Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Seneca, like other Stoics, has a doctrine of nature that is remarkably close to that of Emerson or modern American environmentalists. The wise man (sapiens) will never be bored when contemplating the simple things of nature. The natural beauty of the countryside and the healthful action of the waves can have a calming effect . . . He also believed in the simple and strenuous life and the avoidance of luxury and decadence, and there are numerous passages . . . which decry the ostentatious, self indulgent practices of his contemporaries . . . Seneca has no patience for philosophy as a word game or a practice of engaging in hair-splitting arguments for their own sake. He rather sees it as a practice or way of life that all those who seek the good should investigate and adopt.

(From a helpful Amazon review)

Finished Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. I’ve only casually understood the Stoic philosophy prior to reading this book. As the above review notes, Seneca is concerned with making peace with death and living in accordance with nature. Seneca frequently cites the benefits of philosophy, which should be practical and useful. Fortune is something that should be looked on with ambivalence — neither should we get enamored when our luck is good nor depressed when bad. Happiness is a state of mind. I’m not positive, but it seems to me that Seneca originated the idiom to “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” (See the quoted bit below).

The Letters are a quick read at only around 230 pages. If you are interested in some ancient wisdom from a Roman philosopher, you would likely enjoy this book. Below are some passages I particularly enjoyed from the book.

  • “Look at the amount of punishment that boxers and wrestlers take to the face and the body generally! They will put up none the less with any suffering in their desire for fame, and will undergo it all not merely in the course of fighting but in preparing for their fights as well: their training in itself constitutes suffering. Let us too overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wreath or garland, not in trumpet-calls for silence for the ceremonial proclamation of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won for ever once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated.”
  • “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen; but I do know what’s capable of happening . . . I’m ready for everything. If I’m let off in any way, I’m pleased. . . . for just as I know that anything is capable of happening so also do I know that it’s not bound to happen. So I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite.”
  • “Resent a thing by all means if it represents an injustice decreed against yourself personally; but if this same constraint is binding on the lowest and the highest alike, then make your peace again with destiny, the destiny that unravels all ties. There’s no justification for using our graves and all the variety of monuments we see bordering the highways as a measure of our stature. In the ashes all men are leveled. We’re born unequal, we die equal.”
  • “Death you’ll think of as the worst of all bad things, though in fact there’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing which comes before it – the fear of it.”
  • “For those who follow nature everything is easy and straightforward, whereas for those who fight against her life is just like rowing against the stream.”
  • “One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage.”
  • “No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificant creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty, changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination.”

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan is a fantastic, eye-opening book that will challenge not only what you know but also what you think you know. Taleb is widely renowned as the guy who made beaucoup amounts of money off of the 1987 stock market crash. He profited not by predicting the crash would happen, but that the system would eventually produce a “black swan” event that would make options insanely profitable.

Recommendation — Nassim Nicholas Taleb (or “NNT” as I like to refer to him) opened my eyes with this book. Any book that can blow open your understanding of the world is a must-read — and this is one of those books. The role that randomness and unpredictability play in our lives is completely under-appreciated, when it is acknowledged at all. Just one attempt at appreciation I’ve made can be found in my post “But For,” which is an attempt to string together a series of unplanned events that have cumulatively had an enormous impact on my life.

Going forward, I want to garner a greater appreciation for power law, stochasticity, black swan events, and living in “Extremistan.” On my immediate reading list are related books: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Stumbling on Happiness and The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles. I’ve yet to order it, but NNT’s first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, is also on my list.

I’ve become a bit of a Nassim Taleb junkie and typically link down stuff he puts out (videos, articles, posts to his low-tech blog “Opacity,” etc.).

Review — Rather than recant what others have said better, I’ll selectively quote a thorough and informative review of the book from Amazon:

The Black Swan is probably the strongest statement of enlightened empiricism since Ernst Mach refused to acknowledge the existence of the atom. Of course, in theory, everyone today is supposed to be an empiricist – all right-thinking intellectuals claim to base their views solely on positive scientific observation. But very few sincerely confront the implications of rigorous empiricism. Specifically, few confront “the problem of induction,” illustrated here by the story of the black swan.

Briefly: observing an event once does not predict it will occur again in the future. This remains true regardless of the number of observations one adds to the pile. Or, as Taleb, recapitulating David Hume, has it: the observation of even a million white swans does not justify the statement “all swans are white.” There is no way to know that somewhere out there a black swan is not hiding, disproving the rule and nullifying our “knowledge” of swans. The problem of induction tells us that we cannot really learn from our experiences. It makes knowledge very problematic, if not impossible. And yet, humans do behave -almost without exception- as though they believe that experience teaches us lessons. This is forgivable; there is no better path to knowledge. But before proceeding, one must account for the limits that the problem of induction places on our claims to knowledge. And humans seem, at every turn, to lack this critical self-awareness.

Taleb explains that conventional social scientists use induction to collect data, which is then plotted on the good old Gaussian bellcurve. With characteristic silliness, Taleb dubs the land of the bellcurve “Mediocristan” – and informs us that it is the natural habitat of the white swan. He contrasts Mediocristan with “Extremistan” – where chaos reigns, the wholly unexpected happens, power laws and fractal geometry apply and the bellcurve does not. Taleb’s fictional/metaphorical ‘stans’ share something with the ‘stans’ of the real world: very ill-defined borders. Indeed, one can never tell whether one is in the relatively safe territory of Mediocristan or if one has wandered into the lawless tribal regions of Extremistan. The bellcurve can only help you in Mediocristan, but you have no way of knowing whether you have strayed into Extremistan – beyond the bellcurve’s jurisdiction. This means that bellcurves are of no reliable use, anywhere. The full implications of this take a while to sink in, and are sure to cause huge controversy. In July, Taleb will debate Charles Murray (author of -what else?- the Bell Curve). I’ll let you know who wins.