People have been telling me to read Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder (2014) by Nassim Taleb since the book came out because he’s into Stoicism. I’ve finally had a chance to read it so here’s my latest quasi-review. I’m calling this a “sort-of” review, not a full review, because rather than talk about the whole book I’m just going to write a bit more informally about my impressions, mainly regarding what he says about Stoicism.
EDIT: This was a rough stream-of-consciousness review but it’s caused so much debate that I feel the need to highlight at the very beginning (and end) what I’m saying Taleb got wrong about Stoicism. He seems oblivious to the basic Stoic concept of “preferred indifferents”, which is generally considered to be the very essence of their ethical philosophy, and what distinguishes Stoicism from opposing schools of thought. Oddly, he thinks that the very thing that defines Stoicism, in other words, was somehow unique to Seneca, which means he ends up completely misrepresenting Stoicism in general.
Taleb’s Opaque Writing Style
First of all, though, a caveat. Taleb’s writing has a reputation for being hard to review. His style (it seems to me) is idiosyncratic, disorganized, bombastic, refreshing, confrontational, iconoclastic, etc. Arguably that makes the book more engaging, although it can also be frustrating at times. Maybe in smaller doses. (Likewise, I don’t mind the occasional song by Björk but I don’t know if I could sit through a whole album.)
Although you can kind of get a rough sense of what he’s talking about fairly easily, on close inspection it’s often surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly what he means. (Maybe that explains why he seems to think most other people are stupid.) I don’t think I’m the only one, though, because other reviewers seem to have the same problem. Also when I spoke to some fans of his work about bits that seemed confusing it turned out they couldn’t make any more sense out of it than me.
Having read the book fairly closely, it seems to me that Taleb is often quite unclear about key concepts and sometimes he does appear to use arguments that are incomplete or not entirely convincing. He doesn’t seem to like copy editors because their “interventionist” approach stifles his creativity, which is fair comment. Although like most things in life there are pros and cons to that strategy, and in a few places an editor’s corrections might potentially have been helpful to the reader. (And, as I discuss below, there are some quite basic mistakes here that a good editor would potentially have stopped ending up in print.) Then again, that’s the guy’s writing style so take it or leave it.
I think it’s fair to say that Taleb has become notorious for his scathing attacks on people (e.g., “Fragilistas”) who he thinks are idiots. (Or who happen not to agree with him, depending on how you look at it.) Well, you know, call me old fashioned but, whatever he thinks, that doesn’t really seem to me to be the healthiest attitude for an author to adopt. I’m pretty sure it just stifles discussion and proper evaluation of his writing. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of people out there, including plenty of academics, who say things so stupid it barely seems worth anyone’s effort to respond. However, there’s got to be a better way of dealing with people who get on your goat. Personally, I don’t think it’s healthy to dismiss most critics as just not “getting” what you mean, and it’s definitely not a good idea to attack them or try to intimidate them with insults. That risks creating an Emperor’s New Clothes situation where genuine flaws in a book, or theory, can become all-too-easily masked and critics silenced — it’s ultimately healthier to encourage serious critics of your work. Anyway, that actually leads into the first thing I wanted to say about Antifragile…
The Concept of Antifragility
Taleb’s basic concept is that although we all know roughly what it means for something to be fragile we don’t have a word for its opposite. We say that something that isn’t fragile is “robust” or “resilient” but that’s just the absence of fragility, says Taleb, not its opposite. Something fragile is easily broken by knocks, something robust is impervious to knocks. Something that’s the opposite of fragile, though, would actually benefit from knocks and grow stronger. So he coins the term “antifragile” to denote this new concept – voila!
(I’m still undecided about whether this basic premise actually makes sense, to be honest, because, to cut a long story short, whereas Taleb talks about something going from being “fragile” to “antifragile”, I wonder whether we’d not find it more natural, at least in some of these cases, to relabel the stimuli that we were formerly fragile toward as having gone from being “harmful” to “beneficial” – it’s a two-term relationship after all that we’re describing and yet Taleb is focusing on how we label one side but not really how we might shift our way of labelling the other. A normal serpent is fragile with regard to having its head chopped off but the mythical Hydra, to borrow an example from his book, is antifragile because it grows two heads for each decapitation, and just gets stronger. Fair enough, but wouldn’t it be just as easy, if not easier, to say that whereas decapitation is harmful for most creatures it’s actually quite beneficial for the Hydra, who, paradoxically, gains strength as a result? That doesn’t require a neologism: it’s just the way we label the stimulus that’s changed not the way we label the subject. Taleb’s own example here, in fact, seems to undermine his claim that a neologism is required. Like I said, though, I’m still mulling this over…)
Anyway, that’s really the main theme that runs through the entire book, with a lot of interesting digressions, anecdotes, and other bits and pieces of advice: from weight-lifting to holiday itineraries and beyond.
