One of my favorite quotes comes from Francesco Vettori. I came across it while doing research for my thesis, and ever since, it’s been particularly close to my heart.
I thought to myself with what means, with what deceptions, with how many varied arts, with what industry a man sharpens his wits to deceive another, and through these variations the world is made more beautiful. The mind of this one is made more acute in order to find a new art to deceive, and that of another is made more subtle in order to protect itself. In effect, all the world is a confidence game [ciurmeria], and it begins with the religious and continues on to the lawyers, the doctors, the astrologers, the temporal princes and all those about them, to all the arts and disciplines. And from day to day, everything becomes more subtle and refined.
I suppose it can sound a bit pessimistic. Everyone’s out to trick everyone else, and in order to survive, people need to become ever more deceitful. But I interpret it more in the sense of continual improvement and adaptation. I think of it like a game.
Take chess, for example. For centuries, people played chess and its variants in a particular way. The greatest of the ancient players, though, would do terribly against today’s, though. The metagame has evolved so greatly that they just wouldn’t have a chance. But they were able to survive and succeed with their limited repertoire because no one else had anything better. Once players began developing new strategies, other players had to adapt and improve in order to compete, and so the new ways propagated throughout the game, until they became necessary for success at a high level of play.
Everyone is involved in a grand game, that of passing on our genes and memes. If we want to achieve these goals, we need to succeed, and that means out-performing others. But as a new improvement in social competition is discovered and implemented, others become wise to it, and take up counter-measures. Just look at the constant battle between advertisers and consumers, as we became bored of and inured to the last great technique, they need to constantly one-up themselves and their competitors to claim a spot for our attention, often to the detriment of aesthetics and personal satisfaction.
The prey becomes more skilled in eluding the predator, or it becomes more experienced in being eaten. The same is true in life. If you don’t adapt counter-measures against those who would do you harm, you will be harmed. Education and self-improvement is necessary for survival in life, and while these can seem nasty and brutish, in the long run, I think it results in more adaptable, flexible, intelligent human beings. The mind needs exercise. Just as carp need pike to bite at them and keep them from becoming slothful, so, too, do we.