Authors: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
We are robust when errors in the representation of the unknown and understanding of random effects do not lead to adverse outcomes—fragile otherwise. The robust benefits from Black Swan events,
the fragile is severely hit by them. We are more and more fragile to a certain brand of scientific autism making confident claims about the unknown—leading to expert problems, risk, massive dependence on human error. As the reader can see from my aphorisms, I have respect for mother nature’s methods of robustness (billions of years allow most of what is fragile to break); classical thought is more robust (in its respect
for the unknown, the epistemic humility) than the modern post-Enlightenment naïve pseudoscientific autism. Thus my classical values make me advocate the triplet of erudition, elegance, and courage; against modernity’s phoniness, nerdiness, and philistinism.
Art is robust; science, not always (to put it mildly). Some Procrustean beds make life worth living: art and, the most potent of all, the poetic aphorism.
Aphorisms, maxims, proverbs, short sayings, even, to some extent, epigrams are the earliest literary form—often integrated into what we now call poetry. They carry the cognitive compactness of the sound bite (though both more potent and more elegant than today’s down-market version),
with some show of bravado in the ability of the author to compress powerful ideas in a handful of words—particularly in an oral format. Indeed, it had to be bravado, because the Arabic word for an improvised one-liner is “act of manliness,” though such a notion of “manliness” is
less gender-driven than it sounds and can be equally translated as “the skills of being human” (
has the same roots in Latin,
, “man”). As if those who could produce powerful thoughts in such a way were invested with talismanic powers.
This mode is at the center of the Levantine soul (and the broader Eastern Mediterranean). When God spoke to the Semites, he spoke in very short poetic sentences, usually through the mouths of prophets. Consider the Scriptures, more particularly the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; Islam’s holy book, the Koran, is a collection of concentrated aphorisms. And the format has been adopted for synthetic literary prophecies: Nietzsche’s
, or, more recently, my compatriot from a neighboring (and warring) village in northern Lebanon, Kahlil Gibran, author of
Outside of what we now call religion, take the aphorisms of Heraclitus and Hippocrates; the works of Publilius Syrus (a Syrian slave who owed his freedom to his eloquence, expressed in his
, potent one-line poems that echo in the maxims of La Rochefoucauld), and the poetry of the poet who is broadly considered the greatest of all Arab poets, Almutanabbi.
Aphorisms as stand-alone sentences have been used for exposition, for religious text, for advice to a grandchild by a Levantine grandmother, for boasting (as I said earlier, in
an aphorism, Almutanabbi used them to tell us, convincingly, that he was the greatest Arab poet), for satires
(Martial, Aesop, Almaarri), by the
(Vaugenargues, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Chamfort), to expose opaque philosophy (Wittgenstein), relatively clearer ones (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cioran), or crystal-clear ideas (Pascal).
You never have to explain an aphorism—like poetry, this is something that the reader needs to deal with by himself.
There are bland aphorisms, the platitudinous ones harboring important truths that you had thought about before (the kind that make intelligent people recoil at Gibran’s
); pleasant ones, those you never thought about but trigger in you the
of an important discovery (such as those in La Rochefoucauld); but the best are those you did not think about before, and for which it takes you more than one reading to realize that
they are important truths, particularly when the silent character of the truth in them is so powerful that they are forgotten as soon as read.
Aphorisms require us to change our reading habits and approach them in small doses; each one of them is a complete unit, a complete narrative dissociated from others.
My best definition of a nerd: someone who asks you to explain an aphorism.
I have been aware that my style was aphoristic. As a teenager, I was mentored by the poet Georges Schéhadé (his poetry reads like proverbs), who predicted that I would see the light and grow up to make a career in poetry, once I got this ideas business out of my system. More recently, readers have triggered numerous copyright alerts by posting quotes from my books on the Web, but I had never thought of re-expressing my ideas (or, rather, my central idea about the limits of knowledge) in such a way until I realized that these sentences come naturally to me, almost involuntarily, in an eerie way, particularly when walking (slowly) or when freeing up my mind to do nothing, or nothing effortful—I could convince myself that I was hearing voices from the other side of the veil of opacity.
By setting oneself totally free of constraints, free of thoughts, free of this debilitating activity called work, free of efforts, elements hidden in the texture of reality start staring at you; then mysteries that you never thought existed emerge in front of your eyes.
This discounting of the unseen comes from the human “scorn of the abstract” (our minds are not good at handling the non-anecdotal and tend to be swayed by vivid imagery, making the media distort our view of the world).
Nor is science capable of dealing effectively with nonlinear and complex matters, those fraught with interdependence (climate, economic life, the human body), in spite of its hyped-up successes in the linear domain (physics and engineering), which give it a prestige that has endangered us.
A Black Swan (capitalized) is an event (historical, economic, technological, personal) that is both unpredicted by some observer and carries massive consequences. In spite of growth in our knowledge, the role of these Black Swans has been growing.
Many philistines reduce my ideas to an opposition to technology when in fact I am opposing the naïve blindness to its side effects—the fragility criterion. I’d rather be unconditional about ethics and conditional about technology than the reverse.
Note the distinction from TV one-liners: the sound bite loses information; the aphorism gains. Somehow, aphorisms obey the Gigerenzer and Goldstein “less is more” effect.
The best way to measure the loss of intellectual sophistication in the Internet age—this “nerdification,” to put it bluntly—is in the growing disappearance of sarcasm, as mechanistic minds take insults a bit too literally.
It is not uncommon to find the same maxim repeated by several authors separated by a millennium or a continent.
The aphorism has been somewhat debased (outside the German language) by its association with witticism, such as the ones by Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, or Sacha Guitry—deep thought can be poetic and witty, as with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or (sometimes) Wittgenstein; but, abiding by the distinction between Sacred and Profane, philosophy and poetry are not stand-up comedy.
P. Tanous, L. de Chantal, B. Oppetit, M. Blyth, N. Vardy, B. Appleyard, C. Mihailescu, J. Baz, B. Dupire, Y. Zilber, S. Roberts, A. Pilpel, W. Goodlad, W. Murphy, M. Brockman, J. Brockman, C. Taleb, C. Sandis, J. Kujat, T. Burnham, R. Dobelli, M. Ghosn (the younger), S. Taleb, D. Riviere, J. Gray, M. Carreira, M.-C. Riachi, P. Bevelin, J. Audi
, S. Roberts, B. Flyvberg, E. Boujaoude, P. Boghossian, S. Riley, G. Origgi, S. Ammons, and many more (I sometimes remember names of critically helpful people when it is too late to show gratitude).
spends most of his time as a flâneur, meditating in cafés across the planet. A former trader, he is currently Distinguished Professor at New York University. He is the author of
Fooled by Randomness
The Black Swan
, which has spent more than a year on the
New York Times
bestseller list and has become an intellectual, social, and cultural touchstone.