Now, Taleb says repeatedly that nature herself is the best example of something antifragile. Presumably, in part, because species adapt to adversity and grow stronger as a result. So although he doesn’t say this himself, or explain why he doesn’t say it, a number of reviewers seem to have noticed that “antifragility” resembles the concept of evolution or survival of the fittest through natural selection. The difference is that antifragility is being used more broadly as a way of understanding life and society in general, on many different levels. So it’s surprising that Taleb never touches on “Social Darwinism”, if only to clarify the distinction between his new concept of “antifragility” and the various philosophical ideas that fall under that heading. (Note: I should mention that Taleb has an ethic that says it’s wrong to maintain your own antifragility at someone else’s expense, although I think he should still have clarified the difference between what he’s saying, at times, and similar things said in the past by Social Darwinists.)
Dismissing the Research on PTG and Resilience
Throughout the book Taleb marvels at how others have completely failed to grasp the concept underlying his neologism even though it’s been staring them in the face all along. That’s fair enough in a way. However, from the outset, as someone who’s worked and written in this area, I couldn’t help but think that the concept of emotional resilience and the closely-related idea of posttraumatic growth (PTG) in modern psychology are surely similar to what he’s talking about. In psychology the concept of “resilience” sometimes covers both what Taleb means by it and what he calls being antifragile. We also talk about the concept of “thriving”, which seems akin to what he has in mind. Eventually, Taleb says he discovered the concept of posttraumatic growth (when someone grows stronger following a trauma) and he actually concedes that this at least constitutes one example, in psychology, of what he meant by antifragility.
Surprisingly, though, he never returns to the subject and basically ignores all of the scientific research on posttraumatic growth, and related findings in psychology. Surely some of his readers must be left thinking: “Huh? So if this is what you’re talking about, what do all the scientific studies actually tell us about it?” A quick search of PubMed, incidentally, shows that there are currently 843 books and scientific journal articles listed that mention posttraumatic growth. If you were writing a book all about a new concept you thought you’d discovered and belatedly realized that there was entire field of psychology, with hundreds of studies, already dealing with what you concede to be a broadly similar concept, wouldn’t you go away and read up on it and then go back and revise your book in light of that realization? Taleb didn’t, for some reason.
Now, I understand that Taleb has an ambivalent relationship with empirical research – sometimes he uses it, sometimes he criticizes the whole idea. However, I still think we’ve a right to expect more than a fleeting mention of the fact that there’s a whole field of research already dealing with this subject. It seems to me that overall the findings don’t really correspond very closely with what he’s written about it. For example, one of the most consistent findings both from studies on resilience and posttraumatic growth is that the presence of strong social support is a predictor of good mental health and wellbeing following trauma, either through resilience or growth. However, Taleb barely mentions the role of social support in his discussion of antifragility. Perhaps he would happily dispute the relevance of psychological studies in this area or challenge their findings but then he should probably be more explicit about that, for the sake of his readers. I think, in reality, that most serious readers of his book will probably have read works by other authors, such as Martin Seligman, which deal with related topics, such as emotional resilience and posttraumatic growth. So they’re likely to end up asking themselves how Taleb’s concept of antifragility compares to the research in this area and why there seem to be differences.
Taleb’s unStoic Hostility to Critics
Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is his use of Stoic philosophy. First, though, another (minor) digression. As I was reading Antifragile, although it contains many interesting examples, it struck me that there seemed to be other obvious examples of the central concept that I was surprised Taleb didn’t mention. The main one is this. For most of my adult life I’ve been a trainer of sorts, in various different contexts. I’ve always gathered very detailed feedback from students and read it very closely. When running a new course, I’ll gather quantitative and qualitative feedback mid-course so that I have the opportunity to make changes on the fly. Some of my colleagues (and competitors) don’t do that. I’ve always felt that by avoiding the (perceived) harm (to one’s fragile ego) of reading negative comments they’re basically paying a huge price by missing out on the opportunity to grow and improve as a trainer. It prevents their teaching style and their course content from evolving. Put another way: inviting criticism is antifragile. (It seems to me anyway.) It can be painful but it makes you stronger. Avoiding exposure to criticism or attacking your critics to shut them down would, by contrast, be fragile – indeed, we often say someone like that has a fragile ego.
