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Black Swan Event: Let's Thank Juvenal

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There was a very timely article in the Wall Street Journal (March 21, 2020) by Ben Zimmer dealing with the concept of a "Black Swan" event.

Zimmer explains that this term "a black swan" is being used to describe the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, with the resulting financial market meltdown. 

He explains: "A 'black swan,' for market prognosticators, is a rare, unpredictable event with serious and avoidable effects." A Black Swan, therefore, is an event which is extremely rare and unexpected but has great unanticipated consequences.  

Zimmer reminds us that the term was first mentioned around 100 AD by the Roman poet Juvenal in his "Satires" 6.165.



"Do you say no worthy wife is to be found among all these crowds?" Well, let her be handsome, charming, rich and fertile; let her have ancient ancestors ranged about her halls; let her be more chaste than the dishevelled Sabine maidens who stopped the war—a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan! yet who could endure a wife that possessed all perfections? I would rather have a Venusian wench for my wife than you, O Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, if, with all your virtues, you bring me a haughty brow, and reckon up Triumphs as part of your marriage portion."

So, as Juvenal searched for the woman with his desired attributes, he laments that such a woman was "rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno (a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan)."



Contemporary use of the expression black swan in reference to an unexpected but influential event is attributed to former market trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who first introduced it in his 2001 book Fooled by Randomness – The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. Taleb argued that the stock market was unpredictable and could be influenced by rare events or black swans, a controversial view which turned out to have some substance in the light of the economic crisis that followed. The expression later gained further popularity after Taleb went on to use it in the title of his 2008 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.



Ben Zimmer does a great job explaining how the term "a black swan" later became part of everyday speech. Juvenal was the initial source of this term.



guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy

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Professor Wasson does a nice job writing about Juvenal and his writings known for its satire.  He also mentions his misogyny (as reflected by the above post asserting that a woman with his desirable traits was as "rare upon the earth as a black swan"):




Classicist Edith Hamilton in her book The Roman Way wrote of Juvenal and his contemporary Publius Cornelius Tacitus (l. c. 56 - c. 118 CE). In her words, the great literature of the first two centuries brought about its own destruction. During this time, when Rome was a dying city, the Roman literature of the period was almost dead except for the works of three individuals: Tacitus, the historian; Seneca (l. 4 BCE - 65 CE), the Stoic philosopher and playwright; and Juvenal, the brilliant but bitter satirist. Unlike Seneca who saw purity and goodness, both Tacitus and Juvenal saw Rome as evil, without a single, mitigating factor. Hamilton saw Juvenal as a proud but poor man living in a city where the poor were treated with insolence, even by slaves. She wrote that he was a sensible genius who hated himself for accepting table scraps tossed to him by men he hated. 


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One of my favorite quotes from Juvenal deals with the miseries of old age and its associated infirmities including lack of libido:



Old men’s faces are all alike--limbs tottering and voice feeble,

            a smooth bald pate, and the second childhood of a driveling nose;

200       the poor wretch must mumble his bread with toothless gums;

            so loathsome to his wife, his children, and even to himself,

            that he would excite the disgust even of the legacy-hunter Cossus!76

            His palate is grown dull ; his relish for his food and wine no more

            the same; the joys of love are long ago forgotten

;205    and in spite of all efforts to reinvigorate them

76: Legacy hunters married wealthy old widows so as to inherit their estates. They would not normally have scruples about old people.



Edited by guy

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