Reflections on Aphorisms #94

I didn’t have a super-productive day today, but part of that’s just down to sleep (again), going to see Toy Story 4 (which I will probably do an in-depth analysis of), and also just not feeling my best (in large part due to lack of sleep).

I’m not going to beat myself up over it. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Aphorism 132

The head cannot long play the part of the heart. (Maxim 108)

François de La Rochefoucauld


One of the things that people overlook in this modern age is that we’re built and wired to function a certain way. We try to force ourselves into a particular mode of being.

I’ve recently talked about the issues that surround the idea that one can live a rational life.

One of them is that the value that can be derived from things is not clear by logic.

Let’s take for example the art of taking a vacation.

No matter who you ask, you will get a different response to the proper process.

I like to go in basically unknown. I’ll look at maps and try to see if there’s any particular risk associated with my choice of lodging or route, but I don’t bother with a planned-out itinerary or anything like that. I’ll choose a thing or two I want to do each day, and if I can get them done, that’s great. If not, I’ll do whatever I feel like.

My father is the polar opposite of this, and I can recall countless trips with him that involved enough activity to make the return to daily life a welcome break from the vacation. He has vacations that run on timetables.

Lest I make him sound too unbearable, he’s grown a lot more conscious of others’ needs in the past few years, so this is more of a childhood reflection than something that is a current issue I’m just griping about on the internet.

Part of the reason that I don’t plan my trips other than just picking potential destinations and not even being particularly faithful to them is that it makes it a lot easier to follow my emotion, rather than my reason. I’ve had great experiences in lowly places.

The philosopher/investor Nicholas Nassim Taleb once wrote that he went out to an expensive and fancy dinner that he hated, then went and got cheap pizza, and he could never figure out why the pizza didn’t cost as much as the expensive dinner.

I’m the same way. I’m just as happy with a couple dollars worth of pizza as I am with the best experiences, and part of the reason for this is that I don’t let reason get in the way of planning my life.

Sure, there might be restaurants in San Francisco that I’ve never gone to that would have been within my reach, but Jenny’s Burgers by Golden Gate Park offer a nice half-pound burger that doesn’t break the bank and leaves me happily sedated with satiation.

Part of the problem with reason replacing emotion is that reason looks outside the self. My first epiphany of this was when I decided to become a teacher instead of a pharmacist. Both professions are worthy of respect, but one of them didn’t hold the same value to me. I knew that no matter how much I helped people as a pharmacist, I wouldn’t have a personal connection with the vast majority of them, and I wouldn’t get to see them grow.

Of course, I’m also unlikely to be getting a sports car any time soon, but I’m satisfied with my old early-2000s Honda Civic (even if the airbags are in a perpetual state of product recall). It’s a coupe, which is sexy in its own way even if it’s not a fancy car, and it drives really well.

Putting reason into things can reveal all the issues with them that we put up with.

However, our reason is not solid, and we very quickly wind up compounding its errors. Our emotion is just as flawed, but we’re intuitively aware of this. They work together, not separately. With both emotion and reason, we can balance our observations, thoughts, and responses. With just one or the other, they quickly wind up astray.

I read one of Jonathan Haidt’s books in which he mentioned that people who have damage to the part of the brain that produces emotion have a hard time making decisions and wind up making really bad decisions.

Even if logical thought remains intact, the driving force that orients us to our goals is always going to be emotion. A vacation that turns into a forced march doesn’t feel like a vacation (in fact, it’s turned into a common trope of stories centered on youth in America), and a life that turns into calculated mathematics doesn’t feel like life.


Balance my emotions with my reason.

Remember why I do things.

When planning, think about what the result will feel like.

Reflections on Aphorisms #89

Today was not quite as productive a day, but the great thing is that at least I was productive enough recently to actually pull it off without falling behind, though I would’ve loved to have gotten a little more done.

Aphorism 127

Although men flatter themselves with their great actions, they are not so often the result of a great design as of chance. (Maxim 57)

François de La Rochefoucauld


One of the great things that I’ve realized about working as I grew older is that you don’t work for a reward, you work for the opportunity or expectation of a reward.

This may sound a little weird, but it’s actually a very familiar trend in the modern world. As a writer, I see this very often in a day-to-day sense where I write for the public and rely on their response and write as a freelancer for clients and hope that my work lives up to their expectations.

As a more traditional employee, however, you still do your work for extrinsic rewards. There are very few things that we do in the modern world for the sake of getting them done. This is why a lot of hobbies are satisfying and popular; fixing a car or growing a garden doesn’t necessarily lead to financial success, but it’s a great way to accomplish something.

