Reading the Stoics

Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, Louvre, Paris (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)
Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, Louvre, Paris (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

Reading ancient Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius does not require a classroom setting, nor a professor with proper academic credentials. Those elements add value, but the Stoics’ ideas can grab us immediately. I think three Stoic classics in particular are worth reading:

  1. Seneca’s letters, collected by Penguin Books as Letters from a Stoic and filled with advice on the good life, are marvels of clarity and humor. I’d recommend them to anyone.
  2. Epictetus’s manual on the art of living is as simple as it is powerful.
  3. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations record Stoic advice he gives to himself as emperor of Rome.

Anyone with the slightest amount of responsibility in life would benefit immediately from the elegant but stern challenges and goals Aurelius sets for himself. Just one example:

“Stop letting the guiding principle within you be tugged around like a marionette by the strings of selfish impulses,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).

When I read passages like the one above–and the three famous Stoics’ works are full of such gems–I’m struck by how they apply to life here and now. We are marionettes tugged around by marketers, forces indifferent to us as moral beings. Our selfish desires are inflamed by well-paid experts in the arts of persuasion. We have the chance to do what’s good, and in stoicism the moral good consists in helping others, but we squander our opportunities on destructive trifles.

One passage doesn’t do justice to the wealth that can be found in these old classics. They are all worth reading in translations of the original Greek (Epictetus, Aurelius–both Romans who wrote in Greek) and Latin (Seneca). Reading them in the original would no doubt be fascinating, but I have no intention of putting in the requisite years of study. As the Stoics would advise, and Socrates and Plato would likely concur, I’ll take the shortest route to the goal. Marcus Aurelius puts it emphatically and eloquently:

“Don’t live as if you were going to live for ten thousand years. The inevitable is hanging over you. As long as you are still alive, and as long as it is still possible, become a good man,” (from the Meditations, as translated by Pierre Hadot).

Not everything by these three writers can be digested by readers who don’t know much about the ancient world and its philosophical context. So while I think that all three are powerful and comprehensible enough for any reader to start reading them directly, some things require expert untangling. A good framework for understanding the more enigmatic passages of the Meditations is Pierre Hadot’s classic book The Inner Citadel, which cleared up some things I found confusing.

Hadot is adept at identifying the framework of Stoic thinking: their way of viewing life (destiny and accepting what life presents with serenity), its purpose (serving others and the moral good), and the need for each person to exercise a cohesive guiding intelligence (stripping away the noise of life to find the objective signal).

I hope to write more about the Stoics as I read more from them, and compare them to the Greek thinkers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) who formed much of the basis for their worldview (and that of Western civilization). Thus this blog post is just a point of departure.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

Image from the publisher’s website

By Daniel Wilcock

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon. What if they all got rolled up into one corporation? What if that corporation became increasingly omniscient and swallowed the political world and then the totality of everyone’s quotidian life? Past dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451 (which targeted television and the banning/burning of books) plotted the trajectory of an illiterate society ruled by mind-control. The Circle may be as implausible as Fahrenheit 451 in the long run, but it raises a lot of key questions about where we’re headed as a society with the increasing ubiquity of information technology. I can’t think of a better novel to ask these questions through a compelling work of art.

The novel, set in the not-too-distant future, opens with Mae, the main character, beginning a job at the Circle. Openings at the tech firm (which resembles Google) are hard to get and highly coveted. Mae has an inside connection in Annie, her friend from college who has risen to great heights within the company. The new gig rescues her from the dreary job she’s held down at a utility company in the months since graduating. These opening scenes are what I’d imagine the first few days of a new job at Google to be like, only even more cartoonish.

That being said, Mae’s initial job is real work, handling the complaints of companies that advertise and sell products using the Circle and its currency system. Customer satisfaction must hover near 100 percent and reciprocating messages and invitations from fellow workers (inner circle) and followers (outer circle) is expected. Screens on her desk proliferate. The Circle keeps adding digital treadmills under her feet, but she’s remarkably adept—Annie tells her she’ll rise fast, and this sets her up as a kind of ‘chosen one’ figure.

