Posts Tagged ‘ego’

Justice, pity and dignity

December 31, 2012

Athens has been described as “a city of advocates” (i.e., lawyers to a man) in records from the time of Aristotle, and Greek thought on the moral sentiments was rather refined. Skeptical of high emotion, they often described pity as an untrustworthy, reactionary sentiment:

The most extraordinary thing of all is that while in private suits the wronged shed tears and are pitied, in public suits the wrongdoers are pitied and you, the wronged, pity them.

Pity and Power in Ancient Athens

Public discourse on justice was civil by way of being equivocal, with orators dancing easily around one another’s claims on righteousness by being ever conscious of the procedural nature of law-making and trials.

Moral sentiments themselves have always had a reactionary element to them. It makes sense in the emotional reasoning of a jury for the accused to suddenly appear to be the underdog, once the case is being brought at court. The plaintiff is the one complaining that there is something amiss, if sympathy simply switches to the party presently on the defensive.

Outside the officious ceremonies of a courtroom, the universal commitment to “common decency” is even more difficult to pin down.

“…he actually felt safer fighting than running.”

In the first season of The Legend of the Seeker Richard politely brushes off the idea that, from a child’s point of view (a child with the magical ability to see into the private thoughts of others), he and Kahlan are the only people resisting tyranny for unselfish reasons. He corrects the boy, “we’re just the first ones you’ve met so far.”

Like any Rahl, he is quick to see himself as a “prince with a thousand enemies,” but Richard rarely suspects flattery when dealing with the subtleties of others.

A suspicious goddess, more inclined to assume he has been coasting on the optimism of others about whether his good intentions will carry the day, catches him off-guard in Season 2 with her teenage enthusiasm for confrontational right-mindedness and infinite skepticism.

She is no doubt being unfair, if understandably flustered that all her creation is on the line, and he seems close to blowing the deadline for preventing doomsday.

After all, asking follow-up questions is not unwise, even if a recently deified teenager presses them childishly.

Think of Phaidra’s nurse. First it’s “Better to be sick than tend the sick. The one is simple, the other work, work, work, work and worry.” Then one mistake is never to be forgotten, a boy spits on your love and disclaims your confidence: “My tongue swore the oath. My mind is unsworn.”

Go ahead and blame my failures, lady,
for the sting is stronger than your judgment now.
But I have answers too, if you allow.
I reared you, I am on your side.
I sought a cure
for your disease and found one not so nice.
Yes if I had succeeded you’d call me smart.
Smartness is relative to winning, isn’t it.

Good intentions, we learn from care-givers, are not enough for testimony if work was expected of you and instead, some harm has brought down law.

This blogger’s account of mundane frustrations living in a homeless shelter evokes the shock of transition to a stigmatized population – the raggedy edge of life on the receiving end of pervasive, unthinking micro-aggressions. Where he comes across as brash for having brought higher expectations, his concrete observations of day to day conditions reveal how they drain the emotional resources of those already down on their luck.


“I come from good parents: my mother is Night ..” | “I go.”

When your unmet needs go unacknowledged by the prevailing group-think, you have to start accepting that some who profess not to understand your point of view are brushing you off for reasons as frivolous as:

(a) convenience,
(b) defensiveness of a shallow appearance of self-righteousness,
(c) difficulty maintaining composure, or
(d) habitual confrontation avoidance.

And yet, how much stress can anyone you inconvenience with your unmet needs be expected to cope with day to day?

And so it goes.

“Peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy” is how Christopher Nolan’s Batman would like to see the people of Gotham he would lay down his life to protect. The catch is that he must hide his face from them to avoid reprisal on the terms of procedural justice, and still fear for those he loves knowing they could be traced to him despite the mask.

Choosing ambivalence isn’t always about avoiding risk by refusing to take sides. It can also be a deferential gesture to something desirable, muting one’s personal wishes to share in it, out of respect for the truth that not everyone can enjoy the best of everything. Bruce Wayne’s hope of laying down the mask fades fast in the Nolan trilogy.

Just as when one admires two lovers kissing in public without denying that their moment belongs to the two of them.

Sometimes, the key to preferring a fight over bidding for pity is to remember that all of us are vulnerable, and to move beyond fear for yourself, realizing that it’s possible to drag down those who would show you love, if you take someone’s hand and then allow yourself to lose your footing.

One of the lines in the song used for this fan video made me realize something interesting about the dystopia of Equilibrium:

“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” – W.B. Yeats

The contraband information that the book burners in this movie set out to destroy is the literature of freedom and dignity feared by behavioral scientists like Skinner for its celebration of willful individualism and disobedience.

Rather than expunging records of unflattering facts about the regime, these thought police are bent on destroying the flattering lies of art, the seductive illusions of idealization that inspire emotional life.

The ego is a rudder in a sea of moral sentiments. There must be a hand on it, willing to defy seemingly overwhelming currents.

Respect for others begins as a multiplication of the ego’s capacities for self-regard, just as the Golden Rule is referential, dictated by analogy to the felt experience of self-respect. We see ourselves in the other, and expand our understanding incrementally as we unlearn attachment to trivial distinctions that set us apart from some. We gradually gain a more universal respect for others, together with greater humility about our own place in the world.

