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 #3

Just one aphorism today, because one of the ones I looked over I couldn’t really come up with a good response to. Feel free to check out yesterday’s reflections.

Aphorism 4

“Self is the Gorgon. Vanity sees it in the mirror of other men and lives. Pride studies it for itself and is turned to stone.”

G.K. Chesterton, from the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

I don’t think it’s really necessary to bring my own thoughts to this matter. I’ve read a couple things by Chesterton; the one that I remember best is Heresy (Amazon affiliate link; free!), which is not actually a matter of Christian theology but rather what one could call reactionary social commentary, although that makes it out to be more negative than it is.

I think there’s actually something to be drawn from the context of Chesterton’s work here: the love of the self is the root of vanity, and if you really love yourself (in an improper fashion) you can wind up forgetting your flaws.

This is why people make poor, over-reaching decisions that wind up becoming regrets for them without considering the fact that their efforts could go to ruin.

My Life

I’m sort of in a fortunate middle ground here. I at least profess some moderate view of myself, and I think that I’m fairly good at seeing myself humbly, but I have also heard others say things to me about myself that seem more positive than might be accurate.

I’ve traded my safe, reliable life for one of risk, but one which also bears more chance for self-advancement and more chances at exceptional success. I believe the current level of risk to be quite low, but it depends on me pushing myself to be something more than average–perhaps even much more than average–so I’d better whip myself into shape and keep going toward that.

I think there’s also a call for humility here. You don’t want to elevate yourself above others. There’s a grounding in humanity that you need to remember. Because I manage to make my dreams come true and someone else lacks the drive, capacity, or fortune to do the same does not make me superior, except in the sense that I may be happier than they. Likewise, I may even be less happy than someone who appears less successful than I, because the way that I measure success is deeply personal.

Resolution

Keep my head out of the clouds (preferably under them, except when contemplating the divine).

Remember that even if I turn myself into someone who is uniquely exceptional, I may not be uniquely superior.

Never lose sight of my own weaknesses. Even as I strive for improvement, I am sure to always find new flaws in myself.