Reflections on Aphorisms #43

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

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

Aphorism 68

Force is not a remedy.

John Bright

Interpretation

Well, this is certainly a goldmine.

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

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

The “force” of political systems.

The “force” of our own wills.

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

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

“He’s not a tame lion.”

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

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

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

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

Last but not least is the force of our wills.

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

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

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

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

Resolution

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

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

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

Aphorism 69

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

Montaigne

Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolution

Never assume that you know what something is for.

There is a utility to be found in everything.

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

Reflections on Aphorisms #30

Forced myself to write a little more today to make up for some previous short entries. I’ve now been doing this for basically a month straight, and it’s been really good. I think it’s helped me find my compass a little better than I had been.

Aphorism 50

In a conflict, the middle ground is least likely to be correct.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

We falsely praise compromise as a virtue because we associate it with the ability to change one’s mind when better evidence is presented. This doesn’t necessarily mean that compromise is worthless, but I think people don’t understand what a good “compromise” really is.

It is difficult to actually realize an improvement by moderating one’s values. It is much easier to achieve such a thing by remaining true, but being realistic. To permit one’s values to be breached, even in part, will only lead to resentment.

Settling for a compromise only leads to two unhappy parties, rather than one.

Compromise leads to a decreased ability to adapt.

Instead of accepting the fact that one’s values may not actually improve the world, and that they should be reconsidered, instead the half measures are blamed rather than a flaw in their foundation. We can see this in basically every political issue in modern American politics. The compromise only creates a further point of contention, and both sides claim the success of their views and the failure of the other’s.

The solution to this is to concede rather than to compromise. Of course, one should never sacrifice one’s highest values lightly, but it may be better to have a short-term defeat then a long-term compromise that adds up to be equally bad. Don’t take a half-measure if the half-measure is not substantially better than having nothing.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not calling for extremism. Go only to the point at which desired effects are achieved, not further. Going too far for the sake of avoiding compromise is not any better than compromise.

Rather, one should fight vociferously to achieve their goals until those goals are achieved.

One should also think carefully before forcing others into a compromise that will breed resentment. This is a great way to amplify every ill, and should be avoided.

Resolution

Identify what would satisfy.

Eat until you are no longer hungry, but do not continue past that point.

Never sacrifice a value for expedience.

Aphorism 51

For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.

Goethe, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

I value humility highly. I believe that being humble is a great way to guard against being wicked.

I do not think that Goethe (especially the Goethe of his later life) disagrees with this. However, being humble in and of itself is not necessarily a goal.

There are those who assert that the biblical injunction to be meek is more properly rendered as being able to use power, keeping it restrained. It is not a virtue to be harmless if one has no other choice.

So it is that being humble means recognizing one’s potential and capacities but not fooling oneself into believing that one is living up to their potential. Otherwise, it is just a lack of confidence.

I think that this is what Goethe is referring to when he says that someone must regard himself is greater than he is to achieve what is demanded of him. He must see that he has what we would call a heroic potential, I must be willing to struggle to bring that into being.

In my own life, I have been struck by the need do this. As someone who would happily think of himself as ordinary, I need to keep in mind that my potential is incredible and constantly move it forward. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be where I am today, I don’t think I would have believed you. At the same time, it was the striving that I did five and ten years ago that has gotten me where I am. Where I will be in five years is a direct result of what I do today.

It is necessary to blend many ideas of the self together. The past self, weaker and less experienced but also with more potential, the future self, who will reap the rewards of today’s labor, the current self, who must act in accordance with both the past and the future, and the hero, who represents the fusion of all three into one personage, must act as one.

This is a tremendous force, and it requires faith and will to bring it to bear.

Resolution

Bring myself into balance with my past and my future.

Do those things which fall into the domain of the hero.

Live as if I could one day command millions.

