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.



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.


Don’t rely on the quick fix.

Extricate myself from vice before it becomes habit.

Learn to avoid making a mistake.

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