Cutting the Nose to Spite the Face

What types of people are likely to be risk averse, to fear the vagaries of lady luck? Curious, I looked up the personality literature:

  • By MBTI personality types, risk tolerance is negatively related with Introversion, Sensing, and Judging; and positively associated with Extroversion, Intuitive, and Perceiving types.
  • By NEO personality types, risk tolerance is negatively associated with “Conscientiousness Factor (Overall) and the six Agreeableness Subscales (all) – C1: Competence, C2: Order, C3: Dutifulness, C4: achievement.”

Interestingly, it seems like the more “stoic” personality characteristics are related to risk aversion. Yet if one is relatively immune to the vagaries of lady lucky, (all else equal) shouldn’t one be more risk tolerant? Is there no moral hazard for emotional insurance? Indeed, who could rightfully claim to be “stoic” to loss and then constantly try to avoid it?

In his latest Umlaut piece, Adam takes exception with the Epicurean and Stoic greats, arguing against the total mastery of luck:

The philosophic quest to banish luck has largely been a failure, though it has given us many useful tools along the way. But taken at their word schools such as stoicism practically ask us to cut off our limbs to avoid the risk of lady luck taking them from us.

From the POV of entrepreneurial capitalism, extroversion, restlessness and leaps of faith are all virtues. But the stoics weren’t capitalists. As Adam alludes, they generally shunned what we would today call conspicuous consumption. The stoic Cato, for example, would intentionally wear the opposite of what was fashionable, an F.U. to the proverbial “Jones” he decided weren’t worth keeping up with. How paradoxical — to embrace the unfashionable to dodge the risk of appearing out of fashion?

Perhaps the Stoic’s apparent self-spiting was really an anti-fragile sensitivity to tail risks — cutting off a limb to save the head — that only seems like a reductio ad absurdum because of the narrow time frame. If accurate, it should at very least change the way one invests.

I admire the stoics, but like Adam, have tried to “unbundle” their wisdom. In spite of my efforts, stoicism and asceticism are a packaged deal.

Partly it’s the failure of my reason to master my passions given the allure of prestige and rewards. Partly its a problem of collective action — few of my own risks are statistically independent. I feel like the world is on a roller coaster increasing in speed until it collapses, but my only choices are to ride it or stand in its shadow: Might as well enjoy the ride. And so a tincture of risk tolerance inevitably leads to a gallon of reward tolerance. A taste of the fashionable, and from there, a hedonic treadmill that is pressing our luck.

Cato the Younger

Dipping Your Toes Into the Irrational World

I keep my vinyl records on the opposite side of the room from my record player (or “turntable” for the more effete vinyl connoisseur), which is twenty-one feet away (I measured). I’m compelled to do so by something within, something which is out of reach of the rational self; there’s no sense to it. In every way it would be easier to put my collection right next to my stereo system. In fact, if someone from HGTV were to come by and blanch at the arrangement, I’d be highly offended, on camera even, at the suggestion to rearrange, for any reason, aesthetic or practical.

There is now attached to the arrangement a ritual; that’s right, a ritual. From my collection I pull several records–by the way, this is all predicated on whether I’m in a record-listening mood. If I’m not in the mood, then I don’t do the ritual: I click my mouse through iTunes until I find the playlist I desire to hear, or just click Pandora. See, that’s the point. What kind of ritual can develop organically from some easy scrolling and mouse-clicking? A ritual of frustration, I suppose, if you don’t know what you want to listen to.

Where was I? Oh, yes, kneeling before my collection on the bottom shelf: I pull several records to put them in a designated “on deck” spot so I don’t have to flip through my entire collection for the duration of the mood. I walk over to the turntable, turn on a special light which illuminates it (that’s so I can see the print on the record label; I’m getting old), lift the lid of the turntable, walk back to the On Deck Circle, pick a record, remove the actual record within its sleeve from the cardboard packaging, gaze at the artwork for a moment, walk all the way back to the record player, remove the vinyl from its sleeve, mount it onto the turntable, set the needle into the groove on the outer edge, close the lid of the turntable, place the sleeve atop the lid, turn off the special light, walk to my chair in the middle of the room, and from there I listen until the needle lifts itself from the groove on the inner edge. It’s an invocation and a benediction, with an entire liturgy between, complete with genuflection and pauses for silence for meditation.

Music, especially long play music fit for one side of a vinyl record (before progressive rock artists discovered the 74-minute compact disc), is a work of art whose purpose is largely to affect the emotions of the listener-participant.  Such art has a penchant for stirring the passions, not the least of which are love, hate, anger, happiness, and fear, along with the more subtle ones, such as longing, loss, sadness, and hope. All of these are buried deep within the breast, only tenuously associated with the intellect. For example, I am much moved by Rush’s 2112, which has no small amount of literary influence upon it, yet I am not moved to discourse about the music intellectually. That, of course, kills the experience, and creates an artifact out of living music. The same with Mozart’s piano concertos, and Beethoven’s late violin concertos, and Genesis with Peter Gabriel, and so on.


So, why the ritual? I know that I feel like performing this ritual, which grew organically, mind you, in order to prepare my body for the emotional encounter it is about to experience. The intellect, apparently, desires to have its body’s passions aroused, but also desires protection from them. A ritual sets boundaries, guides, and rules: “This far, anger, and no further!”

This far, love, and no further?