Reflections on Aphorisms #88

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

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

Aphorism 126

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

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

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

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

Some of this stems from good, some from evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To recognize virtue in others and praise it.

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

To speak openly without condemnation or flattery.

Resolution

Seek to pursue virtues where I have vices.

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

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

Reflections on Aphorisms #87

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

That’s a good place to be in.

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

Aphorism 125

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

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

But it does feel kind of silly.

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

This isn’t actually unique to this field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolution

Be the real deal.

Don’t deceive.

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

Reflections on Aphorisms #60

I’ve been keeping up with this as a daily thing for two months now. It’s given me a great opportunity to know myself better, but it’s also helped me process what I’ve learned and what other people have said better.

I am also becoming increasingly anxious that I will repeat myself unwittingly. I find it difficult to believe, since it’s not like I haven’t taken these quotes and thought about them and written about them at length, but at the same time my memory isn’t always great. That some of my writing gets done while my brain in the littoral boundaries between wake and sleep probably doesn’t help. I think I’m going to try to move my writing more into the morning to overcome this.

Aphorism 95

Prudery is a form of avarice.

Stendhal

Interpretation

I belong to a fairly conservative religious tradition (at least inasmuch as standards of modesty are concerned; we’re a Wesleyan off-shoot), and one of the things that I found myself overcoming as I went from a youth to being a man was the difference between legalism and devotion.

One of the things that I found when I was younger is that I would object to people doing things because they were forbidden.

Now, obviously I’m faithful in the religious sense and I follow these codes in my own life (being body-shy, I can’t claim any virtue in it, and I’m not going to move anyone to prurient thoughts in any sane attire), but I think that Stendhal’s point here can be more generally directed toward legalism.

My theory, since this is what it wound up being in my own life, is that legalism is generally a product of having a code of morality, but not having the detachment from desire that is needed to follow it. If you find yourself lacking in moral virtue, it’s easier to project that failure onto others and paint them as the problem with society than it is to address the problem in your own life. This is particularly true if the lack of moral virtue exists within what Jung would refer to as the “shadow” of the personality.

Demanding that one’s code, even an absolute moral code, be applied to others by force is a sign that one has not mastered one’s own desires. Now, this isn’t necessarily a universal statement (after all, there are religions and philosophies that demand absolute worldwide devotion and make this a goal of the faithful), but in general if a desire to control others stems from emotion it’s a result of a failure to control the self.

Another element here can be wanting pleasure only for oneself. Basically the “stop having fun” front. I think that this is basically a second manifestation of the first, with perhaps a little more greed because there’s not as much of a moral foundation underneath it.

I’m not necessarily anti-prude (e.g. I don’t care for public displays of affection), but I also understand that people ought to have freedom, within only the most minimal constraints.

Resolution

Don’t be the fox who curses the grapes that grow on the high vine, out of reach.

Obey the rules laid out for me without resenting them.

Contemplate the reasons for morality, not the violations.

Aphorism 96

Progress is the mother of problems.

Chesterton

Interpretation

One of the things that I heard once is that the process of scientific advancement has been to discover new problems to replace the ones we’ve solved.

Chesterton’s what might be considered a dogmatic conservative. He’s not as stuffy and annoying as we might assume based on that title, but he still has a certain blind spot to the values and merits of change.

So with that said I don’t think he’s necessarily in agreement that attempts to improve the world generally do.

I’m more mixed in my own approach: the problem is that we see change as good when we do it, even when it’s definitely not good, and bad when other people do it, which is usually correct.

The secret is to master both agency and humility. Following this path one can actively seek to make change, but one also avoids the dangers and pitfalls of hubris.

Chesterton is a reactionary, opposed to the society-destroying changes of the early 20th century, and I think he’s actually quite a wise figure. Going against the zeitgeist, he manages to keep some semblance of sanity when everything else goes crazy, though he’s far from perfect.

I think, however, that Chesterton is after something deeper here.

Chesterton was one of the people who felt a very deep, almost mystical, spiritual connection to God, and saw the society around him losing that same connection.

This is something that we see repeated a lot in various ways, and even in a strictly secular sense something of the spiritual nature of humanity has been suppressed by modern society. Of course, you can argue all you want that spirituality is nonsense and irrational, but the counterpart to it is that we’ve also lived with spirituality being an integral part of the average person’s life from the beginning of history to the 20th century.

