Reflections on Aphorisms #105

Today was unproductive, but I wasn’t feeling well and I’m going to chalk it up mostly to that. I just couldn’t focus on anything for any length of time.

I’m tentatively blaming my morning walk for a portion of it; I didn’t really pay attention to the temperature and I was out in the hot for basically an hour. I think I’ve also pushed myself past my limits on sleep recently, so getting a little more going forward would be nice.

Aphorism 145

The name of virtue is as useful to our interest as that of vice. (Maxim 187)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the things that I feel hard-pressed to deal with in my own life is my tendency to put a favorable spin on my own behavior.

It’s very easy to point to things I don’t like and condemn them, and I think this is generally true for everyone.

However, I think it’s also really easy to point at something I like to do and accept it as the one true way to live, which is equally dishonest.

There are some things I’m entirely certain of, like the idea that acting honestly is one of the few ways to guarantee a better world regardless of the circumstances. There are also a lot that I can’t claim to have the same degree of certainty for.

Another thing is that sometimes virtue can be used by false teachers.

For instance, things like justice and charity are virtues, but you can twist and turn them selectively so that people follow a fragment of the whole virtue; they believe in justice for themselves and charity for those they consider their own, but fail to consider those outside the scope of their immediate concerns.

I recall an exchange in Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans in which the protagonist reflects upon his mother’s outbursts against the British colonial government in India acting contrary to Christianity.

In the scene, she argues that while Britain is ostensibly importing “charity” by helping to establish a government in China, they’re really creating a destructive force by encouraging the spread of opium. They may be establishing order, but it’s order for order’s sake and not order for virtue’s sake.

I’m simplifying things, of course, and I may be stretching the point a little as it regards Ishiguro’s intended message. However, it’s worth noting that traditional wisdom states that wolves wear sheep’s clothing.

It’s very hard to motivate people through vice; you can condemn them, but that’s only a bitter and destructive path.

If you appeal to their virtues, you can deceive them even as they feel good about themselves.

Resolution

Act in accordance with greater virtues.

Weigh those who claim to preach truth.

Never manipulate through virtue; it is the worst lie.

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