The Intellectual Yet Idiot
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

IYIs are a classic proof of de la Rochefoucauld’s Maxim 237

I know you’re not publishing responses, Mr Taleb, but as a fan (from a country where black swans are the default) I wanted to drop you a line to congratulate you on ‘Antifragile’ (the audiobook and the concept) and to praise this column for pitching to my prejudices.

I so kinda think you’re off the mark, because personally I think that the IYIs know exactly what they’re doing, and plan to pocket the proceeds and get out of Dodge before the fan-splat happens: it’s a mismatch of incentives/horizons and rent-seeking, rather than outright incompetence.

That said, as someone who refused to work at a central bank (the RBA) and who stopped pursuing a PhD when they stopped paying me to do so, I like the IYI concept — mostly because it reinforces my hatred of doyens and eminences grises.

Late last millennium when I was a PhD student in an economic modelling ‘shop’, my PhD supervisor was very anti-doyen: if ‘Dicko’ declared something to be ‘doyen-esque’, you knew that he thought that

* it was bullshit;
* the speaker was a wanker; and
* an attempt was being made to pull the wool over someone’s eyes.

(Dicko was supervised by Leontief — himself no tolerator of eminences grises).

Everyone who was supervised by Dicko, was profoundly influenced by him — particularly as regards doyens.

But back to the Duc de La Rochefoucauld’s “Maxims” — my personal favourite (and almost my personal motto*) is

Gravitas is a mysterious carriage of the body, invented to cover the defects of the mind”.

(My own translation of the French is “Gravitas is a physical façade created to hide mental shortcomings.”)

Laurence Sterne also nailed it in Tristram Shandy:

“The very essence of gravitas is design, and consequently deceit; a taught trick to gain credit with the world for more sense and knowledge than a man was worth, and that with all its pretensions it was no better, but often worse, than what a French wit had long ago defined it — a mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind.”

And lastly — Shaftesbury gets right to the point:

Gravitas is the very essence of imposture.” (Characteristics, p. 11, vol. I.)

(I always substitute “gravitas” for “gravity”; it is more accurate and reduces confusion)

To riff off Victor Kiam: I like de La Rochefoucauld’s Maxim 237 so much that I bought the domain name (and have no idea what to do with it).

  • *My personal motto is “interdum stultus opportuna loquitor” — pig-latin stolen from Fielding’s Tom Jones. My anti-doyen translation is “Sometimes an idiot gets lucky”.

PS: keep deadlifting, bro! I’ve been a dedicated lifter since my teens — which is why at age 52 I carry 230lb (at 6'1") without a gut, and can deadlift 350 for reps [and leg-press 800lbs].