Tag: Seneca

Nassim Taleb: We Should Read Seneca, Not Jonah Lehrer

For those who didn’t follow him, Jonah Lehrer has a gift for turning science into a great story. His beautiful writing made it hard to resist the narrative fallacy.

The recent news about him fabricating quotes and generally offering a tenuous commitment to the truth caught me by surprise. But one question that we should have asked ourselves long ago — should we have avoided Lehrer and other pop-science journalists altogether?

Nassim Taleb argues yes.

In his book Anti-Fragile, he writes:

We are built to be dupes for theories. But theories come and go; experience stays. Explanations change all the time, and have changed all the time in history (because of causal opacity, the invisibility of causes) with people involved in the incremental development of ideas thinking they always had a definitive theory; experience remains constant.

…what physicists call the phenomenology of the process is the empirical manifestation, without looking at how it glues to existing general theories. Take for instance the following statement, entirely evidence-based: If you build muscle, you can eat more without getting more fat deposits in your belly and can eat plenty of lamb chops without having to buy a new belt. Now in the past the theory to rationalize it was “Your metabolism is higher because muscles burn calories.” Currently I tend to hear “You become more insulin-sensitive and store less fat.” Insulin, shminsulin; metabolism, shmetabolism: another theory will emerge in the future and some other substance will come about, but the exact same effect will continue to prevail.

The same holds for the statement Lifting weights increases your muscle mass. In the past they used to say that weight lifting caused the “micro-tearing of muscles,” with subsequent healing and increase in size. Today some people discuss hormonal signaling or genes, tomorrow they will discuss something else. But the effect has held forever and will continue to do so.

On Facebook, Taleb writes:

When it comes to narratives, the brain seems to be the last province of the theoretician-charlatan. Add neurosomething to a field, and suddenly it rises in respectability and becomes more convincing as people now have the illusion of a strong causal link—yet the brain is too complex for that; it is both the most complex part of the human anatomy and the one that is the most susceptible to sucker-causation and charlatanism of the type “Proust Was A Neuroscientist”. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons brought to my attention in their book The Invisible Gorilla the evidence I had been looking for: whatever theory has a reference in it to the brain circuitry seems more “scientific” and more convincing, even when it is just is randomized psycho-neuro-babble.

Taleb’s point, I think, is that most of Lehrer’s writing on science, while narratively sexy, derived from theories based on very little data. Most of these theories, won’t be around or even talked about in 100 years. Seneca, on the other hand, explained things that are still true today. Lehrer is noise. Seneca is signal.

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Still curious? A great way to start reading Seneca is to pick up Letters of a Stoic and Dialogues and Essays.

Seneca on Clemency, Blood, Happiness, and Anger

Susanna Braund‘s translation of Seneca’s De Clementia, is well worth the read.

Seneca addresses De Clementia to the young Roman emperor Nero, with the aim of depicting the ideal ruler. Braund goes to great lengths to establish the literary, philosophical, and political traditions that influenced the work but I’ll spare those details.

Here are some of the notes that interested me. 

On when to spill blood, Seneca advises:

I am extremely sparing of even the cheapest blood.

On wearing a mask, Seneca offers:

No one, after all, can wear a mask for long. Pretence quickly lapses into its true nature.

On the two sides of happiness, Seneca writes:

It is a fact that an excess of happiness makes people greedy and that longings are never so well controlled that they fade away at the point of attainment. The ascent is made from great things to greater and once people have got the unhoped-for, they embrace the most extravagant hopes.

On clemency, Seneca advises:

Just as medicine is of use among the sick, yet is also prized among people who are well, so clemency, while it is invoked by people who deserve punishment, is also respected by the guiltless.

On the perpetual need to distinguish between the bad and the good, Seneca writes:

[W]hen the distinction between the bad and good is removed, the result is confusion and an outbreak of bad behaviour.

It’s easy to kill … sometimes it’s better to preserver a life.

To kill in defiance of the law is open to anyone. To preserve life is open to no one except for me.

Never do anything in anger.

Savage, implacable anger does not suit a king because he does not maintain much superiority over the person with whom he levels himself by getting angry.

And some timeless advice for those of us seeking petty avenges.

The person who renounces revenge when he can easily take it wins unqualified praise for his mercy.

On reputation, Seneca writes:

The actions and words of your and those like you are seized upon by rumour. For that reason, no group should take more care over their reputation than people who, whatever they actually deserve, are going to have an important reputation.

On Kings and Tyrants, Seneca advises:

Why does it happen that kings get to grow old and to hand on their kingdoms to their children and grandchildren, but that the power of tyrants is accursed and short-lived? When difference is there between a tyrant and a king—after all, the appearance of their position and the extent of their power are the same—except that tyrants are ferocious in accordance with their whims, but kings only for a reason and when they have no choice.

It’s not your title that matters, it’s how you behave.

What distinguishes a tyrant from a king is his behaviour, not his name.

On retribution

Retribution normally brings two outcomes: it either provides compensation to the injured party or it provides immunity for the future. In the case of an emperor, his standing is too great for him to require compensation and his strength is too palpable for him to look for confirmation of his powers through hurting someone else.

On whether to tell the truth or to flatter, Seneca writes:

I would rather offend you with the truth than please you with flattery.

If you haven’t read De Clementia, Braund’s copy is a great place to start.