Reflections on Aphorisms #54

Aphorism 87

When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.

Oscar Wilde

Interpretation

Remember that Wilde is not writing as a religious man. This may have more to do with myth, fable, and literary allusions than religious matters.

There’s a common mythic motif of being careful about what one wishes for.

I think there are two forms that this takes and they’re each distinct:

The first is the folly in the request. This is what happens when someone asks for something that they wouldn’t really want.

For instance, if you ask for a fancy mansion, you’re stuck maintaining it. You might not have the means to do so, so the getting is moot.

We often overlook the steps between our position and our goal when we are filled with desire. This does us no favors.

What we truly long after is not what we desire, but the success and comfort that comes with getting the object of our affections. The best way to cultivate this is self-improvement, not pursuit of wealth.

The second is the folly in the result. Sometimes getting what we want changes us for the worse.

The best example of this can be found in the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, immortalized by T.S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral.

King Henry II makes a remark about wanting to be rid “of this turbulent priest” (formerly a close friend), and the knights around him oblige the remark by killing Becket.

Henry finds this to be little recompense, however, and is forced to prostrate himself and turn to penitence. Whether his grief is authentic or false, he still is humbled by the consequences of his desire.

This is a classic tragic arc.

There’s an intersection of both types of wrong desire in the King Midas story: wanting all the gold in the world, he gets the power to turn everything he touches to gold. Quickly Midas realizes that gold is not the thing he truly wants (folly in the request) and that he’s also ruined his appreciation for what he had and created new problems for himself (folly in the result).

The stoics teach that being too close to what we desire is dangerous. It begins to control us. Getting what you want may actually be subordinating yourself to it.

Resolution

Don’t desire things; strive for discipline and all else follows.

Live so that your desires serve you, not vice versa.

Guard your desires carefully: don’t let evil join their midst.

Aphorism 88

We can do noble acts without ruling earth and sea.

Aristotle

Interpretation

One of the common fallacies about goodness is that people have to be great (in stature) to be good (in spirit). Now, I’m as much a believer as anyone that good deeds tend to be rewarded, and a lot of success can come down to making the right decisions consistently enough that they pay off.

However, there are connections to Aristotle’s point to be drawn here.

First, those people whose success is tied to their virtue must practice that virtue before they are successful, and continue to practice that virtue when their fortunes waver.

They do not have rule over their lives, but they still do the right thing precisely because it is right.

Second, there are people who are moral who never receive any tangible reward for their good lives.

The reasons for these are complex. One part of it is that I think that the external signs of success are often not tied to the internal acts of morality. Being highly moral may not lead to having more money, but it does lead to liberation from the want of money.

Another point to be made here is that anyone has the potential to choose the moral path. Even the lowest person by society’s standards has a chance to do something that would help another person. Heck, a smile and a kind word goes a long way to make things better, and that’s practically free.

One of the things that Jordan Peterson once said is that a lot of his work with young people has been to encourage them to try their best, and that a lot of them have never heard an encouraging word in their life.

My own experience confirms this. A lot of people go through life without ever experiencing the mercy of compassion. Surprisingly, they don’t always become bitter, so you can’t look at someone and see clearly whether or not they have the support they need.

I think that this is one of the best places that anyone can take a simple step toward virtue: find someone who is struggling and speak a benediction into their life. Give them a chance to appreciate themselves. Lift them up.

Resolution

Use words that build up others.

Don’t judge success by the car someone drives.

When in doubt, remember that no good act is too small to be worthy.

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