Brevity is the Soul of Wit

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a mathematician and securities trader who also waxes philosophical.  The last of his books that I am reading is entitled “The Bed of Procrustes.”  Now the title alone would guarantee I would want to know about it.  In Greek Mythology, Procrustes is one of those idiosyncratic monsters that the Hero, such as Heracles or as in this case Theseus must conquer in order to eliminate Chaos and promote civilization or something like that.  Freud made much soup from this sort of thing.

So, Procrustes had a bed that he let travelers sleep on at night.  The catch was that if the sleeper was shorter than the bed then Procrustes would stretch him to the correct size.  And if the sleeper was longer than the bed then he would trim him down to fit.  According to the story up until Theseus arrived the bed-sleeper length optimization procedure had been 100% fatal to the “sleeper.”  And when Theseus shows up he turns the tables (more furniture!) on Procrustes and performs a bed fitting exercise on him.

Taleb is using the metaphor of Procrustes Bed to represent how often in life humans look at situations from the wrong point of view.  And he returns to one of the oldest formats to address his subject, the aphorism or proverb or wise saying.

The Bed of Procrustes is one hundred and fifty-six pages long.  His other books like the “Black Swan” are four or five times as long.  His next book will be written on the back of a match book cover.  I approve of this trend.

I’ve started reading them.  Some of them are pretty good.  I’m comparing them to those other aphoristic writers Solomon, Confucious and Robert A. Heinlein (through the agency of his alter ego Lazarus Long).  The emphasis is different.  Taleb is talking about life from the point of view of a savvy operator not a philosopher or a saint.  He has more in common with Lazarus Long.  But there are many interesting observations and some of them are original in some aspect.  When I finish reading Procrustes Bed and do some comparison to his peers I’ll probably have more to say, but one thing that occurs to me is to put out a regular quote of the day (week?) from someone.  I’m sure it will make me appear wiser.  Here’s the first one:

“What fools call “wasting time” is most often the best investment.”

Shakespeare has Polonius declare that brevity is the soul of wit.  Polonius is a windbag so you have to wonder whether Old Will believed this statement or not.  But I find that, many times, less is decidedly more, especially when you’re under the gun to fit in blog posting into a busy day.  I see that many bloggers churn out a couple of thousand words in a post.  I like to put up about five hundred or so (and sometimes less).  I know everybody is busy nowadays and I don’t want to impose so let’s stop right here.

An Old Guy Reconsiders Ecclesiastes

I’m not an intensely religious man.  I ponder the questions of who, what, how and why in much the same way I imagine men always have.  But I do read the Bible and I have my favorite passages.  In the Old Testament I gravitate to Ecclesiastes 9:7 to 9:10.

The King James Version translates it thus:

7Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.

8Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.

 9Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

 10Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

 

Now something in verse nine always bothered me.  “All the days of the life of thy vanity.”  So, Solomon says our lives and our happiness and our loves and our families are in vain?

I dug a little deeper and found that the Hebrew word being translated as vanity is “hevel.”  The root meaning of hevel I have read, is “mere breath.”  And the connotation is insubstantial, ephemeral.  That makes a little more sense.  Life is ephemeral.  We have a thousand versions of this.  “Time flies, “life is short,” “ars longa vita brevis,” etc., etc., etc.

I felt better about that.  I retranslated that passage:

Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the fleeting days of thy life, which he hath given thee under the sun, all thy fleeting days:

 That’s better.  So, that’s how I became a biblical scholar.  The pay is non-existent but I imagine the big guy up there will appreciate me straightening out the English language version of his book.  So, I’ve got that going for me which is nice.

But I was still disturbed by the negative vibe of all this ephemeral talk.  Was Solomon trying to bum us out?  In fact, the whole book of Ecclesiastes was a giant downer.  Here’s a guy who’s got everything in the world.  He’s got gold, silver and bronze literally piled up to the sky.  He’s got wives and concubines to the extent that he probably was considering a vow of chastity just to save his own life.  He’s blessed by God with matchless wisdom and a mighty nation that views his word as law.  He should be the happiest man on earth.  Why is he griping about everything under the sun?

It’s because he sees the end of the road.  He sees his own death on the horizon.  In other words, he’s old.

And now I’m old and I understand.  You see all the things you should have done or shouldn’t have done and you’re filled with regret and anger at yourself.  And since Solomon knows himself to be the wisest man on earth he sees it as his part to tell the rest of us to stop chasing all the meaningless stuff like gold and silver and empires and just eat our bread, drink our wine and love our wives for as long as we’re allowed.

Now I no longer see Ecclesiastes as a depressing work.  I see it as a friendly signpost to the rest of us to cut to the chase and take care of the things that have actual meaning.  Keeping healthy with food that is good, enjoying the simple pleasures of life and loving your wife and your family.  And don’t waste time.  Time is short.  Use it.  So that’s why my articles are short too.  I’ve got most of today off and I intend to have some fun.  Have a great day.

 

Since my readers don’t always stop by every day I figured I’d paste this poll on each post for a while to see what folks call themselves.  This is the post the poll came from  Who Are We?

… And that got me thinking. Who are the people who read my blog?  I thought it might be fun to see what the cross-section looked like.  If you feel like saying what you believe in, feel free to leave a comment and/or pick a label from the poll below.  I think it might be interesting.

 

Coming Soon
Total Votes : 56