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 #59

Cut back on caffeine today. Feeling a lot better (at least until the headaches start), but also really kinda drowsy and tired. Please forgive any silly spelling mistakes, because I’m typing with my eyes falling closed.

Upside: I’m not tempted to stay up late watching videos on YouTube.

I should just delete my YouTube account.

Aphorism 93

It is useless to close the gates against ideas; they overleap them.

Klemens von Metternich

Interpretation

One of the ideas of history is that there are times when certain ideas and expressions will be heard regardless of the individuals; a collective guides humanity in a certain direction and nobody can really claim to have enough control to stop changes or force things along a certain path.

I don’t know that I agree with it wholesale, because it’s a little too teleological for me to accept as a historical method, but it’s also true in a sense.

There’s a prevailing spirit of the times (not in the spiritual sense, but in the zeitgeist sense), and eventually it gets going along a certain path.

I was recently thinking about the movie V for Vendetta, and the notion that there’s something very archetypal about a rogue rising readily repelling regression (or, that is, people rebelling against tyrants).

If we buy into Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious, or the more traditional notion of a fundamental nature of humanity, it goes to follow that there are times when the conditions that people are exposed to will lead them to act in certain ways.

These expressions of human volition are not necessarily predictable, but they’re nonetheless reproducible (in a scientific sense, though it is practically impossible to set up the same events twice).

This is one of the functions of the historian: they look into the past and see how people act in certain conditions.

Ideas are the most powerful expression of the zeitgeist. Actions may speak louder than words, but both flow from ideas. Without an idea, there is no action and no speech.

The great problem of ideas is that they’re contagious. We are social animals, and we spend our time trying to figure out other peoples’ ideas. At best, this is just a primal instinct, and at worst this can be deliberate sabotage or usurpation. In either case, it’s a necessary process. If we don’t look into the other, we will never fully know the self. The eye sees not its own reflection.

If you have an idea, a great idea, it cannot remain silent. There’s a Christian children’s song, familiar to me from my youth, that has the following song:

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”

I’ll spare the repetitive verses that have now come echoing back into my head, but the actual meaning here is quite sublime.

The way that cultures live and die is by ideas. The song I just mentioned carries a meme that encourages the spreading and sharing of ideas. Technically, it actually has a few separate memes in just the sentence above, but we won’t worry about that.

Von Metternich’s point is this:

An idea can penetrate anything when it’s given the chance to do so.

Resolution

Give ideas the space to grow.

Look for the idea that is common and the one that is not.

Don’t think you can control the hearts of others. That’s hubris.

Aphorism 94

All rumors about a public figure are to be deemed untrue until he threatens to sue.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I would like to think that even if I didn’t understand anything Taleb has to say I could still appreciate his pithy style.

I probably understand very little of what Taleb is saying. That’s never stopped me before and I won’t let it stop me now.

One of the best things that any good thinker keeps at their disposal is Occam’s Razor. It’s a very simple rhetorical device, and it’s been simplified to the following:

The simplest solution tends to be right.

Typically, when I look at anything said by or about public figures, the rule is: “They’re saying it to get something.”

The veracity is not significant. The truth of the matter, especially in politics, is that people say things specifically for the point of what the saying gets them.

Whether or not words have any bearing on truth is insignificant.

There’s something that Jordan Peterson once said, and I’m too tired to look it up so I’m gonna just paraphrase it and butcher it:

If you say something that you know to be true, you’re pitting your wit against the reality of a complex universe.

One of the outcomes of this is that a mature person won’t give statements which are motivated lies (or at the very least motivated stretchings of the truth) more than a moment’s notice.

So I almost fell asleep in front of the TV not too long ago, and I had the news on. I can guarantee that 80%, maybe 90% of what I heard was basically just bloviation, and about 1% of it will have any impact on my life. Not even my daily life, mind you, but my life in general.

One of the nice things about reality being so complex is that a lot of the moving pieces aren’t really moving all that much in the grand scheme of things. This is untrue in the individual’s life, but very true in the sphere of politics.

To get back to the point, look for the things you can’t say, because those are the things people don’t want you to say.

If those things are true, run.

Resolution

Say the uncomfortable truth.

The tongue is the weakest muscle. This isn’t because of a lack of physical power. It’s due to a lack of character.

Never open the mouth if the tongue tastes untruth.

Reflections on Aphorisms #55

Another shorter Sunday reflection, this time on Pascal.

Little bit of trivia: the programming language Pascal (named after, well, Pascal) was the first that I had any experience with. Not sure if that matters to anyone, and I probably couldn’t write a line of Pascal if my life depended on it now, but it’s kinda funny. I heard someone talk about it like it was one of those old “back in the day” languages not too long ago.

Aphorism 89

Desire and force between them are responsible for all actions; desire causes our voluntary acts, force our involuntary.

Pascal

My biggest gripe here is–and I’m willing to bet that it comes down to this being out of context and maybe not translated well–that Pascal doesn’t explain the difference between desire and force.

For instance, I have a desire and a need to eat. I always eat as a voluntary act, but all the same it is not optional. If I don’t feel like eating, and I have gone days without food (say, for instance, if I am ill), I will eat food out of respect for my needs.

I guess the better distinction here is voluntary and involuntary.

I’ve studied a lot of Carl Jung’s work, and one of the things that goes into Jung’s work is this assumption that the self is made up of a conscious, known, element and an unconscious, unknown, element. This is a simplification, but it’s good enough for a layman like myself when discussing less serious topics.

One of the things about the notion of a voluntary act is that it’s something that we choose, but the degree to which we choose something versus being forced into it is uncertain.

I would posit that there are things which appear voluntary which are actually forced (e.g. by our unconscious urges and desires), and things which appear involuntary which are actually chosen by the same mechanism.

Take, for example, the notion of a Freudian slip (Freud was Jung’s mentor). This is the idea that one can consciously undertake an act, but the execution is dependent upon the unconscious agreeing to the proceedings.

A great common example would be the act of speaking or writing while one’s mind is on another subject and talking about the real subject rather than the topic of the conversation. I do this from time to time as a writer, and if you’ve read much of my writing you’ve probably seen it in a place or two.

Jung takes it a bit further (though one could argue that most psychoanalysts do) by arguing that it’s not just the surface level stuff but also ties into selective memory, mishearing/misreading things, and so forth.

Kazuo Ishiguro touches on this a lot in his novel The Remains of the Day, where it’s clear that the narrator is intentionally avoiding the memory of certain things that he or members of his household have done in the past.

The Freudian slip in daily life may be overstated because a lot of what often slips out is not truly unconscious but rather suppressed in the conscious (e.g. not wanting to reference something embarrassing or inconvenient), but it’s worth talking about nonetheless.

But I ramble.

I think that what I want to get at here is that I challenge Pascal’s assertions that we can form a neat dichotomy around force and desire. I believe in the concept of free will, but also that it is limited. I believe that people have free will in the sense that they choose available decisions around the circumstances they’re in. It’s possible for people to be in situations where their decisions are made for them by the unconscious, and therefore not technically using their free will, and to this extent a certain portion of all actions are deterministic.

Resolution

Be aware of what I do, and how I came to do it.

Don’t fall victim to the temptation to classify.

Remember that words are markers for concepts, and concepts do not reflect reality.