Reflections on Aphorisms #22

Aphorism 36

It’s much harder to write a book review for a book you’ve read than for a book you haven’t read.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I chose this aphorism because of Taleb’s trademark acerbic style and its clear, bold point. It’s also relevant to a lot of what I do in my life, since I have been a reviewer for years.

I don’t believe in simplicity. Or, rather, I am skeptical about it. There may actually be simple things in the universe, but I have rarely found them. Even something whose significance to us is relatively straightforward may itself be quite complex.

Take, for example, a pure chemical element. It still has all sorts of qualities and traits, and the process of purifying it is not simple. Just because it can be classified neatly does not mean that we understand everything about it immediately; only through exploration have we come to the knowledge that we have, and it is deeper than any immediate explanation can convey.

When someone writes about something and evaluates it, they are trying to answer a very difficult question.

In the American education system, evaluation is considered to be the highest level of achievement, and the deepest level of the depth of knowledge breakdown. To actually assesse the quality of something requires clear communication skills, enough experience to draw a comparison, and the guts to speak earnestly.

I’m frequently struck by the inauthenticity of others’ praise. Often when I see something reviewed, I can the trademarks of someone who has no idea what they are talking about. Such a person is not evaluating anything, as they do not really have an opinion and cannot draw a meaningful conclusion.

What I have found is that once you develop an opinion that’s actually meaningful it becomes difficult to communicate.

I do not know how many reviews I have written in my life, but it’s probably around five hundred or so, in various places and fields.

Even with that much experience, I often struggle to make my opinions meaningful to the reader. It is also difficult to explain who the target market of a particular product or book is. Hyperbolic praise, that is, saying that something is tremendous, is much easier than nuanced discussion of merits and virtue.

Tak literary awards. I would be lying if I said that I never want to win an award for something that I write. However, I think that awards are a poor metric for whether or not I will like a book. This doesn’t that awards are bad. We do celebrate things for the sake of their quality. Rather, it would be like trying to describe a whole day with a single word. You may be able to get the gist and say that something is great if it is great, but simply giving it an award does not explain why it is great. Preferences are diverse enough that it’s too simple a premise.

I think Taleb’s point here is profound, because we have entered an age where we live in a society of so-called experts. We need specialists to help us make decisions, and that’s a testament to the near-infinite opportunity we have grown to as a society. People have more knowledge than I do in all sorts of fields, so I do not let this bother me.

The problem is that experts require training, time, and practice to do their work well. Much of our exposure to writing comes in the form of what could be charitably described as inexpert. For whatever reason, whether it’s a lack of self-awareness, apathy, or just failure in the short-term due to one reason or another, a lot of writing is bad. At the very least, it may hold limited value for its target audience.

I think reviews are particularly prone to this. This is one of the reasons why we often encourage people give numbers alongside their reviews, a practice that I personally despise except in certain cases, where a number can help communicate factors that are difficult to express in words and permits a comparison between different things of the same sort (like restaurants).

I think there’s also a hidden meaning to this quote. It’s often easier to make decisions with less knowledge. We fall victim to analysis paralysis. We have trouble describing what is familiar to us precisely because it is familiar to us. There are significant difficulties that arise when we cannot put our words in an order that describes our experiences. However, the process is actually very similar to evaluating something.

One of the reasons why we read memoirs is that they provide us with a vision of someone else’s life, one in which they often explain what helped meaning and significance to them. A good memoir is written by someone who would also be able to write good reviews. The reverse may not be true.

I think that a lot of life’s meaning is to be found in evaluation. Those people who learn to do it well have provided themselves with a tool to improve everything.

My life

As I mentioned earlier, I have written many reviews. At first, my interest was more commercial. I was a game reviewer and I got free games if I reviewed them (plus commission, though I was never good at driving traffic). Since I had more time than money, this was a good arrangement for me.

Now I’ve grown to see it as more of an art. I enjoy writing reviews, even though they are no longer particularly profitable endeavor for me, because they are a representation of meaning. I’d say that it’s judging things that makes it worth doing, but judgment is not really the purpose of a review. I don’t try to express my superiority over other people. I am successful enough to do away with envy.

Rather, I’d describe it this way: When I review something, I have a chance to test it against the universe. There’s an opportunity to go in and really see what makes something tick, but there’s also an ability to ask if it’s worth it. When I write about game design, I often separate my reviews from my analysis.