Life outside the circle is painful, complicated, and slow. Mae’s parents struggle with her father’s MS and with battling their insurance company. But Mae still finds some enjoyment in the outside world, kayaking in the San Francisco Bay. These naturalistic interludes stop when Mae gets caught borrowing a kayak from the rental shop after hours by one of the exponentially proliferating “SeeChange” cameras that feed HD video into the Circle. As penitence, Mae decides to “go clear” (an inflection of Scientology) by donning a camera that broadcasts her every move to her growing list of online followers. An increasing proportion of the world’s politicians have gone clear, and the Circle is poised to ensure that everything is known.

What happens to Mae? There are key characters and events I’m leaving out. I don’t want to spoil the book, which really is worth the time. For me, the pages flew by in just a couple of days. I guess you could say I was already pretty receptive to the points that Eggers is making through his fictional craft. Last year I quit Facebook. At the beginning of this year, I decided to stop shopping at Amazon. Recently, I dropped Twitter. My problem with each of them is their tendency to draw humans into their own little marketing-oriented universes. Twitter seemed a bit more useful, as it so easily spits users into other web pages. But it still tracks you for profit and mostly is just a marketing echo chamber. I still use Google, and perhaps this is the company that would be the hardest to avoid since its free services are so ubiquitous (gmail, maps, drive, etc., etc., etc.) and their mastery of the online advertising market is almost complete (“complete” is an important word in The Circle).

Google has a very wide utopian streak. But as Jaron Lanier points out in Who Owns the Future?, the utopian vision has also led to consolidation of money and power. I’d recommend pairing that book with The Circle. In different ways, both authors are calling for underground resistance and disruption of the mega disruptors. Recently I’ve read a lot of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose writings—particularly Antifragile—argue against size and speed in favor of things that are decentralized, idiosyncratic, human, ecological. I agree with this line of thinking. I could also see another reader might come to a very different place with The Circle, which is a testament to the book’s understatement. I recommend this book highly.

Rediscovering Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Almost at Random

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2011 photo by Bloomberg via Taleb’s website fooledbyrandomness.com)

 

By Daniel Wilcock

A random mistake at the airport earlier this month—checking in the book I intended to read along with the bag that contained it—reintroduced me to Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s “Incerto” series of books. Even though I’d read and loved the Black Swan a few years back, the other three volumes, Fooled by Randomness, the Bed of Procrustes, and his latest Antifragile, somehow hadn’t caught my attention despite my knowing about them. How foolish. Taleb is an intellectual of the street fighting variety. His books pull brains out of stupid mode and light them on fire. They awaken readers to errors and misperceptions everywhere. That for me is the mark of a good philosopher. Yet a grain of salt or two may be needed. His stridency and dismissiveness of others are also the marks of an egotist cult leader, which I don’t think he is, but more on that later. How did I figure that his other books weren’t worth reading? Consider this blog post a way to make amends for this error.

By good fortune, but not randomness since the book is a perennial bestseller, a bookstore at Dulles International Airport happened to have a copy of Taleb’s second edition (2005) of Fooled by Randomness. Purchase made. Thus instead of reading the third volume of Lord of the Rings on the flight to Tokyo, an equally fine endeavor, I had the pleasure of jolting my worldview a bit. In Taleb’s hands, the hours ticked by pleasantly despite the cramped conditions, bland food, and impossibility of sleep.* If you enjoy non-technical philosophy and contrarian viewpoints, I’d say give this author a try.

Each of Taleb’s books is a fractal component his larger oeuvre, which argues that the “knowledge” and advice we encounter fail to adequately take into account the random, the opaque, and the unknown. This turns most modern human beings, particularly those who pay attention to mass media, into suckers and turkeys. His focus is on how to make decisions in an environment where we are continuously deluded and blind to the big disruptions he calls “black swans.” He thinks that these big events, which we never can predict, end up running our lives. He prefers negative to positive advice. These lessons, heavily informed by ancient philosophers like the stoics and contemporary behavioral economists such as Daniel Kahneman, mostly boil down to “don’t be a fool.” This is ultimately an impossible edict for humans, but archers aim high to hit distant targets.

