Reflections on Aphorisms #97

Today was a good day overall. Not a hyper-productive days, but I give myself a reprieve on Sundays. My morning was not particularly a high point (I need to stop getting in arguments online), but the rest of the day proceeded more or less amicably.

The best part is that I feel like I am going to be very well-prepared for tomorrow, which is a good feeling to go to bed with.

Aphorism 136

There may be good but there are no pleasant marriages. (Maxim 113)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the things that I am convinced of is that we have a false association between that which is good and that which is pleasant.

Of course, there is something to be said for the idea that good things often lead to good outcomes; on a certain level this is naturally inherent, whether it is because you believe that good actions are in line with God’s will or because what we define as good is in line with what has been evolutionarily advantageous (or, if you’re someone like Carl Jung, both).

I’m not a married man. I might be a marrying man, but I’ve never really committed to relationships. This doesn’t mean that I look down on commitment; I actually respect it quite a bit, but I haven’t found within me the spark I need to do so.

Rochefoucauld’s point here speaks to me in part because some of my hesitancy with long-term relationships revolves around this notion. I’ve been blessed enough to have a generally pleasant life. There have been some interludes of misery, often quite profound misery, sometimes misery that has scarred me and sometimes misery that I can’t even remember. To give an example of the latter sort, I did quite a number on my foot this morning, for instance, swinging it back into a plastic hard-shell case and then forward into the runner of an office chair, which I was pulling toward myself. Only when trying to recall this sort of insignificant misery did I remember it, so I don’t think it’s worth mentioning.

The profound and awful misery, the kind I can remember, centers around the worst treatment I’ve ever received. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with unkindness (in small doses), though I also believe that it tends to be counterproductive, but there’s a point at which one crosses the threshold to deliberate destruction. Only upon reflection do I look at some of the examples of events in my life which could reasonably be called unjust. A “mentor” who took every opportunity to condemn and tear down. Companions who were quick to coerce with fists and manipulation, but slow to provide support. 

The thing that scares me the worst out of everything in the world (except perhaps dark outdoors spaces) is that in these situations I was incapable of seeing the damage I was sustaining. I knew on an intuitive level, but I never was able to communicate what it was. I sustained tremendous losses both on a practical level (thousands of dollars of wasted tuition, months of wasted life) and a psychological one (exaggerated feelings of inadequacy, a lingering block against looking people in the eyes).

I guess that this pain, although not the sole factor, is a major block in me developing serious relationships. As much as I hated receiving it, I would hate to become that thing which brings profound misery into other peoples’ lives. I want to believe that we can call these things evil, that they can only stem from malicious intent; Jordan Peterson has an excellent working definition of evil which can be paraphrased as “the deliberate causation of harm” if you don’t recall his much better way of saying it. 

I’m not sure that all suffering comes from evil, or at least not conscious evil.

In this sense, I think that one of the difficulties in having a good relationship is that it’s painful, because you need to rid yourself of the things which make you evil. That’s not possible, because we’re flawed and victimized and broken and incapable. But if you do it right you get most of the way there, which is really all we can ask for.

With that said, I think that Rochefoucauld is wrong.

There are good and pleasant things in the world. That’s part of the reason the world exists, at least according to my faith in God. We’re given this sandbox to explore, and sure sometimes the sand is made of dead things and we’re responsible for a great deal of harm, but just because we suck doesn’t mean that we’ve been rejected and sent to a sort of grand cosmic penal colony. Actually, it might, and given my fairly dour take on things like original sin and the total depravity of man I suppose that I kind of believe that. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing good in the world.

And if there’s one thing good, it’s two people coming together in a union that makes something more than 1+1. Marriage is a tool for the creation of families, and the creation of children, and there’s something divine in that.

I’m also from the sort of sect that is totally fine with marital relations and doesn’t make you feel guilty about them. I don’t know what the rules were back in Rochefoucauld’s day (Rome was sometimes a bit of a stickler about these things), but at least in more Protestant sects marriage is a pretty good deal on that front. We read the whole “be fruitful and multiply” commandment as being a free pass, basically.

Yeah, the moment to moment may sometimes suck, but it’s that passing sort of misery; the “accidentally slam your foot into something behind you then compensate by trying to fracture your toes on a chair” sort of misery. It’s not something that you’ll look back on later and even think about, because unless you let it become pathological and obsessive, you’re not going to care. The good parts will win out in the end.

