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Nassim Taleb on the Unpredictability of History

The Black Swan (Random House: 2007), p. 11.

The Levant has been something of a mass producer of consequential events nobody saw coming. Who predicted the rise of Christianity as a dominant religion in the Mediterranean basin, and later in the Western world? The Roman chroniclers of that period did not even take note of the new religion — historians of Christianity are baffled by the absence of contemporary mentions. Apparently, few of the big guns took the ideas of a seemingly heretical Jew seriously enough to think that he would leave traces for posterity. We only have a single contemporary reference to Jesus of Nazareth — in The Jewish Wars of Josephus — which itself may have been added later by a devout copyist. How about the competing religion that emerged seven centuries later; who forecast that a collection of horsemen would spread their empire and Islamic law from the Indian subcontinent to Spain in just a few years? Even more than the rise of Christianity, it was the spread of Islam (the third edition, so to speak) that carried full unpredictability; many historians looking at the record have been taken aback by the swiftness of the change. Gorges Duby, for one, expressed his amazement about how quickly close to ten centuries of Levantine Hellenism were blotted out "with a strike of a sword." A later holder of the same history chair at the Collège de France, Paul Veyne, aptly talked about religions spreading "like bestsellers" — a comparison that indicates unpredictability. These kinds of discontinuities in the chronology of events did not make the historian’s profession too easy: the studios examination of the past in the greatest of detail does not teach you much about the mind of History; it only gives you the illusion of understanding it.