More reluctantly, we gain perspective on the sense in which our lives and actions mirror those of others so greatly that our position is one of redundancy, not as selfless as a member of the Borg, but far from the vanities of one who would fight for heightened self-regard at the expense of others. This is where healing begins, the unburdening of the psychological aversion to pain. This is how the apparent privacy of suffering can be shattered, and the fear of carrying unshareable feelings and lacking help with “unconfirmed” hardships can be diminished.

I have plans for my ego, you’ll see

October 9, 2012

When the ego argues with its perceived enemies, its argument is carried along mostly by momentum and enjoyment of pursuit, even if the nature of the desired intellectual victory is preconceived rather than a hope of pure discovery.

True, you entered Babylon
perfect and loved by all, crowned
king of the known world, roses
spread under your magnificent march
through the blue gates, Bucephalus
solemn, crowds in awe, cheering.

Inside, you accepted this, its cost,
chose not to shirk success.
You could want everything
and give away the great wealth
achieved, even to Persians

whose beauty in perfect
strangeness you knew could
reconcile Greek and Eastern ways,
not penance but duty, toward
mankind and accounting science.

This at all costs. You made yourself more
completely alone than a king dare be,
Hephaistion the only one,
could never survive without him.

I do not know how your dream
of him ended, but you reached
for death with a gift in hand:
the great ring, love the last thought.

“But of all these men,” meaning poets like Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge, critic William Empson warns there is an element of inane violence in their spirit of romance –  their energy – “an imposed excitement, a sense of uncaused warmth, achievement, gratification, a sense of hugging to oneself a private dream-world, is the main interest and material.”

Ideas are the motives of our crimes and wars, as much as material needs have ever been a cause of armed robbery or a slave revolt. And ideas drive oppressors too, both towards gluttony in acquisition and paranoia about their rivals.

These are two sides of one illusion, an exaggerated sense of their own vulnerability to destitution should they hesitate to seize everything they can for themselves.


Owning an idea, investing it with motives that are personal, and so harnessing one’s person to the inter-textual lives of the words that make it up and their indifferent fate as “other than a constellation,” does produce motion.

Why do we believe we even know what we’re trying to do, in these instances? The ego’s self-serving bias to credit oneself with every success and blame others for every failure internalizes as confidence all the effects of good luck and avoids a loss of nerve in the event of bad luck.

This bias is an excellent source of “forward” momentum when one is trying to pick up speed with which to bulldoze obstacles, but once your desires have been conclusively thwarted, the worldview collapses around you in paranoid ideation about why the universe is suddenly out to get you.

Whereas the insights that appear to you out of a private silence can truly surprise you, instead of reinforcing your enthusiasm for what you thought you already knew better than anyone else.

Sometimes it is out of rest that an insight arises that will transcend those very enthusiasms that have been keeping your mind on the offensive, they bring abrupt peace from the strain of the imagined yet deeply felt conflict.

“what I am in the music – buoyed and supported above dreams .. the starred peacock .. cancelling my forgotten fear of strangeness and catastrophe in a destitute world.” – Palace of the Peacocks

You have to know these things: where the birds are to be feared for enchantment, where the swallows are laden, whose are the peacocks and the swans, and what season marks the passing through of the thrush where you live.


You have to know better, this time, than to back away from the tropical canopy in trepidation having noticed that the flattery is not what is answered or was spurned by the birds you have so long admired from the middling branches. Neither did they scorn in particular at the dirty jokes you told about them in resentment of such ostentatious and forgetful charm.

“The main things which to me are important on their own account, and not merely as means to other things, are knowledge, art, instinctive happiness, and relations of friendship or affection” (Bertrand Russell).

What else is freedom good for in the hands of the solitary individual? Late walks in uptown Vienna, early afternoons by a window with a book, music in your own home, company of your choosing if they also choose you.

Any image of the European tradition too stern for this notion of luxury on a small scale as the fitting pinnacle of civilization is a bad mood provoked by the disappointment of no other ideal than this, an ultimatum about what else there is if not this much for all.

It is an affront and a spitting sense of impatience that alleges to Athens “more fitting, I ween, for an oily sardine, than for you or your city the phrase is” – of epithets “brilliant” or “shining” – and says to us now of the lazy urbane, “a strange disease of modern life .. its sick hurry, its divided aims.”

And the retort it deserves is given in the same voice, Matthew Arnold’s “nursing the unconquerable hope .. clutching the inviolable shade …” There is a defense to be made for the ego’s active stance, especially when its appetite for violence is turned against illusions of credibility surrounding entrenched misunderstandings that enslave the mind.

Activity keeps despair at bay, whether you keep a garden in a prison camp or in a fort abroad. Macedonians built rose gardens at the borders with Scythia too.

A confiscated farm leads to a caterwauling fit for Virgil’s “little domain” built and left to unfamiliar hands, that belonged “between the hills and the marshes, with its coolness and its springs, its wide pools and its swans, its bees in the willow-hedge,” for even bystanders can say as Sainte Beuve did, “we see it from here, we love it as he did..”