To wrap up, because I’ve gone longer than usual:

  1. Marriage is generally unpleasant because we’re unpleasant.
  2. Connecting to people means opening yourself, and you can get hurt (or worse, you can hurt them).
  3. I’m going to remain happily single until I work out some of my issues.
  4. Man, marriage could actually be a good thing.

Resolution

Be the person someone would marry in their right mind.

Recognize that there is no perfection in a person.

Don’t let scars eat at my soul. That’s a stupid way to give the wicked what they want.

Reflections on Aphorisms #91

Today was a moderately successful day. I didn’t get as much physical activity or writing done, but now that I have classes (which I’m very much currently ahead on) I can justify that a little.

I also have been getting better at trying to spitball some of the writing I’ve been doing instead of waiting to perfect it in my head. I’ve been listening to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and trying to follow some of the advice there.

Aphorism 129

The passions possess a certain injustice and self interest which makes it dangerous to follow them, and in reality we should distrust them even when they appear most trustworthy.

François de La Rochefoucauld 

Interpretation

One of the things about emotion is that it tends to lead us toward things that further emotion.

If we want to feel good, we tend to lead ourselves in paths that gratify us, and we slowly develop an attachment to our own pleasure.

I forget who once said that we tend to continue doing whichever behaviors we reward in ourselves, though I’m sure that it’s a common sentiment enough that it’s been echoed and repeated to the point that you could lose yourself in a rabbit hole. Maybe Jung, or even Nietzsche? It follows some of the biological nature of the brain as a system that tends to follow both chemical processes and associations between neurons, and I’ve definitely heard it described in that language by someone who has been in the 21st century (Jordan Peterson?), though I feel like its origins may even be classical.

To a certain extent, one could also extend the idea to Rochefoucauld.

Passions are generally bad not because we should stifle our emotions and get rid of them, but because passions represent the emotion as the sole driver of our decision-making process. We need emotions so that we can prioritize things. Of course, emotion serves as a simplifying heuristic; “liking” or “disliking” something based on experience or prediction is much simpler than making a rational decision every time it comes up, but can often lead to equally good results. Going further, however, emotions are part of what makes the human experience worth living through.

Yes, emotions often include suffering, and passions are dangerous, but they’re also responsible for everything we perceive as good. Happiness in itself has no place on the scale of vice and virtue, but the purpose of virtue is to foster as much happiness as possible on a grand cosmic scale (even if it means sacrifice and struggle in the short-term) made possible through an understanding of truth and meaning.

Passions are often the result of seeking happiness above seeking virtue. It’s the desire to have the meal without the work, metaphorically speaking. There’s a children’s story in the vein of Aesop in which I believe a chicken (I should remember; animal symbols often carry archetypal significance) works to sow seeds of corn but the other animals do not help, despite being asked to help. Of course, when the harvest comes, everyone asks the chicken if they can share in the food, but the chicken keeps the grain for itself.

Without delving into the morals of the story, acting on passion is similar to desiring that which is unearned. Although passion is not necessarily innately wrong, since there are justifiable reasons for the actions that can be ascribed to passion flowing out of a desire for justice and righteousness, the fact remains that the passionate are prone to be deceived and preyed upon by those who can manipulate their emotions.

Worse, passions tend to undo the clarity of mind that would be needed to safely act upon them. Even if a wise person can rely on their feelings above the knowledge they have acquired and the counsel of peers and sages in a single instance, in repetition they wind up preparing themselves to act on passion when they believe they are simply considering the input of their emotion.

Resolution

Make emotion one counselor among many.

Avoid entitlement.

Don’t do something in an emergency that I would not do in principle.

Reflections on Aphorisms #81

An interesting thing that I’ve found as I work through the aphorisms is that there are ones that I don’t feel like I can talk about when I first examine them, and then later return to them and feel comfortable expounding on them.

I’m not sure to what degree this reflects growth and to which degree it reflects the various mindsets required to engage with a text, but I find it interesting.

Sometimes it’s the case that a point that I’ll come to while discussing one aphorism will reflect itself in another aphorism, which isn’t surprising when one focuses primarily on maxims by a single person.

This one from Rochefoucauld is another example: a few days ago I skipped over this aphorism in favor of another one (you can see it here), in part because I didn’t have anything to say about it. Now I do.

