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 #79

Taking a quick break because of course I would. Shaw is one of the great aphorists, along with Wilde, who is always able to provoke a response from me, even though I see some major issues with a lot of his philosophy of life.

He’s thought-provoking, if nothing else.

Aphorism 117

Youth, which is forgiven everything, forgives itself nothing: age, which forgives itself everything, is forgiven nothing.

Shaw

Interpretation

I hate to agree with Shaw (disclaimer: I don’t actually hate to agree with Shaw, but that’s a dramatic way to start a sentence and I’m weak enough of character to start with it instead of a better opener), but there is something to be said for the truthfulness of this statement.

One of the trends that I’ve tracked in my own life is that I was consumed with burning passion in my youth, and mellowed out as I got older. I’m not that old, but people used to call me an “old soul”, which is a tremendously horrible praise to burden someone with.

I just like big words. I may have had an interest in philosophy and religion. It wasn’t really that noble.

With that said, I definitely had more of a streak of self-condemnation. Some of that is because I was dreadfully sheltered, and my own mistakes stood out to me because I didn’t see other peoples’. That’s not to say that nobody messed up, but I think there’s a hidden part of that where you also don’t judge motives well when you’re sheltered.

Basically, everything I did out of base motives, I recognized as a fault in myself, but I always looked at others as having merely accidentally sinned.

I consider this one of the most praiseworthy elements of myself, because it wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I began to consider that others around me were capable of evil, despite holding the bitter philosophical and religious concept of total depravity of humanity as a guiding principle in my own life.

While that’s foolish, and really shows that I was a late bloomer (so much for the “old soul” appellation), it also meant that I had the most perfect view of other people. I could count on one hand the number of people I had disliked in a serious by the time I turned 20, and I’ve only begun to start needing a second hand.

That’s a great spot to be in, because it shows that you’re not bitter.

Of course, a lot of my distress was internal. I blamed myself for pretty much everything. This included, in a particularly shortsighted moment, being practically catatonic for a semester of college because I was worried about being a burden on my family. The irony of shutting down because one is worried about being undeserving escaped me, though it’s also a very common course of action in the grand scheme of psychological phenomena.

Fast forward five years from then, and I would be successfully independent inasmuch as it is possible for an individual to be independent. No man is an island, after all.

Now, obviously it’s easier to be merciful on yourself when you feel like you’re earning your keep. No Jude the Obscure ending for me.

Quick side-note: Jude the Obscure is a seriously dark book. Like, of all the angsty and broody stories I’ve had to read over the year, I find it odd that it would be a part of my high school English classes that stands out. I’m not trying to deny its literary merits, and I certainly remember it better than most of the books I read in high school (I’ve returned to the other ones I remember, so I can’t tell if a single impression of them served me better).

One of the things that happens when you get older is that you realize that a lot of what you do is more common than you had feared.

Of course, there’s a balancing act here. You don’t want to let yourself sink into mediocrity (or maybe you do on a certain level, but there’s such a danger in it that you also have a part of yourself that revolts against it), but you also feel the intolerable weight of moral standards when you have to be the person making decisions and sacrifices.

The resolution of that is that you start compromising parts your morals, or else you engage in a truly heroic struggle to keep them.

Resolution

Forgiveness comes at a cost to the victim.

Remember the source of all value.

Don’t sacrifice morals for expedience.

Reflections on Aphorisms #61

Short post tonight because it’s basically my bed time and I didn’t sleep super well last night (thanks, eye deciding to spontaneously malfunction).

Writer’s note: It was going to be a short post, but then I decided to do an aphorism from Nietzsche. It is not a short post. I am so tired right now.

Aphorism 97

Arrogance in persons of merit affronts us more than arrogance in those without merit: merit itself is an affront.

Nietzsche

Interpretation

I think that one of the things that helps to understand Nietzsche here is the question of what arrogance is.

Arrogance isn’t necessarily the same as insolence. It’s when one takes what one currently has and is more akin to pride with a lack of consideration of others.

People without merit who have traits of arrogance may often be written off as merely insolent, but at the very least they are unlikely to wield the sort of power that makes arrogance more toxic.

I think that if this case were reversed, Nietzsche might change his tune.

Take Christ’s parable of the forgiven debt for an example.