I think that this is part of the reason why people  become so dissatisfied with the modern world. I remember realizing at some point during my college career that I would never be rewarded (financially, at least) for the work that I did. I would be rewarded for joining a team and meeting certain requirements, but the actual work was not going to be the source of my reward.

This is responsible for a certain amount of what I believe to be best described as bureaucratic apathy. Because the reward for the work doesn’t follow from the work itself, there’s a disintegration of motivation and ideals.

Of course, when you work directly for an audience or client you have a much better chance of having a link between work quality and recompense. I’ve written a lot over the years, and I like to think that I get a little better at it daily, or at least weekly.

This is where we wind up back at Rochefoucauld. I honestly believe that some of my writing is at a professional level, but I’m not yet there as a writer. This would be frustrating when taken from certain perspectives, but I’ve learned that the quality of work does not necessarily correlate with the reception that it receives.

I think that there’s a reason why humans have a tendency to gamble, and it’s tied to the concept that there’s a disconnect between actions and success. Sometimes success comes long down the road, instead of immediately, and it needs some time to be recognized.

Where gambling becomes dangerous is that this can be willfully triggered by those who exploit our perceptions of chances of success and use it to give us the perception of potential future gain where none exists.

The horrible thing is that getting rid of this would also require to some degree getting rid of our hopes and dreams, because we would lose our ability to go for the future that we desire based on the work of the present.

Reason is useful, but it only deals with the known and experienced. To prepare for the future by moving into the unknown and mastering it is a matter of the spirit.


Take every chance to do great things.

Don’t let failure stop effort.

Never do things for the sake of merely pulling a paycheck.

Reflections on Aphorisms #69

Short Sunday post, as is customary. I spent some time going through my book of aphorisms before I settled on an option, since I was looking for something that particularly piqued my interest.

In this case, it has to do with the great struggle between action and inaction, something which I find myself intimately acquainted with.

Aphorism 107

He that leaveth nothing to chance will do few things ill, but he will do very few things.



I have within myself a destructive urge for perfection. It’s the sort of thing that has rarely done me much good, because I hold myself to impossible standards.

I think I have always had a particular aversion to chance. I remember being inflexible as a child, having a really hard time when things went against what I was planned.

Once, there was another kid named Kyle who joined my class at Sunday School. I don’t remember how old I was–perhaps three or four, maybe five–but the people running the class seemed to think that I should write my last name on my cubby name-tag to indicate who I was.

I was a very literate youth, for all my faults. My problem was never whether or not I could read or write (though my handwriting has always left something to be desired), but always whether or not I learned anything when I did. I’ve always loved the written word, but sometimes my love has led me to pursue the word in lieu of the practical functions of it.

In any case, the newcomer was not asked to put his last name on his name-tag, and I found this unfair and launched into something of a tantrum. The memory is very foggy, but I recall my father coming and picking me up from the class. I know that there are inconsistencies with the memory, and I don’t remember the resolution, but I think my name-tag wound up getting updated but perhaps not by me.

The purpose of this example is that there’s a sort of embraced infantile trend in our society to be averse to chance. It’s not necessarily bad. I think that being averse to risk is very good, in the right context.

But the problem is that we align it to our notion of having what we want when we want it, and this is where things fall apart.

For starters, we don’t always get what we want by fortune alone, and some things may be denied to us because there is no circumstance in which getting them is feasible. I’ve given up on having a Ferrari, for instance, though I’m also a little scared of what trouble I might get into with a car that actually moves when you touch the gas pedal and perfectly happy with my early 2000’s Honda. My chosen means of making money (writing and teaching) doesn’t leave that as a viable life goal, but I prefer this to doing what I’d have to do to get a Ferrari.

The second thing with chance is that chance is not necessarily risk, and we’re prone to thinking about it.

The riskiest thing you can do is nothing most of the time. A lot of the time simple, very small actions can actually have positive results, but obsessing over the chance of something happening can make those positive outcomes fail.

I think I see this a lot in my personal relationships. I prefer to interact with a very small group of people who I’ve spent a lot of time with, and I tend not to form romantic attachments because I don’t like being rejected (I wanted a better way to describe this, but none came; it’s not just rejection, it’s also not fitting in or not having a purpose) or having unpleasant companions.

The consequence of this is that I don’t interact with all that many people, which in my line of work (or any line of work, come to think of it) is something that tends to have a negative impact on your performance and future.

