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On the Nature of Things

"Never do your enemy a small hurt. Never let your enemy know he's your enemy until it's too late."

A few weeks ago, I loaned my copy of Machiavelli's The Prince to Shelly.

Her reaction? "I don't see what the fuss is all about. I don't understand why so many people find Machiavelli offensive. He's just writing the truth. It seems pretty obvious to me."

Which, of course, is precisely why people find him offensive. He writes, in plain and accessible language, without flinching, the truth about some part of what makes us what we are.

But I didn't come here to talk about Machiavelli. I came here to talk about illusion.

We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are

Or perhaps, as we want it to be.

Machiavelli's The Prince has been banned in a multitude of places. So have books like Lord of the Flies and Kafka's The Trial. These books don't impugn religion or offend sexual mores, yet people find them threatening nonetheless.

It's all about the sex

There's a conversation going on elsewhere on LiveJournal right now about the value of honesty--or more specifically, about the value of telling one's lover if one cheats on that person.

Many people will weigh in in favor of deceit, of course. That's not surprising; a self-serving rationalization to justify avoiding the consequences of one's behavior is about as common as a snowflake in Maine.

What's surprising, though, is the number of people who say that if a lover were to cheat on them, they would not want to know. Indeed, many people don't even want to know something as basic as their lover's past!

Take off your shoes, and we will keep you safe

When I flew to San Francisco for MacWorld last month, boarding was delayed because the airline security people asked the passengers to put their shoes on the X-ray conveyer belt.

People do not act in accordance with the truth; they act in accordance with what they believe to be true

All of these things--prefering a lover's lie to the truth, putting your shoes on the conveyer belt, banning a book--are really the same. Ultimately, each of these things serves to protect an illusion.

As human beings, we continually re-invent the world around us. To some extent, this is necessary; our perception of the world is limited by our senses and by our past experience. Filtering is a necessary way to make sense of the world.

But the person who bans The Prince, the person who prefers a lover's lie, and the person who puts his shoes on the converer belt are all engaged in something more. They are actively seeking to protect and preserve an illusion--a deliberately constructed, carefully maintained falsehood.

The Prince is threatening because it exposes an illuson about human nature. It shatters the fiction that people are basically good and just, that we are far too enlightened to be manipulated in these ways. Machiavelli rubs our noses in our own human weaknesses, in the fact that not only can we be manipulated and led, but that, ultimately, we like to be manipulated and led. It's easier than doing the work ourselves.

People like to preserve illusions about their lovers, and about themselves--they like to fabricate a fantasy in which true love conquers all, their lovers are faithful and act with integrity, that their lover's lives and their lover's past did not exist before that wonderous day when they fell in love.

People don't always seek romantic relationships because they want to know the truth about themselves and their partner, and want the intimacy that knowledge brings; often, they seek romantic relationships because they are trapped between fear of loneliness on one side and their own insecurities on the other. Such a relationship benefits from fiction; the fiction is easier than the truth, because the fiction protects insecurity and the truth does not.

And the shoes on the X-ray belt? They create the illusion of security, without actually creating real security. Real security is expensive. Real security is inconvenient.

A commercial passenger flight would be far safer if the baggage on the flight were matched to a passenger on that flight in every instance,a nd if the airlines took steps to make sure a person could not put a package onto an airplane without actually boarding that airplane himself.

But this checking (which is standard on some non-US airlines) creates logistical complication and expense; and at the end of the day, the airlines know that the risk of terrorist attack is incredibly slim anyway. It is not, in the final analysis, worth the effort and expense to create real security; the illusion of secuirty is good enough to keep people flying.

Reality is a scary place

In the real world, people are lazy and want to be led. In the real world, people can and do betray their vows, and sometimes, those actions have consequences. In the real world, people make mistakes, and those mistakes affect others. In the real world, the universe is not especially interested in coddling insecurities. And in the real world, dedicated people with patience and evil can and sometimes do find a way to knock an airplane out of the sky, and flying without risk has never been and will never be possible.

And in spite of all that, the real world is still a better place to live. When we rise above our illusions, we become more enlightened.


Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
siren_sings
Feb. 8th, 2004 10:00 pm (UTC)
Argument for argument's sake
People like to preserve illusions about their lovers, and about themselves--they like to fabricate a fantasy in which true love conquers all, their lovers are faithful and act with integrity, that their lover's lives and their lover's past did not exist before that wonderous day when they fell in love.

These aren't the only illusions people choose to live with, of course. Just some you find particularly heinous and self-deluding. The line between truth and what we believe to be true is impossibly slim and at best blurry and smudged. From another perspective you might say that polyamory is an illusion because the idea that we can ever be really honest with someone else is based on the illusion that we are capable of being really honest with ourselves, and for polyamory work we've got to be really honest with our partners about pretty much everything. It's too circular to work.

But it does work, and quite well, for a number of us. So does monogamy for the vast majority of people. In the end what's important is not so much what we choose to believe but how we choose to act on our beliefs.

Every time I hear someone talk about the self-illusions we create I remind myself that we never have the whole picture, and we sure as hell aren't seeing it from every angle. The map is not the territory, but all we get to see is the map and not the territory. Best to construct that map with care.
tacit
Feb. 8th, 2004 10:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Argument for argument's sake
"Every time I hear someone talk about the self-illusions we create I remind myself that we never have the whole picture, and we sure as hell aren't seeing it from every angle."

True. We all do continually reconstruct the world around us; it's inevitable and impossible to prevent.

I see, however, a qualitative difference between the kind of illusion we carry simply because we, as human beings, are incapable of understanding the entirety of the truth, and the willful illusions we deliberately construct in order to protect our insecurities.

Sure, it's possible to argue that nobody can be 100% honest with himself or with anyone else. However, that's a very different issue from saying "I want my lover to lie to me" or "It's okay for me to do something I know is wrong, then lie to my lover about it."

Willful illusion--the deliberate, intentional construction of a fabricated reality which you know to be untrue--is not the ideal way to construct a foundation for one's life. Those who deliberately construct such illusions know, even if only on a subconscious level, that they are living in a lie; that's why they defend those illusions so aggressively.

If someone were to write a book saying there's no such thing as gravity, nobody would bother to censor that book; it's clear in an immediate and direct sense that gravity does in fact exist. People censor books like The Prince because on some level they know that those books contain a truth, and that truth is uncomfortable because it challenges the illusions that people construct to protect themselves or to preserve a sense of comfort. The book would not be threatening if people knew it to be untrue. It's the book's truth that makes it uncomfortable.

This is the way it is with any deliberate illusion. The thinner the illusion, the more passionately people will fight to defend it--because the illusion serves a function. It protects something--a sense of security, a sense of self-esteem, something.

I believe that rather than expending energy n constructing deliberate lies for the sake of shielding ourselves from our insecurities, the better use of that energy is to overcome those insecurities in the first place. A person who protects himself from his own insecurities with a deliberate shell of illusion and fantasy lives always in fear of the revelation that punctures that illusion and forces him to confront the very insecurities he was hiding from in the first place.

The nice thing about facing down your insecurities, as uncomfortable and even terrifying as it may be, is that once you've done so you're free. You never need to fear them again.
syllopsium
Feb. 9th, 2004 01:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Argument for argument's sake
To be pedantic:

'It's the book's truth that makes it uncomfortable'

It's because a book /seems/ to be true to a particular group of people, not because it necessarily is.

Whilst the truth can set you free; the scale of life changes from that truth should be weighed against your status quo - if a lie results in a small niggle in your personality you cant erase, whilst the truth produces whopping great issues the lie may actually be the better path.

tacit
Feb. 16th, 2004 03:09 am (UTC)
Re: Argument for argument's sake
"Whilst the truth can set you free; the scale of life changes from that truth should be weighed against your status quo - if a lie results in a small niggle in your personality you cant erase, whilst the truth produces whopping great issues the lie may actually be the better path."

I disagree. In fact, I would say if the truth creates whopping great issues in your life, it's because you are protecting a falsehood--and that building happiness on the foundation of a falsehood creates a very fragile falsehood indeed, needing only a chance discovery to be completely destroyed.

Truth makes a better foundation for happiness than falsehood does.

