The Lost Art of Aphoristic Reading: A Review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes

“He who writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read—he wants to be learned by heart. In the mountains the shortest route is from peak to peak, but for that you must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks, and those to whom they are spoken should be big and tall of stature. The air thin and pure, danger near, and the spirit full of a joyful wickedness: these things suit one another. I want hobgoblins around me, for I am courageous. Courage that scares away phantoms makes hobgoblins for itself—courage wants to laugh.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and Nobody (1883)

The Bed of ProcrustesPeople who share my love of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books are often surprised to learn that The Bed of Procrustes is my favorite. I suspect that there are two main reasons for this: (1) the knowledge of how to read an aphorism properly is, by and large, a lost art in this day and age; and, (2) our culture has for the most part forgotten what can be reasonably expected of the aphoristic genre. For instance, we all know that it would be foolish to complain that the documentary about genocide you watched in class didn’t make you laugh. Likewise, we all know that it would be foolish to complain that the slapstick comedy you watched on the plane was silly. But few of us realize that faulting an aphorism for being incomplete or overly categorical is just as foolish.

All that I know about how to read and write aphorisms, I learned from the philosopher Horst Hutter. In his famous Nietzsche Seminar, he taught us that an aphorism is, in essence, like a photograph of a mountain peak (or a trail map to the top). Although the aphorism’s author points you in the right direction, you’re gonna have to climb the mountain yourself. Aphorisms require that the reader do some work. Often some rather hard work. Among other things, you’ve got to remember that the aphorism doesn’t stand alone. Quite to the contrary: the aphorism must be understood within the context of all the rest of the author’s work.

“The worst readers,” Nietzsche maintained, “are those who proceed like plundering soldiers: they pick up a few things they can use, soil and confuse the rest, and blaspheme the whole.” Many of the worst readers Nietzsche spoke of have, it seems, reviewed The Bed of Procrustes. My impression, after reading a few dozen Amazon reviews, is that The Bed of Procrustes may be Taleb’s most misunderstood book. The tepid reviews of The Bed of Procrustes fail to acknowledge how difficult (and rich) it is. I’ve assigned it to numerous classes at John Abbott College. And my students love it. Be that as it may, most of the really nasty reviews of The Bed of Procrustes on Amazon.com appear to have been written by people who (a) don’t know how to read carefully, (b) don’t know how to read aphorisms carefully, OR (c) didn’t bother trying to read Taleb’s aphorisms carefully. I’ll give just one example to illustrate my point. One reviewer cites the common phenomenon of the 30-year-old teenager (still living at home, still sponging off of mom and dad) as a refutation of Taleb’s claim that modernity causes us to age prematurely. This is based on a laughable misreading of the aphorism in question. When Taleb says that modernity leads us to age prematurely, he’s quite obviously referring to physiological decrepitude (e.g., the dumpy dude who looks 45 at 28), not emotional maturity (e.g., the street smart kid who talks like a 25-year-old at 13).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb confounds and disappoints people often. To some extent, this is due to an accident of history: the book that made him famous, The Black Swan (2007), was (at least initially) one of those books you could talk about without reading. The chattering classes love books like this. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) is a case in point. Be that as it may, none of Taleb’s other books are like this. All to the contrary. And hence the disappointment. Dynamic Hedging (1997), his first book, is fabulously inaccessible. A friend of mine described it as an esoteric conversation over beers in a London pub. And that pretty much nails it. Dynamic Hedging is filled with the kind of specialized shoptalk my math-whiz, ex-trader of a wife engages in, from time to time, with her old Wall Street buddies at wine-soaked dinner parties—much to the chagrin of our statistically-challenged friends. The same is ultimately true of Fooled By Randomness (2005), despite the fact that it’s written with the intelligent layman in mind. Still, no two books piss people off more than his last two books—Antifragile (2012) and The Bed of Procrustes (2010)—though, truth be told, they piss people off for totally different reasons.

Antifragile gets on people’s nerves because it’s written for serious readers who actually like to read books, as opposed to pretentious intellectual lightweights who like to talk about books they’ve skim-read, or, what’s worse, people who like to talk about books they’ve read about in middlebrow publications like The New York Review of BooksThe Bed of Procrustes gets on people’s nerves for far deeper reasons. Like its author, The Bed of Procrustes is really, at bottom, an atavism: a throwback to a bygone era: something which doesn’t quite fit into the 21st century. If Antifragile was written for serious readers, The Bed of Procrustes was (to some extent) written for philosophical people who don’t read much. Of course this notion seems strange and foreign to us, because we’re sons and daughters of modernity, heirs to the printing press, public education, and all the rest. And, as such, we simply cannot understand why a philosophical person might refrain from reading books (on purpose). But this wouldn’t seem odd to Stoics like Chrysippus and Seneca; nor does it seem odd, I suspect, to an oddball like Taleb.

Most ancient philosophers wrote little or nothing. They received and transmitted their ideas via the spoken word. Some did this, of necessity, because they were themselves illiterate; but most did so, like Socrates, because they were profoundly suspicious of the written word. The spirit of philosophy was first and foremost, they thought, a function of speeches not scribbles; it couldn’t be captured in chirography, but it could be conjured in conversation, and, to some extent, encapsulated in aphorisms. For instance, Roman soldiers who could barely read often managed, despite their lack of learning, to commit much of Epictetus’s Enchiridion to memory. Likewise, many an Epicurean shopkeeper living in, say, 2nd-century Athens, would, though functionally illiterate, memorize most (if not all) of Epicurus’s sayings and maxims. These aphorisms contained—albeit in a highly concentrated form—more than enough wisdom to last a lifetime.

If there’s one thing the chattering classes can’t stand about Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one thing they’ll never forgive him for, it’s this: he’s written a book of aphorisms in the 21st century with that Athenian shopkeeper in mind.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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