Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nassim Taleb on Seneca

RR: Here's a little postscript. You wanted to say something else about Seneca. Go ahead.

NT: Most people don't understand what Stoic is. They think that a stoic wants to sort of be robust, no positive nor negative emotions, get rid of.

RR: The attachment from the world.

NT: Exactly. Become a vegetable. That's the impression that for a long time, about 2000 years, of the Stoics, because nobody really read them. People kept commenting on comments. But when I read the best expository of Stoicism, the best two expositors, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca--and probably also to some extent, Cicero--I realized these are not that type of people. Very different. And now, recently I saw some papers confirming my idea. That was what Seneca was, was about being long options. He wanted to keep the upside and not be hurt by the downside. That's it. It's just how to set up his method. 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 a 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. One was to have the last word with fate. And my definition is a Stoic Sage 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.

RR: 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.

NT: Exactly. He understood the hedonic treadmill that Daniel Kahneman rediscovered 2,000 years later. He understood it very well. And he understood wealth, debt from others or from fortune. And he wanted to write off debt from fortune and he wanted to remove his dependence on fate, on randomness. He wanted to have the last word--with randomness. And he did.

RR: Not a bad goal.


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