Or, how antifragility and Taoism have taught me everything I need to know about life, the Universe, and being a person.
Here’s my joke: Nassim Taleb and Lao Tzu walk into a bar. Nassim Taleb drops a wine glass on the floor. The glass gets stronger. So does the floor. Lao Tzu smiles knowingly. The bartender sees this and becomes enlightened. The end.
Let’s start with antifragility:
The term “antifragile” was coined by celebrity economist-philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan (not the Natalie Portman film), who, for reasons I do not understand, is these days using his brilliance to try to prove that Lebanese isn’t a dialect of Arabic (?). Odd linguistic concerns aside, Taleb’s work that interests me here is his 2012 book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.
He outlines a trichotomy, that in its simplest terms, goes like this: Some things are fragile, some things are robust, some things are antifragile.
We’re all familiar with the concept of fragility. A thing is fragile if it breaks or weakens when you subject it to stress, chaos, shock or volatility. Think of dropping a glass vase on the ground.
Likewise, robustness is nothing new. A thing is robust if it remains the same regardless of what it’s subjected to. Think of dropping a cement block on the ground.
Where Taleb’s argument gets interesting is in what he calls the opposite of fragility, not robustness, but antifragility: that which grows stronger when subjected to stress/chaos/shock/volatility (if you couldn’t already gather that from the book’s subtitle, “Things That Gain from Disorder.”)
So what does this have to do with Taoism?
Everything, obviously. Bear with me.
In its most basic (and, in a way, complex) understanding, Taoism is a philosophy of following the way of nature. It has no god(s), no commandments, no heaven or hell. Taoism dates back to 4th century BCE China, and a curious text called the Tao Te Ching, which roughly translates as “Book of Taoist Virtues,” attributed to “Lao Tzu” (or Laozi, meaning “Old Master”). I’ll spare you the origin story of Taoism, its roots in Chinese legalism, naturalism, and the I Ching (Yiching), and whether or not Lao Tzu was actually a person. It’s all interesting, but not that relevant. Anyways.
Tao (道) , or Dao, is an old Chinese word that’s usually translated into English as “Way,” though its meaning is much more complex than that. Tao evokes the concept of a natural order, the fundamental nature of the Universe, that which emerges organically out of life and consciousness due to it being the essence of life and consciousness. It is the “way”, in the sense of the way the Earth revolves around the sun, the way a river flows, the way trees grow and flowers bloom, the way cells multiply and die, the way we feel, the way we are.
Te (德), or De, another difficult-to-translate Chinese word and cornerstone of Taoist philosophy, means something along the lines of “character,” “quality, or “virtue.”
Thus, tao te can be understood as “the quality or character of the fundamental nature of the universe.”
But weren’t we talking about antifragility?
Yep. We still are.
In Antifragile, Taleb outlines antifragility as an ideal for systems to strive to. He notes that most of our economic systems are fragile, (so too with our governments, and, I’d argue, our interpersonal relationships). They are balanced precariously on a set of conditions, with the assumption that those conditions will not change. But of course, they will. Because, as Taleb notes in both Antifragile and The Black Swan, change is the name of the game. Volatility, disorder, shock and the unexpected are always bound to happen at some point. Thus, we should cultivate systems that are antifragile, like ecosystems, the human body, and, I’d argue, the human psyche, which grow stronger as they encounter volatility, shock and change.
The conclusion that Taleb doesn’t entirely draw is that antifragility is a quality of the way of nature. Antifragility is tao te. And therefore, in acting in ways and creating systems that are antifragile, we are aligning ourselves with the way of nature. We are aligning our te with the tao.
So, that’s kind of fair on the Universe stuff, but how does that teach you anything about being a person?
(Side note: I wrote a thing a while ago on how Taoism has informed my political, economic and activism philosophies. If you want to read that, here it is. It deals more fully with the concept of “systems” than I’m going to go into here.)
On the subject of being a person, specifically, let’s begin with a classic Taoist image: the river.