That’s because these are two entirely different things. Something with flaws may still be sublimely right in one or two ways, and be worthwhile to analyze. However, whether or not it is worth spending time on is the point of an evaluation. Do the flaws, on balance, get covered over by the merits?

In many ways, I think that it’s a sort of proto-wisdom. Evaluation and analysis are both prerequisites for creating something meaningful. They’re independent from this process only in the sense that the creative act comes after analysis and evaluation.

Resolution

Evaluate ceaselessly.

Judge for merit, not for preference.

Don’t get lost in analysis what does valuation would be more proper.

Aphorism 37

It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.

Jordan Peterson, from 12 Rules for Life

Interpretation

I did an in-depth breakdown of each chapter of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, and it had a transformative effect on me (Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is available for free to Kindle Unlimited members through that link, was also significant in my life, though I read it later). I came to new appreciation for the buance of existence, and many pieces of advice contained between its covers were life changing.

This quote comes from the chapter on Jordan Peterson’s second rule, which states that you should treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. The question of comfort versus protection is one that is the pivotal issue of my generation.

I can speak from first-hand experience can I see countless instances of my generation being unprepared for reality. We have this tendency to view it as a dirty and dangerous thing, because life is dirty and dangerous. However, our stigma against hard truth has left us unprepared for being. We reject the risks of living entirely because we do not know what it means to triumph.

Many of the actions we have been trained to take in our daily lives are those would shelter us. This has an anodyne effect. Like the Buddha as a child, our faces are turned away from anything that could causes suffering.

But suffering is part of life. Without it, it’s impossible to appreciate virtue and choose right action. We will suffer the consequences of living without introspection, but not even have the wherewithal to understand what we are going through. Suffering is the guide that leads us to self improvement, and what motivates us to make a better world.

I think that we have a tendency to think of ourselves incorrectly. I do not mean self-deception, though there is certainly much of that our everyday lives. Rather, I mean that we have limits to our perception. We believe ourselves to be competent, collected, wise, strong, and heroic. However, we ignore the shadow, Jung’s hidden subconscious, because we want to ignore our complexity and vulnerability.

In many of our lives we walk around with untreated battle wounds. Ignorant of the source of our perdition, we view ourselves as impervious agents of the will or as driftwood on the sea of existence. We do not realize that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Potential is counterbalanced by limitation. We don’t just get to be a victim of the universe or to be the hero that saves the world. We need to accept that we need help in our moments of weakness, and selfless sacrifice in our moments of strength.

My Life

As a teacher, I found myself trying to do what’s best for my students. Often, as an English teacher, I would have them read books that challenge them. One of the tendencies that I have found results from being over-sheltered is an inability to distinguish between good and evil. Take the book To Kill a Mockingbird as an example.

My students often have an aversion to the book. Sometimes, this is because they do not wish to read anything which they are assigned to read, out of what could be uncharitably described as laziness, but it is also because they see unpleasant things in it and they do not understand why they would have to see evil face to face.

This causes discomfort, but I have never had a student complain that it was not meaningful after they have read the novel.

In my life, I have definitely been too self-certain on many occasions. Overconfidence has been a great adversary of mine. It is also responsible for more money wasted on things I have broken and do not know how to fix and I would care to admit; this is evidently a common masculine trait in this day and age. However, I think that I have a particular tendency towards learned helplessness, and it is certainly not unique to me out of my generation.

I find that when difficulties arise I prefer to work around them rather than over them. This tendency doesn’t do me any favors in the long run.

I think of all of Peterson’s 12 rules this one may have had the largest immediate impact on me.

When I entered teaching I had what Jung might describe as a martyrdom complex.

Despite cautions from my instructors in college and from my various mentors in practice, I viewed my job as sacrificing everything for my students. There is no problem with sacrifice, but I carried it to an extreme. I would work 12 hour days, then come in on weekends. Eventually, I had reached a point where I was less effective because of my devotion, simply due to exhaustion. I became bitter and resented the weight of my task. The overexertion led me to make mistakes, which led to more overexertion. My response was to push harder, and strive to put in more effort.

By the time this reached its peak, I had almost resigned from my job. I do not know what would have happened if I’d given up then, but I am not optimistic. Fortunately, those around me were supportive and helped me understand where I had gone wrong.

I had forgotten the need for self-care. The consequence of this was that I had instead embarked on a path of self-destruction.

Resolution

Accept my limitations.