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the accounting, one who owed him 10,000 talents was brought to him. 25 But because he could not repay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and his children and everything that he possessed, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And his master’s heart was moved with compassion and he released him and forgave him [canceling] the debt. 28 But that same slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began choking him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow slave fell on his knees and begged him earnestly, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and he went and had him thrown in prison until he paid back the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and they went and reported to their master [with clarity and in detail] everything that had taken place. 32 Then his master called him and said to him, ‘You wicked and contemptible slave, I forgave all that [great] debt of yours because you begged me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave [who owed you little by comparison], as I had mercy on you?’…

Matthew 18:23-33 Scripture quotations taken from the Amplified Bible.

In this case we see that one without merit (a debtor who had his loan forgiven) showing arrogance is incredibly distasteful.

Of course, even in this scenario there’s a benefit of a power structure, and one could argue that the unforgiving slave had earned merit in the sense that lacking debt made him superior to the slave who had not been forgiven, but I don’t think that this is any sort of merit (the parable focuses on slaves, and not aristocrats, for a reason). At least, it wouldn’t be merit in the sense Nietzsche would consider it, as he generally considers merit either in the terms of social success or in the form of moral virtue.

I think it’s safe to say that in the context of this statement, Nietzsche refers to the idea of merit as social success. After all, arrogance runs cross-purposes to virtue.

In this case, I’d generally have to disagree with Nietzsche. I’ve always found that those who are arrogant without any good cause to be get under my skin more.

One example of this is when I have students who insist that their capabilities are greater than they really are. Now, there’s a few particular reasons why this is a really painful experience for teachers.

First, if you have a benevolent interest in helping people, it hurts to have to disabuse them of notions of grandeur. This is an example of the distinction between the “nice” thing to do and the “kind” thing to do, and it’s always a painful line to walk.

One of the issues here is that arrogance is posturing. Whether it stems from confidence, ignorance, or insecurity, it looks the same on its surface.

Obviously, you need different approaches for each of these cases. Those who are arrogant due to over-confidence need to be given a realistic perspective, as do those who are ignorant of their needs, but the method for doing so differs.

It’s dangerous to confront the arrogant because you don’t know what part of the psyche feeds into that arrogance. Sometimes it’s really obvious (we’re social creatures who want to look good, so we won’t admit weakness in public; some people overcompensate), and you’re able to talk to the person and express the inner thoughts that they’re not comfortable to say themselves.

The first time I went to a student and told them “You know, I don’t think you’re really comfortable with this” I found it to be a tremendous experience. It was a relief for both of us. I was able to help the student, who had been a little disruptive in class, move toward a less embarrassing course of action for them by working with them to give them positive opportunities to prove their potential and capabilities to their peers, and I was able to start really helping this kid with what they really needed.

Sometimes this is a repressed need and people click to it, and sometimes they don’t. Both over-confident and insecure arrogance actually function in much the same way, and I think this ties into notion of psychological complexes.

Ignorance is always difficult, at least for me, to deal with because you have to confront a need that people don’t feel.

This is often a place where you can crush someone if you do it wrong. You want to make sure that you help people improve, rather than just tearing them down. I’m not good at it, although I hope I will be someday.

Speaking as a recipient of this, it can be incredibly traumatic if handled in a way that brings destruction. If the stakes are high, disabusing someone of their ignorance can be as destructive as leaving them to fail on their own.

It requires a spirit of nurturing, not one of destruction, and it’s important to remember when dealing with the ignorantly arrogant that they never mean to cause harm.

One could argue that there’s an exceptional sting to arrogance in the life of someone who is otherwise virtuous, if we wish to interpret Nietzsche’s statement that way.

I don’t think that this necessarily makes sense. Even though a vice tends to be exacerbated in its obvious manifestations by the presence of virtues in other areas (i.e. someone who is generally virtuous shows flaws more than someone dissolute, because nobody expects much of the dissolute), a flawed saint is generally more tolerable than a monster who lacks pretension.

Of course, arrogance feeds off of self-superiority. Nietzsche could be pointing this out in this statement, since those who can legitimately consider themselves virtuous have been known on many occasions to abuse their privileges to rub it in.

Resolution

Forgive the debts others owe me, because I have been forgiven.

Don’t let a virtue distract from a vice.

Help others to become more aware of who they are to turn them into who they could be.

Reflections on Aphorisms #49

Good day today. Not perfect by any means, but I was a lot more productive than usual and didn’t feel like I was stressing myself out to do it.

That’s a good place to be in.

Now I just need to get around to doing some final formatting and posting some of the writing I’ve been doing.

Aphorism 79

What organized dating sites fail to understand is that people are far more interesting in what they don’t say about themselves.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interpretation

One of the things that Carl Jung talks about is the notion of the shadow and the idea that there’s a large part of us that we just don’t see.