The Prince, which I highly recommend if you've never read it, says some profoundly uncomfortable things about human nature. It says that in most circumstances, the people would rather have the illusion of security than the reality of security, and that people can usually be counted on to accept whatever their leader tells them, particularly if it's dressed in the trappings of home and country, than do the real work themselves. History suggests there's a great deal of truth in this.

Personally, I'd rather know the truth than preserve a lie, even if the truth makes me more uncomfortable than the lie. Only by unflinching acknowledgement of what's real can we rise above ourselves.
syllopsium
Feb. 16th, 2004 11:23 am (UTC)
Re: Argument for argument's sake
building happiness on the foundation of a falsehood creates a very fragile falsehood indeed, needing only a chance discovery to be completely destroyed.
I'd argue that depends entirely on the falsehood and other chance events.

Example:

You are adopted and do not know your birth parents. Not knowing will irk you for half an hour for a couple of days each year. Searching out your true parents (who are, to put it politely, underclass) will cause weeks of hassle that adversely affects your health for the rest of your life, before you manage to cut them off again.

Extreme example? Maybe, but entirely valid in my opinion. It depends entirely on the scale of life changes in each event.

Frankly given a stark choice between being slightly ignorant and happy, and in possession of the full facts with no chance of ever being happy - give me slight ignorance any day.

Agreed re security/illusion of security.

Suspect we'll have to agree to disagree on this.

altenra
Feb. 9th, 2004 07:41 pm (UTC)
I had no idea that Lord of the Flies was being banned anywhere; I read it back in middle school...but then, I was in the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education...don't know if you guys have that program over there), and we read stuff like by Orwell, as well.

The masses are revolting.
slutbamwalla
Feb. 10th, 2004 04:18 pm (UTC)
Can I be you when I grow up? ^_^

These are ideas that I've held but never had a decent way to express. It's the same concept between people understanding infidelity but finding polyamory abhorrent. The concept of being honest is somehow foreign.
(Anonymous)
Feb. 14th, 2004 02:18 pm (UTC)
Heard of the book The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie? He published it in 1989 and the book got banned in India before it even went for sale. It's a Matrix-like book and he's a Muslim and uses Islamic metaphors from the Qu'ran/Koran.

It landed him a fatwa from the entire Muslim world and the guy left Bombay alive and lives in NY now.

-Vijay
tacit
Feb. 16th, 2004 10:31 pm (UTC)
Re:
Heard if it, never read it. I remember reading about the threats on Rushdie's life, though. Was the fatwah against him ever lifted?
(Anonymous)
Feb. 19th, 2004 04:59 am (UTC)
Re:
Nope. He was in Bombay recently and a Muslim school/madrasa called Raza Academy offered a reward of Rupees 1,00,000 ($ 2222) to anyone who blackens his face with soot. He walked around the Gateway of India with his girlfriend and bodyguards, talking to people while he was there.

- Vijay
palmir
Mar. 14th, 2004 07:04 pm (UTC)
See, now I have to friendify you. I already get behind on LJ when I'm not at school as it is! Damn you!
tacit
Mar. 16th, 2004 11:14 am (UTC)
Sorry 'bout that...I'll try to be less interesting in the future...
(Anonymous)
Sep. 6th, 2004 07:58 am (UTC)
What is Truth?
Hey Tacit – I enjoyed your analysis of truth, human nature & illusions. There are two points I would like top add to your journal:

Firstly, whilst I fully agree that “illusions” is an issue, the way I see it is that “illusions” are a necessary “copying mechanism” for dealing with the harsh realities of life. I think that if people did not have a way to rationalise certain things in their life, even if it is to create an illusion, they would go insane (paranoia, psychosis, etc.).

Secondly, I think there is no such thing as “absolute truth” although there are some “very near absolute truths around”. Newtons laws of physics were very close to absolute truth, Einstein’s were closer and once we understand “dark energy & matter” we will be even closer to it. That fact is that all things related to human nature are based on a fiction – for example, ask yourself why you want/like/love anything. If you dig deep enough, you will discover that the reason is purely emotional (even the desire to stay alive is an emotional reason).
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )