Reflections on Aphorisms #99

Short aphorisms tonight because it’s been a busy day. Just one and I’m going to make it relatively short (the last time I said this I wound up with a couple illustrations and well over a thousand words, and I had to delete it on revision, but I mean it this time).

But hey, I’m almost to 100. That’s a milestone!

Aphorism 139

The intention of never deceiving often exposes us to deception. (Maxim 118)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

I wish I was able to read Rochefoucauld in the native tongue and catch some of the nuance here, but I heard something interesting recently that made this maxim pop out to me.

One of the forms of deception is the “honest lie” that people tell by following the truth when it suits them.

I don’t mean that they ever tell a lie; this isn’t the same as selective honesty.

It’s a form of over-honesty.

It’s kind of like making excuses. As a teacher I used to get all sorts of reasons why students couldn’t turn work in on time or had other problems with their assignments, and the really important thing was always whether or not they’d actually tried their best and made an earnest effort.

Many students were able to come up with a compelling list of reasons, but they were also self-deceptive in their honesty.

The best way to think of the “honest lie” is to think of it as something akin to PR or spin. It’s not about telling a lie, it’s about giving information that other people don’t need because it paints you in a positive light. Of course you couldn’t do the assignment when relatives came to visit (last night), but you could have done it on any of the previous weeks going back to the date the assignment was given and posted online (last month).

Now, some of this is outside students’ control, and some of the time students were deliberately lying to me. They knew I’d check with parents, though, and I think they caught on to the fact that if they had an excuse to make it at least had to satisfy their family (and most had strict families; lying is bad enough, lying to a teacher is an atrocity!).

But the real important thing here is that we wind up deceiving ourselves with lesser truths when we should be looking at greater ones.

Jordan Peterson once spoke about oppression, and he pointed out that at a certain point the problem with people making claims of victimhood is that they’re all true. On some level everyone has experienced injustice, oppression, or setbacks that they don’t deserve to face.

However, the problem is that the view of the little truth (of being oppressed) is that it eclipses the big truth of the power that we have, in the same way that the little truth of last minute barriers in my students’ workflow eclipses the big truth of having the time and resources to complete the assignment and not allocating them correctly (in most cases).

You can avoid deception and still be lying to yourself.

Resolution

Look for the big truth, not the little truth.

Aim to live truthfully, not just without lying.

Don’t manipulate people with lies, but don’t manipulate them with truth either.

Reflections on Aphorisms #98

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

Aphorism 137

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

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolution

Master my craft.

Use honesty as a mirror.

Don’t let doubt destroy potential.

Aphorism 138

The malicious have a dark happiness.

Victor Hugo

Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s hard.

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

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

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

How can we leave any legacy worth leaving?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolution

Always find joy in creation, not destruction.

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

Don’t put myself above my place.

Reflections on Aphorisms #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.

Reflection on Aphorisms #63

Today we hit 100 aphorisms. It’s been a bit of a journey, taking a little over two months with no breaks, but it’s been worth it.

One of the things that I love best about doing this is that it gives me a challenge to engage with the thoughts of some of the greatest people to ever live. It’s been a tremendously enriching experience, and I hope to continue it for as long as I live.

Aphorism 100

The basis of optimism is sheer terror.

Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s best statements are intended to provoke a response, and this is no exception.

Of course, at its surface this seems like it would be self-contradictory. In the traditional dichotomy, terror and optimism are at opposite ends (or nearly opposite ends) of the spectrum of outlooks.

However, there’s perhaps a sliver of truth to this.

One of the things that I’ve noticed ever since I became “enlightened” to it (the top experience I had in college, by a decent margin) is the nature and prevalence of self-deception.

I think this was probably because I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and put my soul into reading classic texts, finding like-minded companions along the way. I had a professor who stressed the concept of self-deception in works like Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There were other books, including The Sorrows of Young Werther and Things Fall Apart that I experienced in the same class that added some nuance to this.

One of the things about self-deception is that almost all faulty outlooks are based out of it. Optimism is faulty in the sense that it is not capable of accurately perceiving the world, though I think it may also be fair to say that it has tangible benefits.

The motives for self-deception vary, but one of the most potent ones is terror.

There are a few reasons for this.

First, there’s something to be said for the fact that the world is absolutely incomprehensibly fear-inducing.

It’s a giant primordial ball of chaos.

And we’re just standing on it, basically hoping that things work out all-right.

The fact is that somehow, miraculously, they do. However, that is a result of so much sacrifice (both in the present and in the entirety of the past), that it’s a difficult thing to contemplate. We’re adapted for our world, molded to it and molding it to us. All the same it’s contained within a system so incredibly complex that any number of horrible things could plague our minds.

So we excise them all, aiming to protect ourselves from the dark.

I consider the fear of the dark to be an entirely rational fear. Not just because I myself am afraid of the dark, but because the dark is the fulfillment and physical embodiment of the chaotic unknown.

During the hardest part of my life, the time that probably pushed me to and perhaps a little past my breaking point, I remember being so terrified of the dark that I slept in front of the television with a standing lamp on next to me.

Later, during my first year teaching, I found it intolerable to drive home under a starless sky. There was a stretch of the route home that took me along a frontage road, and at parts of it the only lights would be from my own headlights. Normally have satisfied me but in this case the darkness was just too much to bar.

I started taking a different route home to avoid the dark. Once the stress diminished and I felt more confident, I didn’t mind the route.

The self-deception of optimism can be a similar form of aversion to darkness. By avoiding the contemplation of a terrible outcome, it becomes less real and less threatening.

Of course, I do not wish to merely tear down optimism. As I said earlier, it has value, and I think that Wilde is oversimplifying for the point of getting a response. If you want to see if someone is being optimistic to shield themselves from danger, see what happens when they are confronted with reality.

A healthy person responds to reality. One who is sick ignores it.

Resolution

Respond to reality as it presents itself.

Be open about fears.

Consider the worst in the future, but the best in the past.

Aphorism 101

Never show a risk number, even if it is right.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Because we’re talking about optimism and self-deception, I think that this is a case that logically follows its predecessor.

There are a few reasons you don’t want to consider risk when making decisions, at least not a mathematically derived question of risk.

First, one’s response to risk should always be found in the balance of fragility, resilience, and anti-fragility.

For instance, I do not take any excessive risks with money right now because I do not have the money to take risks with. I’m comfortable, but I can’t afford risk.

When I have extra money, I will often take risks with it. There’s less of a reason to hold back in this case because I can afford to hunt for a risk.

The problem with presenting a risk number is that it ignores this part of the equation.

The second problem is more in line with Wilde’s ideas. You don’t know what the future holds. We live in a world in which the vast majority of everything is beyond us. I struggle to find words to describe how far we are removed from knowledge of the future.

It’s like lying: when you lie you pit your wits against the entirety of the universe. If it at least seems to end well, you got lucky, but the truth is that most of the time there will be a problem later down the road that you can trace back to a lie.

In this case, you try to tell the truth, and it’s no less difficult.

One of the things that we have said as a culture is that lying is hard. It’s something that people used to back up polygraph tests (which don’t generally work), because a liar needs to actually try to lie.

The truth is a little more complicated, as truth tends to be.

Both lying and telling the truth are difficult. You can often speak easily, but the speech is fundamentally meaningless or so contextualized that it doesn’t matter.

Consider this writing itself. The act of putting words on a page is trivially easy for me. Spaghetti. Isotope. Fluorescence (which I originally messed up the vowels in, so I’m not even fully correct in my assertion!). The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plains. She sells sea shells by the sea shore. I think, therefore I am.

The act of speaking truthfully, the act of finding Truth, is not an easy one.

And you can mess it up really easily.

Resolution

Be sure that what I claim is true is really true.

Don’t think I know more than I do.

Don’t mistake the apparent simplicity of an act for a facile nature.