Foster in others the skills they require for Independence.

Remember that self-deception is not the only thing that bars self-knowledge.

Reflections on Aphorisms #18

Aphorism 27

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

Anton Chekov, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, it is important not to idolize tradition.

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

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

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

My Life

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

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

Resolution

Pursue constant little goals.

Do not obsess over the result of any single action.

Diversify my portfolio of worthwhile deeds.

Aphorism 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Life

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

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

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

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

Resolution

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

Hold no deception toward myself.

Seek to understand the meaning.

Aphorism 29

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

Friedrich Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

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

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

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

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

To illustrate:

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

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

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

My Life

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

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

I believe that it is this which Nietzsche talks about.

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

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

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

Resolution

Accept what I earn, good and bad.

Seek to do that which bears no guilt.

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

Reflections on Aphorisms #17

Back to a more active schedule for at least a while. Two aphorisms on success today.

I’ve been traveling, and while doing so I’ve had a few moments to reflect and think about the world, and I hope that should breathe some fresh life into the reflections I’ve been writing.

Aphorism 24

The opposite of success isn’t failure; it is name-dropping.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Aphorisms like this illustrate why I love Taleb’s style enough to go through a whole book on his thoughts. Technically, I actually have gone through multiple books on his thoughts, not counting the rest of the Incerto.

That the opposite of success isn’t failure and that name-dropping is opposite of success are both separate points and they are ones that should be considered carefully.

The first point, perhaps the more important one, is that failure is not the opposite of success. This often sounds like a sort of motivational saying or an excuse made by a loser when their plans don’t work. However, there is something to be said for the art of the attempt. Michel de Montaigne, one of the first essayists, originally called his works assays, which translates into modern English as “attempt” and reflects the fact that Montaigne’s work did not attempt to answer everything, but instead to strive to answer.

This distinction is key. Even one of the greatest thinkers in human history was not so vain as to assume that he would come up with answers for everything (this humility may have contributed to his greatness) or, at the least, he wished to shield himself from appearing to be more wise than he was.

Montaigne also presents a great point to talk about the second Point here. He is, perhaps, one of those people to include the most references to Classic works in human history. I don’t believe that even TS Eliot rivals Montaigne’s work in terms of making references, and Eliot is notorious for requiring a comprehensive humanities education to read.

However there’s something about what we would consider name-dropping that Montaigne avoids. He never uses the work of others to fallaciously inflate his own credibility, and he never assumes other people should know who he is and give him credence based on his own name. This is the sort of name-dropping that Taleb considers the opposite of success. I almost wonder if a good comparison would be to talk about the Greek rhetoric of Ethos, and how it doesn’t necessarily work when one uses themselves or their buddies instead of a grander thing (i.e. tradition may actually be an acceptable reason to do something, but because I said so is not).

Reputation and respect is interesting as a social concept. I like to think of myself as having a decent reputation, something which I worked toward by making sure that no one can blame me for doing anything wrong. However, I always find it interesting how people are known for the things which they do in the fraction of their life. Put another way, people receive a reputation for what they do in public, but only a few people spend even a tiny fraction of their life in public.

Unless you work in certain industries, your reputation as a direct consequence of your acts is low. This doesn’t mean that it’s non-existent, but most people learn your reputation second hand. Really, reputation is a reflection of one’s social skills more than anything else, the ability to market one self to whoever their audiences determines one’s reputation directly.

Name dropping is sort of a last resort for reputation. It’s equivalent to bragging. There are injunctions in many religions and cultures against self-serving boasting. The reason for this, I believe, is that this sort of name dropping really helps nobody. It’s an attempt to exert unearned influence, what’s an economist would call rent-seeking but on a social level. If you have to remind others of your accomplishments and wow them with reports of your great deeds or companions, you haven’t really built a reputation for yourself.

The most selfish sentence in the English language may very well be “Do you know who I am?”

My life

I have had the great fortune of working with people both of humble background and those who were relatively well known, and one thing that has impressed me the most among those who I consider as virtuous is that you almost learn nothing of their past when you interact with them, even if their past is filled with great things. You would have to ask them about their accomplishments directly for them to come up in conversation, even if you are quite intimately familiar with them as people.

I think that what makes this so virtuous is the fact that they never rely on anything other than their present being as a source of virtue. Bragging about the past is all well and good for politicians, but in daily life few people can rely on what they did ten years ago as a source of their current enduring success.