Fooled by Randomness is the humblest and perhaps the most endearing of Taleb’s works. It shows how he gathered the bearings of his world view and contains the key admission that contextualizes the brash and seemingly arrogant way he battles with status quo thinkers. He admits repeatedly that he is a fool himself. One thing he attacks in others is their lack of similar humility, which is risky and ultimately destructive. Without this baseline caveat, it’s easy to misinterpret as self-righteous Taleb’s attacks on most other professional thinkers, particularly financial analysts, economists, journalists, and academics.

Fooled by Randomness is Taleb’s initial takedown of professional predictors. Like all of his books, it’s a mélange of autobiography (he worked as a trader for 20 years, then as an academic who writes books and doesn’t seem to like the academy much, and now as a flâneur, which is French for an idler who lives well by not making plans), philosophy, real-world observation and fictional narrative. It introduces a semi-autobiographical character called Nero Tulip (a name suffused with wry references), a financial trader who follows a seemingly lackluster “barbell” investment strategy of bonds plus small bets that pay off big in the event of market crashes. Despite having a risk-adverse worldview, Nero envies the flashy lifestyle of his neighbor, a fellow trader getting rich quickly with the latest financial trend. The neighbor “blows up” in the end and leaves the market. Nero is vindicated and remains in the market before he randomly ends up crashing a helicopter.

Later, in the Black Swan, Taleb introduces other semi-autobiographical characters like Fat Tony, another trader (and a necktie-free wise-guy gourmand that judges people subconsciously by smelling them) who functions as a comical mirror image of the experts Taleb attacks. Despite his argument that narratives pull the wool over our eyes, he calls it the “narrative fallacy,” Taleb uses these little stories nonetheless since humans’ brains function through narratives and also because he savors their artistic side. He appreciates style and intellectual pleasure, and finds great value in novelists and thinkers whose works have withstood the erasure of time. He’s a man who since his teens has read voraciously—40 to 60 hours a week, which reminds me of the number of miles run by marathoners each week—and I think these “Incerto” books are the output of his idiosyncratic inputs.

After putting down Fooled by Randomness, I picked up both the Bed of Procrustes, and Antifragile. The former is a collection of Taleb’s aphorisms, pithy little sayings that contain his wit and wisdom, and I think best enjoyed piecemeal, perhaps a page a day. Antifragile is another beast altogether, but similar in structure and content to the Black Swan. Taleb writes that Antifragile contains his main argument, the central idea of the Incerto. The title is a new word he invented. Antifragile refers to the quality of things that benefit from randomness, volatility, damage. These things have convex shape rather than concave when plotted on an axis. They have more of an upside than a downside when stressed. Examples can include the human body (up to a certain limit), the world of small businesses, barbell-style investors, and authors. In other words, he’s come up with a philosophy based on his own path to the good life. Again, he favors negative advice, a time-tested school of thought called “via negativa.” He finds wisdom in the concept of “small is beautiful” since larger size makes things more fragile. I could go on, but if you find these ideas tantalizing, the best thing to do is pick up the original.

As promised, a grain of salt. I think any thinker who warns you off most other thinkers, and one who is so clearly impressed with his own pathways in life, runs the risk of being an egotistical cult leader. Were Taleb more of a religious fanatic, rather than what I perceive to be a very erudite and broad-minded deist, his brash denunciations of others would come across (to me) as highly suspect. He’s a rich and confident man making sweeping statements. You might argue that being a notoriously cantankerous philosopher is his retirement hobby. His words often lack much humility other than his early admission (and not often repeated by the time he gets to Antifragile) that he’s human and fooled by life just like the rest of us. I think his arguments in each book are highly worthwhile, but need to be placed in the deeper context of all four books taken together. Taleb says the books can be taken in any order, but I think Fooled by Randomness is the best place to start. Just reading the Bed of Procrustes, one might legitimately ask “who is this jackass?”

Taleb’s a self-confessed fool, but he’s grappling with the tools that illuminate his foolishness and even provide the chance for a good life. That’s why I won’t repeat the mistake of sleeping on his work. As Taleb the flâneur would argue, and as my mishap with my copy of Tolkien suggests, we gain from being open to randomness.