I think that the take-away lesson to be had here is this:

Be a person of action. Seize the day, and take measured action to move toward a goal. Time spent in free-fall is time that you never get back.



Chance is in all things. Risk is not. Don’t mistake uncertainty for danger.

Make a few new friends.

Reflections on Aphorisms #54

Aphorism 87

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

Oscar Wilde


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.


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.



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.


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.

Review of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield is something of a surprise celebrity, but when you look at the sum of his career it is no mystery how he came to be so successful.

The biggest question I had when I started reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link) was whether Hadfield’s celebrity would translate into success as a writer. I listened to the audiobook (narrated by Hadfield), and I have to say that I was quite impressed.

I’d say that An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is 50% memoir, 50% useful advice, and 100% interesting. Of course, as someone who grew up with sci-fi and fantasy of all sorts as their main reading staple and a lot of nerdy interests, space holds an immediate appeal to me, but it’s actually the strength of the personal stories that helped it.

I think that this is where it is elevated above self-help. A lot of self-help books have to distance themselves from the question of their author, because the author always sounds like they’re being arrogant and bragging. I think that An Astronaut’s Guide is in line with something like Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People (full disclosure: I started reading the latter and then misplaced my copy very early on, so I’ve only read a little of it) because both are incredibly intimate and written by someone who can claim astronomical success (ha!).

An Astronaut’s Guide is great because it includes examples. There’s a hybridization of stoic philosophy and kaizen, the art of continual improvement, that is brought together without any use of technical language or pretense.

Tied so closely as it is to personal narratives, I find Hadfield’s advice easy to emulate. It’s already helped me to refocus my efforts on writing and getting into shape (my usual morning walk became a walk-run this morning in part because Hadfield reinforced in me the importance of striving toward goals incessantly, and I was pleasantly surprised by the enjoyment it brought me).

The greatest idea here is that there’s a resolution between the great unknown of potential (both limitations and boosts) and the need for personal effort that Hadfield communicates so subtly that one could assume he’s not even trying. He literally makes it look easy.

One example of this is his -1/0/+1 philosophy. It’s probably the largest example of him using numbers to describe success, but it’s also incredibly simple: you need to ask whether you’re adding to or taking away from a team. When you start, it’s a good idea to just aim for being a 0, because you might think you’re improving things when you’re really just causing problems for everyone else. Learn to fit in, then learn to excel.

It’s mesmerizing and hard to put down, and An Astronaut’s Life ate up a lot of my time as I was going through it. Hadfield is genuinely funny, too, which leads to lots of fun laughs throughout.

I could ramble on with more praise, but suffice it to say that it’s probably my top self-improvement book this year so far, and by such a large margin that I find it unlikely to be displaced (with apologies to previous books, whose recommendations I must now rescind).

To quickly talk about the audiobook, it’s narrated by Hadfield. As a Canadian, he has the particular Canadian vowel sounds (e.g. in “again”) that always sort of rattle US listeners (or me, at least), but he’s got such a fluid performance and presentation that you’ll get used to it quickly and it really does benefit from him doing the reading. Not having the text to compare to, I’d still say that the audiobook is a safe bet.

So, basically, is this a drop everything and read it book? Perhaps. It certainly helps with setting and meeting goals, though it’s not going to teach complex systems. If, like me, you enjoy simplicity in your search for self improvement plus a yarn that’s worth paying attention to, it’s a good option for you.

Reflections on Aphorisms #41

Sunday’s a day of rest, so this will be shorter than average. I’ve also just had a slow writing day, and put it off right up to my bedtime (though, to be fair, I’ve been listening to Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and I read at least five nonfiction articles today, so it hasn’t been entirely wasted).

Aphorism 64

In making his way through life, a man will find it useful to be ready and able to do two things: to look ahead and to overlook: the one will protect him from loss and injury, the other from disputes and squabbles.


I haven’t ever read much Schopenhauer (if any; my memory is fickle), and I probably should. I’ve got Marcus Aurelius to get through first, but I’m confident I’ll get there eventually.

I’ve seen a few quotes attributed to him I don’t agree with, but this is one that I actually find rings true.

First, the need to work forward.

Image by SplitShire from Pixabay.

I’ve got a sort of exaggerated notion of the “way”, because I’m influenced heavily by Jung, Campbell, and Pearson, but I do think that there’s a deeper element to this than just cultivating foresight.

It’s not enough to predict, because predictions suck.

Sorry, it’s true.

We will be wrong more often than not when we try to guess at what the future holds.

