I like people who are clever and arrogant. I like it best when Nassim Nicholas Taleb displays a dose of Nietzschean arrogance.
Taleb on why today’s readers can be ignored, in Incerto:
As an essayist, I am not judged by other writers, book editors, and book reviewers, but by readers. Readers? maybe, but wait a minute… not today’s readers. Only those of tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. So, my only real judge being time, hence future readers.
Nietzsche on extraordinary philosophers, in Beyond Good and Evil:
Because the philosopher is necessarily a man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, he has always been and has had to be in conflict with his Today: in every instance, Today’s ideal was his enemy.
Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
Reading chapters from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and Trump’s press conference, you will conclude that a nation’s decline is the reverse – it is a close-up comedy and long-shot tragedy. Trump has turned White House into reality comedy shows.
Kafka’s Great Wall of China, with the system of piecemeal construction, is filled with gaps and does not offer protection from barbarism. Likewise, the builders of the Tower of Babel, who purport to found a universal language, end up inviting God’s punishment, speaking different languages and becoming barbarians to each other.
Rather than failures, I subscribe to the view that these constructions succeed in their objective. Consider this: What we secretly desire are differences and barbarisms. What if the goal is not the wall but the gaps between the blocks which enable the flow of barbarians? What if we trick God into giving us the punishment so that we can escape from a unified humanity which speaks a single language?
Who has one voice and yet becomes three-footed and two-footed and four-footed? Sophocles’ Oedipus, the most suffering figure of the Greek tragedy. Oedipus crawled on three as a baby (because his ankles were pinned together by his parents who abandoned him), limped as an adult, and walked on four legs as an old man (blinding himself after he learnt that he killed his father and married his mother, he is led by his daughter Antigone).
As fate would have it, he got to his destiny by solving the riddle of the Sphinx: which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed? If Oedipus grasped the riddle’s irony, he would recognize that he is the exact opposite of “human”, who should be ignorant. Wisdom is an unnatural abomination. Nietzsche saw it in the terrible trinity of Oedipus’ fates: the same man who solves the riddle of nature must also destroy the orders of nature by murdering his father and marrying his mother.
Sophocles’ closing line of the play is more eloquent yet: “Do not seek to be master in everything, for the things you mastered did not follow you throughout your life.” Given that we want to be wise, why do we not prefer to be ignorant?
The Spirit of 1776, by Archibald Willard, represents the zeitgeist of the American Revolution. It refers to the attitude of self-determination and individual liberty. The Spirit of 2016, by David Parkins for The Economist, typifies the global sentiment following the election of Donald Trump as US president. It is an unsettling zest for tribalism and authoritarianism.
A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, as Herbert Simon said. When attention is scarce, secrets can be hidden. Dialogues from G. K. Chesterton’s The Sign of the Broken Sword illustrate this vividly.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a pebble?
Flambeau: On the beach.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a leaf?
Flambeau: In the forest.
Father Brown: What does he do if there is no forest?
Flambeau: What does he do?
Father Brown: He grows a forest to hide it in. A fearful sin.
Flambeau did not answer.
Father Brown: And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest. And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it.
Many religions promise a reward in the afterlife. Many “religious people” expect a reward in their current life. Their strong faith commands my respect – they do not lose their faith in spite of the hypocrisy.