Aphorism 119

What we term virtue is often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune, or our own industry, manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste. (Maxim 1)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

Humans are and are not moral creatures, depending on how you define them. The problem is that as with most matters which defy simple classification neither really satisfies the truth.

People can be moral creatures, and that sets us apart from everything else we’ve found in the universe. We’re capable of making decisions based on guiding principles, not just the experiences and stimuli around us.

However, that doesn’t mean that we always are. Consciousness is expensive, and we budget our attention toward the things that we view as important in the moment.

What that means practically is that more of our actions and reactions are reflex, or subconscious, than we would like. This is pretty logical, really; we don’t know exactly how much unconscious stuff we do because it’s precisely unconscious. If it’s happening and it works, then we don’t think about it.

One of the biological functions of guilt is to discourage patterns of behavior that are known to bear consequences. If I spend more money than I’ve made in a week and then notice that I’m headed in the wrong direction financially, I feel a little guilt about it. It’s a manifestation of the worries I have about my future state, even if I can’t explicitly communicate that to myself.

When we do things with unknown consequences or we actually manage to avoid everything that we associate with guilt through supreme effort, we assume automatically that it is a form of virtue.

The problem is that virtue isn’t just avoiding the things that earn us guilt.

Virtue is strength. It’s a moral sort of strength, one which does not grant mastery of others, but it’s strength nonetheless.

One of the problems with strength is that it’s relative. I can go about my daily life without doing anything that I would consider at the outer edge of my physical capacities, but that doesn’t mean that I would be considered strong. I might be “strong enough” but even that is a relative description.

Virtue is the same way. You might look at honesty and say “Well, I don’t lie on my taxes.”

That’s very good!

It’s also pretty much nothing. There’s a giant penalty for lying on your taxes. You’re forced to be honest, or at least lie well enough to get away with it, and most of us are bad liars and know that on at least an unconscious level. If you aren’t, you’re gonna get a whole lotta pain, and that could be what’s driving the honesty.

If you could make a universal statement (“I don’t lie.”) that would be a virtue. Of course, virtue being a relative strength it may be impossible to really have perfect virtue. But if every time you were to tell a lie you instead chose honesty you’d be making a lot of progress. There are further forms of dishonesty, of course: omission, over-statement, miscellaneous deception, and “white lies”” all degrade the virtues of honesty and integrity.

However, the struggle is what forms virtue. It’s not an inherent thing that some people have and others don’t, which is part of the reason why the virtuous don’t have any claim to superiority. Virtue is an interaction between the individual and the universe (to put it in hippy language; I’d argue that it’s an interaction between the individual and God), and it has to be found outside the individual’s disconnected being.

Choosing virtue may be laudable, but virtue itself is revealed. Nobody can claim to be closer to it than anyone else, because the problem with a choice is that it overlooks two key points.

First, for every virtue one chooses, there are likely virtues they have not developed.

Second, a choice is not permanent. It can be reversed. The virtuous person is not in a fixed state of virtue, and can throw away everything in a moment of moral compromise.

Resolution

Don’t enter into moral compromise.

Look for opportunities to develop virtue.

Remember that all morality is shaped by our relation to the universe.

Reflections on Aphorisms #72

Short reflection today because I’ve been bad about getting started in a timely fashion. Fortunately some of my bigger time crunches are getting done soon, so it shouldn’t be an issue for much longer.

Aphorism 110

Reason is God’s gift; but so are the passions: reason is as guilty as passion.

John Henry Newman

Interpretation

One of the things that I think people overlook about reason is the fact that it’s a neurochemical process.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t believe that there’s more to the brain than just chemistry; I’m a religious man, and that means that I have some belief in our humanity stretching deeper than we can know.

However, I’m also not ignorant of science, and I know that a lot of how our brain works is basically electricity and chemicals.

A lot of what we consider to be really important to us is nothing more than a function that’s going on. Our emotions, for instance, seem highly driven by our brain chemistry. Consciousness is a little more complicated, which is part of the reason we don’t understand it very much.

Even so, we’d be foolish to assume that our own biological limitations are not in play with every act of reason.

One of the things that I am kind of fixated on is the idea that we’re heuristic beings. We work based off of slapdash jury-rigging, cognitively speaking, and we don’t have a whole lot of self-awareness for what’s carefully considered and what is a hack to get through the day alive.