As I read Taleb’s Antifragile I noticed that I kept thinking of the following maxim from Epicurus: In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most. It seems to me that someone who lives by that philosophy will be antifragile, at least in one important respect. He actually turns what looks like failure into victory and considers himself to have benefited every time he’s defeated in an argument. He turns chicken shit into chicken soup, to borrow an expression from, of all people, Roger Stone. Or as Epictetus put it, like the magical wand, the caduceus, of Hermes, through his philosophy he touches misfortune and turns it into good fortune.
Let’s repeat that: “In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most.” I think we’d all be able to admire that guy. Who would deny that genuinely being able to look at things that way would demonstrate tremendous strength of character, humility, and wisdom? For an Epicurean who really assimilated that maxim, in Taleb-speak, there would be no downside to being proven wrong and losing an argument, only an upside: learning. I was half-expecting Taleb to mention that quote, as it’s reasonably well-known. Here’s the question, though. Does Taleb’s own fairly aggressive (“ad hominem” heavy) style of debate, his way of forcefully putting-down individuals who disagree with him as “fragilistas” and “charlatans”, run contrary to that nugget of philosophy? I’ll leave it to others to decide. I do think it would be a very interesting quote for him to get his teeth into, though. It seems to be the sort of thing he likes.
I’m just going to arbitrarily inject this sort of addendum or footnote that occured to me after I finished… Bear with me because this might seem like an odd question but: Why is this a noun? (“Antifragility”, “the antifragile”, or an adjective, “antifragile”?) I’d rather it was a verb, to be honest. Maybe Taleb’s book reminded me slightly of Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity (yes, we’re going back a bit now!). I’m constitutionally suspicious of nouns, and adjectives are just as bad. I’d rather talk about what someone is doing than what they are. We tend to find in psychotherapy that makes a crucial difference: “I am tense” versus “I tense my…” (What are you tensing? How? Where and when? Why don’t you stop?)
“Verbification” or “verbing”, we call it. The most famous example is probably the way therapists teach clients to say they’re actively “catastrophizing” a situation or “decatastrophizing” it rather than just “this is a catastrophe!” If I was going to coin a new term for the opposite of fragile, I’d start by verbing it somehow. This guy is fragilizing himself… at these times, in this way, etc. Now he’s beginning to antifragilize his investments or his relationships or whatever… (I know people hate that but I’m not sorry because I find it actually works quite well as a way of clarifying our thinking, like Korzybski’s General Semantics claims.)
Come to think of it, insofar as decatastrophizing in cognitive therapy goes beyond reduction of threat appraisal and into constructive re-appraisal of our coping ability, it probably already transgresses into what Taleb calls being antifragile. People start to see situations they worried about excessively not only as bearable but also as potentially having some positive aspects or opportunities for them. That reminds me of another little-known Stoic technique. Epictetus said that one of his political heroes, Paconius Agrippinus, a member of the Stoic Opposition against Nero, used to write “eulogies” to himself actually praising the misfortunes that befell him, such as being exiled from Rome. He not only moderated the downside of adversity but actively sought out an upside, even in the face of extreme situations, and he did it in the form of a semi-formal exercise, like writing a Stoic “consolation” letter to himself re-appraising both the downside and upside.
Anyway, back to the quasi-review…
Taleb on Seneca
Taleb is quite into Stoicism, or at least Seneca’s Stoicism. He doesn’t mention Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. (It does come across, as we’ll, see as if that may possibly be because he’s not read them, or any other books on Stoicism.) Some people have even told me that they were introduced to Stoicism by reading his books. Antifragile has references to Stoicism scattered throughout but Chapter 10, which is entitled “Seneca’s Upside and Downside”, is largely dedicated to Taleb’s interpretation of Stoicism.
Antifragile features a (fictional) Italian-American character called Fat Tony. Taleb opens his chapter on Seneca by stating that “A couple of millennia before Fat Tony, another child of the Italian peninsula solved the problem of antifragility.” That’s one for the editor: Seneca wasn’t born on the Italian peninsula. He was actually a child of Cordoba, in the Roman province of Hispania, or modern-day Spain. Anyway, that’s trivial. What matters is that Taleb makes it clear that, in his view, Seneca exemplifies antifragility. Indeed, he says that Seneca “solved the problem of antifragility […] using Stoic philosophy”. (Edit: After I wrote this, Taleb replied to a Tweet, and what he said was a little opaque but he seemed to be claiming he didn’t mean this remark about Seneca’s birthplace literally — still I think most people will surely read it as meaning Seneca was born in the Italian peninsula, which would be a historical error.)
