Unpretentious Truths

Returning tonight to reading Taleb’s “Black Swan”, I was struck by the extent to which his preference for empiricism over theory repeats Nietzsche’s praise of “unpretentious truths” in Human, All Too Human:

Estimation of unpretentious truths.– It is the mark of a higher culture to value the little unpretentious truths which have been discovered by means of rigorous method more highly than the errors handed down by metaphysical ages and men, which blind us and make us happy. At first, one has scorn on his lips for unpretentious truths, as if they could offer no match for the others: they stand so modest, simple, sober, even apparently discouraging, while the other truths are so beautiful, splendid, enchanting, or even enrapturing. But truths that are hard won, certain, enduring, and therefore still of consequence for all further knowledge are the higher; to keep to them is manly, and shows bravery, simplicity, restraint. Eventually, not only the individual, but all mankind will be elevated to this manliness, when men finally grow accustomed to the greater esteem for durable, lasting knowledge and have lost all belief in inspiration and a seemingly miraculous communication of truths.

The admirers of forms, with their standard of beauty and sublimity, will, to be sure, have good reason to mock at first, when esteem for unpretentious truths and the scientific spirit first comes to rule, but only because either their eye has not yet been opened to the charm of the simplest form, or because men raised in that spirit have not yet been fully and inwardly permeated by it, so that they continue thoughtlessly to imitate old forms (and poorly, too, like someone who no longer really cares about the matter). Previously, the mind was not obliged to think rigorously; its importance lay in spinning out symbols and forms. That has changed; that importance of symbols has become the sign of lower culture. Just as our very arts are becoming ever more intellectual and our senses more spiritual, and as, for example, that which is sensually pleasant to the ear is judged quite differently now than a hundred years ago, so the forms of our life become ever more spiritual–to the eye of older times uglier, perhaps, but only because it is unable to see how the realm of internal, spiritual beauty is continually deepening and expanding, and to what extent a glance full of intelligence can mean more to all of us now than the most beautiful human body and the most sublime edifice.1

Pascal once said that, while humanity continually gains in knowledge, all ages have the same share of wisdom. Perhaps this is clearest in philosophical debates: here the same truths have been discovered anew by each generation and then treated as if they were sudden revelations wholly unknown to earlier generations. In truth, it is quite difficult to find philosophical ideas that cannot be found in Plato or Aristotle; being as familiar with Nietzsche’s books as I am, I rarely find any philosophical claim entirely novel.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche : Human, All Too Human : Book One : Section 3