Literary or Fragile

When our three-months-in Christian Ministries coordinator decided to move back to the mainland, I found myself back in front for our school’s chapel program.  The departure came as a shock to most of us.  I had about two weeks to get something together for the post-departure chapel series.  I settled on theme of cultivating resilient faith.  It was something of a nod to Barna’s Faith for Exiles while also acknowledging the difficulties of transitions beyond our control.

Fast forward a few months to my discovery of a book called Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  If found it in an article link from an Alan Jacobs post that pointed towards books that aren’t quite old but that are still relevant reading.  Barnes and Noble had a copy in-store, so I proceeded to purchase the book.  I have obviously taken by dear, sweet time with the book, as I still lack 100 pages from being finished with it.  And while it’s the most abstract book I’ve read in a while, it has presents some wonderfully meaty ideas about “things that gain from disorder.”  The idea of resilience shows up early in the book, mostly as one stop away from the ultimate destination of antifragility.

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Yesterday I got to the part where Taleb started talking about “time and fragility” with the assertion that “the old is superior to the new” and the role that times plays in this revelation.  He introduces the concept of neomania (“the love of the modern for its own sake”) and the fragility it brings.  And then he mentions the ancient roots of the contemporary dining-out experience (which reads a little eerily in Our Current Moment).  He has much to say about technology and our obsession with it.  He writes, perhaps generalizing a bit much, of the “engineering mind” and “additive approach” that comes with over-technologizing.  And he mentions the “love of precision at the expense of applicability” and the “absence of a literary culture” in such circles.  He continues:

This absence of literary culture is actually a marker of future blindness because it is usually accompanied by a denigration of history, a byproduct of unconditional neomania.  Outside of the niche and isolated genre of science fiction, literature is about the past.  We do not learn physics or biology from medieval textbooks, but we still read Homer, Plato, or the very modern Shakespeare.  We cannot talk about sculpture without knowledge of the works of Phidias, Michelangelo, or the great Canova.  These are in the past, not in the future.  Just by setting foot into a museum, the aesthetically minded person is connecting with the elders.  Whether overtly or not, he will tend to acquire and respect historical knowledge, even if it is to reject it.  And the past– properly handled . . . is a much better teacher about the properties of the future than the present.  To understand the future, you do not need technoautistic jargon, obsession with “killer apps,” these sort of things.  You just need the following: some respect for the past, some curiosity about the historical record, a hunger for the wisdom of the elders, and a grasp of the notion of “heuristics,” these often unwritten rules of thumb that are so determining of survival.  In other words, you will be forced to give weight to things that have been around, things that have survived.

We are deeply dependent on technology these days, so I am grateful for it.  But it should be remembered that there are older, deeper things to build with.  There’s a reason why those kinds of things have been around for so long.

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