Taleb thinks that academics have generally dismissed Seneca as “not theoretical or philosophical enough” because of his practical focus. Not a single commentator, he says, has noticed that Seneca articulated the concept of “asymmetry”, which is the key both to robustness and antifragility. (I think anyone reading this is bound to think: “Are you seriously claiming to have read every single commentator on Seneca?”, because that seems extremely unkilely, especially in light of both his historical and philosophical mistakes here.) Taleb thinks that most other philosophers begin with theory and then try to apply it to practice. However, he’s a big fan of Seneca because he believes that he did the opposite and started with practice before developing his theory. “To become a successful philosopher king”, Taleb says, “it is much better to start as a king than as a philosopher”, which is quite a nice way of putting it.
I think most people would find that a reasonable, and not entirely novel, point. However, I’m not really convinced that it describes Seneca any more than any number of other philosophers, especially his fellow Stoics. Taleb doesn’t really provide any explanation for why he believes Seneca stood apart from the rest in this regard, except that he was very wealthy. (Obviously, there were other wealthy philosophers, including seveal other famous Stoics, such as Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius.)
Much of Seneca’s wealth, perhaps most of it, was given to him by Nero, and if you were cynical you might say it took the form of massive bribes in exchange for Seneca writing propaganda speeches, etc., in support of an oppressive and tyrannical political regime. Seneca later panicked when Nero began killing more people and tried to give the money back – the most obvious explanation being that he was worried Nero was about to have him killed in order to seize it back anyway. That’s presumably always a threat that hangs over your head when you’re paid millions by a dictator who’s carrying out summary executions of his political enemies – he may be tempted to claw back the money later by having you put to death. Are there other interpretations of Seneca’s actions? Sure but the point is that Taleb’s maybe a bit hasty to class him as a pragmatic hero.
Taleb describes the “traditional” understanding of Stoicism as being about “indifference to fate – among other ideas of harmony with the cosmos”, which is true. He sets that aside, though, to focus more on what the philosophy says about handling our material possessions.
It is about continuously degrading the value of earthly possessions. When Zeno of Kition [or Citium], the founder of the school of Stoicism, suffered a shipwreck […] he declared himself lucky to be unburdened so he could now do philosophy.
Zeno had several famous teachers before he founded the Stoic school. One was Stilpo the Megarian. (Taleb calls him Stilbo, which is just an alternate spelling used by Seneca.) When Stilpo was told that his city had been sacked, his property seized, and his wife and children killed, he reputedly said “I have lost nothing”, nihil perditi, “I have all my goods with me.” Like the Stoics, He also believed that virtue is the only true good. Taleb says that this “I lost nothing” reverberates through Seneca’s writings as though it’s the cornerstone of his whole philosophy.
That’s partially true but not entirely so. For Stoics in general, wealth is “nothing” in one sense, in terms of the supreme goal of life, but in another sense it has an inferior sort of value, for practical purposes. This fundamental distinction, which Taleb doesn’t seem to know about, is considered to be the essence of Stoic philosophy by most modern academic scholars, and was seen as central to distinguishing the philosophy from other schools in antiquity.
Zeno introduced this distinction between two types of value, which formed the basis of Stoicism and distinguishes it from the Cynic school that preceded it, and probably also from the Megarians like Stilpo. Only virtue and vice, qualities of our own character and voluntary actions, can be intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense of the word. Everything else is “indifferent” in that regard. However, said Zeno, it is reasonable to prefer life over death, friends over enemies, wealth over poverty, within certain bounds, as long as we never sacrifice wisdom or virtue for the sake of these “external” things.
He therefore described them as having an inferior sort of “value” (axia), incommensurate with our supreme good in life. I don’t think Taleb’s aware of this, although it’s arguably the central doctrine of Stoicism, and so he perhaps misinterprets Seneca and the Stoics as a consequence of this omission. As Cicero points out in De Finibus, Stoic Ethics without any distinction between the value of different externals would effectively just be a rehash of Cynicism. What made Stoicism what it is, a distinct school of philosophy that went by a new name, was Zeno’s introduction of this doctrine of “preferred indifferents” or “selective value”.
