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Tag Archives: BH Liddell Hart

The 16 Best Books of 2016

Rewarding reads on love, life, knowledge, history, the future, and tools for thinking. Out of all the books I read this year, here is a list of what I found most worth reading in 2016.

1. The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution
These lectures, which were originally called Six Psychological Lectures, were first privately printed in the 1940s. Of the first run of 150 copies, none were sold. The essays were published once again after Ouspensky’s death, and unlike last time became a hit. While the book is about psychology, it’s different than what we think of as psychology — “for thousands of years psychology existed under the name philosophy.” Consider this a study in what man may become — by working simultaneously on knowledge and inner unity.

2. The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning
Imagine the sum of our knowledge as an Island in a vast and endless ocean. This is the Island of Knowledge. The coastline represents the boundary between the known and unknown. As we grow our understanding of the world, the Island grows and with it so does the shores of our ignorance. “We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge,” Gleiser writes, “but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.” The book is a fascinating and wide-ranging tour through scientific history. (Dig Deeper into this amazing read here.)

3. When Breath Becomes Air
It’s been a while since I’ve cried reading a book. This beautifully written memoir, by a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? If you read this and you’re not feeling something you’re probably a robot.

4. The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age
The book, which argues “the information revolution will destroy the monopoly power of the nation-state as surely as the Gunpowder Revolution destroyed the Church’s monopoly,” is making the rounds in Silicon Valley and being passed around like candy. Even if its forecasts are controversial, the book is a good read and it’s full of interesting and detailed arguments. I have underlines on nearly every page. “Information societies,” the authors write, “promise to dramatically reduce the returns to violence … When the payoff for organizing violence at a large scale tumbles, the payoff from violence at a smaller scale is likely to jump. Violence will become more random and localized.” The Sovereign Individual, who, for the first time “can educate and motivate himself,” will be “almost entirely free to invest their own work and realize the full benefits of their own productivity.” An unleashing of human potential which will, the authors argue, shift the greatest source of wealth to ideas rather than physical capital — “anyone who thinks clearly will potentially be rich.” Interestingly, in this potential transition, the effects are “likely to be centered among those of the middle talent in currently rich countries. They particularly may come to feel that information technology poses a threat to their way of life.” The book predicts the death of politics, “weakened by the challenge from technology, the state will treat increasingly autonomous individuals, its former citizens, with the same range of ruthlessness and diplomacy it has heretofore displayed in its dealings with other governments.” As technology reshapes the world, it also “antiquates laws, reshapes morals, and alters preconceptions. This book explains how.”

5. To Kill a Mockingbird
I know, I know. Hear me out. Someone I respect mentioned that he thought Atticus Finch was the perfect blend of human characteristics. Tough and skilled, yet humble and understanding. He’s frequently rated as a “most admired” hero in fiction, yet he’s a lawyer competing with Jedis, Detectives, Spies, and Superheroes. Isn’t that kind of interesting? Since it had been at least 15 years since I’d read TKM, I wanted to go back and remember what made Atticus so admired. His courage, his humility, his understanding of people. I forgot just how perceptive Finch was when it came to what we’d call “group social dynamics” — he forgives the individual members of the mob that show up to hurt Tom Robinson simply because he understands that mob psychology is capable of overwhelming otherwise good people. How many of us would be able to do that? Atticus Finch is certainly a fictional, and perhaps “unattainably” moral hero. But I will point out that not only do real life “Finch’s” exist, but that even if we don’t “arrive” at a Finchian level of heroic integrity and calm temperament, it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing. Wise words from the book Rules for a Knight sums it up best: “To head north, a knight may use the North Star to guide him, but he will not arrive at the North Star. A knight’s duty is to proceed in that direction.” (Here are some of the lessons I took away from the book.)

6. Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World
If you’re not familiar with Lee Kuan Yew, he’s the “Father of Modern Singapore,” the man who took a small, poor island just north of the equator in Southeast Asia with GDP per capita of ~$500 in 1965 and turned it into a modern powerhouse with GDP per capita of over $70,000 as of 2014, with some of the lowest rates of corruption and highest rates of economic freedom in the world. Finding out how he did it is worth anyone’s time. This book is a short introduction to his style of thinking: A series of excerpts of his thoughts on modern China, the modern U.S., Islamic Terrorism, economics, and a few other things. It’s a wonderful little collection. (We’ve actually posted about it before.) Consider this an appetizer (a delicious one) for the main course: From Third World to First, Yew’s full account of the rise of Singapore. (Dig deeper here.)

7. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments
Perfect summer reading for adults and kids alike. One friend of mine has created a family game where they all try to spot the reasoning flaws of others. The person with the most points at the end of the week gets to pick where they go for dinner. I have a suspicion his kids will turn out to be politicians or lawyers.

8. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
Dan Dennett is one of the most well known cognitive scientists on the planet . This book is a collection of 77 short essays on different “thinking tools,” basically thought experiments Dennett uses to slice through tough problems, including some tools for thinking about computing, thinking about meaning, and thinking about consciousness. Like Richard Feynman’s great books, this one acts as a window into a brilliant mind and how it handles interesting and difficult problems. If you only walk away with a few new mental tools, it’s well worth the time spent. (You can learn a lot more about Dennett here, here, and here.)

9. The Seven Sins of Memory (How the Mind Forgets and Remembers)
I found this in the bibliography of Judith Rich Harris’ No Two Alike. Schacter is a psychology professor at Harvard who runs the Schacter Memory Lab. The book explores the seven “issues” we tend to find with regard to our memory: Absent-mindedness, transience, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The fallibility of memory is so fascinating: We rely on it so heavily and trust it so deeply, yet as Schacter shows, it’s extremely faulty. It’s not just about forgetting where you left your keys. Modern criminologists know that eyewitness testimony is deeply flawed. Some of our deepest and most hard-won memories — the things we know are true — are frequently wrong or distorted. Learning to calibrate our confidence in our own memory is not at all easy. Very interesting topic to explore. (We did a three part series on this book. Introduction and parts One, Two, and Three).

10. Talk Lean: Shorter Meetings. Quicker Results. Better Relations
This book is full of useful tips on listening better, being candid and courteous, and learning what derails meetings, conversations, and relationships with people at work. Don’t worry. It’s not about leaving things unsaid that might be displeasing for other people. In fact, leaving things unsaid is often more detrimental to the relationship than airing them out. Rather, it’s about finding a way to say them so people will hear them and not feel defensive. If you want to get right to the point and not alienate people, this book will help you. I know because this is something, personally, I struggle with at times.

11. The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World
I recently had a fascinating multi-hour dinner with the author, Pedro Domingos, on where knowledge comes from. Historically, at least, the answer has been evolution, experience, and culture. Now, however, there is a new source of knowledge: Machine learning. The book offers an accessible overview of the different ways of machine learning and the search for a master, unifying, theory. The book also covers how machine learning works and gives Pedro’s thoughts on where we’re headed. (Dig deeper in this podcast.)

12. Why Don’t We Learn from History?
This is a short (~120pp) book by the military historian and strategist B.H. Liddell Hart, a man who not only wrote military history but surely influenced it, especially in Germany in the World War period. He wrote this short synthesis at the end of his life and didn’t have a chance to finish it, but the result is still fascinating. Hart takes a “negative” view of history; in other words, What went wrong? How can we avoid it? The result of that study, as he writes in the introduction, is that “History teaches us personal philosophy.” Those who learn vicariously as well as directly have a big leg up. Something to take to heart. I plan to read more of his works.

13. A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington
What a great book idea by Adrienne Harrison. There are a zillion biographies of GW out there, with Chernow’s getting a lot of praise recently. But Harrison narrows in on Washington’s self-didactic nature. Why did he read so much? How did he educate himself? Any self-motivated learner is probably going to enjoy this.

14. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
One of the best books I’ve come across in a long time. Sapiens is a work of “Big History” — in the style of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel — that seeks to understand humanity in a deep way. Many of Professor Harari’s solutions will be uncomfortable for some to read, there is no attempt at political correctness, but his diagnosis of human history is undeniably interesting and at least partially correct. He draws on many fields to arrive at his conclusions; a grand method of synthesis that will be familiar to long-time Farnam Street readers. The book is almost impossible to summarize given the multitude of ideas presented. But then again, most great books are. (Dig deeper into this amazing read here, here, and here.)

15. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living — A refreshing signal in world of noise that should be read and immediately re-read. There is so much goodness in here that scarcely will you find more than a page or two in my copy without a mark, bent page, or highlight. The entire book offers texture to thoughts you knew you had but didn’t know how to express.

16. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living
The way most of us search for and attempt to hold onto fleeting moments of happiness ends up ensuring that we’re miserable. A great practical book on developing mindfulness, which is so important in many aspects of your life, including satisfaction. Might be the best self-help book I’ve read.

 

 

B.H. Liddell Hart and the Study of Truth and History

B.H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970) was many things, but above all, he was a military historian. He wrote tracts on Sherman, Scipio, Rommel, and on military strategy itself. His work influenced Neville Chamberlain and may have even (accidentally) influenced the German army’s blitzkrieg tactic in WWII.

What’s beautiful about Hart’s writing is his insight into human nature as seen through the lens of war. Hart’s experience both studying wars and participating in them — he was a British officer in World War I and present for both World War II and a large portion of the Cold War — gave him wide perspective on the ultimate human folly.

Hart summed up much of his wisdom in a short treatise called Why Don’t we Learn from History?, which he unfortunately left unfinished at his death. In the preface to the book, Hart’s son Adrian sums up his father’s approach to life:

He believed in the importance of the truth that man could, by rational process discover the truth about himself—and about life; that this discovery was without value unless it was expressed and unless its expression resulted in action as well as education. To this end he valued accuracy and lucidity. He valued, perhaps even more, the moral courage to pursue and propagate truths which might be unpopular or detrimental to one’s own or other people’s immediate interests. He recognized that this discovery could best be fostered under certain political and social conditions—which therefore became to him of paramount importance.

Why study history at all? Hart asks us this rhetorically, early on in the book, and replies with a simple answer: Because it teaches us what not to do. How to avoid being stupid:

What is the object of history? I would answer, quite simply—“truth.” It is a word and an idea that has gone out of fashion. But the results of discounting the possibility of reaching the truth are worse than those of cherishing it. The object might be more cautiously expressed thus: to find out what happened while trying to find out why it happened. In other words, to seek the causal relations between events. History has limitations as guiding signpost, however, for although it can show us the right direction, it does not give detailed information about the road conditions.

But its negative value as a warning sign is more definite. History can show us what to avoid, even if it does not teach us what to do—by showing the most common mistakes that mankind is apt to make and to repeat. A second object lies in the practical value of history. “Fools,” said Bismarck, “say they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by other people’s experience.”

The study of history offers that opportunity in the widest possible measure. It is universal experience—infinitely longer, wider, and more varied than any individual’s experience. How often do people claim superior wisdom on the score of their age and experience. The Chinese especially regard age with veneration, and hold that a man of eighty years or more must be wiser than others. But eighty is nothing for a student of history. There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind.

[…]

History is the record of man’s steps and slips. It shows us that the steps have been slow and slight; the slips, quick and abounding. It provides us with the opportunity to profit by the stumbles and tumbles of our forerunners. Awareness of our limitations should make us chary of condemning those who made mistakes, but we condemn ourselves if we fail to recognize mistakes.

There is a too common tendency to regard history as a specialist subject— that is the primary mistake. For, on the contrary, history is the essential corrective to all specialization. Viewed aright, it is the broadest of studies, embracing every aspect of life. It lays the foundation of education by showing how mankind repeats its errors and what those errors are.

Later, Hart expounds further on the value of truth, the value of finding out what’s actually going on as opposed to what one wishes was the case. Hart agrees with the idea that one should recognize reality especially when it makes one uncomfortable, as Darwin was able to do so effectively. If we forget or mask our mistakes, we are doomed to continue making them.