 

*

ANA economy-class does have a few good things going for it, such as the opportunity to savor Japanese beer such as Premium Malt’s (sic), but trans-pacific travel is still a grind. Having a good book for the 13 hour flight is an indispensable remedy for the pain of temporary captivity.

Review: Winning the Loser’s Game

By Dan Wilcock

There’s a reason why investing sages like Jack Bogle, Burton Malkiel, and David Swensen praise Winning the Loser’s Game by Charles Ellis. Now that I’ve read the book (just closed the cover) I know why. This book is a bullshit eliminator, completely clear-eyed about market risk (the fact that losses will happen) that nonetheless explains the stakes in not taking on market risk in a world where taxes and inflation constantly erode wealth. It’s a book that explains the counter-intuitive nature of the market in a way that clicks: why investors should welcome stock price declines, why booming stock markets are better for stock sellers than stock buyers, why stocks aren’t important because of their price but rather because of their ability to produce dividends. Even though these are well established interpretations of the market, their wisdom never sunk in before I’d read Winning the Loser’s Game. Hence I’d recommend it wholeheartedly as one of the best books on investing.

The title of the book comes from a journal article Ellis wrote in 1975. He compares investing to tennis, which for virtually every amateur is a loser’s game. The victor wins on their opponent’s unforced errors. Ellis argues that investing used to be a winner’s game, but the field got so crowded with experts and operators who know how to take advantage of all the suckers (my words, not his) that the only way to win is avoiding unforced errors. The biggest of these is attempting to “beat the market.” This is an endeavor where more than three quarters of professionals ultimately fail. The individual investor socking away money in IRAs and 401ks shouldn’t even try. Rather than losing by actively trading, and compounding those losses with all the fees this entails, investors should craft a realistic policy that seeks to capture the entire market return (through entire market indexes) or a segment of the market through selected low cost mutual funds.

I was already bought into the idea of indexing (the lowest cost, getting the most of whatever the market returns), but before reading this book I might have been more likely to shift my index holding to more bonds in a bear market to preserve value. This is psychologically understandable, but exactly the wrong approach. Big downswings require that investors stick to their policy and make the most of bear markets by sticking to the path they set. This is a more nuanced, and more practical, version of the old saying “buy low and sell high.” That simple saying doesn’t prepare investors to do the right thing. The phrase is premised on active investing, and when the markets are at their most volatile is when we as human beings are most likely to make precisely the wrong decisions. By staying the course, and investing in consistent intervals, buying low and selling high happen naturally. The market cannot be timed, according to Ellis. Jumping in and out of the market is, for most people, lost opportunity.

I read the 4th edition of this book. As of this 2014, Loser’s Game is now in its 6th edition and updated post-great-recession. If you’d like to know how Ellis deals with the market fallout from 2008, I’d recommend that version (which I haven’t read). I think, however, that the reader of the 4th edition would have been very well served throughout the last seven years. They would have stuck the course and rode the massive upswing in equities to their now record highs. They would also have established an emergency fund that would allow them to buy largely into equities and then be steely about holding them.

Anyway, after making it halfway through the book, which I’d borrowed from the library, I ordered a copy for my personal collection (4th edition, much cheaper than the 6th). This is a book that any investor would be well served to read annually, perhaps just before looking at results and allocation. The rest—virtually everything we read online in the financial news—is counterproductive noise.

Hard Climbing: a Review of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard

Matthiessen hikes past Lake Phoksumdo en route to the Crystal Monastery (photo by Carsten Nebel via Wikimedia Commons)
In The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen hikes past Lake Phoksumdo en route to the Crystal Monastery (photo by Carsten Nebel via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

Reading The Snow Leopard is a bit arduous, but its commanding views are worth the climb. For me, and I suspect many like-minded readers, the book lights upon a trifecta of fascinating topics: the hike of a lifetime, the natural world, and Buddhism.

The book, published in 1978, recounts a trek Matthiessen took into a remote part of Nepal five years earlier. He heads into the Himalayas with a biologist friend who’s tracking a rare species of mountain sheep. His agreed-upon task is to assist with the field work, but his real aims are to experience the transcendence of Zen Buddhism and to find the Lama of Shey, a spiritual leader who presides over the secluded Crystal Monastery.

