September 26, 2021

1. Socrates Goes to Silicon Valley

Peter Thiel was born in Germany in 1967, and spent most of his childhood in California. As a middle-school student, Thiel won a state-wide math contest, and was a top chess player. He was a fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and a fan of Ayn Rand. He attended Stanford, where he majored in Philosophy, and co-founded a conservative newspaper, The Stanford Review.

After attending Stanford Law School, Thiel worked briefly as a lawyer. Becoming bored with law, he became a venture-capital investor in the SanFrancisco area. Thiel saw the need for online payments, so he co-founded PayPal, which became his first big success. Thiel thought that PayPal could become a new currency, like Bitcoin is today.

One of the biggest challenges that PayPal faced was fraud. Could online payments be made safe and secure? Or would a clever hacker manage to trace your PayPal account to your bank account, and then empty your bank account? Let’s pretend there are 1 million PayPal transactions on a given day. Let’s pretend that 100 of these transactions are suspicious, and 50 are fraudulent. Can you write software that will flag the suspicious transactions, and send them to a team of fraud investigators? Thiel decided that neither computers alone, nor humans alone, could defeat fraud, but computers and humans working together could defeat fraud.

After the 9/11 attacks, Thiel wondered if the same approach could identify terrorists. Could software comb through vast amounts of credit-card data, phone data, and other data, and flag suspicious activity? In 2003, four years after co-founding PayPal, Thiel co-founded Palantir, which specializes in analyzing data. (The name “Palantir” is taken from Lord of the Rings.) Palantir could find, not only terrorists, but other kinds of criminals. The U.S. government used Palantir to find fraud in government programs like Medicare.

In 2009, Palantir software uncovered GhostNet, a Chinese hacking operation that had penetrated 103 countries, a NATO computer, and various embassies. Would China try to penetrate Palantir itself, perhaps by putting a Chinese spy inside Palantir? In 2016, under the Obama administration, the Labor Department sued Palantir for discriminating against Asian applicants.

In addition to PayPal and Palantir, Thiel was also involved with Facebook. He was the first outside investor in Facebook, which was originally a way for college students to learn about their classmates. Thiel is still on the board of Facebook.

As a result of his Facebook investment, and his other investments and businesses, Thiel has a net worth of some $7 billion. He owns a large estate in New Zealand, perhaps because the scenery reminds him of Lord of the Rings, perhaps because he thinks New Zealand is safer in a pandemic or an apocalypse, perhaps because he’s lost faith in American democracy.

In an essay called “The Straussian Moment,” Thiel says that political reform is difficult, if not impossible.1 “America’s founders enjoyed a freedom of action far surpassing that of America’s subsequent politicians.” Our constitutional system, our system of checks and balances, paralyzes action, or at least inhibits it. Thiel speaks of “the political paralysis embedded in our open system of government.... There is little one can do in politics... all merely political careers end in failure.”

But he suggests an alternative to politics, an alternative that reminds one of Palantir:

Instead of the United Nations, filled with interminable and inconclusive parliamentary debates that resemble Shakespearean tales told by idiots, we should consider Echelon, the secret coordination of the world’s intelligence services, as the decisive path to a truly global pax Americana.

Thiel wrote a bestseller called Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. The phrase “zero to one” probably means “go into a new field, a field where there’s zero competition, and then become the one and only business in that field.” Thiel says

Competition is for losers.... Every business is successful exactly to the extent that it does something others cannot. Monopoly is therefore not a pathology or an exception. Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.... Creative monopolies [are] powerful engines for making [society] better. Even the government knows this: That is why one of its departments works hard to create monopolies (by granting patents to new inventions) even though another part hunts them down (by prosecuting antitrust cases).

If you think monopolies are bad for consumers, the best way to undermine them is with new monopolies. “IBM’s hardware monopoly of the 1960s and ’70s was overtaken by Microsoft’s software monopoly.” Then Microsoft’s monopoly was overtaken by mobile devices, like the iPhone. Monopolies don’t strangle innovation, they foster it: “Monopolies can keep innovating because profits enable them to make the long-term plans and finance the ambitious research projects that firms locked in competition can’t dream of.”

Monopolies can focus on ethics as well as research. A company that’s struggling to survive — like an individual struggling to survive, or a nation struggling to survive — will ignore ethics. Thiel writes, “Google’s motto — ‘Don’t be evil’ — is in part a branding ploy, but it is also characteristic of a kind of business that is successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence.” In a recent issue, I mentioned “an Englishman [who] supposedly said that having a conscience was such an expensive way of life that his circumstances did not permit him to do so.” A shark might say, “I never eat a member of an endangered species,” but if that shark is starving, he’ll eat anything.

Capitalism isn’t about competition, “capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away.”

If you want to change the world, you need to go into a new field: “If your industry is in a competitive equilibrium, the death of your business won’t matter to the world; some other undifferentiated competitor will always be ready to take your place.” Thiel makes the same argument about individuals: If you work in a competitive law firm, or investment bank, your work isn’t unique, you aren’t making a real contribution, someone else could take your place.

If you don’t want to read Zero to One, you might consider watching one of Thiel’s “conversations” with Bill Kristol (click here or here).