Like, think of phobias. If you can’t do certain things, you’re at a distinct disadvantage, but it’s also really useful for your brain to just out-and-out say “I’m not a fan of dark places” when you’re thinking about going into a dark place, because you don’t know what danger’s there.

Reason may exist on a level above the heuristic, but it’s still drawn from it. Deliberately thinking about things can let us achieve a new perspective, but it’s the same pair of eyes feeding those observations as feed our intuition.

The other day I shared a diagram in which I pointed out that there’s basically three fundamental parts to the universe as it pertains to us : the predictable future, the expected unknown, and the entirely unknown.

The predictable future is what our heuristics and reason try to grasp, and reason goes a step further into the expected unknown.

The problem with reason is that it can only turn unknown to expected unknown, rather than unknown into predictable future.

Never forget that our limitations are a lot more than they look. We’re basically miracle boxes, but even then we’re squishy ones with not a whole lot of stored information.

Resolution

Don’t forget to evaluate my assumptions.

The unknown remains the unknown, even if you think you’ve figured it out. Don’t assume there’s a fundamental difference between its two states.

Go fast when the heuristics are good.

Reflections on Aphorisms #68

I’ve got a bad thing going on where I keep writing right next to bed-time, so it’s going to be another single aphorism night.

However, I Think this one is going to be interesting, even though the writer is anonymous. It’s an interesting point, though.

Aphorism 106

Clever liars give details, but the cleverest don’t.

Anonymous

Interpretation

Lies are a funny thing. They’re a difficult thing to do well, even though they come naturally to us.

A lie is an attempt to tell an alternative account than that which exists in the universe, and it’s something which is associated both with intelligence (since good liars need to be smart) and foolishness (because you can’t outrun reality).

One of the things that we notice is that people who are lying often go to great lengths to justify their lies, and people who are not will be very comfortable in telling a story that’s much more barebones.

I’ve studied how social engineers do things, and one of the things that’s really interesting is that they don’t actually try to tell good lies most of the time, even though they have to deceive people to do their jobs right.

Instead, they start with befriending people and only once they’ve gotten some territory will they actually tell a lie. When they do, they always keep it vague, and usually their stories pass muster. If you say there’s a problem with an elevator, for instance, that’s a lot better than saying what the problem is.

One of the things that this ties into is a sort of peculiar injunction to honesty. The best lies lack details because they can’t match reality (at least, not on purpose).

By leaving out details, you give enough room for the people on the receiving end to fill in the picture you paint. In a sense, you use a falsehood cloaked in the reality which is known to other people.

After all, how much do any of us really know about our surroundings? Probably not all that much, even if we’re trained for situational awareness. We have a lot of heuristics, however, and our heuristics are fairly broad so that we can adapt to as many situations as possible. You want to be flexible enough to manage almost anything, not left in the dust when the smallest change occurs.

The problem is that this provides a sort of extension of proto-reality, potential presents and futures that cover the space beyond our senses.

E.U= Expected Unknown. Graph by myself.

The diagram above indicates a sort of diagram of how I conceive the mind’s state in the universe.

It’s “not to scale” as it were, in the sense that I’ve chosen the angles to make the diagram neatly legible rather than as any sort of statement about how the mind works.

In the center you have the heuristic, and the heuristic would actually extend as a full circle and overlap with validation.

This is the way we think about the world.

Notice that the heuristic extends into the unknown; this is a reflection of the unconscious and the role it plays in shaping the psyche, and is where subconscious bias and other formative factors that we aren’t necessarily aware of play.

Part of the heuristics section is the validation. This is the place where our perceived current and past realities match our expectations. Although this appears to be getting broader, it’s worth noting that the degree to which this is actually part of our heuristics may be inflated by the fact that we are generally conscious of those things which we expect.

Again, the representation here is not to scale.

We have the expected future out front. This is where our expectations meet reality in a relatively accurate fashion. If I expect for the sun to come up tomorrow, and I am correct, then this is an assumption based on my heuristic that I can safely put in the expected future.

Think of this as the prediction spot.

Next you have the expected unknown (E.U. in the chart). These are the places where we know that something will happen, but we aren’t sure what. Although I’ve diagrammed this as a relatively small portion, I think that for many people, especially people like me who tend to navel gaze, this is actually a large part of our minds and heuristics. Think about it this way: I don’t know that my commute in the morning will be pleasant, so I plan for it being potentially painful.