For example, one of our most important sources for information on the early Stoic school is Diogenes Laertius, who explains the doctrine of “preferred indifferents” as follows:
Of things indifferent, as they express it, some are “preferred,” others “rejected.” Such as have value, they say, are “preferred,” while such as have negative, instead of positive, value are “rejected.” Value they define as, first, any contribution to harmonious living, such as attaches to every good; secondly, some faculty or use which indirectly contributes to the life according to nature: which is as much as to say “any assistance brought by [NB:] wealth or health towards living a natural life”; thirdly, value is the full equivalent of an appraiser, as fixed by an expert acquainted with the facts – as when it is said that wheat exchanges for so much barley with a mule thrown in.
Diogenes gives the following examples of things (including wealth) classed as having value or being preferred by the founders of Stoicism:
Thus things of the preferred class are those which have positive value, e.g. amongst mental qualities, natural ability, skill, moral improvement, and the like; among bodily qualities, life, health, strength, good condition, soundness of organs, beauty, and so forth; and in the sphere of external things, [NB:] wealth, fame, noble birth, and the like. To the class of things “rejected” belong, of mental qualities, lack of ability, want of skill, and the like; among bodily qualities, death, disease, weakness, being out of condition, mutilation, ugliness, and the like; in the sphere of external things, [NB:] poverty, ignominy, low birth, and so forth. But again there are things belonging to neither class; such are not preferred, neither are they rejected.
Cicero confirms that it was Zeno himself, the founder of Stoicism, who coined the term “preferred things” (ta proegmena) for use in this technical sense, although later generations of Stoics seem to have been free to argue over the fine details of which things were classed as “preferred” and the precise hierarchy of their value.
Taleb quotes Seneca as saying of a man who lived lavishly “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another person or from fortune.” According to Taleb, this aspect of Stoicism, that discourages us from becoming too enslaved to wealth and luxury, is the key to maintaining resilience in the face of adversity.
Stoicism, seen this way, becomes pure robustness – for the attainment of a state of immunity from one’s external circumstances, good or bad, and an absence of fragility to decisions made by fate, is robustness.
Random events don’t affect someone who is robust, according to Taleb’s definition, one way or the other. They are too strong to suffer from the losses incurred by misfortune. However, they are also not greedy for the rewards of good fortune. They remain impassive with regard to the ups and downs of fate.
Whereas the Stoics describe many techniques to help attain this state of mind, though, Taleb is more interested in advocating the outlook on life, and doesn’t actually say as much about how to actually get into that frame of mind. He mainly describes a method favoured by Seneca, which is usually known as the praemediation malorum or premeditation of adversity. We could say “premediation of bad things” but that’s slightly misleading, as the whole point for Stoics is that we should train ourselves to realize the’re not really intrinsically bad at all but things indifferent, in their technical sense of the word mentioned above.
Seneca on Premeditation
Taleb says that we should first learn robustness from “the great master” Seneca, or “how he advocated the mitigation of downside” and “protection against harm from emotions”. Then we can proceed to learn how Seneca teaches us to go beyond robustness and actually achieve antifragility.
Taleb says that success brings a kind of asymmetry in the sense that you have more to lose than to gain, which constitutes an important form of fragility.
There is no good news in store, just plenty of bad news in the pipeline. When you become rich, the pain of losing your fortune exceeds the emotional gain of getting additional wealth, so you start living under continuous emotional threat.
Rich people, he says, are trapped by their wealth, which causes them emotional stress.
Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as punishment as we depend on them. All upside, no downside. [sic, surely he intended to write this the other way around?]
Taleb adds that our dependence on external circumstances, or rather the emotions arising from this dependence, constitutes a form of slavery.
He quotes the Roman poet Livy to illustrate this asymmetry: “Men feel the good less intensely than the bad.” Suppose you’re a millionaire. The potential benefit of gaining another half a million dollars would now be small compared to the pain caused by losing exactly the same amount. That’s a negative asymmetry, which Taleb says makes your situation fragile.
Seneca’s practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting—a way to wrest one’s freedom from circumstances. It is similar to buying an insurance contract against losses. For instance, Seneca often started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked, which included a blanket to sleep on the ground, as inns were sparse at the time (though I need to qualify, to set things in the context of the day, that he had accompanying him “only one or two slaves”).
Taleb says that before starting his last job he wrote a resignation letter and kept it locked in his drawer, which allowed him to feel a sense of psychological freedom. He also says that as a trader, each morning he would assume that the worst possible thing had happened, so that he could view the rest of the day as a bonus, something he describes as the “discipline of mental write-off”. He reckons that an “intelligent life” entails emotional positioning through exercises like these in order to remove the sting of pain caused by losses. That’s the secret of being emotionally robust in the face of “volatility”, i.e., uncertainty and risk.
Seen this way, Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.