We learn from history that men have constantly echoed the remark ascribed to Pontius Pilate—“What is truth?” And often in circumstances that make us wonder why. It is repeatedly used as a smoke screen to mask a maneuver, personal or political, and to cover an evasion of the issue. It may be a justifiable question in the deepest sense. Yet the longer I watch current events, the more I have come to see how many of our troubles arise from the habit, on all sides, of suppressing or distorting what we know quite well is the truth, out of devotion to a cause, an ambition, or an institution—at bottom, this devotion being inspired by our own interest.

[…]

We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.

I can conceive of no finer ideal of a man’s life than to face life with clear eyes instead of stumbling through it like a blind man, an imbecile, or a drunkard—which, in a thinking sense, is the common preference. How rarely does one meet anyone whose first reaction to anything is to ask “Is it true?” Yet unless that is a man’s natural reaction it shows that truth is not uppermost in his mind, and, unless it is, true progress is unlikely.

Indeed, in the 125 short pages of the book, Hart demonstrates the above to be true, with his particular historical focus on accuracy, truth, and freedom, explaining the intertwined nature of the three. A society that squashes freedom of thought and opinion is one that typically distorts truth, and for that reason, Hart was a supporter of free democracy, with all of its problems in full force:

We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the “conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.” Thereby, this system of government tends to result in the triumph of mediocrity—and entails the exclusion of first-rate ability, if this is combined with honesty. But the alternative to it, despotism, almost inevitably means the triumph of stupidity. And of the two evils, the former is the less. Hence it is better that ability should consent to its own sacrifice, and subordination to the regime of mediocrity, rather than assist in establishing a regime where, in the light of past experience, brute stupidity will be enthroned and ability may preserve its footing only at the price of dishonesty.

Hart’s clear-eyed view of the world as an examiner of human nature and the repetition of folly led him to conclude that even if authoritarianism and coercion were occasionally drivers of efficiency in the short-run, by the quick and determined decision-making of a dictator, that in the long-term this would always cause stagnation. Calling to mind Karl Popper, Hart recognizes that freedom of thought and the resulting spread of ideas is the real engine of human progress over time, and that should never be squashed:

Only second to the futility of pursuing ends reckless of the means is that of attempting progress by compulsion. History shows how often it leads to reaction. It also shows that the surer way is to generate and diffuse the idea of progress—providing a light to guide men, not a whip to drive them. Influence on thought has been the most influential factor in history, though, being less obvious than the effects of action, it has received less attention— even from the writers of history. There is a general recognition that man’s capacity for thought has been responsible for all human progress, but not yet an adequate appreciation of the historical effect of contributions to thought in comparison with that of spectacular action. Seen with a sense of proportion, the smallest permanent enlargement of men’s thought is a greater achievement, and ambition, than the construction of something material that crumbles, the conquest of a kingdom that collapses, or the leadership of a movement that ends in a rebound.

Once the collective importance of each individual in helping or hindering progress is appreciated, the experience contained in history is seen to have a personal, not merely a political, significance. What can the individual learn from history—as a guide to living? Not what to do but what to strive for. And what to avoid in striving. The importance and intrinsic value of behaving decently. The importance of seeing clearly—not least of seeing himself clearly.

Hart’s final statement there calls to mind Richard Feynman: “The first principle is you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Finally, Hart admits that the path of studying history and studying truth is not an easy one. Truth is frequently cloaked, and it takes work to peel away the layers. But if we are to see things clearly, and we must do so if we’re to have a peaceful world, we must persevere in the hunt:

It is strange how people assume that no training is needed in the pursuit of truth. It is stranger still that this assumption is often manifest in the very man who talks of the difficulty of determining what is true. We should recognize that for this pursuit anyone requires at least as much care and training as a boxer for a fight or a runner for a marathon. He has to learn how to detach his thinking from every desire and interest, from every sympathy and antipathy—like ridding oneself of superfluous tissue, the “tissue” of untruth which all human beings tend to accumulate for their own comfort and protection. And he must keep fit, to become fitter. In other words, he must be true to the light he has seen.

Still Interested? Check out the short book in its entirety.