Subtlety - The Unknown Virtue

In a comment thread on an article about anti-consumerism on Hacker News, I got into an exchange about subtlety.


reminds me of a Carl Sagan monologue from Cosmos:

"Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history, what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants, it is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilisation and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet."

so intelligent, inspirational and full of hope, but listening to it 30 years later I can't help feeling bummed out, as it seems as though our civilization has chosen its path. also, Idiocracy.


That's an inspiring quote. But it is flawed. It is designed to instill passion and motivation in the listener's heart. But it is missing a virtue which is a strictly necessary ingredient for making an actual positive impact on the world: subtlety.

If you are motivated by addressing humanity's long-term challenges, please do not attempt to bludgeon others into being more thoughtful or compassionate. Instead, learn first how human society works. Learn how to motivate social change in the least destructive way (all change is costly to someone). Learn why people oppose you, and what their interests are, and try to come to a common ground. Don't go off half-cocked. Learn subtlety.

Nobody talks about subtlety. It is an under-appreciated virtue, and one of the most important.

Subtlety is scarce among revolutionaries of all stripes, libertarians included. One reason why I am such a big fan of Meg Mcardle is that she gets subtlety.

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It's not even inspiring. He

It's not even inspiring. He starts off with how insignificant we are in the universe, then goes into how significant our life is. Makes no sense. Hell, we can't even identify with a veteran from a war before WWII, much less identify with the rise and fall of the entirety of human history. And the entirety of human history is NOTHING compared to the entirety of the universe. On a cosmic scale, we could all disappear tomorrow, and the universe would not even blink or even notice that we were ever here. Setting ourselves back one or two thousand years is even less significant.

Also, the second part of the quote lacks humility--another under-appreciated virtue.


"[...] and the universe would not even blink or even notice that we were ever here. "

Anthropomorphizing a rather nebulous concept; direct result of introspective musings manifest in the mind of a sentient ape sitting on a rock racing through a back water solar system on the edge of a spiral arm, in a galaxy that is only a lesser part of a greater universe.

Your very existence is novel. Without you, there would never have been a universe to blink. It would have existed without us (as a species) but it would merely be a nameless nothingness. Our existence gives reality context, our reality is a place so small in the cosmos that we are still astounded by our insignificance.

Yet we are here to experience that. Since we are all stardust anyway, we are how the universe is experiencing itself.

Humility, subtlety... subjective twaddle wank.

"I do not fear death, in view

"I do not fear death, in view of the fact that I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it." -- Mark Twain

Sagan was bad at history as

Sagan was bad at history as well.

Hrm, subtlety, now there is a

Hrm, subtlety, now there is a skill I lack. :-(