No Time for Wisdom

BedOfProcrustes It’s been roughly 20 years since I’ve purchased a book with the intention of gaining insight into life lived wisely. Like nearly everyone else, nearly all of the time, I have read for other reasons: as an engaging diversion, to reinforce things I already believed, to further my knowledge relevant to my career, to get some concrete piece of practical information, etc.

And so it was when I bought Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s latest book, Bed of Procrustes. Since it is a book of aphorisms from the iconoclastic ex-financier, I expected to grab some zingers on the misuse of statistics and economic theory. What I found, to my embarrassment, was a man focused on the problem of wisdom. Not “wisdom” with respect to predicting the future in financial contexts, but wisdom in something close to the classic sense of a well-lived life–a contemporary version of the Aristotelian megalopsychos. And to be clear: I was embarrassed for myself, not for Taleb.

The aphorism as an art form has been malnourished, humbled and neglected long enough that today it lives a life on the margins. In public media, the aphorism is replaced by the soundbite or the slogan: one meant for evanescent consumption and the other meant to preclude thought rather than stimulate it. Where the transmission of aphorisms survives, it is often reduced to the conveyance of a clever or uplifting saying. For millions of managers and executives, their most frequent contact is probably their daily industry newsletter from SmartBrief, where at the bottom of the list of stories every day is an out-of-context bon mot from a philosopher, statesman, famous wit, or business “thought leader.” (Example: “The difference between getting somewhere and nowhere is the courage to make an early start. The fellow who sits still and does just what he is told will never be told to do big things.”–Charles Schwab, entrepreneur)

Given this background, Taleb’s book, with all its crabby scorn, is a welcome effort. It is more than an attempt to rehabilitate the aphorism in the service of a well-lived life. It is also part of Taleb’s self-conscious rejection of common presumptions about knowledge (self-knowledge, business knowledge, academic knowledge) and value (the value of work, qualities of greatness).

The left holds that because markets are stupid models should be smart; the right believes that because models are stupid markets should be smart. Alas, it never hit both sides that both markets and models are very stupid.

The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments.

As with Nietzsche, embracing the encapsulated form of the aphorism expresses an attitude towards knowledge of the human condition: as much a rejection of helpless formal systems in philosophy as of false precision in social science. At the same time, an aphorism is itself a bed of Procrustes. It cuts the observable complexity down to a kernel that can be more easily digested and retransmitted. Many of the best aphorisms also contain metaphors; they falsify when taken literally and break down if pushed too hard.

Read more »