Part of the problem with spirituality, from the perspective of those who seek progress, is that the answers it contains are timeless. We can aspire for greater knowledge and enlightenment, but even then it remains the case that in the world of spirituality it is the timeless and eternal that is pursued, not the novel and changing. Even in times of transition in how we understand the world on a fundamental level, the goals and the imperatives of the collective unconscious, to borrow Jung’s term for it, will change at best at a glacial pace and typically not at all. It’s more of a biological part of us than we think.

Resolution

Don’t abandon the timeless truth for the fleeting passion.

There is nothing new under the sun, not in the literal sense but the metaphorical one.

A problem may go away, but problems will never be gone. (Christ: “The poor will always be with you.”)

Reflections on Aphorisms #51

It feels weird to think that I’m already more than half-way to a hundred of these. That’s enough time to start making it a habit, but it’s also an example of a little thing done daily that I think is making me a better person.

I don’t know how to quantify the improvement I’ve felt in my happiness and practical ability to work, but it’s there, and it’s enough to matter.

Aphorism 82

Prayer does not change God, but it changes he who prays.

Kierkegaard

Interpretation

It’s worth noting before we get into things that Kierkegaard is not trying to diminish the power of prayer.

Think of it this way: Kierkegaard isn’t necessarily saying that God is deaf to intercession, but rather that intercession is not always acceptable.

The act of prayer, even in the most secular interpretation, has merit in the admission that the object of one’s desire is outside the perceived limit of one’s agency.

Of course, if you’re religious you may believe that prayer is a way to meet an end, and I personally fall in that camp (although I don’t believe that there’s a guarantee that prayer will be answered for faith alone).

But one of the things that would logically follow at least the Christian concept of God is that there should be constant divine intervention against all evils.

I think Jordan Peterson describes this Abrahamic concept best in one of his sections in his book 12 Rules for Life (my analysis of the chapter) where he talks about vulnerability and weakness.

Part of us being free and having value, within the framework of a universe in which there is an omnipotent God, is that God must let us work within our own limitations and limit intervention in our world. Peterson uses the analogy of a child who is made to be perfect and invincible. By transforming the child from a vulnerable living thing to an invulnerable icon, one destroys the child.

I personally believe this is the reason why God permits evil to exist. To remove it entirely would be to remove the spirit of the hero from the world, to annihilate our ability not only for wickedness but also for good, for sacrifice, for transcendence.

Prayer is humbling oneself before God. Praise is also humbling oneself before God. Whether or not you can expect divine intervention, it has a way of grounding one in a mindset that accepts the wicked and the good as parts of being.

Resolution

Pray constantly.

For every evil there is a chance to do good. Do that good.

Never curse, never pass sentence on that which is not of your self. That is the domain of God.

Aphorism 83

Nature hath no goal though she hath law.

John Donne

Interpretation

One of the things that I frequently see people talking about is a particular notion that there’s an end-point to history or the universe.

Often these people talk about teleological reasons for being, or some universal trend of progress that defies what we know the objective rules of progress to be.

I’m also not talking about a defined end here; there may well be an end (some apocalypse, the heat death of the universe, our whole world being a projection of our consciousness that ends with physical death, and so forth: take your pick), but the problem is that it’s treated as something which every process works toward.

I mean, if you look at entropy in a broad sense, I guess you could go that way, though that’s kind of a morbid way to view it, and it’s the opposite of how the people I’m referring to talk.

The world around us is chaotic and disordered by default, at least by any perceptible human qualifier. All the archetypal stories tell us this: that the unknown is going to be unexpected. There would be no reason to fear the dark if it always contained merely the absence of light.

People set goals. The rest of reality generally doesn’t (a possible exception being animals, though their goals are not as complicated as ours), and that’s one of the key things that makes people different. We can contemplate a future endpoint which is more desirable than the current state, and we can do so in quite an abstract capacity. We know, for instance, that we can plan for the future by saving money.

Of course, such things are always flawed by the complexity of the system we’re in and our own limitations, but it’s possible to pin things down relatively close to reality. Precision is where things get tricky, but broad generalizations are often correct (see what I did there?).