The river does not try to flow, it just flows. The river does not judge itself for how it flows, it just flows. It exudes no effort, and it has no plan of action but the plan that emerges organically out of its own nature. The river scrapes against rock for eons before it flows, but its action is a non-action. That is just what rivers do, because that is just what rivers are.
Thus, the Taoist action is to act like the river. To be effortless, to let all action emerge naturally out of one’s own nature. This brings us to another major Taoist (and Chinese legalist) term, “wu wei.” It basically means, “non-doing.” Doing simply by being, like the flow of the river.
This is complicated by the fact that humans are not rivers. (Well, we are, if you subscribe as I do to the more pantheist/non-dualist Hindu idea that we are all one cosmic entity undivided in our grand unity and, though we are different reflections of that grand unity, we are not separate. Anyways). For the time being, let’s stick with the problem that humans are not rivers.
We, as humans, engage in conscious action all the time. (Rivers and stars might as well, see this, fucking hell I need to write another post on all this stuff. Because it actually isn’t different from what I’m saying here. Even if it seems like it is.)
Humans aren’t rivers. Okay. Let’s just go with that one for now. The way in which humans engage with the world is maybe driven by more “conscious” action than rivers possess the ability to engage in. Cool? Cool.
There’s another classic image in Taoism, that of floating along in the current. Rather than swimming against the current in a particular direction, the Taoist actor is carried along by the current in harmony with the natural flow of the river.
Here is where Taleb’s fragile/robust/antifragile trichotomy comes back to us.
To fight the current is fragile. Maybe the waters are calm for now, but in any moment the current may change and something may come along that destroys or inhibits one’s progress (ideally a literal black swan).
To float along with the current is robust. One’s path is the path of river, wherever it leads, and is not disturbed by changes in the river for the path is the change in the river.
The antifragile approach is what I (and Alan Watts) call “tacking with the wind”: using one’s conscious action in harmony with the changes in the environment so that those changes actually benefit one’s progress. This is achieved through awareness and action in the now. To carry on with the river metaphor, this means paying attention to the direction of the wind and the water and turning oneself in each moment so that those directions benefit one’s own desired movement. (Side note again: remind me to write a post on desire without tension and this wu wei woo woo. Maybe I’ll call it “Tacktion.”)
In life, this amounts to being aware to your needs and feelings, and adjusting action in each moment to be in accordance with those.
Ploughing through life to reach a goal is fragile. Changes and shocks to one’s progress will inhibit one’s progress.
Detachment from goals is robust. Changes and shocks to one’s progress will do nothing.
Action in the now, choosing only what direction one feels to turn and continuously reassessing one’s direction in light of changes and shocks, is antifragile.
On an emotional level, fear is fragile. It breaks when you refuse to obey it. Love is often antifragile, growing stronger and becoming more of itself as it is subjected to change and volatility.
In terms of emotional action, denying a feeling is fragile. Having no feeling is robust. Leaning into your feelings is antifragile.
Avoidance because of fear is fragile. Action regardless of fear is robust. Action because of fear is antifragile.
Dependence on a person is fragile. Independence is robust. Interdependence, a network of people each supporting themselves and each other and receiving support in a fluid, organic way, is antifragile.
Self-worth based on what you receive is fragile. Self-worth regardless of what happens in robust. Self-worth based on what you give is antifragile.
Love based on what you get from someone is fragile. Unconditional love is robust. Love based on what you give to someone is antifragile. (Side note, I am going to write yet another post on antifragility and love.)
To be a person in an antifragile-Taoist sense is to let one’s action emerge organically out of one’s nature. One’s nature is forever in flux, malleable, for nature is Tao, and Tao is not a stagnant thing. It is uncatchable, un-nameable, unfixed. It is simply a way. Action in harmony with one’s nature is one’s nature. The self is the result of ever-changing experience and genetics (and genetics, itself, is a result of ever-changing experience, because evolution in general and why-your-parents-fucked-each-other in particular).
And the annoying thing is, there are things in life that are fragile. There are things that are robust. There are things that are antifragile. And there is a time and place for all three.
To navigate between the three, balance them, and choose each in turn when the circumstances call for it, that is antifragile action. That is action in harmony with the nature of the universe. That is tao te. That is life.