Likewise, people who fail–sometimes even people who fail dramatically– often seem to make the best friends and companions. This is not a universal rule, and sometimes people who fail failed because of some moral flaw, but there’s a distinction between failure and not trying. If you can identify the people who don’t try (or are tragically misguided) and separate them from the people who do try, those people who try and fail are often as virtuous or more virtuous than successful people.

As for myself, I think there is a lesson to be learned in not trying to make others’ achievements my own, and also not trying to coast on my past achievements.

Resolution

Try even if I fail.

Hope is the first step on the road to failure, but failure may be a worthwhile destination.

Never make a mask to hide a flaw.

Aphorism 25

All rising to great place is by a winding stair.

Francis Bacon, quote taken from the Viking Book of Aphorisms.

Interpretation

Once again I find myself looking at a quote that I have a complicated relationship with. On face value, I agree with this quote. Deeper, below the surface, I think that there are parts of reality that this aphorism cannot reflect.

The Matthew Principle, named after a passage in the Bible, states that goes who already have will receive more and those that do not have will lose everything. This is shown in finance when people who have money continue to receive more money, via investment or other means, are those who do not are forced into undesirable circumstances because they cannot take advantage of some of the opportunities that are available to others.

From this perspective, it’s hard to climb. When you make mistakes you push yourself down, and the cycle is a vicious one. Start low, you are more likely than not to end low, at least in certain ways (especially the financial).

However, since the operative verb in this aphorism is rising, not being, I don’t think Francis Bacon is entirely ignorant of the notion that one may need to account for the fact that some people start with more of an advantage than others.

I think it’s also worth noting that there is an element of cultivation in success. If you start with every advantage, waste your competitive edge, and end where you first found yourself, you are not successful even if you lead a life of comfort and leisure (unless you find other value along the way, like in family, spirituality, or philanthropy).

I do agree that becoming successful is an arduous task. Some people may be more naturally inclined to this than others, after all, just as a spiral staircase may be more or less tolerable for certain individuals, the rigors of life weigh differently on different people based on circumstance or aptitude.

Any view of the world needs to consider the fact that improvement requires change, change requires chaos, and chaos carries with it risk. To make a change is to confront the universe as it exists. This doesn’t have to be difficult, but it is unpredictable.

In this sense the winding staircase of the metaphor reflects both the trial and effort, but also an ascension to a new and unknown place. This is a process that carries with it innate risk.

It is only the bold who forge their own strength.

My life

I have been fortunate enough to start from a place of success there are times in my childhood that I recall being unhappy, but none that I would describe as tragic.

The consequence of this is that for much of my early life I faced little difficulty. I recalled being somewhat ostracized as a youth, but never too far from the norm. I was never popular, and there were times when I would have described myself as having few or no friends, sometimes more out to ingratitude then a realistic conception of affairs, but I had the good fortune to be academically successful due to my parents’ intervention in my early education and the benefits of a middle-class lifestyle.

There are elements of my personality which also assisted me. Though I was too shy to benefit overly from my own personal social networking, something which I have been working on in my recent years, I was endlessly inquisitive. Sometimes, this led me to accidentally form connections to my teachers and fellow pupils, since I would seek knowledge so vociferously.

In addition, I discovered the merits of reading at early age. As someone who would go on to be a writer, this was a great benefit to me. It also helped prepare me emotionally for later on when my youth would become less Pleasant.

However, it is only in the past few years that I have really begun to appreciate what it takes to be successful.

One of my greatest goals as a teacher was trying to teach my students how to be successful.

I only would later learn how tremendously difficult this was. It is also deceptively simple. What I found is that well success never comes freely, it can be found in places that are unassuming. That is to say, when people talk about success they often have this image that success as a sort of holistic thing: if you are successful, you will achieve every possible virtue known to man.

This is a fallacy. I was fortunate enough to have met a clergyman at a church in Arkansas when I was entering the years of adulthood (almost a decade ago, now). Having had a privileged youth, I was escaping my luxury on a short-term mission trip, the sort of endeavor which seeks to provide sheltered children with a more well-rounded view of the universe.

Although this person, who was the lead pastor of one of the largest churches in Little Rock, was tremendously busy he still made sure to have day-to-day interaction with even the humblest church activities. On one day of the trip, I had been asked to help clean the church cafeteria, where our group was dining, which doubled as a sort of soup kitchen. The quality of food that it provided to the needy is not served well by that description, but a better way to describe it escapes my abilities.

