Ensaio: The Question of Character Progress

It is said by the ancient mystics and by the secret schools that carry their teachings forth that man has two distinct tendencies, or inclinations. This was later developed by Sigmund Freud as Έρως (Eros – Love) and θάνατος (Thanatos – Death). Here we’ll define progress as the act of building upon one’s character and we’ll associate this mission with the tendency towards Eros. The other side, Thanatos, is the destructive force that seeks to accelerate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and turn order into chaos. This is the force responsible for the shattering of expensive dinner plates in fits of passion. The forces themselves are explored elsewhere, but it’s sufficient to know that one builds and the other destroys.

We are taking character for granted and if one believes in its moral construction via experience and introspection, one may read on. Otherwise, by our definition, Thanatos has taken over and there is little that Eros can do at this point. Many persons who decide to lead a moral life are initially overwhelmed by the habits they have acquired throughout their more ‘careless’ lives. It is natural that as one begins to explore the subject either by watching those they believe to be paragons of morality or by reading books on Philosophy, ethical codes and various religions’ bibles, one sees a series of rules that one is compelled to follow. One decides they are laws because they seem far from his own capabilities and it appears that these ‘rules’ or ‘laws of morality’ lead to the success one beholds in their authors or the disseminators.

Certain laws beforehand are simply impossible for the beginner. Like someone who wishes to wake up with the sunrise and has heretofore been waking up whenever he pleases, sleeping eight or more hours a day, even with an alarm clock he’ll struggle to do it and chances are he’ll give up after a few tries, depending on how strong his other habit was and his current will power is. This attempt would be classified as ‘overwhelming’ for him. So how should he look at it? Now some say, “I’m not really obligated to do it, I just need to try my best”. And this is the way they view progress it in general? The esteemed German Philosopher Emanuel Kant suggests that “Ought implies can,” that if one cannot do something one is not compelled to do it. Like if you promised to drive somebody to the zoo and that person is in jail, then you have no fault in not fulfilling your promise. While this sounds eminently reasonable, there’s another interesting point of view. Others say that you are obligated to do something even it’s impossible, although you shouldn’t be penalised, blamed or criticised for not fulfilling the law, promise or obligation if it was impossible to do so. At first glance it seems that both are saying the same thing, but there’s a difference in psychology between the two. Take the following example:

George borrows money from Jimmy, when he borrows the money he fully intends to pay Jimmy back. He’s got a job, a house, and other assets and is fully capable of paying Jimmy back. Suddenly there’s a massive natural disaster where George lives and he loses everything, absolutely everything. Now, come the time of payment, it is impossible for George to pay Jimmy back. Kant would say that if it is impossible, he has no obligation to do so. The other view says he is still obligated but cannot be penalised for not doing so. Now imagine a third person looking at this situation, let’s call him the Moral Man. The Moral Man has more than enough money to help George out and get him out of the situation, but will only do so if it is morally correct. According to Kant, since George is no longer obligated to pay Jimmy back, since it is impossible for him to do so, the Moral Man should not give George the money, since he’s not really in any disfavour as he has no obligations unfulfilled. According to the other view, it is moral for Moral Man to give George the money as even though he isn’t being punished for it, he still is obligated to pay Jimmy back.

So when we look at moral law and laws of progress (whichever ones one may choose), we hold the latter view and say that every person is obligated to fulfill them in their entirety even if they are impossible for them. It’s not true to say that one is only obligated to ‘try their best’, they are obligated to do the whole thing. Yes, what one will be judged by is his effort and will, but one is still expected to deliver the final result.

Given that we have limitations, at least temporarily, if we still keep in mind that we are obligated to do our duties anyway, we will strive to them through an education of character, for certain things cannot be done even by the strongest of wills, that is, immediately anyway.  By decision and design certain things just cannot be done. Let’s say one wants to study an Egyptian papyrus scroll that was just uncovered in an archaeological site. If one does not know how to read hieroglyphics, even the strongest will in the world will not allow him to do it overnight. One’s brain can’t handle it, it just doesn’t have the capacity. He’ll have to set goals and little by little get closer to his goal.