Nature, on the other hand, is not a conscious entity. It is not even an entity, though we’ve created an abstraction that looks like one because we have a problem with conceptual null spaces.

If nature is anything, it’s a network of independent agents.

All of these, of course, have laws that are in operation around them. The discovery of Newton’s natural laws marked a shift from alchemical and mystical notions of the world and natural philosophy to modern science, and part of the reason for that is that it marked a shift from goals to laws.

Previously, people thought that nature worked in predictable ways because it wanted to.

Now, we know that it moves in predictable ways because the very nature of the motion of the universe is patterned in those ways.

That’s a very important, even revolutionary, idea.

Resolution

Don’t attribute to design what belongs to chance.

Remember: Brains make patterns, often incorrectly.

Don’t forget: Newton didn’t find what he found on purpose.

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.

The Rejection of Suffering

This morning I had a thought pop into my head when I first awoke. As such, you should take the following with a grain of salt; I’ve done some light research and I feel called to share this, but keep in mind that I am a lay person and my knowledge of scripture and history is probably flawed.

The thought that popped into my head has to do with two parts of the Bible: the scene where Jesus talks to the rich man and proceeds to tell his followers that it is difficult for the rich to enter heaven and the crucifixion of Christ.

Continue reading “The Rejection of Suffering”

God as Provider Against Fear

One of the things that has been a repeated source of God-centered conviction in my life is my own struggles with anxieties and fears of what lies in store for my future.

I have no doubt that many of these fears constitute a spiritual weakness of mine, a failure to appreciate what I have been given and a blindness to the charity of Providence. Although I deserve nothing, I fear that my comforts and worldly position will be lost, when in reality these are the least of my treasures.

Foremost among all fears is the fear of death. Other than fears of inadequacy and questions of our own identity, nothing can drive us more than the question of what will happen once we die.

God gives us eternal life because God provides the tools to resist any fears. We can overcome anything with the right help, and God will provide for our needs. It’s not that we should focus on the concept of eternal life because of what it offers us; having an eternity with God is pointless if you don’t have a now with God.

The role of eternal life is to give believers a reminder that we have a relationship with God through Christ that cannot be ended by any worldly force. It is only by choice, by the intentional rejection of God, that we can lose our salvation.

The degree to which one has to act in violation of godly principles to lose salvation is unclear. God is love and forgiveness, even when it is not deserved. Merely sinning is therefore likely insufficient to jeopardize salvation, but a lifestyle of depravity illustrates priorities that lie outside God’s kingdom, and it would be foolish to live in such a way that virtues extolled by God and the saints are lacking and expect to have one’s name in the Book of Life.

Paul’s famous musings on this matter in Romans come to mind:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”
*Romans 6:1, NASB*

One of the things that I’ve noticed in my faith walk is that many of my fellow believers worry about their salvation; this is not necessarily always wrong, but I think that it overlooks the main point of life.

God wants us to succeed, but to do so in accordance with His will.

We may not appreciate those successes, since they do not always follow the paths that we want to follow. However, this development leads us to improved character, and from there we find ourselves bettered by God’s plan, so long as we follow the direction of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When we are following God, we are earning our salvation; even though we will have moments of worldly weakness, we can strive to work toward our goals. An analogy for this is the notion of industry: not everyone can be successful, but people who strive for it are much more likely to do so.

Certainty can come in the form of an industrious pursuit of God.

If we do this, we will not automatically enjoy worldly success. This is a common heresy that has spread throughout the modern church, especially in America. However, as we follow faithfully we deepen our relationship with God, the loving Father, who will reward us with an eternal connection to Him. We also learn right principles of action from the virtues that come from that relationship with God, like self-control, being a good neighbor, and loyalty.

While these are not enough on their own to ensure worldly success, they are things that are important to have to avoid bringing destruction down upon oneself.

God’s support for us is found in both boldness and tranquility. We need fear nothing, for we are His children and servants. Through our service we can shine the light of the divine in the world, and while we may never have wealth or worldly success we can count on the auspices of God and trust that we will never be tested beyond what we can bear by the trials of the world. These difficulties do not come from God, and with the omnipotent Creator at our side not even death can take our hope.

Dream big and follow boldly.