“One has to get rid of the bad taste of wanting to be in agreement with others”

My book club read Beyond Good and Evil last month, and I’ve been meaning to write it up for a while now. It is a complicated book, and contains passages that span the full spectrum from disgust to inspiration. That being said, I enjoyed it.

Wenzel Hablik - Wikipedia
Cover art from the Penguin Classics edition – Wenzel Hablik’s “The Path of Genius” 1918

His philosophy is deeply individualistic. This is borne of necessity, not choice. Modern science and skepticism have destabilized traditional reference points like God and the philosophical belief in Capital T truth; we can no longer assert confidently that there is something true or real. The individual and their confused experience of the world is all we possess. Meaning, values, and morality are therefore personal. There is only that meaning which the individual can construct from the cacophony of experience; individuals must create themselves and their values.

Nietzsche is unsparing in how difficult – nigh impossible – he thinks this task is. It is a road filled with suffering, loneliness, and doubt. There is no benchmark or reference point which is not self-referential, no salve you do not have to prepare yourself.

So, we oppose ourselves in conspiracy with the world. We shrink from the task, and would rather conform to the social world around us. We crave the reassurance of conformity.

This helps contextualize Nietzsche’s infamous antagonism to Christianity. He saw Christianity as teaching a denial of the self, of individual identity, of freedom. It sought to subsume the individual into another identity – consider the words “become more Christ like.” For Nietzsche this was a kind of suicide.

He is remembered for his attacks on Christianity but he reserves equal venom for democracy and socialism, which he also saw as stultifying the individual by venerating the masses. In fact, his broadsides against Christianity are historically contingent. They reflect an antagonism to all conformist social beliefs, Christianity just happened to be the most dominant in his time. Today he would be writing long polemics against New Age spiritualism and consumer culture.

With these temptations within and without, Nietzsche thought true independence was only possible for a select few, his creative, meaning making elite. The vast majority of humanity was doomed to the herd. Contrary to later Marxists, Nietzsche was most concerned that elites would be subjugated from below. The common man and his homogenizing instincts threatened to drown the few independent spirits under waves of mediocrity.

Here him and I part ways.

Independence does not demand antagonism to others, anymore than social life need always undermine our independence. His insight – that individual’s must make their own identity and meaning in a creative process always threatened by self-deceit and conformity – can be married to a social ethic which seeks a world where all of us can do so.

It is possible – I think necessary – to believe that kind of independence is available to us all.


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“The very idea of assumed equilibrium bothered me”

One of the most frustrating parts of reading is forgetting. I struggle to describe a book in any meaningful detail even a month after finishing it, which somewhat undermines the learning experience. Highlighting, note taking, and folding pages all help stem the memory loss, but there are limits to what can be achieved without creating a part-time job.

With the help of some friends, I’ve come to three tentative responses. First, memory and learning is a game of quality and quantity, so read as much as possible; better to partially retain five books, than perfectly retain one.* This is especially true if you treat your books as a reference library that you can repeatedly return to. I have also decided to write short summaries with the two or three main insights, starting with the last book I finished, The Black Swan.

(If you’re wondering why I read a 14 year old book, see here)


The Black Swan has a simple point: thanks to a series of logical and biological shortcomings, we are unable to recognize life’s randomness, in particular low-probability, high-impact events – Black Swans. We make ourselves more vulnerable by our overconfidence that we can predict these events (and the future more broadly).**

cityofsound: The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)

Two broad points:

  • As I’ve previously discussed, his discussion of lumpy rewards intersects nicely with Nietzsche’s commentary on suffering. Put simply, uneven payoffs and the non-linear relationship between input and output mean it is possible that one may struggle with a problem or pursuit for a whole life, and fail to solve it. Or you may solve it in the bath by Tuesday. But, evolution and society have geared us to expect, and reward “satisfying linear, positive, progress.” Those who do not demonstrate that can appear as failure’s in the world’s eyes. This creates enormous social pressure, anxiety, and suffering on behalf of those who labor with randomness; they must struggle uncertain about the respect of others, which, no matter how iconoclastic we aspire to be, we desire. Taleb’s recommendation, to surround yourself by fellow dreamers and madmen, is one I endorse heartily.
  • The omnipresence of deep uncertainty recommends a kind of selective conservatism. There are certain outcomes which should not be risked, especially because our estimation of their likelihood is certain to be off by several magnitudes. This means building in redundancy and multi-functionality, but it also means respect for traditions and inherited wisdom which has (presumably) been stress tested over millennia. To get the positive benefit of Black Swans we need to tinker and experiment and stay open to serendipity, but always with an awareness of what we cannot afford to lose.