They say that Kant, the aforementioned Philosopher was, aside from his intellectual capacities, an example of punctuality. He’d be seen doing his habitual things in his town of Konigsberg and it’d be possible to tell the time by seeing which habitual activity he was performing. As an example, say his morning walk would be 10 am every day. If you saw him exiting his house in the morning, you could be sure it was 10 am. Now, because Kant was so punctual, do we criticise those who aren’t? Of course not! It is expected for people to be at least mildly late to things, though everyone would rather be punctual. If one were trying to be more punctual, one should not begin by competing with Kant. Again, this would be overwhelming. So how does one decide if one is ready to take a particular step towards progress that won’t just lead to quitting halfway?

How to Make Progress? Subdivide.

If I can do just ‘X’ and not the complete goal, how do I progress to approach the complete goal via ‘X’? How do I make progress? Take steps forward, increasing gradually what you are able to do. There’s a fundamental rule that sounds counter intuitive, sounds like it’s cheating.

Every law can be subdivided and it’s perfectly appropriated to take it one step at a time.

Let’s say a gang member who regularly kills people suddenly realises that it is not ok to kill. For the sake of argument let’s say he can never get caught either; he’ll continue to kill as long as he continues to want to do so. So the law for his progress is ‘one shouldn’t kill’, period. Make no mistake, just because he can’t stop himself now, he is still obligated to follow this law completely. But this guy grew up around killing, all his friends kill regularly and expect him to do so too, it may be unrealistic to ask him to just stop, it may lead to more killing, just like the fit of passion that breaks the dinner plates or the semi-punctual man who tries to compete with Kant and ends up abandoning the project altogether. He wants to make real progress. Still the law doesn’t change. Killing is wrong in his mind and he has to stop. So he can begin by setting limits to his killing. For example, “I will not kill women and children no matter what happens” or “I’ll severely wound somebody, but will not kill” or “On saturdays and sundays I will not kill no matter what” so when his gang calls on Saturday and Sunday he’ll say, call back on Monday. He is limiting the the force that compels him to kill in order to give strength to the opposite force ‘not-killing’. This can only happen by giving supreme importance to the goal of ‘not-killing’ thereby feeding it gradually.

What one shouldn’t do is create exceptions for the law, such as “I can kill if somebody REALLY pisses me off,” that’s intellectual suicide. It means the law of ‘one shouldn’t kill’ isn’t really complete in your mind (not enough importance is given to it), it has the exception of ‘except when one pisses me off’. So that thought will not lead one to stop the killing. It will instead invite the force of Thanatos to take over and the mind will see ‘pissing off’ in what before wasn’t ever really there, just for the killing to continue and the killing is liable to get worse.

This method is asking for the force of Thanatos to take over at any point it pleases. So don’t make exceptions. Do what you can do now that keeps the positive thought of the goal in mind. Don’t kill for 10 minutes, you’ll develop a tolerance for 10 minutes then you’ll go up to not-killing for 15 minutes, etc.. Do it on the basis of your capability, not on the basis of what the abstract law requires.

The ‘Hypocrisy Trick’ of the Mind

Let’s say you want to stop gossiping. You find yourself speaking about others every time there’s someone to hear you. You feel ashamed and you wish to stop. So you create limits. From 4pm to 6pm I will not say one word about another person. I’ll put 60 alarms in my pocket, ringing every 2 minutes reminding me to keep my mind and my speech clean of gossip. Your best friend calls you up at 5 pm and you say “Call me back in an hour”. It’s more difficult than it seems. You may have to stop conversations, you may have to get up and leave and it may get awkward. So another common question that leads to intellectual suicide is, isn’t this hypocrisy? Isn’t a hypocrite a person who says ‘I believe in X’ but doesn’t live up to it? Isn’t this dishonest? I want to speak ill of someone and I don’t at a particular time just because of a silly vow? This line of thinking is a mistake and it’s a tragic mistake.