However, we can make sure that we know what to do. We can figure out what is folly and what is wise, and once we discern between them we can do better than if we lived as aimless wanderers in the universe.

This is where the Way comes in, in an archetypal sense. We figure out what to do (e.g. Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which is applied by Pearson to the everyday life of the individual) by finding broad guidelines and patterns in life that guide us to the future.

The second part is not obsessing over things.

I have only rarely had people hurt me deliberately, and when they have it never did me any good to obsess over it.

This isn’t to say that there’s never a time for the defense of self and others (and when it is called for, I believe it should be overwhelming and immediate), but also a need to remember that defense protects the future, instead of avenging the past.

Think of, for instance, World War I. There was no need for a war, because the probability of further assassinations of Austrian archdukes was relatively low, but war came nonetheless due to a pretense that was formed through conflicts other than the one at hand.

There’s an opportunity cost to everything. Any energy and time spent on one course is energy and time that will never be available for anything else.

Never waste that energy because of bitterness.


Follow the rules for the good life.

Never do something “because”.

When the opportunity comes to forgive, remember that it costs nothing.

Reflections on Aphorisms #38

Today I’ve had some more work to do, and I’ve also been trying to get through some writing backlogs. As usual, I sort of go in scattered motions toward everything simultaneously, so I’ve been polishing off a freelance project, getting back into work on my own games, and starting a master’s program simultaneously.

I’ve also been listening to An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link), and there was a quote in it that matched up to an article in the Harvard Business Review I also read recently. I’m falling into a bit of a rut on the productivity stuff, and I should get back to exploring my horizons now that I’m moving more concretely in the right direction, but I’ve found it to be really valuable.

Aphorism 61

Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive.

Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth


This probably doesn’t need a whole lot of interpretation, but it relates to my personal struggles with productivity quite a bit.

I am a worrier. I will lose sleep over social interactions that other people probably weren’t even paying attention to, how I signed my name in a guest book, if I should have gone to bed earlier, and various other sundry things.

I’ve also got a strong neurotic tendency. Things bothered me a lot when I was younger. Sometimes they still do (I have somewhat idiosyncratic things that bother me that I know aren’t logical), but I overcame most of it by simply adopting the counter-point and choosing to let go. If something bothered me, I would either deal with it or decide that it didn’t matter and actually orient myself around that (as opposed to suppressing my emotion and burying it). The result was that I became very decisive and active in many ways.

You can’t do the same thing with worrying. There’s something very valuable to be said about living in the moment, and wiser people than me have talked about the virtues of emotional detachment, but I don’t think that it’s a good idea for most people, especially because worrying does play a role in our lives (even if it’s something that extends well beyond its right purpose in most cases).

Rather, the solution is active consideration, what Hadfield calls “anticipating problems” and which bears resemblance to the Stoic methodology that I’ve been talking about recently.

The secret is that worry can’t be a passive state. If you let yourself slip into anxiety, as I am often prone to doing in my own life, you move yourself away from what you should do. I have a really hard time asking people for assistance that isn’t strictly their responsibility (I’m a master at being needy, though; I’m just not willing to impose), and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that I’m thrilled when people ask me for help but I don’t let that logically percolate through. If being asked for help thrills me, it will probably thrill others, or at least let them know they are respected, and I can always ask in a way that does not invoke commitment on their part.

Moving on, however, there’s another step here which falls into the notion of self-actuation. Solutions are important, not just problems. I’ve heard it said that drowning people are focused more on the fact that they are drowning than on the ways to recover gracefully, which is why they tend to drown without help in even seemingly unlikely conditions and can be dangerous to others who are trying to help them. Only having one close call myself, I don’t recall this from personal experience: I didn’t consider myself to be in any risk, though apparently my swimming was showing signs of issues; it’s likely I was in over my head metaphorically but not yet literally.

However, the key here is that if you focus on the problem, it’s difficult to take the action that leads to the solution. As a teacher I got to see examples of this all the time in practice, both in myself and in those around me.

As for myself, I often had issues with classroom behavior my first year teaching. The class was a notoriously rough one (and I had less support than would be nice because my position had changed mid-year), and I was definitely in the drowning person’s shoes more often than not. My focus was on whatever the greatest incident of the day was (and there was an incident, small or large, every day), rather than the steps that could be taken to prevent those incidents.