Last, we have the blind unknown. To a certain degree this is shaping our heuristic, but it represents all of the past, present, and future that we are not consciously aware of. This is a place with very real meaning, but we cannot discern or decipher it. This is certainly under-represented on the graph. It should probably extend in all directions beyond the heuristic and known.

A good lie plays with the expected unknown. If I know that the elevator may break, and that it is important to keep it maintained, I will not question an elevator maintenance crew showing up at my facility once in a while. I may not even question them moving around, since they may have to talk to people to do their jobs. I don’t know this for sure, but it’s logical enough.

If the person who’s showed up to fix the elevator tells me that they’re there because the elevator keeps getting stuck on Floor 3 and they’re going to need to talk to Mr. Smith in his office, the lie has gotten a lot more complex. If someone says the wrong thing next time or if there is no Mr. Smith (or worse, no Floor 3), it will cause the obvious conflict with reality to pop to the forefront.

Resolution

Check my heuristics.

Don’t lie.

Don’t use information to obscure reality.

Reflections on Aphorisms #67

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

Aphorism 105

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

W. E. Arnold, Jr.

Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolution

Rise above human nature.

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

Don’t overlook the reality that others are complex.

Reflections on Aphorisms #58

Ugh, I’m falling back into a rut.

I’m going to make myself go get some serious exercise tomorrow morning and cut back on caffeine to try and make things easier. I’m just having issues focusing on anything, which is not a good recipe for being productive.

With that said, let’s begin.

Aphorism 92

In summary, modernity replaced process with result and the relational with the transactional.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Newton sparked a shift in our understanding of the world toward a modern empirical “rational” model.

Jung’s work with archetypes has become so significant in our day and age, because the change is so fundamental that we left a lot of things behind in our haste.

Now, it’s worth noting that the modern view probably presents a better objective picture of the world. It’s blind to everything outside our senses, and as a result it tends to result in less bias.

However, the shift from the classical and ancient to the modern also deprived us of things.

Alchemy, for instance, when understood psychologically, provides a series of changes and alterations that can impact the mind. The four steps of classical alchemy (darkening, whitening, yellowing, reddening) each reflect a life process; losing innocence, finding virtue, and so on and so forth.

Now, there were alchemists who believed in literally making things into gold, but even they were enlightened to the psychological nature (or willfully blind to it) of the field because of the notion of “as above, so below” that pervades alchemical thought.

This “as above, so below” is what we lost in the transition to the modern age.

The alchemists associated everything with great mythical and religious mysteries. Nothing existed without a will guiding it, a divine spark of being that led it to act in the way it did.

The work of Newton and Einstein serves us a whole lot better when we wish to accomplish things, but it lacks the integration with a cohesive worldview that the alchemists enjoyed.

When Taleb says we have replaced the process with the result, he refers to how we have stripped the psychological valence from everyday things.

The word “profane” actually serves as an antonym to the word “holy” in its function. We have stripped the mysteries of life of their sacred meaning, and we do so at our own peril. Think of the mystery of conception and child-birth (now considered little more than a biological process) or the mystery of the sun and moon cycles. These dominated myth, and are often given value by even relatively secularized and ecumenical religions.

A diagram showing an overview of common sacred and profane elements over time. Made by me. The faded colors on the modern side indicate increased individual variance.

The concept of the sacred and profane still exists, though it is hidden in different language and the responses have changed. We have some common elements between them (namely, social elites are always associated with being sacred figures, outsiders or ignorant people are considered profane), but the actual functioning of this is different.

Some of this stems from the fact that individuals have a greater latitude for independent moral judgment in the modern age, creating a greater variance in what is classified as sacred or profane. Part of it is also simply down to the fact that reason-based worldviews, though often flawed, should not require as much dogmatic conviction as, say, a faith-based worldview would. In thepry, dogmatic conviction is supposed to be diametrically opposed to rational thought, though it is never too far off in practice.

One of the things that has also changed here is the relationship. Some of this has to do with increased size of social circles, but it also comes down to what is sacred.

