Monthly Archives: September 2013

Character development via negativa

The process of intelligence via negativa is one in which I’m always tickled pink to find new applications.

If you’re not familiar with via negativa, read the following: “A philosophical approach to theology which asserts that no finite concepts or attributes can be adequately used of God, but only negative terms”. That’s Oxford’s. But in reference to the study of knowledge or epistemology, the via negativa process defines thing by what they are not. This process has the benefit of being more sound. The common example is that of the black swan. If I see 1 million white swans in a row, this still cannot make me 100% certain that only white swans exist. It is all positive information. But if I see just one black swan, I can safely assert with 100% confidence that not all swans are white. The via negativa process carries great weight.

And so in application to character development does the process of via negativa carry weight. Instead of defining the characteristics of the person you would most like to emulate, define the characteristics of the person you would most despise. Don’t personalize this by saying, “Oh that’s Jerry down the street for sure. He’s a dick.” Because when you personalize, you start getting into some tricky business, since you can never know how Jerry’s life experiences have effected him mentally and how hard he tries to be a good person. Instead simply create a fictional person to whose motivations, life experiences and underlying thought processes you are 100% privy. 

And then work your hardest to never be that person. The process of defining that thing you most detest does not need to be a morbid one. It’s supposed to uncover or put in new light what you’re working towards. 

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On the influence of culture

It’s 1957 in the highlands of New Guinea. A woman’s husband has just died. She is grief stricken as any wife would be. She is now a widow. She calls on her brothers (or her next closest male kin). She insists that they must do what is proper in her culture. And it is not because the rest of the village forces her. It is because for generations she has seen all new widows take these ritual actions.

It’s 1279 in the great Song empire of China. Unfortunately, the empire is falling. It’s disgraceful end requires an act of valour by its leader. He must take his own life. He likely knows this and I would further argue that he would have wanted to do this rather than live in, what he may have deemed, disgrace.

The widow makes her closest male kin strangle her to death.
The emperor takes his own life. He is 8 years old. 800 members of his clan do the same with him.

It is the power of culture. It is the power that a grouping of humans can have over the wants, motivations and actions of its individuals no matter how little or great, or, positive or negative, those effects have from a evolutionary perspective or ability to further their genes in subsequent generations. What other people think is exceedingly powerful.

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