While I was cleaning, it turned out that the floors required mopping. As someone who had lived a life of privilege, I had never been familiar with how a mop actually works (that we did not have one at home when I was growing up contributed to this as well, since it apparently is not considered a household necessity in Arizona to mop one’s floors). Despite the fact that he doubtlessly had more important work to do, on account of his large congregation and the endless needs of the local area, the pastor stopped to teach me how to use a mop.

To this day, I have never seen a better example of Christian service embodied in a person. I like to think that actions like those of Brother Paul make up the steps which lead to the peak of success. I do not know how he felt in the moment of instructing me, but I doubt that he could have an insight as to how it would go on to shape my understanding of what it means to be successful.

Resolution

Find the steps which lead up.

If you are going in the right direction, do not hesitate.

There is no action too humble to be meaningful.

Aphorism 26

A wise man knows everything; a shrewd one, everybody.

Anonymous, from the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

This is a more light-hearted aphorism than some of the others that I’ve been looking at recently. It is also one which stresses something important.

At the very least, I associate it with a sort of tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to some point or another. Whether this is true to its original purpose or not, it is the way that I choose to read it.

Tolstoy argues at the beginning of Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike, but unhappy families find their own paths to their own ruin.

I think that this may be in reverse. There is one universal path to misery (it is merely a very wide path), but there are many paths to happiness and success. They fall under a common umbrella of virtues, so we cannot honestly believe the false corollary that the ignorant may draw when they say that there are unlimited paths to happiness.

However, inasmuch as there are multiple virtues which can be instilled which lead one in the direction of success, each path that builds virtue will itself lead towards success. Of course it’s good to be wise. Though shrewdness does not necessarily have the same universal positive connotation that wisdom possesses, most people would agree that it is probably good to be shrewd as well, if one uses the power that comes with it for good rather than evil.

It is the pursuit of any virtue which leads one toward the pursuit all virtues and eventually to at least a degree of success. To master one virtue is impossible if one still holds sin dear in their heart, so moving toward complete sanctification is the only way to achieve any virtue worth mentioning (except that which comes from a desire for face).

It is the failure to pursue virtue which leads to a lack of success. I do not necessarily mean worldly success, there may be virtuous people who are mired in poverty, ignorance, and tragedy. However, I would much rather die poor but noble of heart than rich and dissolute in spirit.

I have seen enough of the world to know that the people who do not sow virtue in their lives meet with ends that they would not choose.

To get back to the original aphorism, and leave my tangent behind, there’s something about knowing people which affects our perception of reality.

If there is an element of value in making connections in the strictly commercial sense, there is at least an equivalent value in how it changes the way we think. If you spend much time with someone who you find at least tolerable, you may be surprised by how quickly they change your behavior. At the very least, one may adopt mannerisms of their companions, getting a sort of dialect that matches the style of those they choose to associate with.

It is also possible that one may acquire habits based on others’ actions or behaviors. An example of this would be the much-beleaguered school teacher who finds himself shushing personal companions when they interrupt him. If questioned, I will insist that I do not know this from personal experience, and that I have never shushed friends at evening gatherings when I felt it was my turn to speak. I may be lying through my teeth as I do this, but despite my deliberate efforts I have never achieved what might be called true honesty.

There is an osmosis of ideas that occurs when multiple people are around each other and they have conversations. Although much of modern professional life involves hiding religion, politics, and a handful of other things which I am too polite to describe here, even in passing, it is inevitable that people will push the boundaries between idle chat, communication required for business, and the expression of belief.

My life

One of those things that I’ve noticed as I have grown older is that in my youth, I often sought what could be described as platonic ideals. I wouldn’t have used this term for it because I was not familiar with the work of Plato, but there was something about the way I viewed the world which was overly concrete.

It was for this reason that I think I had much difficulty connecting with other people as a child. I could not appreciate the nuance and blended nature of personal life. It is sort of like the school child who finds himself confused when he witnesses one of his teachers shopping at the grocery store. Although many adult strangers are around him, he does not consider the fact that those people that he knows and has associated with a particular role may actually wear more than one hat.