Furthermore only idealistic people with high values make this mistake. People who don’t care don’t make this mistake.

George is telling you how bad smoking is, he says it leads to cancer, to bad breath, to the worst possible human traits and in the middle of the conversation George takes out a cigarrette and starts smoking. What’s going on? Isn’t George against smoking? Then George tells you he goes to a support group twice a day, he uses nicotine patches, he even hired a private hypnotist to send him anti-smoking hypnotic suggestions, it just hasn’t worked yet. Would you call George a hypocrite? 

So we change our definition. A hypocrite is someone who believes in something and isn’t making an honest effort to live up to it.  His particular believe may be out of reach at the moment, but he still believes in it.

Thanatos says, “Do the whole thing, what are you a child? Be a man and take responsibility for your obligations!” Thanatos knows that you will never be strong enough to do the whole thing from nothing. So it says wait until you have enough power, don’t be a hypocrite. If you say I want to stop drinking “I won’t stop drinking on week days because that would be hypocrisy, I need to stop altogether or I’m a hypocrite. When this happens, when that happens I’ll be strong enough to stop drinking and I’ll stop it entirely”. Meanwhile if you’re an alcoholic and you stopped drinking on weekdays, your liver is better off, you have a clear head to think and you’re about 70% of the way there. If you don’t start you never get anywhere. “I can’t stop drinking socially, but it’s easy to not do it when I’m at home. If I do it socially and not at home I’m just being a hypocrite!” again, tragic mistake, if you’re at home 50% of the time, by not drinking at home you’ll be 50% of the way there to stopping your drinking (if that’s your goal). There’s no reason to deny yourself that 50%. Furthermore, by allowing yourself that time you’ll gain the strength to allow yourself even more time and get to the point that you’ll say “This is isn’t difficult anymore”.

Understand that Thanatos has certain tools at its disposal, such as vanity. If one goes to a party and is the only one not drinking, or is drinking water after drinking, one feels displaced. There force of habit and the environments will is stronger than your own will power, almost always. So don’t ignore Thanatos, take it into consideration. It will bother you. So hide your water and drink in the bathroom, but drink it!

The Two Ways of Assessing One’s Current State

All the above is assuming you can’t do any better. How do you know? Maybe you could do better. Maybe you’re trying to relieve yourself of an obligation. How do you achieve self knowledge?

There are 2 ways. The first is to experiment, this goes together with the subdividing. Am I up to it? Try it for a week, if I’m able, I go on, if not, then nothing’s lost, because I only decided to do it for a week. That’s much different from deciding it in general, because there’s no sense of disappointment and loss, which is backsliding and leads to greater failure.

The question is did I not-gossip for two hours but then got stressed and nervous and yelled at my husband, etc. That’s not success, you have to ask the bottom-line evaluation question? Is my overall character better due to this. What did this development cost? Then you gain information about yourself. You may cut it down to one hour or try it in a different time of your life, but at least you know that the full two hours wasn’t yet successful.

Set up a schedule where you will succeed, don’t set up a schedule that will make you fail. Failure will drive you back and it saps all of your motivation and your energy. It’s better to have a series of small successes than to have any failure in one’s progress, it’s better to succeed in small steps than take a chance in larger steps that you risk failure. It doesn’t count as failure if it’s experimental, so experiment and know yourself.

If you try to meditate for 10 minutes and by the fifth minute you are counting the seconds and looking at the clock, 10 minutes is too much. Even if you stay there in a meditative state for 10 minutes and you leave the meditation exhausted rather than relaxed, it tells you that this was too much, because the point was missed. It’s a trade off and you are losing in the trade off.

The second way is taking council on other people. This can be friends, or guides and teachers, if one is more fortunate. The benefit of a wiser person’s experience can be crucial when discovering if one is ready for a particular step in progress. Like in Gymnastics, the expert can say how much one can add to time, resistance and distance. One who runs marathons can tell how to run a mile without fainting. Consult the successful.

