Reflections on Aphorisms #23

I had some spontaneous thoughts earlier about the Good Samaritan, but I’m also going to keep up the reflections on aphorisms.

I’m finding this to be a very meaningful process, and I’d encourage anyone to do the same. I’m using a fair amount of time on it, but since I’m now a semi-professional writer I don’t think that’s too much of a sacrifice.

Aphorism #38

Regular minds find similarities in stories (and situations); finer minds detect differences.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Maslow’s axiom is truer than most people realize.

People like things to be easily understood and explained away. When we understand the universe, we are confident. When it surprises us, we are lost to perdition. One of the best ways that you can make yourself feel certain his to relate what is currently important things that had importance in the past. I’m not just referring to tradition here. Rather, the way that we view the world tends to become unyielding over time.

We have an intuitive understanding that our worldview hardens and becomes brittle. In his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Amazon affiliate link), Jordan Peterson uses the example of a businessman who is called into his boss’s office to discuss his performance. At first, he expects great praise and is already prepared to negotiate with his boss for a raise.

However, his boss tells him to pack his stuff and prepare to leave the company, as his service will no longer be required. What the businessman saw as positive contributions to the company were instead overbearing, and his co-workers developed resentment towards him that he had earned with his hypocritical criticism of other people and his inability to be a member of the team.

This is the sort of realization about ourselves that we have a hard time coming to.

Carl Jung describes it as the Shadow, truths about ourselves that are not consciously recognized. They are not obvious to us without intentional searching, sometimes because they are so painful that we choose not to think about them and sometimes because we are less self-aware than we believe ourselves to be.

When everything in the current is similar to everything in the past, we can ignore self-examination. Assuming that we are already marginally successful, the logical assumption is that we will continue to be successful. However, the world is a changing and chaotic place.

It is better that we put our fingers to the pulse of the universe, to be aware of the changes that it brings our way. It requires more effort than staying blindly with tradition (not to be rude to tradition; what has worked typically continues to work), but since we will enter into territory that no one else can help us through, at least not that we know of, it is important to reach that level of self-awareness.

This is the goal of philosophy. It is the art–it is worth noting that an art is not less dignified than a science–of attempting to understand the universe. Of course, the first good philosophical assumption is usually that one knows nothing, or at least that one can be certain of only a very little part of the universe.

This is not to surrender to chaos. Philosophers still expect the sun to rise every day, they simply admit that it would be foolish to assume that everything will always be as it has been.

My Life

I’m not honestly sure how this applies to my life. I like to think that I’m pretty productive, and that I’m aware of what goes on around me and how it changes from the previous things. I certainly make a conscious effort to keep an eye on it. However, this is one of those things where you can’t really know how good you are at something. Even others may be fooled in the short-term by how they perceive you to be, so that what they tell you does not match what you really are. They may assume based on their perceptions of you something which is not fully based on truth, but rather on how they value you.

When I say value here, I do not necessarily refer to basic idea of appreciation, but rather the role that you play in someone else’s life. People have sometimes told me that I seem quite intelligent. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, since I have simply devoted more time to the art of the word than most other people my age have. Since we typically consider communication a sign of intelligence, they are naturally predisposed to assume that I am smart.

Lest I seem overly humble, I have come to the conclusion that I may be up above average, I simply do not believe that I am so smart as to be exceptionally intelligent. I consider it good fortune on my part, and the product of a good education. Occasional spurts of self-discipline contribute to this as well.

Resolution

Don’t fall into a rut.

Do not fear chaos, but seek to master it.

Make every day a chance to grow.

Aphorism #39

It is far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than to think.

Hannah Arendt, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

In an ideal world, thought and action are linked. However, there is nothing natural about this. There is no rule that one must think before they act, and that their actions will follow what they have thought about.

In extreme circumstances, where order or chaos becomes predominant, it becomes difficult to think. The prevailing mode becomes an overriding fashion. For chaos, we often see this reflected in the mob mentality, I didn’t order we see the abandonment of personal responsibility and the complete submission to authority.

In both extreme chaos and extreme order, the tendencies to forego moral responsibility–to abandon contemplation and examination–lead to terrible outcomes. We return to the primal fallen state, guided by instinct instead of morality.

If people think while in these states, they tend to focus on rationalization, making sense of an untenable situation. Life, that is to say the true life of meaning, cannot exist in either extreme. They are machines which consume, not environments which nurture. People excel in the middle ground, though it is not necessarily easier to live there. It is only there that they can pursue heroism (without great sacrifice).

It is worth noting that while Arendt writes about the totalitarianism of the 20th century, it is not necessary to have such extremes in governance to achieve similar disorders in an individual’s life. We are capable of creating our own tyranny in our spirits. The same goes for chaos that extends beyond that which is useful for nurturing growth.

My Life

I have always felt drawn to philosophy, but I have not always been good at living life. Not only is it difficult to appreciate one’s circumstances, but it also requires language with which to discuss greater things. Despite my desire to live a life of wisdom, I rarely had terms in which to consider the success of such an endeavor.

I think the single greatest success with my adult has been coming to an understanding what’s the balance between things. This has moderated the oft-fiery temperament of my youth, I think it helps me live in accordance with my values. I’m not perfect, of course, but I feel like I can honestly say that I continue to improve, which is really the best humans can hope for.

At various points in my life, I have felt myself sinking into either exceptional order or exceptional chaos to the point of dysfunction. Only recently have I had the understanding to see those for what they are. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, haven’t really had any situations that put my new convictions to test as significantly as those events tried me.

Some of this may be my newfound stoicism, and increased degree to which I can philosophically appreciate the world, but I do feel blessed and fortunate that is the part of life that I find myself in is one without any raging storms.

I follow politics, and in my youth I would allow myself to be consumed by fervor. I was convinced that my way of seeing things was correct. I believed that anyone who disagreed with my views must have simply been idiotic, because they could not appreciate the true nature of existence. While I remain convinced that most of my beliefs are correct, because if I feel they are incorrect I change them, I have gained more empathy.

I appreciate more of myself as well, since I now have a conscious understanding of why I believe what I believe, and I understand why others disagree with me when they do disagree with me. This has been a humbling process, not because of any failure on my behalf (I was merely young and naive), but because it has been an awakening to how much more complex the universe is.

Resolution

Stand outside the mainstream when the mainstream becomes extreme. (This is Montaigne’s great achievement)

Don’t be afraid of the unknown; don’t be attached to the known.

Be always at the start of an adventure.

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