Monday, November 30

"Where is there dignity unless there is honesty?" Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC)

The statement is pretty clear and straight forward. No argument made by Cicero here in support of his assertion – he makes this statement as if it is a self-evident truth, one I happen to agree with and that most people would have a hard time arguing against. Honesty, after all, is a value and virtue that we still hold aloft in principal if not in practice.

To me though, that our culture still does praise the virtues of honesty seems a bit hypocritical. We live in the age of persuasion, after all, when the ability to manipulate opinion, coerce agreement, ‘win friends and influence people’, and make a hard sale seem to be qualities that we praise above the more ‘traditional’ virtues. 

I’d go so far as to say that dishonesty is the more valued attribute in our day and age, provided you can be profitably dishonest and not get caught. We still love to hang the dishonest villain out to dry if they get themselves caught, but while they are raking in profits or basking in the limelight, we praise that kind of ambition and drive.

By Cicero’s standard there’s an awful lot of undignified behavior today, just as there was in his time, but also like in Cicero’s time, we are the only species on the face of the planet that can consciously aspire to refute dishonesty, to stand apart from the kind of win-at-all-costs and avoid-responsibility mentality that makes it possible to rationalize dishonesty as a legitimate choice of action.

Honesty pays the kind of dividends that dishonest dealings can never provide: honest and humble pride, a sense of honor and the aspiration of nobility of character. Old fashioned concepts perhaps, but the kind that can still apply in a modern and changing world if we make the choice to prioritize them. What kind of world would we be able to make for ourselves if enough people chose honesty and dignity, not as replacements for profitability and success, but as the measure of them?

Sunday, November 29

"In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument..."

"... my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it... I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion." Carl Sagan

There are two points I found interesting from this quote. The first is that Mr. Sagan is promoting a pretty romantic perspective of scientific objectivity. What he describes can and does happen, and he does qualify it with the word ‘often’, but science is not immune to the petty competitions and greed that plague business or religion or philosophy or politics. So I take this one with a small grain of salt.
That said, I do admire the spirit of science in which empirical, scientific truth is the ultimate goal of everyone involved, and where the truth trumps all other theories, arguments and rivalries. And while science may not be immune to pig-headed denial and competition, it is far more open to the concept of recognizing a proven truth and abandoning an old falsehood. We could use more of that objectivity in other aspects of our culture and daily lives.
Science isn’t the only place that that this kind of intellectual fairness can exist either. It exists in other areas of academia as well, although the murkier waters of the humanities make the clarity of empirical truth harder to find. The spirit can exist though, where open minds can receive and interpret new, even opposing theories for what they are instead of automatically assuming that they are wrong if they differ from those we already hold.
I like the idea of that. I’m no scientist, but I enjoy thinking (some would say too much for my own good), and I try to receive ideas that are new to me with a non-judgmental attitude, turning them over and exploring them until I understand them enough to make a judgment on them. I don’t always agree with a perspective or theory, but if I’m going to disagree, I’d like to do so from a position of understanding rather than a position of dogmatic denial, and more often than not I can find something of value or some point of empathy with most viewpoints.
A bit more of that kind of empathy would be nice to see in politics and religion. Maybe we could focus on the common ground as much as what we don’t share, and perhaps that could lead to a little less strife in favor of a bit more cooperation.

Saturday, November 28

"It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own...

"... but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'Self-Reliance'

This one had a particular resonance with me over the summer, secluded as I was up in the mountains. That kind of isolation was exactly what I was looking for as I set about analyzing and assessing the lifestyle I was leaving and re-evaluating many of my priorities.

Emerson is making the assumption that we are at our best when no one is watching, that we can be or seek the best version of ourselves when we are alone, but that it’s hard to maintain that independence of thought when we are in the midst of the herd influence of society. At the end of my time on the mountain for this season, I do feel like a version of me that I am pretty comfortable with at this point along the path.

The challenge now is to preserve that sense of me back amidst the hustle and bustle of civilization, a task that can be hard. It’s natural to conform to one degree or another when we’re in the midst of society, to abandon the independence of perception that is so much easier without distraction or the comforts of conformity. There’s a lot of cultural pressure to do so too, in any culture, but perhaps especially in one that bombards us with images of happiness, beauty and success that are so closely linked to what we can buy and based on imitating lifestyles, vagaries of fashion and physical ideals as they are represented in the media we watch and read.

But that’s the trick of it, isn’t it? The challenge is to figure out who we are at our best, and then chase after and hold onto that person in spite of the pressure and temptation to be someone, to one degree or another, that we’re not - to find every day, regardless of circumstance, the sweetness of that ‘independence of solitude’.

Friday, November 27

"A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself..." Henry Beecher

"... The one produces aspiration; the other ambition, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires." Henry Ward Beecher (1813 - 1887)

It might be cheating a, but I’m going to go back and mine the archives a bit. Today’s quote was the first one I chose back at the beginning.
Beecher was saying this in a different time, and the semantics of the language would have meant more then, although the nuances of the words ‘aspiration’ and ‘ambition’ can still carry some of the same deeper meaning today. ‘Ambition’ is the word that can make it controversial. Beecher is saying that ambition is more ‘vulgar’ than aspiration, but ambition is a word that our culture admires as a virtue, not a detriment. So is the use of ‘ambition’ just out of date, or is this quote actually applicable today?

I think it is.

If you’ve ever read authors like Covey, you’ll be familiar with the argument that our society has moved away from an emphasis on the internal character of people towards concepts that focus on the ability to persuade and on material gain as measure of a person’s worth. Beecher’s quote comes from a time when that real transition was just starting and his point, one I believe is just as appropriate today (if not as commonly accepted), is that ambition to achieve external results is a poor replacement for achieving internal growth; that material success is less valuable than the ability of humanity to aspire to true nobility of character; to be something more tomorrow than we are today.

The concept of focusing on aspiration more than ambition makes sense to me and applies to where I’m going. It might not apply as directly to other people, and that’s okay, but taking a moment to think about the value of developing character as a focus is, I believe, something we could all benefit from doing a bit more.

Thursday, November 26

“The people I distrust most are those who want to improve our lives but have only one course of action.” Frank Herbert

I'm going to start something new today. I've been thinking about it a fair bit since my November 11th Noam Chomsky quote of the day, and in particular since I received a couple of the responses to it. It struck me then that, while my chosen quotes meant something to me, and always something positive to my train of thinking, some of them might not always seem so positive to the people that see them on Facebook.

We all perceive the world through our own 'lenses', and if somebody else's lens converted the quote into a negative for them, then my purpose in posting was being lost in translation. Considering that the only thing I seem to be any good at is communicating (and that might even be a reach), the last thing I wanted to be doing was miscommunicate simply because I was to lazy to post what I got from a quote and what i thought it meant.
So here I am, trying to be less lazy. Now I have less than 100 words left, so I should get on with it.
Mr. Herbert's quote is a bit vague, which I suppose makes it more interesting. I hear him saying to be wary of those who have one set agenda, or hold too dogmatically to one proscribed path to success. His point, to me, is that the reasoning mind, no matter how much we might think that we've found a belief system or ideology or philosophy that works, will always remain open to new concepts and ideas. Learning should never end, and to close ourselves to ideas that don't necessarily fit with our comfortable world view can be dangerously lazy.