Most “sacred” (here referring to both religious and secular cultural expressions) traditions place a strong value on the family, and this is what archetypal thought goes back into. The family serves as a model for future interactions outside the family, because it is the most familiar unit of relationships (see the etymological relation?) but also the earliest that most people have conscious experience of.

A strictly rational worldview, however, doesn’t necessarily view relationship as being terribly important. So long as one fulfills obligations, and obligations are fulfilled in return, the transaction is completed to mutual benefit.

Falling more in the ancient than the modern camp in this issue, I think that this was a defining reason for my stressed relationships with many of my more modern-minded family members. Coming from a position that I have always held where certain things are expected in a relationship (with some degree of flexibility to respect the individual; i.e. you wouldn’t ask the same things of every mother or every brother), the fact that many of my family members felt and experienced love in a more transactional way was lost on me as a youth.

Now, I don’t want to condemn this; the people that I find to be like this are often great role models, but the difference in communication creates perceived deficiencies.

I think it’s also fair to say that we’re not wholly modern. Or, perhaps, that the modern worldview has not wholly dominated the collective conscious expression of humanity.

Resolution

Be patient with those different from myself.

Don’t forget to speak the same language as other people.

Review of Memories, Dreams, Reflections

I listened to Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Amazon affiliate link) on audiobook. It’s a large book, and it was of interest to me largely because I’ve studied a lot of Jung’s ideas (and their derivatives as presented by Campbell. Pearson, and Peterson) and I wanted to get a more intimate picture of Jung’s views and life so that I could put his work in context.

As a memoir, it’s interesting. It’s definitely one of the more difficult memoirs out there, but it’s still got the sort of personal interest that you’re going to see in most memoirs. Because Jung is something of a revolutionary thinker, it’s often a little difficult to follow what he talks about, and I was glad to have read Man and His Symbols (my review) and Modern Man in Search of a Soul prior to tackling Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

Those hoping for an intimate picture will be perplexed. Jung is entirely open about his outer life, and most of his inner life, but there are things which he withholds from his memoir that would be of particular interest given that they would have peculiar interest in a psychoanalytic context. This is a vague description, but it’s the best I can do, because the withholdings are themselves eclectic: seemingly minute but yet significant enough that Jung mentions them in their exclusion.

At the same time, one gets a picture of who Jung is; albeit one that is scattered between significant points in his life. His adult life is largely unmentioned, sometimes explicitly out of respect for those who are living and who might be impacted, but at other times one has to wonder why Jung chose to skip over so much of his own personal life and whether it is that he considered some things self-evident, if they escaped his notice, if they were intentionally withheld, or if they simply weren’t able to be worked into the book.

Jung’s early life and religious experiences get an intensive focus at the start of the book, and his father plays a particularly interesting role as a sort of anti-Jung: someone who has stifled his visions and stuck comfortably with the role of a conforming member of society. Jung’s first symbolic dreams and impulses are recorded here, and one can get a picture of him as a unique individual very early on.

As someone who had to read some Freud in college, I find Jung’s recounting of his professional and personal relationships with Freud as particularly interesting (not to mention the letters published in the appendices which Freud wrote to Jung). While going into depth about their relationship would require either a crash course in the teachings of both men or an assumption that the reader is familiar with both, it’s worth noting that Jung’s perspective on his time spent both as heir apparent and then disgraced pariah in Freud’s eyes is covered, albeit not in great detail when compared to Jung’s early life.

Letters from Freud were included in the appendix, which give Freud’s perspective (at least as he communicated it to Jung), and Jung has interesting thoughts on Freud that are not necessarily unique to Jung but benefit from the personal relationship they shared.

Jung’s travels make up another section of the book. While some of the language he uses is outdated, and he is not an anthropologist, he has a great deal of insight and respect for what he calls “primitive” people, and particularly respects their beliefs as being no less sophisticated, though perhaps less well communicated and developed by exposure to other ideas, than those of the modern West.

On one hand, he goes into much less detail here than he does in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, but he also adds the personal element of his experiences into the mix, giving some context that is otherwise missing, and he also recounts particular events in greater detail, like his experiences with Native American solar faiths.

As is usual, one gets the impression of Jung that he is so brilliant that people have a hard time telling where he is right and wrong: sometimes giving him too much credit and at others discounting everything that he has discovered. As a visionary, he presents a view of the world that has a sort of mystical magnificence to it, where dream and reality blur.