Even by the next year, I had realized that a reactive response didn’t work. I learned what other teachers did that worked, tailored it to my needs, and changed my style. It worked well enough. I still had a couple kids who were considered “problem students” and didn’t live up to my standards, but I’d hear horror stories from other teachers about those students in their class doing things that they never even thought of doing in my classroom. Finding solutions, rather than focusing on problems, worked. I was able to be respectful toward the students and approach them rather than their behaviors, and to an extent that their adolescent brains were capable of following the classroom structure they were respectful back and approached my class as a holistic experience rather than just viewing it as a confrontation with me as an overbearing authority figure.

Basically, the distinction between worrying and productive anticipation is how you frame it:

Worrying looks like “It sucks that my life isn’t going the way I want it to.”

Being productive in anticipating looks like “My life would suck less if I wrote for two hours a day.”

It’s not an obvious distinction, but if you combine the latter with actual steps toward action you get a potentially great result.


Blame myself for my failures, then forgive myself and improve.

If I can’t find a solution to something, find a solution to something else and quit wasting my time on the first problem.

Don’t slow down when things are unclear; quickly decide whether to change direction or stay the course.

Reflections on Aphorisms #37

I made significant progress toward getting into a master’s degree program today, so I didn’t have much time to write (outside the requirements of that; I spent several hours on the phone and more working on what will hopefully be some finalities), but at least it was a productive day instead of an unproductive one.

I like Taleb’s aphorisms, so I’m going to use another today, in part because it happens to be a reflection of my own life.

For the classics, philosophical insight was the product of a life of leisure; for us, a life of leisure can be the product of philosophical insight.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes
Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay.


I guess I can kind of call myself a philosopher now, since I’ve been writing about stuff and I read a lot of philosophy. I’m kind of a piddly one, and I haven’t contributed much, if anything, to the field at large, but there’s something about experiences that eventually means that you have to accept or reject a label as part of your being.

An earlier me would have raged against that as an offense to individualism, but now I see it as a path to individuation, and one needs to know who one is in terms that one can understand before they can fully become themselves.

To get to Taleb’s point, I’ve been happier in the past year than I’ve been ever before, despite being under at least as much stress in many ways. I figured out how to crack the code, and it’s pretty simple:

It turns out the philosophers might know what they’re talking about.

I’m a fan of the Stoics, and I’ve learned a lot from some of their very simple doctrines:

  1. Mentally walk through the worst scenario, then steel yourself for that loss.
  2. Remember that having virtue is better than having a single success; virtue sets you up for all future successes.
  3. Don’t sweat adiaphora and other little decisions.
  4. Avoid the expedient unless it is actually the correct path (and don’t be taken in by it).
  5. Accept the things which are outside your control.

These things go quite a way to making life better.

Another thing I’ve learned is to know myself as a person, but always strive to improve.

This is a tight-rope act, but I think I’ve finally hit a point in my life where I will consider myself successful if I break even, and even if circumstances outside my control cause me harm I would be happy with less than I have now.

Part of this is that I’ve learned to exert influence over myself. It’s not perfect, and I still have a lot of things to work on, but I’ve changed more and in better ways than I have in almost any other year of my life. I’m exercising regularly, back on a diet, writing more, and doing some freelance writing.

What I’ve found is that even when I work now, it rarely feels like work, and I think that’s Taleb’s point. When you align yourself with your goals, and you truly and honestly aim for them, you find great satisfaction and value in that. I’m about half-way through Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link), and it’s basically déjà vu for me to hear him echo thoughts that are similar to my own.

It occurs to me that almost every experience I considered odiously strenuous in my life has been met by a reward at the end that would have been commensurate with the actual effort, had I not made the task ahead worse than it had to be.


Do not make things worse, either in perception or substance, than they already are.

The heroic struggle usually bears fruit worth the cost.

If in doubt, ask whether something is virtuous or expedient. Choose the virtuous option.

Reflections on Aphorisms #30

Forced myself to write a little more today to make up for some previous short entries. I’ve now been doing this for basically a month straight, and it’s been really good. I think it’s helped me find my compass a little better than I had been.

Aphorism 50

In a conflict, the middle ground is least likely to be correct.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the Bed of Procrustes


We falsely praise compromise as a virtue because we associate it with the ability to change one’s mind when better evidence is presented. This doesn’t necessarily mean that compromise is worthless, but I think people don’t understand what a good “compromise” really is.

It is difficult to actually realize an improvement by moderating one’s values. It is much easier to achieve such a thing by remaining true, but being realistic. To permit one’s values to be breached, even in part, will only lead to resentment.

Settling for a compromise only leads to two unhappy parties, rather than one.