Thiel says that globalization doesn’t mean innovation, globalization means copying what works. Around 1870, Japan began copying Western technology — railroads, steam engines, etc. Copying worked for Japan until the 1980s, when there was nothing left to copy, and Japanese growth hit a wall. Thiel says that China will eventually run out of things to copy, will eventually hit the same wall that Japan hit.

Like most people in the tech world, Thiel is interested in AI (Artificial Intelligence). What sort of intelligence is “Artificial Intelligence”? AI has what Poe called “ingenuity.... a mere mechanical skill of combining the facts, obeying the law of cause and effect.”2 AI can play chess, but AI lacks what Poe called “imagination.” AI can’t create a new paradigm, a new theory — a conceptual breakthrough in business, art, science, or philosophy. At best, AI can replicate the conscious mind, but it can’t replicate the unconscious, or the borderland between consciousness and the unconscious. And if consciousness is merely a skin over the unconscious, as Schopenhauer said, then there’s much that AI can’t do.

Thiel is critical of academia. Academia talks constantly about diversity, but lacks the most important kind of diversity — diversity of thought. Thiel says that, since 1980, the cost of a college education has risen 400% (after inflation), but the quality hasn’t improved. He says that college is a bubble about to burst, an atheist church on the brink of a Reformation. Thiel started the “Thiel Fellowships,” which pay students to leave college for two years, and pursue outside interests.

He says that people go to college as an insurance policy — insurance against failure and unemployment. “It’s probably not worth as much as people are paying for it, but they’re scared of falling through the cracks in our society. And so as the cracks get bigger, we pay more and more for insurance against it.”

Thiel says that American society has an aversion for risk, and this aversion stifles innovation. The polio vaccine wouldn’t have been approved, Thiel says, in the current climate.

Thiel says that, in the business world, new ideas and new businesses often come from people who are unsocial and introverted. Thiel asks whether it’s

good to always be looking at the people around you and getting feedback from them in different ways. There’s this very strange aspect in Silicon Valley where so many of the very successful entrepreneurs and innovators seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s.... I always wonder whether this needs to be turned around into a critique of our society where if you don’t suffer Asperger’s, you get too distracted by the people around you. They tell you things, you listen to them, and somehow the wisdom of crowds is generally wrong.

Thiel says that Harvard Business School attracts people who are highly extroverted, highly socialized, with few strong convictions or independent thoughts. So they go into the wrong fields — they try to ride the last wave, instead of the next wave.

Thiel was interviewed for more than two hours on a podcast called The Rubin Report. Thiel says that “world-class entrepreneurs” aren’t specialists, they’re “polymaths.” Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has broad knowledge and broad interests. Thiel says that the conversations at Facebook board meetings were wide-ranging.

If you took Thiel’s remarks on entrepreneurs, and replaced the word “entrepreneur” with “philosopher,” you’d have a good description of philosophers. Thiel’s favorite philosopher is René Girard, whom he knew at Stanford. Wikipedia describes Girard as “a French polymath, historian, [and] literary critic... whose work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy.” Girard was influenced by (among others) the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Like Thiel, Girard was a Christian and a conservative. Girard was scornful of liberals in academia; Girard said that liberals pretend to be rebels but are actually conformists, they pretend to be Resistance fighters but actually conform like Vichy-supporters. As a disciple of Girard, and an editor at The Stanford Review, Thiel honed his criticisms of liberal academics, then wrote a book called The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford (1995).3

In an essay on Girard, Joseph Bottum writes, “Like Leo Strauss, Ernest Becker, and Eric Voegelin before him, René Girard has been transformed into something of a sect in America, with disciples, translators, and proselytizers.” Sect-philosophers like Girard and Strauss seem to be more popular in academia than real philosophers. Sect-philosophers are a towering presence in the classroom, as a result of their intelligence, their erudition, their commitment, their sincerity. Real philosophers, like Montaigne and Nietzsche, have no presence in the classroom, they live only in the pages of a book. Real philosophers almost never have a position in academia.

A young philosophy student like Thiel reads the classics through the eyes of his Master; his Master teaches him the meaning of the classics. A Master like Girard or Strauss, intelligent and learned, must know the true meaning of Nietzsche and Plato, right? In theory, a disciple of Strauss reads the classics without preconceptions, but in practice, a disciple of Strauss usually agrees with Strauss’s interpretations of Nietzsche, Plato, etc.

When I was an undergrad at Harvard, one of my teachers was a young Straussian named Michael Blaustein. His interpretation of Locke was a Straussian interpretation: Locke was an atheist pretending to be a Christian. It’s natural for one who admires Strauss to be influenced by Strauss’s interpretation of the classics.

Young philosophy students, like Thiel and Blaustein, are more likely to become the disciples of sect-philosophers than to become the disciples of real philosophers. On the other hand, the man on the street is more likely to read Thoreau or Nietzsche than to read Girard or Strauss; the influence of sect-philosophers doesn’t extend beyond academia.

