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.

Reflections on Aphorisms #28

I’m changing up the formula for these. I’m merging the sections that I had previously split for interpretation and talking about how I felt the aphorisms applied in my life. They were contributing to rambling because I’d forget something here or there and just go on and on.

Aphorism 46

I recently had a meal in a fancy restaurant with complicated dishes with fancy names ($125 per person), then enjoyed a pizza afterward, straight out of the oven, $7.95. I wonder why the pizza isn’t twenty times the price of the complicated dish, since I’d rather have the former–at any price–over the latter.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

It is easy to forget that cost and value are not one and the same. It’s a simple enough thing to remember on paper, but in practice one will always find themselves more attracted to something which is expensive than something which is cheap. The exception is in rare cases, like shopping for the best deal or when there is some loyalty to a particular brand or fond memories associated with a particular product.

Remember that value is what we would buy something for and price is what they would sell something for.

Some of this is because we live in a society now where it is easy to create near arbitrary volumes of anything. Barring at the very low end of the market in terms of price, most products don’t get a whole lot better as they increase in cost. Most people buy what meets their needs, and may occasionally splurge on versions of these things that are more pleasant than the alternative. As such, the best possible option is usually not that much more than the standard price, at least within the field of a single standardized good (as opposed to luxury variants of the same thing).

A good example of highly differing performance variants within a field can be found in electronics, but even then the average user gets as much utility from any particular example of a given object.

Take, for instance, a computer.

Computers cost anywhere from around $200, if you insist on buying them new and won’t wait for a sale, to as much as $40,000 for what might be considered the standard “personal computer”. Anything beyond that point leaves the frame of reference. It is either strictly a luxury product, using its price as a source of prestige (probably featuring diamonds or some other useless extravagance), or it has become a more specialized type of machine and ceases to be the sort of thing that we are talking about.

At the very bottom end of this range, you have devices that may not be able to do everything that one would expect a computer to do. It may have limitations in terms of substance, lacking particular hardware (like, say, wireless networking capabilities) or not being powerful enough to run particular software, or it might offer a subpar experience but generally be capable of completing most tasks.

The actual difference of value that a user receives depends on them using the computer to complete tasks that are more difficult on cheaper computers. You could have someone who never uses a computer, but wants to have one so they don’t feel left out, someone who uses it only rarely for correspondence, someone who uses it to play graphically intense video games, and someone who uses their computer to render advanced computer graphics and physical calculations.

A $200 personal computer would not be suitable for all these tasks, but the $40,000 computer may be. However, for the average user, $4,000 could almost always build a PC that would meet their demands and those of every other average user.

Of course, cheaper machines tend to specialize, optimizing their price by sacrificing the elements that a particular target market is not interested in.

We could classify anything above this $4000 point as a luxury or professional example of a computer, with the noteworthy copy out some applications do require more powerful computers. These computers are probably not what we will consider personal computers, being servers or workstations which we have separate expectations and standards for.

This is one of the more extreme scales. Take, for instance, food. Where I live, for between $5 to $8, I can eat dishes from almost anywhere around the world that fit almost any dietary criteria. If I’m not picky, I can get enough food to fill my stomach and a cup of tea for $3 and a little tax on the side. This is before we get into the concept of preparing my own food, which cuts out preparation costs, so we could say then. A meal costing over $8, in the area in which I live, is a luxury. I am not anti-luxury. I don’t seek the adoption of any sumptuary laws or even to guilt-trip anyone who enjoys the finer things in life.

However, luxury is not value. At least, it’s got the diminishing return on value. Wise people don’t buy a sports car if they can’t afford three months rent. The value provided by a car that easily can go faster than the law provides for in most jurisdictions is only a marginal increase in value above that provided by a more humble car, but the cost increases dramatically.

The economy is not a zero-sum game. Since I technically create goods which are entirely luxuries, working on games (to a lesser extent education may be considered a luxury too), I often feel a need to point this out.

The challenge with the luxury is this:

A luxury can be pleasurable, or it may simply be a status symbol. In the case of experimental dining, the cost of luxury can often not buy something which rivals the pleasure of simple comfort food, or even marginally pleasurable but more modestly priced offerings.