Compromise leads to a decreased ability to adapt.

Instead of accepting the fact that one’s values may not actually improve the world, and that they should be reconsidered, instead the half measures are blamed rather than a flaw in their foundation. We can see this in basically every political issue in modern American politics. The compromise only creates a further point of contention, and both sides claim the success of their views and the failure of the other’s.

The solution to this is to concede rather than to compromise. Of course, one should never sacrifice one’s highest values lightly, but it may be better to have a short-term defeat then a long-term compromise that adds up to be equally bad. Don’t take a half-measure if the half-measure is not substantially better than having nothing.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not calling for extremism. Go only to the point at which desired effects are achieved, not further. Going too far for the sake of avoiding compromise is not any better than compromise.

Rather, one should fight vociferously to achieve their goals until those goals are achieved.

One should also think carefully before forcing others into a compromise that will breed resentment. This is a great way to amplify every ill, and should be avoided.


Identify what would satisfy.

Eat until you are no longer hungry, but do not continue past that point.

Never sacrifice a value for expedience.

Aphorism 51

For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.

Goethe, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms


I value humility highly. I believe that being humble is a great way to guard against being wicked.

I do not think that Goethe (especially the Goethe of his later life) disagrees with this. However, being humble in and of itself is not necessarily a goal.

There are those who assert that the biblical injunction to be meek is more properly rendered as being able to use power, keeping it restrained. It is not a virtue to be harmless if one has no other choice.

So it is that being humble means recognizing one’s potential and capacities but not fooling oneself into believing that one is living up to their potential. Otherwise, it is just a lack of confidence.

I think that this is what Goethe is referring to when he says that someone must regard himself is greater than he is to achieve what is demanded of him. He must see that he has what we would call a heroic potential, I must be willing to struggle to bring that into being.

In my own life, I have been struck by the need do this. As someone who would happily think of himself as ordinary, I need to keep in mind that my potential is incredible and constantly move it forward. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be where I am today, I don’t think I would have believed you. At the same time, it was the striving that I did five and ten years ago that has gotten me where I am. Where I will be in five years is a direct result of what I do today.

It is necessary to blend many ideas of the self together. The past self, weaker and less experienced but also with more potential, the future self, who will reap the rewards of today’s labor, the current self, who must act in accordance with both the past and the future, and the hero, who represents the fusion of all three into one personage, must act as one.

This is a tremendous force, and it requires faith and will to bring it to bear.


Bring myself into balance with my past and my future.

Do those things which fall into the domain of the hero.

Live as if I could one day command millions.

Aphorism 52

No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms


People have a problematic relationship with the truth. Even those with the best intentions often have difficulty figuring out what it is, and emotions can complicate things. We generally consider sticking to the truth as a moral good, but it is a good which we are oft-tempted to subordinate to other purposes.

The most natural thing in the world is to defend self. Even someone who holds themselves in low esteem still grates at the offenses of anyone else.

We like to defend ourselves against criticism, even if it is deserved. In this ironic fashion, we impede our own growth.

I find out that I work as a freelance or independent game designer my first response to any criticism of something I have done is to come up with five thousand justifications as to why it is the best thing to do. Many of these justifications will be things that only occur to me once it was time to defend my work. While this is not such a grievous falsification, it shows this general mood well, and it also lets me to see if myself into thinking that I am better than I am.

A more honest response would be to internalize the sort of polite response that one gives a well meaning critic. To accept others’ feedback, and then immediately compare it to your own original motives, is to listen to what has been said. Otherwise, you get defensive and then you lie.

It is also worth noting that takes cultivated personal virtue to ward off other indignity without resorting to deception. Too often, we see people whose first response to criticism is to slander someone else. This shows weak character, and not much of a mind. This sounds harsh, but I will admit that I am of this tendency myself. I simply rarely get a chance to use it.

To remain honest under pressure is a sign of integrity, the ability to always act in accordance with one’s guiding values. Acquiring this integrity provides one with a bulwark against making expedient but destructive choices.

I’ve been listening to Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Amazon affiliate link), in which he recounts his time living under a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini. One of the things that I find interesting is that he is able to discern how his critics are responding emotionally and falsely accusing him because he has disturbed their quietude, not because he has actually done the things that he is accused of (whether or not he had).


Act with honesty, even in the face of shame.

Don’t attack others because I have been hurt.

Never assume that I will be virtuous.