    This is interesting, because a preoccupation with fundamental uncertainty underpinned Keynes economic thought (it was excised by others later), as well as his conservatism (in that he was not a revolutionary). I’ve just bought Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France to explore this relationship between conservatism and uncertainty more closely.

Respect for elders in many societies might be a kind of compensation for our short-term memory. The word senate comes from senatus, “aged” in Latin; sheikh in Arabic means both a memeber of the ruling elite and “elder.” Elders are repositories of complicated inductive learning that includes information about rare events.

And four small ones

  • Additional detail is not positively or linearly correlated with better insight or decision making. It can worsen it.
  • Reification is dangerous. Even where models or spreadsheets have caveats, numbers and graphs project an numbing aura of confidence and reassurance.
  • Confirmation bias is closely related to the problem of induction; generalizing on the basis of verification (e.g. finding evidence which verifies your hypothesis) exposes us to confirmation bias.
  • Looking for causality in history is a fool’s errand

*My English literature teacher was once asked by a classmate how they could get better marks. “Have started reading five years earlier” was all he offered.

**It is a testament to the book’s impact that 14 years on, it feels familiar. Many of the people Taleb quotes, including Daniel Kahneman, Philip Tetlock, and Richard Thaler have since gone on to write their own best-selling popular books (and win Nobel Prizes) about these epistemic shortcomings.

The Unwomanly Face of War

I am reading Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of Soviet women in World War 2, The Unwomanly Face of War.

The Unwomanly Face Of War: PMC by Svetlana Alexievich - Penguin Books  Australia

Some passages that have stood out so far:

On remembering

I often see how they sit and listen to themselves. To the sound of their own soul. They check it against the words. After long years a person understands that this was life, but now its time to resign yourself and get ready to go. You don’t want to, and it’s too bad to vanish just like that. Casually. In passing. And when you look back you feel a wish not only to tell about your life, but also to fathom the mystery of life itself. To answer your own question: Why did all this happen to me? To gaze at everything with a parting and slightly sorrowful look… Almost from the other side… No longer any need to deceive anyone or yourself.

For us old people life is hard… but not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.

On violence

In the center there is always this: how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die. And how much more unbearable and unthinkable it is to kill, because a woman gives life.

On her work as an oral historian / journalist

I don’t simply record. I collect, I track down the human spirit wherever suffering makes a small man into a great man. Wherever a man grows. And then for me he is no longer the mute and traceless proletarian of history

Highly recommended

It’s all about confidence baby

If anyone finds what is written here obscure or unintelligible, I do not think that the blame should lie upon me. The meaning should be clear enough to any reader who has first read my previous writings carefully, without sparing himself the effort needed to understand them, for that is not, indeed, a simple matter.

And a little later

There is certainly something which is essential in order to practice reading as an art, something which has nowadays been forgotten – that is why it will take quite some time for my writings to become ‘readable,’ and for this it is necessary to become almost a cow, and under no circumstances a ‘modern man’! – rumination.

From the one and only

On the value of suffering

We all suffer, but is it anything more than a sensation to be avoided or grudgingly endured? In different ways, both Nietzsche and Nassim Taleb have something useful to say.

Nietzsche thought suffering was vital, so vital in fact, that he wished it on his friends (it is unclear how many he had).

Friedrich Nietzsche: The dynamite German philosopher | Culture| Arts, music  and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 25.08.2020
Presumably looking for someone to wish suffering on

From Beyond Good and Evil, part 225:

You want if possible – and there is no madder ‘if possible’ – to abolish suffering; and we? – it really does seem that we would rather increase it and make it worse than it has ever been! Wellbeing as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end! A state which soon renders man ludicrous and contemptible – which makes it desirable that he should perish! The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed on it – has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?

Poetic as it sounds, how might ‘the discipline of great suffering‘ help in practice?