An experience I recently had was a reflection upon my life in which I realized that a lot of what I’ve done in the past has been lost to me, to the point that I just don’t remember it.

The deepening of my appreciation for Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels notwithstanding, one of the things that feeds into this is that we really are poor judges of ourselves.

Our brains seem to function through comparison a lot of the time. We use schemas and heuristics that are based on having a concept of something, and then taking individual instances of those concepts and finding the similarities and differences (e.g. we would refer to a cat that has lost a leg as a three-legged cat, though it is not fundamentally less a cat and more a biped for the absence).

In our lives, these idiosyncrasies don’t tend to be the primary way we think about ourselves. We may be incredibly aware that other people are not like us, and deeply conscientious, but even then our methodology for comparison is mediocre.

Some of this is because we’re not fully capable of understanding ourselves (can a brain understand a brain?) but also because our whole context is centered on personal experiences, with rare exceptions stemming from literature and arts.

Another part of this is, in line with the Jungian way of thought, that we don’t really want to know ourselves. To see ourselves in total objectivity may liberate us, but more likely it would annihilate us because we’re not as good as we desire ourselves to be and I suspect that a lot of people don’t have the will to confront who they really are. That’s why people burn out before seeking radical change in their life.

Resolution

Spend time looking for my own unseen qualities.

Remember that the self is impeded and bolstered by hidden factors within it.

Embrace change when it is promising.

Aphorism 80

The strength of a man’s virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts.

Pascal

Interpretation

Following a path isn’t about a two-minute sprint.

Life has no fixed destination; every minor change will cause a different outcome.

The problem with this is that it is impossible for a single action to set the moral current of a life (or, for that matter, almost any other major defining factor in life). Even things that seem to be a single action may indeed be a product of a bunch of different factors.

For instance, you’ll often hear people say that getting married is the most important event in their life.

However, the impact that a good marriage has is not centered on a single event; there’s the initial meeting, dating, engagement, actual wedding, and life together that all come together to make a marriage good.

The relationship will in that case be built up of countless small actions, often not even the result of conscious decisions, rather than a single large action. There may be symbolically significant moments, often those that have the highest conscious valuation, but these are not the defining elements. Nobody has a happy marriage because their wedding ceremony is fantastic. There may be an association, but it is not a causal one.

There’s a second element of Pascal’s statement that should not be overlooked.

People often do one thing that earns them the disgust and hostility of everyone around them, or have one moral flaw that seems to tarnish everything about them.

Of course, generally the people who let themselves be overcome by their vices have not done a very good job of cultivating their virtues. There is also another point here: as with a good marriage, a descent to the worst crimes and immorality may be made up of several small and seemingly insubstantial and unnoticed elements.

Ive lost the trail of where I was going with this, so I’ll just state it clearly:

It’s always possible to redeem oneself by pursuing the right path, but it’s a constant, conscious effort.

Resolution

Do not foster in yourself little vices; they grow up into large and ugly creatures.

Remember that existence is a marathon, not a sprint. One achievement can’t sustain a lifetime.

Look for the hidden virtues and cultivate them; eradicate the hidden vices.

Reflections on Aphorisms #31

Got too sucked into Seneca today to really do much else. Generally busy with chores. Slept in for the first time in basically months, and it really helped me get back to equilibrium but not with accomplishing much today.

Aphorism 54

What once were vices are manners now.

Seneca

Interpretation

Social values change over time, but I don’t believe that’s what Seneca is solely referring to with this statement.

Rather, I believe it is an indictment of our tendency to forget moral values.

I think the greatest value that we have lost in our age is that of condemning that which ought to be condemned.

We have built our society upon the cornerstones of freedom, but we have forgotten what it is that freedom protects. We have replaced the freedom to act as one sees best with the freedom to act as one wants.

The consequence?

Moral silence.

I tend to be timid and reserved in my personal life, but one of the things that I have found served me best is a policy of radical honesty.

There are times when this was a personal benefit. For instance, when people know how you really feel they often respond with respect to that feeling.

In my third year teaching, I finally felt comfortable enough to implement this with some of my students. After school one day, a student who I had in my class was following me around and talking to me, as students tend to do. I mentioned that I had something after school that I had to get to, so I couldn’t stay and talk much longer. Middle school students being as middle school students are, there were insinuations that I was in a relationship with one of the female teachers at the school.