Aphorism 53

Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms


This ties in, to a degree, with the subject of our previous aphorism. There is the potential for a great deal of self-contradiction in the human mind. One of the most powerful forces that can lead to this error is belief. As such, it is important to always examine whether a belief is being held in line with truth.

This is a difficult thing to do, as it requires earnest discussion with those who disagree with you. This makes it unpalatable to most people. It is much easier to pretend to debate, or to debate those who are in agreement with the conclusion you have already reached, than it is to enter at your own risk. It requires a respect for the person you are talking with which exceeds the strength of your own stubbornness.

I find that when I believe something I have a hard time rationally assessing the surrounding details. This isn’t a novel phenomenon, but it is something that is pretty common. There’s a really low-level breakdown of it in more detail than I care to go into here:

A great simple breakdown, if a little over-simplified.

There are various reasons that people give for this tendency: an evolutionary biology perspective that says that you will believe what you believe in light of conflicting evidence because it is better to remain with your in-group, traditional abstract vices like hubris, psychoanalytical concepts like the ego and superego.

However, the truth is this:

Everyone is willing to die for their beliefs, they just might not realize that they’re the ones killing themselves.

This is why all major religions have a large tradition of faithful doubters; people who challenge the assertions of the faith but do not leave it. They’re necessary for the health of any large group. I’m fairly orthodox in my perspective, but I see the merit of constant questioning in all things.


Build my convictions on solid ground. Test the ground first.

Pay attention to emotion. It can be easily overlooked.

Be careful with beliefs, they cut like knives.

Reflections on Aphorisms #18

Aphorism 27

One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.

Anton Chekov, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms


When I go through the Viking Book of Aphorisms, I just open it to a random page, or to something that thematically aligns with what I’ve been discussing, but I don’t typically pick out an aphorism as particularly profound. I do try and choose ones that look fruitful, but often I just choose something that serves as a starting off point for something else.

This aphorism, however, is one that particularly stands out to me. It aligns with my interests, I guess one could say. One of the notions that I’ve struggled with as I’ve grown in understanding is how one deals reality. I’m an objectivist (no relation to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), meaning that I believe that there is unifying underlying truth, but I also have the good sense to recognize that I am limited as a person by what I am capable of perceiving.

One oft-neglected factor in this is the question of how one even goes about figuring out what is right and wrong and what is good and what is not.

Chekov raises a very good point here. There’s limitations in our perception that stem from things which are deep beyond the point of comprehension. To draw a comparison to science, there are things which are common knowledge today like many of the advancements in chemistry, which would have been absolutely unimaginable two-hundred years ago. While I am certain that many people can recognize revolutionary changes when they occur, how many of us have noticed smaller evolutionary changes? How many of us have the wherewithal to assess them correctly?

There’s a “love of the new” that I believe to be one of the most dangerous elements of our social culture. Take, for instance, our smartphones, the harbingers of the interconnected age. There is great value in this, namely all of the opportunity that it provides, but it also brings with it tremendous risk. We have changed our way of life so tremendously in the past Century that is going to have second-order effects that we are not even prepared to discuss.

Think about the fact that we no longer are able to check out from our daily life and enjoy quiet moments. Without deliberate effort, those who have never known to seek such a thing will now never benefit from it: they cannot discover it by accident, unless they are incredibly fortunate.

However, it is important not to idolize tradition.

While we bemoan the loss of private spaces and being contemplative, there are benefits to this constant connection to others.

I think that we do not give people enough credit. Those of us who choose to carry constant interruption devices have not done so in base ignorance. Rather, we recognize that there is an opportunity to being reachable by anyone at any time it is a trade, one whose outcome will only be made clear once the deal is complete. As such, I do not believe in reactionary overzealous abstention.

We would do well to remember to be humble. No man may know what tomorrow may bring.

My Life

I have learned is sort of humility over the years. I do something which I know to be at least not wrong, and I do not worry about the outcome.

There’s something of Kant’s categorical imperative in this, though I am not as hardcore as Kant. If you do what you know brings good, it doesn’t matter if individual actions have much fruit. Overtime, the law of averages will apply. It is the whole, not the part, which brings results.


Pursue constant little goals.

Do not obsess over the result of any single action.

Diversify my portfolio of worthwhile deeds.

Aphorism 28

Most of the grounds of the world’s troubles are matters of grammar.

Michel de Montaigne, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

I find myself recommending the essays of Montaigne to everyone I meet. This may be a testament to the quality of Montaigne, or may simply show me to be relatively simple, with only one thing on my mind at any time.

