are natural allies.

Schopenhauer

Interpretation

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.

Resolution

Be willing to sacrifice for the future.

Fortify virtue.

Honesty is worth all price.

Reflections on Aphorisms #73

As I write more, I find myself finally starting to develop some more of the differences in form and tone that I’ve been going for. This doesn’t apply as much to this writing; these aphorism reflections are well within my comfort zone by this point, but I’m definitely making more progress on my own development as a writer.

It’s not as fruitful as I’d hoped, since I’m actually down a little on word count, but I think I’m getting ready to write better as well as more.

Aphorism 111

History is the science of what never happens twice.

Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry

Interpretation

What astounds me is that the universe is constantly in states it has never been in before. This level of distinction can apply all the way down to the most minuscule of things. By the time my finger depresses the key to type a letter I am no longer the person I was, or at least not in the same state as I was, when the impulse to press the key was formed in my brain.

I attribute this understanding of the universe with a lot of who I am as a person. I don’t like arbitrary distinctions. I don’t think they’re as useful as people think, though I do believe they’re part of the way our minds work.

As a result, I fight constantly against what I consider the default state of being.

I also believe that it is in this, as much as anything else, that I may be accused of hypocrisy. Admittedly, I tend to draw these distinctions in unreal things, rather than reality: storytelling, game design, and the like, not real things.

But at the same time I have an appreciation of the fact that even my understanding of something as ubiquitous as the human mind is drawn from, essentially, drawing mountains upon mountains of arbitrary distinctions.

I think what Valéry is getting at here is that the world never unfolds the same way twice. Despite what people think, we’re not deterministic creatures, and there’s no universal arc of history, as comforting as it might be to think that we’re at an advanced climax of our kind.

A lot of what we think we know is precisely that: what we think we know.

I think of an example from education: modes of learning. It was a great theory that asked whether people learned better when given the method of learning that they preferred best.

The answer is: kinda.

On one hand, people were more likely to engage in learning activities that matched their preferences, but on the other these highly designed and cultivated activities proved little better than the ones that did not rely on different learning methods.

If something is taught best with the written word, a diagram doesn’t necessarily do it better. Combining multiple means does have an advantage, but only when the information is complicated.

However, if I were to try and present a novel using photographs of key scenes, the result would be that students would learn relatively little from the photographs. They may help foster visualization, but the actual exercise of them observing images only works if the purpose I am after links to those images.

I often taught a novel called Inside Out and Back Again, which recounts a Vietnamese refugee’s experiences fleeing her homeland in a fictional framework.

One of the things that I did before teaching it was to give a gallery of images that depicted a variety of important scenes in the Vietnam War.

The reason for this is that it gave the students a chance to engage with the part of the world that they were going to see, and stressed for them what it was like to wait in line for a ride out of Saigon while hundreds of people were being turned away ahead of you.

However, once we got into the novel it would never have occurred to me to show images of the scenes that were depicted, because it’s made up of poems with visuals. Unless students don’t know something important (like what a papaya is) to help them visualize the scenes, I’d actually be detracting from my learning goals by showing them depictions.

Not all information is created equal.

And in our lives we encounter information that is unique to us. How we hear it, how we see it, how it is passed on to us, our mood and condition when we hear it, and our immediate situation will all vary when we encounter any situation in our life that is worth noticing.

We will never repeat history.

That we look for trends in it is worthwhile, but only in the sense that it lets us understand the greater human condition, the ties that bind us together. We can search for something like Jung’s collective unconscious, but it will never deliver to us a rule that lets us predict the future.

We’re simply very good at deceiving ourselves.

Resolution

Don’t assume knowing the past means knowing the future.

Don’t teach calculus with a philosophical treatise.

Accept that every situation is unique, every response needs to be considered carefully.

Reflections on Aphorisms #66

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.

Aphorism 104

The lie is a condition of life.

Nietzsche

Interpretation

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.

Resolution

Fight entropy where I can.

Always tell the truth.

Never lose sight of what is valuable.

Reflections on Aphorisms #34

Got carried away because I got to writing about consciousness. It’s a fascinating subject, and I don’t think I’ve ever fully written about some of my philosophical curiosities about what consciousness is in any serious form, though I might have jotted down a couple quick sketches of ideas a while back.

In any case, Oscar Wilde obliged.

Aphorism 57

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Oscar Wilde

Interpretation

I believe in the immensity of the unknown.

What exists is orders of magnitude greater than what we perceive to exist. This remains true if we cut down the sheer volume of the cosmos by focusing only on the things which have value to us (i.e. those that impact our lives).

I am often fascinated by the amount of unknown information that exists in the world. I’m not sure if this is something that is regular, or if there’s something in me that pushes me toward this. A large part of it is probably down to the fact that I grew up playing video games all the time, and while the games I played were quite complex they were still only knowable.

It terrifies me to think that I do not know what is in other peoples’ heads. That’s a bit of a strong wording, since it falsely implies that I form some distrust of others or have a phobia.

Rather, I think it’s a form of encounter with the sublime. I realize that those around me have things going on internally that are inscrutable to me, even with conversation. I’m not the most socially aware, though I’m not particularly bad at it (I like to describe myself as average in this way, as I am in many things), and while I can catch on-to things when they’re obvious I don’t have any Sherlock-esque mind-reading or subconscious body language mastery.

However, while this will sometimes consume my thoughts, I find it more interesting to see what we know.

I’ve read a few interesting things about consciousness, and all that I really know about it is that it’s quite an incredible thing.