Those are the two ways, experimenting on your own, or consulting others.

Setting Priorities

Now there’s a second thing that deters progress.

George has 20 things he needs to develop and he can choose any two to start. How does he do it? 

It’s a question of setting priorities.

The criteria are not legal, that is what law is more important and holds more sway.Tthe criteria are psychological. Ask the question, what will increase my overall development of character in the long run? The murderer may be better off choosing to be kinder to his gang members first rather than stopping the killing, even though one sounds much graver than the other, stopping the killing might break him and the project of his development sinks entirely. So a wise man may suggest to a drunkard that drinking one drink throughout the night and not mixing is better for him than quitting drinking altogether. Because quitting would ruin him making him at best a nervous and anxious wreck and drinking only one drink would develop his discipline and encourage his self control and development.

The more you develop and the more that is done, the more you realise there’s more to be done, there’s more that is appropriate. Little by little the murderer may get to a point where (as it is to the common man) it is unthinkable to kill someone, but then he is faced with the greater problem, ‘be kind to everyone,’ now that seems even more impossible than ‘not killing’ was to him before. This is true for development in any case, one level reveals the next level which seems even harder than before. So one must learn to excel in development itself rather than just that particular case in his development. This is the point of this essay.

At the outset one must realise one is climbing an endless mountain that will constantly reveal new foothills. You’ll be in progress for the whole of your life. This eliminates the embarassment of thinking you are in progress while others may not be. They are too. Gandhi was in progress. Einstein was in progress.

Don’t despise small steps. A skyscraper is made of bricks. A brick is a meaningless small stone. Don’t despise small steps. You are expected to live 10s of thousands of days in your life. Imagine taking a small step each day, you can achieve wonders.

Stress the gradual nature of it and stress the idea of doing it as an experiment.

The key problem in sports is getting an injury. Because an injury cancels even the possibility of development. You can’t practise with an injury. So if there’s a 5% chance of getting an injury it’s better to delay that step, delay development and not risk the injury.

In other words, ff a failure will annul the motivation to even achieve development, don’t risk it, delay it.

Like in the marriages of our generation. It’s an unwritten law and most people expect to get married. They expect themselves to succeed but don’t carefully analyse it and instead rely on the moment’s passion. Later they divorce and may even become cynical about the possibility of a life-long union. Don’t rush into the abstract law. It’s usually beyond one’s psychological capacity to keep it.

An infamous mystic once said that the ideal meditation would go on even if there’s a dog barking at you right beside you. However, if the dog barking is stopping you from meditating, it’s ok to kill the dog for the sake of a better meditation because even the law of not killing animals is for the sake of a better meditation. He argues that killing excites you and therefore stops you from stilling the mind in order to meditate. So if the dog barking isn’t letting you even have the possibility of stilling the mind, it’s better to excite the mind temporarily by killing the dog, and then having the possibility of stilling the mind. All this, of course, if one’s goal is to meditate above all else. So that eventually after murdering some 10 different dogs you are able to achieve the ideal state of meditating even though the dog is barking beside you.

Don’t judge yourself in comparison to other people. Others may be excelling on one point and failing in others and it is impossible to know from observation. This will only deter your progress. You are capable of doing what you are capable and you must know your own level. This goes for positive or negative comparisons. It’s equally deterent to think “I’m doing great in relation to the others, I can relax and exert less effort”. We are taught to do just that. American social development is to a great extent competitive. What percentile are you in? If Einstein gets 92% in a physics exam, that’s terrible!

You need to feel that you know what you are doing. You need to feel challenged and reinforced, successful, proud of development. Yet inspiration will fade. At your job, marriage, at the symphony, anywhere, it’s normal and natural. Try to regenerate, explore new perspectives, keep it exciting and mostly try to make it relate to you more, to who you are where you are. If your mantras get boring translate them and change them into your language. Help your loved ones before strangers if strangers get too strange. Nevertheless keep moving forward.

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