Reflections on Aphorisms #25

Aphorism 42

If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

When the philosopher Montaigne was asked why he had such a close relationship with his best friend, Étienne de La Boétie, he gave the explanation that it was “because he was he, and I was I.”

The best friendships don’t need a concrete reason to exist. They should come to provide mutual benefit, but not from any particular interest.

By this I mean to say that a good friend doesn’t just appreciate their friends for what their friends do for them. There’s a mutual benevolence best summarized as the idea the everything that everyone does is beneficial for their friends.

When one friend triumphs, so should their other friends.

The best way to see if a friendship is true or not is to check if there is compulsory gift-giving or debt involved in the friendship. Everything that people do should come out of voluntary desire to help their friends and be in community with them.

Otherwise, you end up with less of a friendship and more of an association. The relationship becomes one of indebtedness rather than one of working toward the benefits of belonging to a group.

I also think that it’s not possible, or at least not something that is a good used of people’s time, to figure out exactly what makes a relationship work. There should typically be no one factor. The complexity is something that does not mesh well with cognitive limitations.

My Life

In my own friendships, I find that my relationship with any individual differs from my relationship with any of my other friends. With some friends, my relationship may seem on its surface to be vitriolic (with the recognition that this is all in good fun). With others, it is respectful and traditional.

One of the other factors here is that while friends fill needs, I don’t make friends because they feel my needs. A friend is a friend because they’re worth being with in their own right. It’s an association with other people who seek to pursue the good life, and are willing to cooperate in that interest, but who don’t necessarily help me out all the time.

The relationship is reciprocal. My friends benefit me and I hopefully benefit my friends. Much like with my students, I desire that my friends become better tomorrow than they were today. This isn’t out the spirit of condemnation, but rather an Earnest desire that everyone become part of a better world.

Resolution

Stay in touch with my friends.

Every day, ask myself how I can be a good friend to someone else. Then do it.

Do everything for the sake of improvement.

Aphorism 43

The intelligent man finds almost everything ridiculous, the sensible man hardly anything.

Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

One of the things that I find interesting is the relationship between intelligence and success. In my experience, it is not those who are celebrated for their intelligence who are the happiest.

Now there is an exception to this, of course. People often say that those who are incredibly successful must be incredibly smart. I think this is not a bad premise to work from, but I don’t think it would match the sort of IQ testing that we use to determine intelligence. I’m not entirely denying the value of IQ test here, but there’s a danger to them, because they fail to account for the whole of the individual and should not be used for most judgments (there are extreme cases which may differ, but they don’t matter to 95% of people).

One of the things about intelligence (as measured on paper) that contraindicates success is that it is often accompanied by arrogance. Intelligence leads to certainty that one who lacks the ability to call up massive amounts of information lacks.

The problem is that intelligence is not necessarily accompanied by sound judgment. The ability to use information well can suffer when too much information is gathered, and what we consider to be intelligence is prioritized over the ability to think deeply.

Goethe was one of the early Romantics, though he had a schism with the movement later in his life. One of the philosophical tenets of the Romantics centered around the role of emotion-linked intelligence, sometimes referred to as “genius” by the Romantics, as the proper guide of human life.

I believe it was in Jonathan Haidt’s work that I read about some research conducted on people who had no emotion due to brain injuries. What they found was that being emotionless does not lead to good decision-making.

Reason and sensibility is emotional. This is contrary to how we often think about it, but really what we considered to be success or failure is always associated with happiness. It’s also worth noting that this is a failure of reason, but since we don’t ever comprehend enough to be truly capable of reasoning with pure logic it is probably better to reason with gut feelings.

Reason based on intellect is going to be flawed. Pursuing an objective universe based on the work of brains that fail to be anything of the sort will always fail. We don’t value things inherently; we only value things because of what they mean to us. Figuring out a process is not the same as figuring out a value.

Intellect tends to be more about ruling out events than predicting events. The smartest people will be wrong about things more than a few days in the future more often than not, unless (and sometimes even if) they have the humility to appreciate the limits of their own predictive capability.

My Life

I would much rather lack intelligence but accept sensible limitations than have unlimited intelligence but no sense of my own nature.

Some of this is because previously I functioned in the opposite mode. I never claim to have great intelligence, at least not without a twinge of irony and a sardonic tone. However, I definitely wanted the world to work in the way that I understood. Growing older and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to appreciate that that is not sensible.

I think of it this way:

How many people woke up on December 7th, 1941 thinking that United States would enter World War II as a result of events that would happen that day? How many people expected the economy to crash in 2008?

There were people who saw the likely outcome, but they would not have predicted the specific events that lead to those more extensive outcomes unless they were looking at them personally.

Intelligence is limited by the senses, one of which is emotion. It’s also limited by perspective. We have one fixed vantage point at any time. We are unaware, regardless of how intelligent we are, of such a vast majority of the universe that what we know is hardly worth mentioning. We would think of ourselves as mewling infants if we had the right perspective.

In that sense, the sensible expect only one thing: that they cannot be certain.

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