In this sense, I never really knew people as a youth. I would often become hung up over a particular Association that I had with someone, and assume that the relationship to me was the defining factor of their life. I believe Piaget explained this as part of natural biological development. I find unusual that I can remember such times, since I would think that such a large deviation in the cognitive function of an individual would cause them to have difficulty meaningfully recalling very different memories, just as one who has lost a language through this use may find that they have difficulty recalling it. However, as a literature teacher, now recovering during a brief stint away from the industry, we do categorize characters in a way that encourages this sort of thinking.

As someone who is very book learned, but not tremendously Street Smart, a statement like this runs a sort of a reminder of what I have missed. I’m quite introverted. People would point out that I often write thousands of words about my personal life on an almost daily basis as if that could disqualify this statement about myself, but liking to hear oneself talk is a very distinct concept from being comfortable listening to and trying to figure out one’s relationship with other people.

In any case, as I have said before, I do not delude myself in thinking that there is great value in my writing, or at least not in most of it. I read an essay on writing by Ian Fleming, writer of the James Bond series of books, in which he points out that he is not an author. He writes frequently, holds himself to a particular standard of quality, and tries to deliver things that other people want to read. I settle for the first two. That I post so much of my work publicly stems from a need for accountability, not a delusion about its marketability.

Resolution

Meet new people.

Let my experiences with other people change the way I feel and think.

Books cannot replace interaction.

Reflections on Aphorisms #4

Figured out yesterday’s aphorism that I couldn’t get a satisfying break-down of, so that’ll be one of the two today (it’s the Taleb one).

Aphorism 5

The most depressing aspect of the lives of the couples you watch surreptitiously arguing in restaurants is that they are almost always unaware of the true subject of argument.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (Amazon affiliate link)

Interpretation

I’m not really in a significant relationship, so I’m not going to cover the relationship aspect of this so much as a simple truth here:

You don’t necessarily know what you’re looking at until you put it into words, and even then you might have done it wrong.

I think that a lot of arguments arise from what goes unsaid on purpose, and what goes unsaid on accident, and this aphorism deals with the latter.

You need to have a good identification with a life of meaning to really notice when things have gone astray.

My Life

Today was my last regular day as a classroom teacher for the foreseeable future. I’m doing some freelance writing in the immediate future and then I’ll be getting back to school to complete a master’s or maybe a doctorate program.

And, to be honest, it’s painful to say goodbye. It’s been an emotionally draining week for a variety of reasons, and teaching is just emotionally draining in general, but the fact remains that it’s still something that brings a lot of meaning to my life.

I wouldn’t say that I regret leaving; this is the perfect time to make a move for me, since I still retain almost no financial obligations except to myself.

However, it’s certainly not easy. Most of the kids were pretty sad to see me go, even more so than I expected (to be honest, since almost none of them were going to have me next year unless something changed in my position, I didn’t expect quite so much of a response).

I’ve probably had something like two hundred and fifty or three hundred students in the past couple years, and it’s sort of crazy to think about not seeing most of them after next week.

But, of course, such is the nature of things. If there is any lesson I’ve learned at a dear cost this past week, it’s that you can’t always anticipate change, so the best you can do is accept it.

Reflections

Find the hidden and secret things that have a tendency to sneak up on my life.

Never forget how meaningful the teaching experience has been in my life, even if more lucrative opportunities come along later.

Value authenticity, pierce the veil of easy explanations.

Aphorism 6

A book calls for pen, ink, and a writing desk; today the rules is that pen, ink, and a writing desk call for a book.

Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

This is another aphorism that begs context. I think that it’s referring to the way in which we interact with books, namely comparing the act of reading and reflecting on things.

Nietzsche is often very concerned about the advent of modernity, and I think that part of this is the transition from having eyes on the past to focusing on the future.

Part of the old tradition is to go into texts as an end to itself. The contemplation on and analysis of the old masters is got necessarily lower than striving for personal mastery.

This is a lot of what Montaigne does in his essays, but while Montaigne may be “the first modern” in his philosophy and interests, he is also distinctly classical in his methods.

Now the fashion is to create and change, to pursue power before wisdom and influence before virtue.

My Life

I am beginning to write a book. I may not finish it, since I may find it unfit, but I am perhaps falling into what Nietzsche is warning about here.

However, I think that I’m not all bad.

Obvious self service aside, I feel blessed to have an inquisitive mind. I enjoy digging deep into everything, and I am reaching a point soon where I can pursue self perfection as a primary goal.

Resolution

Don’t waste my current shot at self improvement.

Learn from others.

Make sure that nothing I do stems from mere desire to do but rather from purpose.