That’s the quote from Taleb on Stoicism that people seem to cite most often, incidentally. He’s right that Stoicism is not actually about the elimination or “extirpation” of all emotions but rather the transformation of irrational and unhealthy emotions into rational and healthy ones. You could call that their “domestication”, as he does. He’s actually, in this regard, a better interpreter of Stoicism than some academics, although, as we’ve seen, he gets other bits of the philosophy wrong.
Taleb mentions two more Stoic psychological strategies in passing:
Seneca proposes a complete training program to handle life and use emotions properly—thanks to small but effective tricks. One trick, for instance, that a Roman Stoic would use to separate anger from rightful action and avoid committing harm he would regret later would be to wait at least a day before beating up a servant who committed a violation. We moderns might not see this as particularly righteous, but just compare it to the otherwise thoughtful Emperor Hadrian’s act of stabbing a slave in the eye during an episode of uncontrolled anger. When Hadrian’s anger abated, and he felt the grip of remorse, the damage was irreversible.
Seneca also provides us a catalogue of social deeds: invest in good actions. Things can be taken away from us—not good deeds and acts of virtue.
That’s how he believes Stoics in general “domesticate emotion” and achieve robustness. So how does he think Seneca goes beyond that to “domesticate risk” and achieve antifragility?
Taleb claims that psychologists and intellectuals in general have a mental block that prevents them from recognizing the concept of antifragility: “I don’t know what it is, but they don’t like it.” (Apart from the hundreds of scientific texts in the field of psychology that Taleb already noticed refer to posttraumatic growth?) The same mental block, he says, prevents them from considering that Seneca “wanted the upside from fate”, and that there is nothing wrong with that.
As we’ve seen, though, Taleb is arguably overestimating the difference between Seneca and other Stoics in this regard. More or less every academic text on Stoicism (that I’ve ever read) acknowledges that the Stoics assigned value (axia) to externals, and considered wealth preferable to poverty. So it’s not really that every academic is stubbornly denying or overlooking that Seneca saw some value in wealth. It’s just that Taleb, as far as I can tell, seems to be unaware of the aspect of Stoic Ethics that, from Zeno on, assigned an, albeit inferior, sort of value to money, and preferred it to poverty, within reason. I can’t say what Taleb has and has not read but it definitely comes across as though he’s never actually read any modern academic commentaries on Stoicism. I think most of his serious readers who are into Stoicism, though, will have read books by the likes of respected scholars such as John Sellars and Pierre Hadot, etc., and so they will certainly have a more accurate understanding of Stoicism, in this regard, than Taleb exhibits.
It’s true that the Stoics did sometimes embrace “voluntary hardship”, like the Cynics before them, and lived like beggars. They describe this more ascetic way of life as a “shortcut to virtue”, though, not suited for everyone. (Much as Christians thought of monasticism as suited only for some.) If that seems paradoxical, it’s not really. Just remember that although most people don’t like pain and discomfort, we generally accept that learning to endure it within reason can potentially toughen us up. That’s what most physical exercise is about, to some extent. It improves our fitness but also teaches us to endure pain and fatigue. Indeed, Taleb does note that Stoicism can make you actually desire catastrophes, which you can embrace as a challenge in life. (“Bring it on!”)
So if the Stoics renounced wealth, sometimes, it wasn’t because they thought it was “bad” but because they thought that doing so could potentially strengthen their character. Wealth, in general, is viewed by them as potentially useful in life.
Taleb is more interested in Seneca than the other Stoics partly because he was one of the super-rich. He says that Seneca speaks to him because he “walked the walk” and focuses on the practical aspects of Stoicism such as how to take a trip, how to handle committing suicide, and how to cope with adversity in life such as poverty. Taleb recommends reading Seneca to his friends because he’s an eminently practical philosopher. (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, of course, also deal with very similar practical advice.)
However, Taleb says that “even more critically” Seneca speaks to him, and his friends, because he describes how to handle immense wealth. That’s perhaps a fair comment, although it’s probably not the reason most ordinary people give for reading Seneca! Indeed, Taleb says that although “on paper” Seneca followed the Stoic tradition, in practice he did something slightly different, which, Taleb claims, “commentators have completely missed”.
If wealth is so much of a burden, while unnecessary, what’s the point of having it? Why did Seneca keep it?
Taleb says that Seneca called wealth the slave of the wise man and master of the fool. That’s something most of the other Stoics could have just as easily said, as we’ve seen. However, Taleb assumes that Seneca is unique among Stoics in holding the view that wealth can potentially be an advantage.