As the story unfolds, Matthiessen also reveals how torn he is to be separated from his family— from his wife due to her death from cancer, and from his son by taking the trip. Buddha also deserted his family and embarked upon his path to enlightenment, so like Hesse’s Siddhartha this book is an echo of the Buddha’s story.

Despite the makings of a terrific yarn, the pages don’t exactly fly by—or at least they didn’t for me. Although there are some stunning passages describing nature and panoramic vistas, Matthiessen keeps his the narrative portion of the book fairly unvarnished and somewhat plodding as if it were direct transcriptions from his journal. Interspersed with the story is a certain amount of regional history, some of which is truly fascinating. Take for example, this tidbit on the history of the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers, and how far back China’s claim to Tibet extends:

“The legend of these soldiers had its start in 1769, when the armies of the King of Ghorka spread
out from the central valleys, absorbing the small tribal kingdoms and creating the Hindu state
now called Nepal; in their great ferocity, they rushed into Tibet, only to be thrown back by the
Chinese, who considered Tibet to be part of China even then.”

I think a lot of people familiar Tibet’s plight following China’s mid-20th Century annexation would be surprised to learn that that was just one episode in a much longer story. Nepal’s origin story is also something I had no clue about before picking up this book.

More prominently, the roughly half of the book is a “meditation” (har har) on Eastern spiritual practices, primary Zen and the Buddhism and indigenous traditions of Tibet. He has a gift for synthesizing these concepts, such as the following passage—in which the Buddha’s teachings are encapsulated in just one sentence:

“In what became known as the Four Noble Truths, Sakyamuni perceived that man’s existence is
inseparable from sorrow; that the cause of suffering is craving; that peace is attained by
extinguishing craving; that this liberation may be brought about by following the Eightfold Path:
right attention to one’s understanding, intentions, speech, and actions; right livelihood, effort,
mindfulness; right concentration, by which is meant the unification of the self through sitting
yoga.”

Even though it takes some trudging to make it to Crystal Mountain, both for Matthiessen and for the reader, the journey culminates in something like enlightenment, which he finds may not be a permanent condition but rather a falling away of illusions and worldly concerns. Matthiessen returned to bring us this book. I think it’s a gem, but one that may take some polishing to shine.

Miles on music: no restrictions, no categories

Trumpeter Miles Davis (photo by Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons_
Trumpeter Miles Davis (photo by Tom Palumbo via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

This week I’ve been checking out Miles the Autobiography, the highly entertaining but very raw memoir of the late, great Miles Davis (co-authored with Quincy Troupe).

On page 205, Davis makes a very persuasive comment about the nature of music, and why it shouldn’t be contained or categorized. Here’s the quote:

“I always thought that music had no boundaries, no limits to where it could go and grow, no restrictions on its creativity. Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is. And I always hated categories. Always. Never thought it had any place in music.”

The context for this quote in the book is Davis’s departure from Prestige records, which didn’t pay him well and was oriented toward the underground of hardcore Jazz fans, and his being hired by Columbia records. Columbia made him accessible to the American mainstream, and Davis thought that was a good thing. There would be less limitation on how people could learn about and obtain his music.

Davis reveals that he had a nuanced and well-thought-out value system. In the way he acted, he was against selling out by serving up black entertainer stereotypes. He hated smiling on stage and playing the clown, and went as far as turning his back to the audience and not announcing song names. The music was the only thing.  But he didn’t view signing with a bigger record company as “selling out,” because he rejected the artificial categories that the jazz world imposed on itself. As long as he controlled his artistic process, signing up with Columbia just meant a better life and more power to reach music fans. Here’s how he puts it on the next page:

“I never saw nothing in poverty and hard times and the blues. I never wanted that for myself. I saw what it really was when I was strung out on heroin, and I didn’t want to see it again. As long as I could get what I needed from the white world on my own terms, without selling myself out to all of those people who would love to exploit me, then I was going to go for what I know is real. When you’re creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain’t the limit.”