Of course, dream and reality are perceived through the same faculties, and there’s an element of truth to Jung’s ideas, but one also gets he sense that he lets himself descend into revelry. He espouses strong support for metaphysical persistence of the psyche (I mean, as a devout Christian I do as well, but my own approach is to accept on faith, not to have intuited it myself), but does so almost entirely based on the notion of logic driven from experiences of the unconscious, intuition, and precedent in cultural and religious phenomena.

There was a fairly long section of Memories, Dreams, and Reflections which could be described as positively New Age, but if one considers that Jung expresses the totality of his beliefs without reservation, there’s probably not so much airy dreaming as actual thought in most of his claims. It’s also worth noting that a lot of Jung’s terminology has come to mean something else than it originally had (e.g. psychic meaning “to have a relationship with the psyche” rather than charlatan fortune-telling), so what sounds like quackery may have a firmer empirical foundation than otherwise expected.

Near the end, there are very interesting questions about the role that individualism, spirituality, and social progress will play in the coming era, and I actually found it to be one of the most well-reasoned discussions of what has become an in vogue topic. Jung’s assertion that individuals have to accept the unknown and the unconscious to pursue individuation within the pattern of complete being (I simplify at the risk of causing confusion) as an antidote to the totalitarianism of the 20th century is something that I think is incredibly valuable, and echoes my own personal experiences of self-development in recent years.

Jung also gives a great breakdown of his concept of archetypes, though he doesn’t go into depth about particular archetypes.

The audiobook is read by James Cameron Stewart, who does a good job of it. I don’t have any complaints with the audiobook, and Stewart sounds like one would expect Jung to sound (though not necessarily a match for Jung). There weren’t any issues that I found as I listened on Audible.

Basically, if you want an introductory overview of the work of Jung, this probably isn’t what you’re looking for. As a memoir it frustrates its purpose by being so deeply tied to Jung’s theories and work that I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone who is not already familiar with Jung’s ideas.

However, as a companion to Jung’s other work it is illuminating.

Reflections on Aphorisms #40

Another day of just a single aphorism. I need to get better about my aphorism sources, because I’m not keeping up with them very thoroughly. It’s harder to find good aphorisms than one would think. I’m tempted to get the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, but it’s kind of expensive for someone whose income will drop dramatically in a month or so while his outflow will be becoming unbearable relative to that.

Aphorism 63

Be polite, courteous, and gentle, but ignore comments, praise, and criticism from people you wouldn’t hire.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

One of the greatest problems that people have is falling victim to others’ perceptions.

I don’t think that there’s anything predatory in how most people look at others, but there’s something in our psychological makeup that makes us adopt others’ positions.

There’s a part of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that comes to mind:

Scene in question occurs at 10:40.

Decius Brutus: Never fear that: if he [Julius Caesar] be so resolved [to avoid the Senate on the Ides of March],
I can o’ersway him; for he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betray’d with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils and men with flatterers;
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flattered.
Let me work;
For I can give his humour the true bent,
And I will bring him to the Capitol.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: Act II Scene I, 826-835

One of the challenges with our lives is that we fundamentally want to fit in. This isn’t necessarily a conscious fitting in, but rather “fit” in the sense that we want to be prepared for our world (i.e. “fitness”), and as a result we think about what others say and do a lot. This can take a negative form, where people actively reject others’ choices because they are perceived as unfit (teen rebellion, anyone?) but it’s predominantly something that happens subconsciously and can be challenging to weed out.

I was reading an article the other day about desire. Desires spread like beliefs; you just need to see other people express them. However, unlike beliefs we often don’t really have a conscious understanding of our desires (though the roots of our beliefs may lie deeper than we are capable of understanding).

When I walk through a mall and see someone drinking a Coke, I want a Coke. There are bright red and white machines scattered throughout the mall to help reinforce this, and even the feeds for cash or credit cards (call me old fashioned, but I’d never trust a machine with a card of mine) have lights that blink in a motion evocative of inserting money.

Desires are contagious because we want to achieve fitness, and we figure that if there are other people who don’t seem to be burning flaming messes we should want what they want, because it’s worked well for them.

This is part of the reason why most advertisements feature beautiful people. It’s not that they couldn’t sell us on products with average looking or even ugly people, it’s that when you have a thirty-second spot you’re probably not going to be able to make a deep enough case.