Thus he broke a bit with the purported Stoic habit: he kept the upside. In my opinion, if previous Stoics claimed to prefer poverty to wealth, we need to be suspicious of their attitude, as it may be just all talk. Since most were poor, they might have fit a narrative to the circumstances […]. Seneca was all deeds, and we cannot ignore the fact that he kept the wealth. It is central that he showed his preference of wealth without harm from wealth to poverty.
As I noted earlier, I think this idea that Seneca was unique in preferring wealth to poverty stems from shortcomings in Taleb’s familiarity with the subject. He’s right that Zeno and more or less all Stoics taught that wealth isn’t necessary, and is ultimately indifferent with regard to the supreme goal of life. Nevertheless, more or less all Stoics agreed that in another sense wealth is “preferable” to poverty, and therefore has value (axia), just not comparable to that of our supreme good. Seneca isn’t unique in this regard, in other words. In other words, Taleb says “previous Stoics [to Seneca] claimed to prefer poverty to wealth” although that’s actually the opposite of what they believed.
Taleb says in the passage quoted above that “most [Stoics] were poor”. Sometimes he even appears to believe that Seneca was exceptional among them for being very wealthy. That’s not quite right, though. Zeno was a wealthy Phoenician merchant who lost his fortune at sea, by some accounts. However, by other accounts he was later quite wealthy. One explanation for that apparent contradiction is that we know one of Zeno’s most devoted students, later in life, was King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia. He’s reputed to have donated a huge sum of money to the school after Zeno’s death, when his successor Cleanthes was the head. So Zeno had an extremely wealthy and powerful friend.
King Antigonus was seemingly very devoted to Zeno, whom he admired above all other philosophers, but he played the following trick on one of his favourite Stoic students, Persaeus:
And Antigonus once, wishing to make trial of [Persaeus] caused some false news to be brought to him that his estate had been ravaged by the enemy, and as his countenance fell, “Do you see,” said he, “that wealth is not a matter of indifference ?”
Whether or not Zeno accepted patronage from Antigonus we’re told Cleanthes later did. Later Stoics were not all poor. Many subsequent Roman Stoics came from the elite equestrian and senatorial classes, most of whom were comparable to modern millionaires or billionaires. Marcus Aurelius, of course, was emperor of Rome, and therefore not short of a bob or two.
In any case, Taleb notes that Seneca was (allegedly) the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. Seneca’s net worth of 300 million sesterces was equivalent to the annual salary of about 330,000 legionaries. At a very rough estimate, that would be maybe nine billion US dollars today. Perhaps much more depending on how we try to convert it into modern currency. Of all the famous Stoics, Seneca has the most mixed reputation because of his perceived love of money and luxury, his adultery, and his involvement with Emperor Nero’s violent and oppressive regime.
He was criticized for being a hypocrite by the historian Cassius Dio, for example. Seneca has been banished for alleged adultery with Julia, the sister of the Emperor Claudius. Dio says he didn’t learn his lesson or show much wisdom on his return as he later had an affair with Agrippina, the mother of Nero, “in spite of the kind of woman she was and the kind of son she had.” He adds:
Nor was this the only instance in which his conduct was seen to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy. For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the teacher of a tyrant; while inveighing against the associates of the powerful, he did not hold aloof from the palace itself; and though he had nothing good to say of flatterers, he himself had constantly fawned upon Messalina and the freedmen of Claudius, to such an extent, in fact, as actually to send them from the island of his exile a book containing their praises — a book that he afterwards suppressed out of shame. Though finding fault with the rich, he himself acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them. In stating thus much I have also made clear what naturally went with it — the licentiousness in which he indulged at the very time that he contracted a most brilliant marriage, and the delight that he took in boys past their prime, a practice which he also taught Nero to follow. And yet earlier he had been of such austere habits that he had asked his pupil to excuse him from kissing him or eating at the same table with him.
So Taleb introduces his discussion of Seneca as follows:
We start with the following conflict. We introduced Seneca as the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. His fortune was three hundred million denarii [sic] (for a sense of its equivalence, at about the same period in time, Judas got thirty denarii, the equivalent of a month’s salary, to betray Jesus). Admittedly it is certainly not very convincing to read denigrations of material wealth from a fellow writing the lines on one of his several hundred tables (with ivory legs).
Again, one for the copy editor. A denarius was a silver coin worth about four sesterces, which were minted from brass during Nero’s reign. According to Cassius Dio, Seneca was already super-rich but Taleb’s just quadrupled his wealth. That seems to be another sloppy mistake, albeit maybe a trivial one.