In this case, it becomes a simple status symbol. I do not understand the purpose of status symbols like experimental gastronomy in the realm of food (which all winds up the same way in the end), and will not cast premature judgment against them. I would have to try them first, and I am not willing to spend the money to do so.

However, I see them as the food equivalent of paying hundreds of dollars to go to a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, in which an orchestra does nothing but sit around on stage for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

There are critics who can write wonderful and entirely meaningless treatises on the purpose and value of such a song, if you can call it a song. I don’t find it personally offensive. I have some concerns, perhaps, about the postmodern value structures that it represents, once again with the caveat of asking whether or not one can really call them value structures, but the real flaw that I see in it is that it fails to bring pleasure.

I would listen to anything else first. Heck, if I wanted silence, I’d go with the store brand. However, it’s worth noting that I don’t extend this to the entirety of what’s known as mother. I can appreciate even the very simple and abstract, if it is not entirely devoid of substance. For instance, I appreciate color studies, in which colors are painted without defining characteristics upon a surface. At least this is someone saying “Here, let me show you this color!”

However, I have gotten onto a tangent. To return to the point, any luxury is only as good as the pleasure it provides relative to the price. Anything else is just pretentious. There are, course, aspirational luxuries. I don’t begrudge these to people; they’re those things that you dream of as a kid that you may eventually become successful enough to have as an adult. That has real value to a person, does it represents the fruition of a dream.

However, I’ll close on this:

To hell with the fear of missing out. I have had more pleasure drinking a $0.20 cup of tea and sitting on a $20 plastic chair next to my cat than I’ve had in experimentation with the sorts of novelties that will be impossible to find in 20 years, going in and out of vogue as quickly as it was thought up. I’d take that $8 pizza with Taleb.

Resolution

Don’t waste money on something that you’re only buying because of a name.

Be content with what is good, but humble.

Don’t be afraid of missing out, be afraid of waste.

Aphorism 47

If there is any good in philosophy it is this: it never inspect pedigrees.

Seneca, as quoted in the Viking book of aphorisms.

Interpretation

I give very little thought to people’s reputations. Of course, if someone is notorious for something or other I make sure to adjust appropriately. However, there is an expression that no man is a prophet in his own land. The unspoken corollary is that in his own land the prophet is a dissident.

This is one reason why pedigrees can be dangerous. There are many great people who are virtuous, but who don’t meet the particular performance metrics of the day.

The other reason, of course, is that pedigrees are often bestowed upon those who have not really earned them.

I work in education, or rather once did and plan to again, and one of the things that struck me about many of my classmates in college is that they were not the sort of people one would trust with a room full of children. Of course, this may be uncharitable since my judgments are based solely on what I understood of them from my brief acquaintance with them, and I had no knowledge of how effective they were in the classroom barring practice sessions prepared for classes which none of us were overly concerned with.

However, while educational licensing is perhaps up there with medical licensing in terms of importance (namely, one of a few fields where one can even justify it), I do have to say that it seems at times too easy to get a license to teach.

Of course, in principle it would be nice to be able to do away with licenses and simply inspect people on their merits. I am skeptical that such a system will really be any improved over the current model.

The point is that one can become an English teacher with little knowledge of English, a teacher of history with little knowledge of history (or at least the objective and practical application of history, not just canned interpretations), and so forth. I haven’t had as bad an experience with my colleagues once I graduated as I did with many of my classmates, so there is a chance I merely judged too harshly, but I found the licensing tests and requirements to be insufficient to bar the path for the unworthy.

What I found among my colleagues, most of whom were more veteran teachers than I, is that they tended to be much better than most of my classmates. Perhaps some of that is molded in the student teaching process which takes place during the final semester of the teacher preparation program. This also happens to be the point at which you stop connecting with your fellow students, since it is a full-time position to the exclusion of other classes.

All the same, then it goes to show that the actual education side, that is to say the education one receives in the classroom, of our program was mostly meaningless for us. Ostensibly, we got grades for these classes (mine were rather impressive and probably undeserved) as a sort of pedigree, but save for a couple classes which I remember fondly they dealt mostly with theories. Some of these theories had already been proven wrong when we were taught them, to make the matter even worse!