So you need bright colors, delicious food, or sex appeal to really make the viewer want things. It’s a process of association rather than ideation that leads to desire.

The problem is that we don’t know when to turn this off, when we are being influenced.

I often hang out with people who enjoy less success than myself by the means in which I measure success. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, but often I find myself wondering why I take their advice if I want to send myself on a different path than they are on.

I think what Taleb is getting at here is this:

You don’t want to take advice from people who don’t achieve your goals. Look for the people who you would say have done what you want to do, and seek their approval.

Or, basically, “Just because your mother loves your work doesn’t mean other people will.”

I’ve often heard the adage: “Hire people who are smarter than you.”

I think you should apply this to who you are listening to in daily life. You want to be polite–people have dignity and they are usually worth listening to and giving the time of day–but you can’t change your life’s direction and second-guess your decisions based on what everyone says or you’ll end up in free-fall.

The solution: Look for the people who you respect deeply, and seek their opinions. When you get an opinion from someone you don’t have conscious respect for, make sure you really want it and that it’s really good. Maybe they’ve got brains and wisdom you haven’t seen in them before.

Then, be conscious of what desires you let into your life. The influences people exert on you can be difficult to understand, but you shouldn’t get paranoid and avoid people because they change you. Rather, just be conscious. Take time to clearly communicate your goals and guiding stars to yourself, so that you can’t be led astray lightly.

Resolution

I will make sure to seek the guidance of those I respect.

Never listen to noise, only to signal.

Remember that the statement which seems urgent and profound may actually just agree with your shallow self.

The Meaning of the Samaritan

I recently got to thinking about the story of the Good Samaritan. An outcast who is rejected by his society, the Good Samaritan represents someone who is good for goodness’ sake.

It is not for nothing that people often consider the Good Samaritan to be a Christ figure. After all, both were rejected by their society despite having a benevolent heart.

The Samaritan threatens us because he subverts our expectations. While other people, including those whom society would favor, ignore the problems around them, the Samaritan goes out of his way and takes great personal risk to help a stranger. Even more, the stranger is one who would consider him an enemy. He helped someone, possibly saving their life, at his own expense and without hope of a reward.

I’m familiar with the work of Carol Pearson, an academic who applied Carl Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s theories to the field of personal development. One of her books, Awakening the Heroes Within (Amazon affiliate link), became a major part of how I taught students about the Hero’s Journey.

I believe that the Good Samaritan represents an example of the hero brought to fruition, in a sense that agrees with both Campbell’s theme of the transformative Hero’s Journey but also Pearson’s idea of archetypal wholeness.

The Good Samaritan is someone who has mastered their self. By bringing their own needs into subordination, an act which requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice, they were capable of gathering together the virtue required to live a good life.

The stoics write about virtue as a product of self-examination end of mastery over circumstance. Later, Christians would adopt many of the most notable stoics as virtuous pagans; people who were inferior for lack of knowing Christ, but who nonetheless could be granted some sort of credence as guides to a moral life despite their ignorance because their virtues aligned with the Christian virtues.

This Samaritan walks a similar path. Without the benefit of being included in what we would consider the religious elite, he nonetheless achieves virtue greater than any of the people in Christ’s parable who would have been seen as members of the in-group.

We often hear the story of the Samaritan presented as an injunction to do good, or an injunction to treat others as our neighbors who we would not considered be our neighbors. I would interpret it differently. There is certainly a valid element to both of those interpretations, but I think it is a story of perfected morality. The Samaritan has achieved virtue, and from an unexpected place.

Both Christ and the Samaritan are reflections of the same archetypal hero. The Samaritan represents a need to seek the same heroic Destiny in our own lives; it is a call to become what we need to become to make the world a better place. The examples of the travelers who passed the wounded man represent people who have not come to a full self. Many of them seem to be virtuous. However, this surface virtue merely hides deeper problems.

They live in fear, condemnation, or busyness. They fail to prioritize others as the highest good. They have not fully developed themselves, and are slaves to their needs instead of individuals who can contribute to society.

It’s only by learning to overcome these things, a process which Pearson equates with progressing through certain archetypes of the personality, that we can begin to contribute all that we can to make him the world bathroom. Before this, not only do we run the risk causing harm, but we lack the understanding that what appears to us to be detrimental or sacrificial in the short-term will be a benefit for everyone in the end.