Aphorism 52

No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

People have a problematic relationship with the truth. Even those with the best intentions often have difficulty figuring out what it is, and emotions can complicate things. We generally consider sticking to the truth as a moral good, but it is a good which we are oft-tempted to subordinate to other purposes.

The most natural thing in the world is to defend self. Even someone who holds themselves in low esteem still grates at the offenses of anyone else.

We like to defend ourselves against criticism, even if it is deserved. In this ironic fashion, we impede our own growth.

I find out that I work as a freelance or independent game designer my first response to any criticism of something I have done is to come up with five thousand justifications as to why it is the best thing to do. Many of these justifications will be things that only occur to me once it was time to defend my work. While this is not such a grievous falsification, it shows this general mood well, and it also lets me to see if myself into thinking that I am better than I am.

A more honest response would be to internalize the sort of polite response that one gives a well meaning critic. To accept others’ feedback, and then immediately compare it to your own original motives, is to listen to what has been said. Otherwise, you get defensive and then you lie.

It is also worth noting that takes cultivated personal virtue to ward off other indignity without resorting to deception. Too often, we see people whose first response to criticism is to slander someone else. This shows weak character, and not much of a mind. This sounds harsh, but I will admit that I am of this tendency myself. I simply rarely get a chance to use it.

To remain honest under pressure is a sign of integrity, the ability to always act in accordance with one’s guiding values. Acquiring this integrity provides one with a bulwark against making expedient but destructive choices.

I’ve been listening to Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Amazon affiliate link), in which he recounts his time living under a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini. One of the things that I find interesting is that he is able to discern how his critics are responding emotionally and falsely accusing him because he has disturbed their quietude, not because he has actually done the things that he is accused of (whether or not he had).

Resolution

Act with honesty, even in the face of shame.

Don’t attack others because I have been hurt.

Never assume that I will be virtuous.

Aphorism 53

Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

This ties in, to a degree, with the subject of our previous aphorism. There is the potential for a great deal of self-contradiction in the human mind. One of the most powerful forces that can lead to this error is belief. As such, it is important to always examine whether a belief is being held in line with truth.

This is a difficult thing to do, as it requires earnest discussion with those who disagree with you. This makes it unpalatable to most people. It is much easier to pretend to debate, or to debate those who are in agreement with the conclusion you have already reached, than it is to enter at your own risk. It requires a respect for the person you are talking with which exceeds the strength of your own stubbornness.

I find that when I believe something I have a hard time rationally assessing the surrounding details. This isn’t a novel phenomenon, but it is something that is pretty common. There’s a really low-level breakdown of it in more detail than I care to go into here:

A great simple breakdown, if a little over-simplified.

There are various reasons that people give for this tendency: an evolutionary biology perspective that says that you will believe what you believe in light of conflicting evidence because it is better to remain with your in-group, traditional abstract vices like hubris, psychoanalytical concepts like the ego and superego.

However, the truth is this:

Everyone is willing to die for their beliefs, they just might not realize that they’re the ones killing themselves.

This is why all major religions have a large tradition of faithful doubters; people who challenge the assertions of the faith but do not leave it. They’re necessary for the health of any large group. I’m fairly orthodox in my perspective, but I see the merit of constant questioning in all things.

Resolution

Build my convictions on solid ground. Test the ground first.

Pay attention to emotion. It can be easily overlooked.

Be careful with beliefs, they cut like knives.

Breathing Life in Characters Part 1: Politics and Society

One of the things that makes or breaks any story are the characters involved in it, but creating great characters goes beyond individual personalities and delves into the experiences and social contexts of the world that they live in. In short, your characters should be opinionated.

Creating a living world is necessary for characters to be truly vibrant, and one of the best ways to do that is to look at current events and issues that characters are likely to engage themselves with. It is important to remember that in places where there is total agreement there is also little interest to be found: everyone agrees that the invasion of orcs is going to be problematic for the stability and sovereignty of the kingdom in the long run.

Continue reading “Breathing Life in Characters Part 1: Politics and Society”