Let’s fast forward to The Black Swan, where Taleb argues that the non-linear nature of the modern world condemns people in many professions or pursuits to years, even decades, of labour with few results to show for it.

Positive lumpy outcomes, for which we either collect big or get nothing, prevail in numerous occupations, those invested with a sense of mission, such as doggedly pursuing (in a smelly laboratory) the elusive cure for cancer, writing a book that will change the way people view the world (while living hand to mouth), making music, or painting miniature icons on subway trains

Our emotional apparatus is designed for linear causality. For instance, if you study every day, you expect to learn something in proportion to your studies. If you feel that you are not going anywhere, your emotions will cause you to become demoralised. But modern reality rarely gives us the privilege of a satisfying linear, positive progression: you may think about a problem for a year and learn nothing

How does this connect to what Nietzsche was saying?

Well, one of Nietzsche’s central points is the importance of individuals pursuing their ‘will to power,’ an ambiguous phrase that refers to those drives which originate in the core of an individual’s identity and emerge in its free, creative, expression. He thought society, religion, and our own weaknesses conspired against us, offering easy truths and pre-packaged alternatives to the terrifying task of becoming a self, becoming oneself.

This task requires us to silence the doubts within and without, reject social conventions, and strike out alone. As a consequence, the creative flowering of the individual’s identity often goes with (and through) profound loneliness and suffering. For Nietzsche, learning to endure suffering is essential because suffering is an inherent part of living as an independent human.

Taleb seems to agree: suffering is the price we pay for pursuing non-linear pursuits, whether creative, intellectual, or personal:

“Believe me, it is tough to deal with the social consequences of the appearance of continuous failure. We are social animals; hell is other people.”

Where Nietzsche advocated we become true iconoclasts, Taleb’s recommendation is more attractive and realistic alternative:

It may be a banality that we need others for many things, but we need them far more than we realize, particularly for dignity and respect. Indeed, we have very few historical records of people who have achieved anything extraordinary without such peer validation – but we have the freedom to choose our peers. If we look at the history of ideas, we see schools of thought occasionally forming, producing unusual work unpopular outside the school… A school allows someone with unusual ideas with the remote possibility of a payoff to find company and create a microcosm insulated from others. The members of the group can be ostracized together – which is better than being ostracized alone.

Without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete

I hope you will forgive the double post, but I could not resist some excerpts from another of Joseph Brodsky’s wonderful essays in ‘On Grief and Reason.’ This one is titled ‘Speech at a stadium,’ and was delivered for a commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 1988:

To covet what somebody else has is to forfeit your uniqueness; on the other hand, of course, it stimulates mass production. But as you are running through life only once, it is only sensible to try to avoid the most obvious cliches, limited editions included. The notion of exclusivity, mind you, also forfeits your uniqueness, not to mention that it shrinks your sense of reality to the already achieved.

Joseph Brodsky | Poetry Foundation

At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo-the opposite of the V sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blame-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience. There is an entire victim culture, ranging from private counselors to international loans. The professed goal of this network notwithstanding, its net result is that of lowering one’s expectations from the threshold, so that a measly advantage could be perceived or billed as a major breakthrough. Of course, this is therapeutic and, given the scarcity of the world’s resources, perhaps even hygienic, so for want of a better identity, one may embrace it-but try to resist it. However abundant and irrefutable is the evidence that you are on the losing side, negate it as long as you have your wits about you, as long as your lips can utter “No. “

On the whole, try to respect life not only for its amenities but for its hardships, too. They are a part of the game, and what’s good about a hardship is that it is not a deception. Whenever you are in trouble, in some scrape, on the verge of despair or in despair, remember: that’s life speaking to you in the only language it knows well. In other words, try to be a little masochistic: without a touch of masochism, the meaning of life is not complete. If this is of any help, try to remember that human dignity is an absolute, not a piecemeal notion; that it is inconsistent with special pleading, that it derives its poise from denying the obvious. Should you find this argument a bit on the heady side, think at least that by considering yourself a victim you but enlarge the vacuum of irresponsibility that demons or demagogues love so much to fill, since a paralyzed will is no dainty for angels

For my favorite commencement speech of all time, check out David Foster Wallace’s This is Water