While nothing that they talked about was terribly improper–the students all knew at some level that it wasn’t true–it was sort of thing that got in the way of teaching because students would bring it up constantly during class, and of course one typically doesn’t pursue romantic relationships at one’s place of work for practical reasons and having people imply that you do is a good way to wind up talking with HR.

This kid made the assertion that I was leaving to hang out with my co-worker after school, with the regular puerile romantic undertones.

In part because I knew the kid could handle it, and in part because of my own frustration with the topic of the conversation, since it was the sort of thing that middle-schoolers will dwell on for longer than it deserves (and after the matter has been laid to rest), I simply told him in quite direct language, to “stop being annoying” directly to his face, without embellishment.

With a look of disbelief on his face, he immediately asked if I had called him annoying.

My reply was: “I don’t find you annoying, but the way you choose to talk is.”

The next day came and I had not been fired, so I figured that was the end of it. However, during class the same student informed me that what I had said the day before had hurt his feelings. Expecting some sort of apology, he got a very different answer than he probably wanted.

My response was summed up in a single word: “Good.”

This was the only part that I regret, but only because it happened in front of his classmates (I find that it is better to handle such things face-to-face, but to follow the lead of others if necessary). However, my relationship with that student, and many other students in that class, improved afterward as they saw that I was willing to do but most teachers would not be willing to do: Put my neck on the line to tell them how to behave.

I do not know if people of the past were more prone to statements like this, or if it is merely something that I perceived to be a dead art that of old that never really lived begin with.

However, I think we could do better as a society if some of our new manners were unlearned. We’ve developed a very permissive attitude towards misbehavior, which in the long run will only cause us trouble. We’ve lost some of our ability to tolerate differences in opinion, and we’ve also begun to take things public which were previously handled in private.

Many of our trends are responses to previous social ills, like intolerance, and in a sense it is good that we developed better ways to take care of these problems. For instance, we can deal with racism and sexism more effectively now that it’s easier to record and communicate such events as they occur. However, we also find it easier to be outraged, and the same tools that can champion truth can be used for evil.

I think the greatest trouble however one frames it is a transition to a sort of utilitarianism which has been combined with post-modernism in a dreadful way. If there were one word for this vice, it would be expedience.

Resting at the intersection of sloth and impatience, it’s the notion that we should do whatever makes us feel happy, or what makes the immediate pressing problem go away.

I think of it like flying. I’m not a pilot, but I fell in love with flight simulation at an early age. One of the skills that one has to be a good pilot in simulations or reality is the ability to avoid the expedient by preparing carefully.

It a lot of flight sims, I fly helicopters. Helicopters have this thing called collective, which is the angle of attack of the blades that spin through the air to provide lift. The idea is that as you increase the collective, the blades have more resistance in the air, which increases lift because more air is being displaced (I am not a physicist, so take this explanation with a grain of salt).

One of the easiest ways to crash a helicopter is to confuse collective with altitude. Collective doesn’t govern vertical movement, it governs the change in vertical momentum relative to the helicopter’s orientation.

If one needs to go down, one lowers the collective. This permits the helicopter to reduce lift, and slowly descend. However, the only time the collective should be reduced to zero when midair is if the rotor engine has stopped working. This is because when the collective is reduced, the lift (and helicopter) falls dramatically.

Unless one is very close to the ground, or already on the ground, the loss of lift means that gravity takes over and helicopter will reach an unsafe speed. It may be possible to increase the collective again to avert catastrophe, but one is fighting one’s previous momentum. In theory, one can easily reach a point of no return at which even increasing the collective will have no effect. At this point, you may actually damage the helicopter by increasing the collective, since the blades may come under too much strain and the rotor may fail. I don’t know how common this is in practice, since I believe most helicopters are over-engineered with this potential scenario in mind.

Trivia: The only time you reduce the collective to zero in air is the reason why I question how common this issue is in practice: in the event of an engine failure, the blades continue to spin. You reduce the collective so that they keep their rotational momentum, and increase it to reduce the rate of fall before making a landing, spending the spent momentum while close to the ground to reduce descent instead of continuing an ascent/hover in mid-air. This is called “autorotation”, and can be accomplished in almost any situation by a skilled pilot. See the following video:

Expedience is like shoving the collective all the way in one direction or another to affect small changes in altitude. It may achieve the desired effects in the short term, but even if it doesn’t cause disaster in the long run it at least courts it foolishly.

Resolution

Don’t rely on the quick fix.

Extricate myself from vice before it becomes habit.

Learn to avoid making a mistake.