Taleb also says that the following passage from Seneca’s On Benefits shows that he was engaged in a cost-benefit analysis:
The bookkeeping of benefits is simple: it is all expenditure; if any one returns it, that is clear gain; if he does not return it, it is not lost, I gave it for the sake of giving.
So, according to Taleb who highlights the expression “clear gain”, Seneca adopted an attitude of disregarding the pain of the downside while retaining enjoyment of the upside.
So he played a trick on fate: kept the good and ditched the bad; cut the downside and kept the upside. Self-servingly, that is, by eliminating the harm from fate and un-philosophically keeping the upside. This cost-benefit analysis is not quite Stoicism in the way people understand the meaning of Stoicism (people who study Stoicism seem to want Seneca and other Stoics to think like those who study Stoicism). There is an upside-downside asymmetry. That’s antifragility in its purest form.
On the contrary, though, it sounds very typically Stoic to me. As we’ve seen, right from the outset, Zeno and other Stoics considered wealth preferable to poverty, within reason. Wealth typically (but not always) gives us more control over other externals, so it’s natural and reasonable to prefer that as a means of exercising wisdom and justice in life. However, if we happen to lose our wealth, like Zeno, that’s not worth getting upset about because all that ultimately matters is that we do the best we can in life, whatever our circumstances.
Overall, Taleb interprets Seneca as meaning something that he sums up in a single rule called “Seneca’s asymmetry”. If you have more to lose than to gain from volatility, the ups and downs of the proverbial Wheel of Fortune, that’s a negative or bad asymmetry, and you are fragile, according to Taleb. However, if you have nothing to lose and only things to gain then you have a positive or good asymmetry and you are antifragile.
This is expressed in Taleb-speak as follows:
Fragility implies more to lose than to gain, equals more downside than upside, equals (unfavorable) asymmetry.
Antifragility implies more to gain than to lose, equals more upside than downside, equals (favorable) asymmetry.
In his glossary at the end of the book, Taleb specifies that he calls this both the “Fundamental Asymmetry” and “Seneca’s Asymmetry”, and defines it as follows:
When someone has more upside than downside in a certain situation, he is antifragile and tends to gain from (a) volatility, (b) randomness, (c) errors, (d) uncertainty, (e) stressors, (f) time. And the reverse.
Well we made it! Sorry if that was hard going in places, gentle traveller. I’ve included more quotes than normal because I thought they were necessary. I’d rather let Taleb speak for himself than risk putting words in his mouth and being accused of getting it wrong. So you can see what he says above. To sum up, there are several historical and philosophical errors in Antifragile’s account of Stoicism. Some of them are just silly mistakes, like calling Seneca “a child of the Italian peninsula”, quadrupling his wealth, and portraying him as the only Stoic who wasn’t poor.
The most serious mistake he makes, though, consists in getting the central ethical doctrine of Stoicism completely back to front. Taleb says that “previous Stoics [to Seneca] claimed to prefer poverty to wealth“. In fact, from Zeno onward their philosophy was distinguished from other sects by its emphasis on the concept of “preferred indifferents”, i.e., that it is reasonable to prefer wealth to poverty, and the same goes for other external goods. Wealth is just the most common example. This distinction applies across the board to all other “external” advantages in life. That’s not a trivial mistake. It changes Stoicism into a completely different philosophy and totally misrepresents what ancient authors, and modern scholars, generally take to be one of its central principles.
Overall, I quite liked Antifragile. I do enjoy reading an author with a distinctive voice. It’s impossible surely to read Taleb, though, without thinking from time to time “Surely this doesn’t make sense!”, closely followed by “Oh shit, I can already imagine him shooting me down in flames and calling me an idiot and a Fragilista for disagreeing with him!” (Edit: he later called me a “charlatan” for saying he got Seneca “completely wrong” – some things never change, I guess.)
Well tough luck because he deserves to have people disagreeing with him, in my opinion. He’s definitely not always right. His acerbic style probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. His interpretation of Stoicism, though, is unusual and interesting. It also seems to me to be incorrect. He’s got a lot to say, nevertheless, and he’s worth reading, and that’s probably what matters most at the end of the day.
(Note, I edited this article, pretty slightly, after it came up again in discussion – mainly to clarify some points.)
One reply on “Stoicism Book Review: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb”
I recently read a review of a prominent economist – Branko Milanovic – on Taleb’s work. Maybe I will end up reading it anyway – after your books of course. http://glineq.blogspot.com/2018/01/the-importance-of-talebs-system-from.html?m=1