When Davis signed with Columbia he had just emerged victorious from his battle with a heroin addiction, and the clarity with which he views his alternatives is inspiring.

Davis’s statement about music can be interpreted on a higher level too, which is how most people would understand it out of context. Often the wisest souls caution against categorizing music and getting too caught up in labels. I confess that I organize my music collection by genres, as most people do, but it’s refreshing not to think that way. Life is too short to worry about which container is best designed for certain patterns of sound waves. New Yorker writer Alex Ross’s essay “Listen to this” about why he hates the term classical music is a great read for further pondering along these lines.

Anyway, that quote really jumped out at me. So I thought I’d share.

Reflections on Salinger and Dream Catcher

By Dan Wilcock:

PBS’s airing of the Salinger documentary this week rekindled my interest in J.D. Salinger, one of America’s most distinctive and endearing voices. Instead of diving into his fiction yet again, however, the documentary inspired me to read Dream Catcher, the memoir of Margaret “Peggy” Salinger, J.D.’s daughter. One of the documentary’s interviewees, who knew Peggy growing up, says that it’s the saddest book she’s ever read. That braced me for some real horror stories, but outright horror isn’t what the book reveals, except for the possible arson that Peggy’s mother may have committed. It’s more about the toll taken by neglect, and the nightmares that can arise from having deeply unbalanced parents.

Perhaps because I was braced for a wallowing, I was impressed by Peggy Salinger in her own right–as a writer and as an interpreter of more than just  her dad’s obsessions. She’s really good at “pushing back,” and the book amounts to a major return shove against her father and his self-involved cult of perfection. It contains a lot of great anecdotes from her youth. The anecdotes have some of the hallmarks of her father’s writing–little details that conjure both place and characters’ temperaments, such as the chimney at prep school in which Peggy and her ingenious best friend would hide to escape from the cruel headmasters and their forced outdoor activities.

The enlightenment that J.D. Salinger fans receive from Dream Catcher is that nearly all of J.D. (aka “Sonny,” aka “Jerry”) are either autobiographical (i.e. “Holden,” aka “Buddy,” aka “Seymour) or inspired by people around him (i.e. “Peggy”). The book fills in the back-story of how J.D. and Holden are really the same guy, and how the short stories are “refractions” of Salinger’s experiences in World War II, in which he was an interrogator on the front lines, witnessing both D-Day and the liberation of a concentration camp.

After Peggy is born, her story takes center stage, and it held my interest as much as the material about J.D. She goes through a lot, mentally and physically, to overcome the traumas that began with her painful childhood and adolescence, and I think the book shows how she becomes a stronger person for it.

The big reveal at the end of the Salinger documentary is the list of five forthcoming books that the author wrote over decades of reclusion, to be between 2015 and 2020. While this is an unprecedented revelation, and I certainly hope that it comes to pass, Dream Catcher tempers my expectations somewhat. If Salinger’s source material is almost entirely autobiographical, the fountain of source material may have reduced to a trickle. The end result may be a lot of Hapworth 16, 1924 naval-gazing-type prose, which would need hundreds of footnotes to be comprehended by most readers.

Peggy Salinger makes a similar point about the evidence leading up to her father’s literary disappearance, and what it suggests about what the rest of the writing may be like:

His work, by the time we get to Seymour: An Introduction and “Hapworth” is no longer secular fiction but hagiography [chronicles of saints]. This is a genre not concerned with time and place, character development, conflict and resolution. Hagiography, given its lack of tension, its lack of earthly focus, and context, is not meant to communicate to nonbelievers. They are excluded from the fraternity. Witness his direct address to the elect, the true believers, at the beginning of Seymour, who are offered a bouquet of early-blooming parentheses (((()))).

Here’s hoping that–like Proust–Salinger’s stored-up semi-autobiographical works-of-a-lifetime aren’t hagiography, but rather  life-altering/affirming masterpieces like his best published work. I hope they are a deep pool into which readers can jump for centuries and emerge changed, wiser, braver, more creative.

In the meantime, Dream Catcher is here right now, and because it introduces Peggy Salinger to the world it’s even better than the documentary, which–though fascinating–was kind of lousy if you really want to hear about it.