Seneca’s Stoic Comfort

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one of my guiding lights. Even though many people believed that it was ‘Dr Doom’ Nouriel Roubini who was most correct about the economic disaster, it was Taleb who proved to me that he knew what was going on beneath the numbers. People were being specific kinds of fools. In a few weeks, his long-awaited book will be on sale. It’s called Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. That’s what we’re about here.

In advance of this, I’ve been following some of his writing and most of his video chats. In reading one of his papers I came to understand that thing Taleb calls the Dumbell Strategy, which is to pursue seemingly contradicting aims simultaneously in recognition that he who plays both sides manages risk. But it is not being two-faced, but being antifragile, the difference between which are the stuff of wisdom. There’s no easy way to explain it, and I won’t until I read his book. But I am indeed finding parallels of this thinking in history and coming to terms with what has been said by the likes of Epictetus and Cryssipus as well as the gods of OODA.

I try to be both concerned and unworried. What I hate most of all is not the bad news, but being blindsided by it. I am comfortably at home and concerned (but not worried) about those things that are reasonably within my ambit of capacity to change. I reckon that to be a Stoic approach. At the same time, I’m a Californian which means I do not intend to be fat or lazy or overly concerned with the quality of affairs in the public square, that which our meddlesome friends insist on calling ‘Zocalo’, and will, I suppose until their Yankee inflected Spanish fails to deliver them from being dragged foot-first up the coming ziggurats of political human sacrifice ot the greater glory of La Raza. I’m going to the jazz concert anyway. I’m going jogging anyway. I’m going to eat in my walled garden like an Epicurean anyway. That’s how I roll.

I’m becoming convinced, as I’m sure the Stoics were, that Vulgaris populus ago in obscurum. Ordinary people live in darkness. Being OK is slightly better than that, especially for one such as I who is not likely to curse the darkness. That’s part of the dumbell strategy. That is part of living up to Boyd’s theory of liberty.

“The most important thing in life is to be free to do things. There are only two ways to insure that freedom — you can be rich or you can you reduce your needs to zero.”

But Taleb adds the kicker. He imagines, and we expect that he will describe, certain systems that will benefit from failure – not creative destruction, but perhaps one can think of them as twin OODA loops, one for success and one for failure. Here is Taleb:

Seneca was the wealthiest man in the world. He had 500 desks, on which he wrote his letters talking about how good it was to be poor. And people found inconsistency. But they didn’t realize what Seneca said. He was not against wealth. And he proved effectively that one philosopher can have wealth and be a philosopher. What he was about is dependence on wealth. He wanted the upside of wealth without its downside. And what he would do is–he had been in a shipwreck before. He would fake like he was a shipwreck and travel like he was a shipwreck once in a while. And then he would go back to his villas and feel rich. He would write off every night before going to bed his entire wealth. As a mental exercise. And then wakes up rich. So, he kept the upside. In fact, what he had, my summary of what Stoics were about is a people who really had, like Buddhists, an attitude. …

And my definition is a Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking. Very different than the Buddhist idea of someone who is completely separated from worldly sentiments and possessions and thrills. Very different. Someone who wanted the upside without the downside. And Seneca proved it. And the way you get there, Seneca is suggesting, is through mental exertion. Through renunciation–some of it’s action, but some of it is the way you look at your life and what you prepare yourself for and how you affect your expectations.



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