One of two things in particular that I’ve thought a lot about is the classical philosophical question of similarity in perception: that is to say, the question of whether everyone perceives in universally similar ways.

For instance, if the sky is blue to you and blue to me, is the sensation that we get in our eyes the same essential blue, or does each person’s particular perception of it form based on a different conscious structure? It may seem self-evident that all people perceive similarly (since, after all, we can universally represent these concepts barring some barriers in communication), but on the other hand it may simply be that everyone has fundamentally similar responses to the same stimuli but the actual conscious representation of that stimulus is different.

The other is the accuracy of consciousness. How well do we actually perceive our world?

If I see a snake, is my perception shaped by something biological, or is it a strictly absolute perception? The same caveats as above apply (e.g. we can represent a snake in pictures), but again the nature of consciousness itself may play tricks upon us.

I also get to thinking about physics. What are the odds that there are whole phenomenological structures that underlie the fabric of reality that we simply cannot attune ourselves to? Things like time, for instance, are nearly there (since we perceive time only from a particular point at any moment) , but what is to say that there aren’t other systems and rules that we simply will never know because we aren’t the sort of being to interact with them?

We know that the brain is full of cheap hacks and tricks; this is why I see flickers of my cat, who has been deceased for over a month now, in the corner of my eye when I begin to move around. My brain is reminding me to look for the cat lest I trip over her (she was quite fond of causing such accidents, though she usually came out on the worse end of such exchanges), and still expects to see her despite her absence (and the conscious permanence of it, since I held her cold body in my hands). Years of life with her are not easily overwritten by the conscious over-mind.

Another thing that I have questions about is dreams.

There’s a phenomenon with dreams where the dreamer sees the future, or things that they will only see in the future.

There are three possible responses to this:

  1. These people are credible, and they have seen through time.
  2. These people are frauds, and they are delusional or trying out a con.
  3. These people are experiencing a phenomenon from the intersection of the conscious and unconscious mind.

Of these three, I am predisposed to the third option, at least in the majority of cases.

My skepticism prevents me from fully ruling out the first. Just as it does not prescribe me to believe such accounts, I cannot reject them without examination. The only absolutes I hold faith in are moral absolutes, and since I believe in an omnipotent God there’s no reason why one couldn’t get a vision of the future (assuming God chooses to grant it), though I haven’t necessarily believed in any particular case I’ve seen.

The second is the cynical view. It may be true that some people who believe themselves to see the future are delusional, and that some are charlatans claiming to be true believers. However, the knowledge that this is a possibility should not be transferred into an absolute, and delusions are only delusional if evidence exists to the contrary; it is possible that someone believes themselves to have seen the future but has no evidence to the contrary and therefore is perfectly logical in their beliefs, which doesn’t meet the standards for a delusion. In our enlightenment we would frown on this, but I still think that it’s possible.

Carl Jung recounts an event where he was waiting for a book on alchemy and he saw symbols from the book in his dreams before it arrived. He claims to have had no prior exposure to these symbols, and that on multiple occasions similar events occurred.

Now, I’m not a believer in the paranormal (see my skeptical position above), and I don’t think that Jung is necessarily much of one either (though he certainly is a little New-Agey at times), but I think that this is perhaps an example of an intersection of psychological elements.

If we go on the theory that consciousness is a black box; it takes stimuli that are not necessarily known and produces results that may not actually resemble the original stimuli, things that are perceived in dreams may actually be capable of coming true in real life. The memory and perception of the dream will then switch over to match the phenomena as it is observed in consciousness (altered memory being irreversible and effectively as good as the stimulus being altered), or the stimulus will be altered to match the subconscious perceptions from dreams.

A crappy illustration of my theory of perceived dream precognition. Pardon my handwriting. The first is supposed to illustrate a remembered dream being transformed so that the memory , the second the inverse and less likely case that a dream shapes later perceptions of reality.

This could be disproven by a number of tests, like the transfer of one of these dream stimuli to a concrete form before the actual event that the dreamer claims occurred in their dreams before it happened in reality, but I have never seen a credible example of this in my readings or studies. Esoteric accounts, like those cited by the people who claim that Nostradamus had prophetic visions, are unconvincing to me because they do not withstand Occam’s razor.

How perceived dream precognition could be proved to be something other a product of memory revision, though not necessarily ruled out as an unconscious process being mistaken for something else. Pardon my handwriting. I think in the future I will use vector graphics instead of my pen.

The problem with this is that the accurate representation of something within a dream that would be satisfactory as a proper proof of precognition would be too difficult for most people to execute. If we could actually see into dreams it would become a trivial thing to prove, but this is subject to the other issues with consciousness.

Another issue is that the brain is a prediction engine. Dreams can predict something without having absolute foreknowledge of the future; if you know that someone is sick, you may dream of their death without being certain of it, but having enough evidence for an unconscious anxiety to become concrete and break into your psyche.

There’s also a chance that something that someone thinks they don’t know and have never been exposed to has actually crossed their path before; Jung had possibly witnessed some of the symbols of alchemy in art or literature before he had actually received the book, and had dreamed of unfamiliar symbols that he subconsciously knew to be related to alchemy, which just so happened to also be within the contents of the book.

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter in practice (this is the answer to most philosophical questions), but it sure is a fascinating point of study.

In any case, I think that Oscar Wilde is making a point about consciousness being a great mystery, I agree with him entirely, and I can certainly ramble and lose track of my point quite a bit.

Resolution

Don’t take observations for granted.

Don’t worry about what lies behind the veil, take in what I see and understand that.

Stay curious, but don’t let it get in the way of my life.