Reflections on Aphorisms #67

Well, I’ve been on a bit of a historical kick recently, so let’s start today with an aphorism about history. My bedtime’s coming up soon, so if I only wind up with one aphorism (as has been the norm this week), please forgive me.

Aphorism 105

The major fact about history is that in large part it appears criminal.

W. E. Arnold, Jr.

Interpretation

In many cases, I like to try and look up some of the more obscure figures featured in books on aphorisms to try and integrate some parts of their biography into their picture.

Whoever W. E. Arnold, Jr. is, they’re not very good at being found, and as far as I can tell this quote is found only in a handful of selections of aphorisms (namely the Viking Book of Aphorisms and the Faber Book of Aphorisms, which are fundamentally the same text) and nobody has taken the effort to fully explain who exactly they are referring to. I’ve even seen this quote attributed to a Thomas Arnold, but I have uncovered no clue of the aphorist’s identity other than his name.

So, basically, I can’t read context into this to give a deeper background.

I will say, however, as a student of history that this generally rings true.

I think that there’s a couple elements to this:

First, the past carries traditions and ideas that are different than ours.

Second, the truth of the matter is that we’re worse than we like to think.

As much as humanity shares key core foundations, it also has expressed itself in dramatically different ways over recorded history, and doubtless for a good time before that.

Behavioral psychologists have stated that every expression is the product of stimulus and response. While this is not wholly incorrect, it’s reductive in its understanding of human minds.

Jordan Peterson, author of Maps of Meaning, which I highly recommend to anyone looking for an introduction to Jungian-style psychology, argues that the behaviorists missed one key detail: perception.

It is this which gives us the differences from our predecessors, because our perceptions have changed. We still respond to the good and the bad in fundamentally similar ways, but we have redefined what they are.

Sometimes, in the case of phenomena like religion, we even introduce new concepts that we can group stimuli into. A Christian perspective is very different from the pagan ones of the Classical world, and the Abrahamic religions came to prevalence largely because of the ways that they viewed suffering and success. By encouraging incredible degrees of sacrifice and commitment, and actively forbidding the practice of other worldviews, they were able to stamp out almost every other major worldview across a whole continent (and beyond).

Because the system is so complex, it’s difficult to categorize. Sometimes the people of the past did things that would seem barbarous to us, but which served practical and ritual purposes no more malign than the act of brushing our teeth.

At times, they did things that we can aspire to, but for motives that would disgust our sensibilities.

We don’t have to pass judgment on them, though I am convinced that the denizens of the past never achieved peak moral virtue just as we the living have not.

And this is another point: oftentimes when we look at bad people in history, they were bad by their day’s standards. We certainly have people around the world today who will go down in history as villains unless their worldview goes on to predominate all others.

Sometimes they weren’t condemned in their time. Nobody complained about Julius Caesar’s borderline genocidal war of aggression in Gaul, or at least nobody who amounts to anything (and, when they did complain, it was to oppose Caesar rather than decry his abuse of the Gauls).

However, it’s worth noting that we have the same people in our world.

Joseph Campbell once wrote that “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells are within you.”

Now, you can say what you will about Campbell. I view him as somewhat of a flawed personality, but one who was nonetheless brilliant. He falls somewhere between Freud and Jung on the scale of “Brilliant but crippled by neurosis and brilliant but too far beyond what has come before” of tragic genius.

Campbell was definitely correct in identifying the archetypal element of consciousness, though he definitely leaned toward the New Age style of thought that there was a universal trend toward good that we don’t see played out in reality.

This quote, though, is incredibly strong, and it’s the last part that I want to look at, namely the notion that all the hells reside within a person.

This is, of course, analogous to the Jungian shadow, the part of the psyche that we repress, but it’s also something beyond it. All people engage in conscious malice–evil–and have that within their nature. We may simply be blind to our own fault, making us unconsciously evil, but it should be self-evident if we look within ourselves as well as evident from the laws passed down to us that we engage in behaviors that are destructive with no real gain.

Of course, people are also noble, and it is worth pointing out that there can be no nobility without the opportunity for the opposite (this is, in part, the point of Job), and the conflict between nobility and evil is a struggle which is hard-fought by people throughout history.

Resolution

Rise above human nature.

Pay attention to how my perception shapes my decisions, and how my desire shapes my perception.

Don’t overlook the reality that others are complex.

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