As a result of this experience, I can’t help but feel that many people are overrated, at least in the sense that they have pedigrees that they do not deserve. Rather, I don’t think it’s that the people don’t deserve a pedigree.

It’s just that the pedigree is meaningless. And this, I think, is Seneca’s point. It’s hard to give a one word label that indicates actual ability.

Even the best possible option, which I would think would be to call someone virtuous, is not descriptive enough in its own right. Someone may be virtuous in one context, but not universally so. They may be perceived to be virtuous but really just lack the power to be anything else. In such cases, the approval of those around oneself is more important than following one’s own compass and even the unscrupulous turn to virtue.

It is for this reason that Seneca’s statement rings true. By isolating itself from arbitrary displays, philosophy can become greater than any other field. I do not think Seneca would enjoy the state of modern philosophy, but then who does? The laypeople interested in philosophy remain true to Seneca’s vision and satisfy his criteria, even if those who consider themselves professional thinkers do not always appreciate the true nature of labels.

Resolution

Don’t worry about the label if the contents are good.

Always watch out for pretense in myself.

Accept that on a certain level everyone is equal.

There are diamonds in the rough.

Aphorism 48

Nature does not bestow virtue, to be good is an art.

Seneca, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms.

Interpretation

I think of virtue as being that which exceeds the standards.

In the Bible, there is an account in which Christ says something along the lines of “Which father among you would give his son a snake if he asks for bread?”

This line, from the Gospel of Luke, is the bottom threshold above which one must rise to be considered virtuous. It’s not virtuous to do a good thing for someone if doing so is in your interest. It’s not woefully wicked, but it’s not virtuous

Virtue is doing things that make life better for everyone. However, it goes a step further.

One who is virtuous makes the world a better place for everyone else. They themselves may or may not be included in this improvement.

Someone who is virtuous may have such an incredibly positive impact that without self-interest they manage to transform the whole world so that it is better for literally every person. Whether this has ever happened, I do not know. Of course, if one has a virtuous mindset, which cannot be acquired from nature since it requires self-sacrifice (sacrifice is natural, self-sacrifice is not), perhaps one could argue that death and incredible suffering is still an improvement for oneself if the reward is a significant benefit for everyone else.

And this is where it is important to note that virtue cannot be a natural process (in the sense of coming from the world rather than the spirit).

I think that it can be cultivated through self-evident outcomes, that is to say that one does not need divine inspiration to be virtuous (though it sure helps), but it would never be mistaken for acting according to one’s natural impulses.

The 20th century bears this out in crimson letters. When confronted with the greatest atrocities mankind has ever perpetrated, humanity was largely silent. We have actually chosen to do away with virtue rather than the horrors, at least if the postmodernists have their way.

This is because virtue can never be impulsive without the gift of conscience.

Virtue must be striven for, must be intentionally brought into being. It cannot suddenly exist following a sort of Big Bang of goodness.

One virtuous moment, a single virtuous impulse, does not create virtue. The good life, if consistent, creates virtue. Compromise destroys it.

Resolution

Wage a conscious war to pursue virtue in lieu of my nature.

Deliberately examine moral choices.

Do not be fooled by randomness; only accept as virtuous that which consistently bears the fruit of virtue.

The Writer as Stoic

Stoicism is an important philosophy in the founding tenets of the Western world; it is frequently tied into Christianity owing to the religion’s nature as part of a Roman tradition (albeit one that grew to outstrip the political entity that eventually adopted it).

Stoicism involves the pursuit of morality and virtue above all else (which certainly helps explain its appeal to Christian scholars who saw a link between it and the teachings of their faith, leading it to be preserved for centuries with a great deal of fervor as a sort of secular proof of the rightness of a moral life).

Continue reading “The Writer as Stoic”

Life is Short: Leave Virtue As Your Legacy

The other day I was driving home from an outing when I nearly got into a car accident because a massive van tried to enter my lane and did not stop when I honked. I was, fortunately, able to swerve into another lane, but I had a huge rush of adrenaline (as one is prone to do when nearly in an accident).

As I pulled up to the next red light, a thought popped into my mind:

“Life is short, leave virtue as your legacy.”

Continue reading “Life is Short: Leave Virtue As Your Legacy”