A Roman might generally know better than to believe in a dream like the one that possessed Ennius, of being inhabited by Homer’s soul himself, yet not know better than to write. “The motive for writing poetry and for reading poetry is the desire for Heaven before the time. It is Roman to wait patiently for Heaven, as Scipio was told in his dream. But this patience in waiting pent up a poetry deeper than poetry of Greeks.”

W.F.J. Knight says all this of the appetite for hexameters in Latin, despite every obstacle to suppressing vernacular verse forms in favor of those from an older language. They could not resist a chance to “become a student of style.”

Awareness and the active mind

October 9, 2012

It is not uncommon or dull to argue against the idea that only the sublime is beautiful to the eye.

“While, oh, how all the more will love become intense
Hereafter, when ‘to love’ means yearning to dispense,
Each soul, its own amount of gain through its own mode
Of practicing with life, upon some soul which owed
Its treasure, all diverse and yet in worth the same,
To new work and changed way! Things furnish you rose-flame,
Which burn up red, green, blue, nay, yellow more than needs,
For me, I nowise doubt; why doubt a time succeeds
When each one may impart, and each receive, both share
The chemic secret, learn, – where I lit force, why there
You drew forth lambent pity, – where I found only food
For self-indulgence, you still blew a spark at brood
I’ the greyest ember, stopped not till self-sacrifice imbued
Heaven’s face with flame?” (Browning, Fifine at the Fair).

I could also argue by analogy to music without using the aesthetic principles of musicology directly, that there are ways of bringing harmony that are not reductionist.


There is the art of harmonizing counterpoint, making argument flirtatious and contrast delightful (well known from Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier). In writing it resembles the tireless experimentation with prosody that appeals to obscurantists, their satirists, and pedantic attic-dwellers like Alexander Pope.

“Hard, hard, hard is it, only not to tumble,
So fantastical is the dainty meter [..]
As some rare little rose, a piece of inmost
Horticultural art, or half coquette-like
Maiden, not to be greeted unbenignly” (Tennyson 1863).

Later composers modifying the classical tradition like Béla Bartók have shown that even polytonal music can accommodate the most parochial of folk melodies from Europe’s southern margins. Harmonizing balance appeals to me more than meditation on one’s inevitable end-of-life escape from the potentially raucous but vivid and often inspired contrasts of the material world.

This makes it difficult for me to enjoy meditation as a practice or take much interest in the ideas in Eckhart Tolle’s books A New Earth or The Power of Now, except in the sense that they challenge by thinking habits and preconceptions without saying anything that sounds terribly unconventional or counterintuitive in its own right.

The argument for mental stillness that really won me over is the way patient silence allows latent insights to surface. Not purely transcendent insights that leave the material world behind, but realizations that transcend one’s habitual patterns of thought to make unexpected connections within the realm of one’s prior knowledge and experience.

“.. What joy, when each may supplement
The other, changing each as changed, till, wholly blent,
Our old things shall be new, and, what we both ignite,
Fuse, lose the varicolor in achromatic white!”
(Browning, continued)

There are more pressing, mundane ways of seeing this need that are only less easy to contemplate by way of hitting too close to home. If a wizard like Zedd would say, “sometimes to gain ground you need to slow down,” the darker way of saying the same thing is “you can’t fight time over luck.”


My least favorite example of hurrying for the sake of feeling urgently needed at one’s destination is the health professions’ enthusiasm for the “stretcher trot” at the expense of good listening skills or competent hand-offs among team members juggling a shared patient’s charts and supplementary oral instructions.

But I’m not easily rushed, so I find the opposite side of the logic trap made of matched, conflicting tautologies more flattering – the one that endorses procrastination instead.

Creativity experts have recognized the need for undisturbed time to think reflectively, which is hardly possible if one’s sense of felt productivity is predicated on feeling rushed. In defiance of the way the Protestant work ethic has been reconceived as the cut-everyone-off-in-traffic-if-your-appointment-means-anything-to-you work ethic, one creativity guru has even come out with a cheeky defense of procrastination.

He details all its grandiose enthusiasms about one’s hypothetical potential and also its depressive self-sabotaging delays that make testing one’s full potential impossible by only getting down to work at the last minute.

But he sees a silver lining in the way procrastination buys time for thinking outside the box – if you never risk thinking unrealistically about what can be done, you may overlook a real opportunity for feasible innovation out of overzealous avoidance of risk.

So… anticipation of your swan dive can be the very best part?

Procrastinating out of resentment about frustrating, obstinant limitations on the best possible outcome of putting in your best effort is, in reality, a no-win. But sometimes taking the time to do something else before you begin what seems most important to accomplish can be the right thing to do.

The path that suits you best may not be the path of least resistance, but resistance feels different on the path you identify with as an experience of becoming, rather than a trial of the validity of your hopes and plans.

That’s why they say resistance cannot rob you of your purpose if “the journey is the destination”, whereas you could be robbed of access to an all-consuming future goal if your actions were only a means to an end.