This quote is a grand illustration of Montaigne’s wit, at least in my opinion. I envy his ability to create such short statements which also hold such deep meaning while keeping a flippant air.

People have always had communication problems. In the Bible, this is what makes Able preferable to Cane. Able listens to what God desires, while his sinful brother does what he believes will be pleasing to God.

While on the surface Montaigne may seem to be talking about mere copy-editing, the deeper meaning is clear. We do not understand how to communicate with ourselves and each other in a way that improves the world.

There is a Greek concept of the Logos which carries into ancient Gnostic perceptions of the world. It is even influential in Abrahamic religions, as they are at themselves based around the notion of a single omnipotent knowing creator, and in some interpretations may even be referred to as the Logos.

The Logos as a divine concept is associated with the word, with knowledge. Our understanding of the world is the first step in our ability to change it. If you cannot comprehend something, you cannot work willfully with it.

There’s a deeper social level to this that needs to be explored. Much of our life is seen through the lens of other people. Even our perceptions of ourselves are influenced by how other people view us. If we cannot communicate, we cannot understand.

My Life

I am, of course, as an English teacher by trade inclined to see the value of good grammar. Communication, likewise, falls into my domain of specialty, even if I have not acquired such a mastery of it as I would like. What I find has been the greatest problem of my adult life is figuring out what my problems are and getting them to a point where I can communicate them.

Only once that first step has been completed have I found myself able to make changes that improve my life.

This has also been a key part in overcoming what I would describe as anxious tendencies within myself. I do not know if I suffer from them any more than the average person, but I frequently find myself in a place where worry overcomes the ability to act. Being hyper-conscious and continuously vigilant in identifying what I truly desire and what I truly suffer from has been key.

Being able to explain something, even if only to oneself, makes all the difference.


Be able to speak about what I need to speak about.

Hold no deception toward myself.

Seek to understand the meaning.

Aphorism 29

To take upon oneself not punishment, but guilt–that alone would be godlike.

Friedrich Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

I believe that it is a fundamental part of human nature that leads us to avoid blame. There are strong social benefits to being blameless, and stark consequences for being in error.

However, being able to accept blame ties into the notion that I just discussed earlier of communicating clearly. Guilt is the consequence of the wrongness of an action. If sin is falling short of moral perfection, guilt is the consequence of that. Guilt is the fall that accompanies error.

If one managed to find what brings suffering, and remove the consequences, they would essentially undo entropy. This is likely impossible.

It is equally impossible to transfer guilt from one person to another. The act which causes harm is a product of moral agency.

To illustrate:

If I were to throw trash in the street, it would have a wide-ranging variety of negative consequences. It might harm the environment. It might start a downward spiral of disorder, with other people more likely to litter on account of my example. It harms property values, as no one wishes to live in a neighborhood full of trash. Each of these is likely a negligible impact from a single action, but by the time you add up many small consequences, the harm caused by even a small negligence may become quite profound.

If someone were following behind me, they could pick up my trash and throw it away. Assuming that they followed relatively close behind me, they might even be able to entirely prevent the consequences from taking effect. In a sense, the only consequence would be that someone had to pick up after me, which has a much less profound cost, we could hope. Obsessing over the butterfly effect is not a good use of time. However, if a police officer were to see me do this, they would not consider me less of a litterer because someone followed behind me cleaning up.

The person who cleaned up after me could remove my consequences, essentially taking the punishment (except that which society place is upon me on account of my guilt), but they cannot remove my moral agency in the situation.

My Life

I have never been a practicing Catholic. I spent a semester student teaching at a Catholic school, and it was an experience that interested me in religion beyond just my own personal practice. The Catholic Church talks about mysteries hidden within the example of Christ and other events portrayed in the Bible, something which my own Protestant upbringing did not ever mention.

The greatest mystery of them all, at least as I see it with my limited understanding of the Catholic mysteries, is how Christ managed to take responsibility for believers’ sins.

I believe that it is this which Nietzsche talks about.

As someone who works with children, I often find myself wishing that I could impart my own moral superiority upon them. This is not possible, which is probably for the best, since those who believe themselves possessed of moral superiority usually do not actually have such an advantage over others.

However, it pains me when I see people make the same mistakes that I made in my own ignorance.

If everyone could share with everyone else the heights of their virtues, the sum of their ability to improve the world and avoid sin, they would make the world a better place, perhaps even the dreamed-of utopia.


Accept what I earn, good and bad.

Seek to do that which bears no guilt.

Remember that the goal of moral perfection is in the self, but that the benefit is for everyone.