Girard and Strauss probably didn’t see themselves as philosophers, probably didn’t put themselves on the same level as Nietzsche and Plato. But the disciples of Girard and Strauss see them as real philosophers. Thiel speaks of Girard’s “extraordinary account of the history of the world.” Girard has revealed man’s “hidden history... ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world.’”

Girard emphasizes the importance of mimesis, imitation. A high-school student wants to go to Harvard because other high-school students want to go to Harvard. A young lawyer wants to become a partner in a big firm because that’s what other young lawyers want. Iran wants nuclear weapons because other nations have nuclear weapons. Thiel points out that mimesis is akin to envy: “Of all the mortal sins of medieval Catholicism, envy is the one closest to mimetic rivalry.”

Both mimesis and envy can play positive roles — they can educate, they can inspire. As Machiavelli said,

Men walk almost always in the paths trodden by others, proceeding in their actions by imitation.... A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent, so that if he does not attain to their greatness, at any rate he will get some tinge of it.4

Nietzsche spoke of a “great envy” that inspires us to become great. Themistocles lay awake at night, envious of the glory of Miltiades. Hesiod spoke of a “good Eris,” which inspires us, not to drag down the person we admire, but to raise ourselves to his level. Plato may have envied Socrates; in one of his dialogues, Plato says, “Many a time have I wished that [Socrates] were dead, and yet I know that I should be much more sorry than glad if he were to die, so that I am at my wit’s end.”5 Strindberg probably envied Ibsen; he often dreamed that Ibsen were dead.6 Nietzsche may have envied Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche knew that he himself would be envied; Nietzsche makes the young man say to Zarathustra, “It is envy of you that has destroyed me.”

Girard’s concept of mimesis has a long history, stretching back at least as far as Aristotle, who said, “Man differs from the other animals in his greater aptitude for imitation.” Greater aptitude? Don’t animals imitate as much as people? How does an animal learn if not by imitation? Don’t we speak of a person who “apes” someone else, implying that apes have a penchant for imitation? And don’t we say that a person “parrots” someone else when he repeats his words?

Thiel exaggerates the importance of mimesis, placing it at the center of Aristotle’s view of man. Then Thiel makes the wild statement that mimesis “can provide the basis for a synthesis between Aristotle and Darwin.” I’m reminded of Sterne’s remark,

It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand.7

Here’s Thiel’s summary of Girard’s theory of mimesis:

According to Girard, all cultural institutions, beginning with the acquisition of language by children from their parents, require this sort of mimetic activity, and so it is not overly reductionist to describe human brains as gigantic imitation machines. Because humanity would not exist without imitation, one cannot say that there is something wrong with imitation per se or that those humans who imitate others are somehow inferior to those humans who do not. The latter group, according to Girard, simply does not exist.

Mimesis is important, but it’s not the whole story of human nature. Man isn’t an empty vessel, waiting to be filled by mimesis. Man has certain fundamental properties, properties that don’t originate in mimesis.

True, Aristotle noted man’s mimetic nature, but he also noted that man is naturally social, and he noted that man naturally desires knowledge. So there are many important factors in human nature besides mimesis — the sexual drive, violent and sadistic drives, the death instinct, the play instinct, the desire for knowledge, the social impulse — and any of these drives can be depicted as all-important, any of these drives can fill a fat volume. We shouldn’t reduce human nature to mimesis, though mimesis is certainly important.

According to Thiel, Locke believed that we couldn’t fathom human nature, we could only see human actions; we shouldn’t waste time speculating about the nature behind the actions. For Locke, human nature was an X, an unknown, an unknowable. The Enlightenment followed Locke, it refused to speculate about human nature, or about the nature of God; such speculations would lead to disputes, perhaps even to religious wars. Best to stick to what we can see and touch and count. “For the modern world,” Thiel writes, “questions about the nature of humanity would be viewed on par with the struggle among the Lilliputians about the correct way to cut open an egg.”

Enter Girard. Fiat lux. According to Thiel, Girard replaces Locke’s X with “the new science of humanity,” a science that emphasizes mimesis. Thiel overlooks the fact that earlier thinkers — Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, etc. — explored human nature, they weren’t content to call human nature “X.” I would argue that modern psychologists like Freud and Jung plumbed the depths of human nature to an extent that had never been done before. And Freud said that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche anticipated his work. So I think it’s a mistake to say that human nature was unexplored by modern thinkers, until Girard came down from the mountain-top, bearing his theory of mimesis. The great age of psychology, the great age of exploring human nature, was underway before Girard began writing.

It’s also a mistake to credit Girard with dispelling the notion of a social contract. The notion of a social contract is preposterous; no serious thinker ever really believed that such a contract was made at the dawn of human society. The social contract was a metaphor, or a thought experiment, or an explanatory device. The four thinkers I mentioned — Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung — don’t discuss a social contract. The social contract isn’t a serious idea, and doesn’t require refutation. We don’t need Girard to tell us that the social contract is a myth.

Thiel says, “the whole issue of human violence has been whitewashed away by the Enlightenment.” As if we need Girard to teach us that man is violent! Thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud were well aware of man’s violent tendencies before Girard started writing. Freud wrote,

Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.8

If mimesis is Girard’s first big idea, his second is The Scapegoat. Human society is a war of all against all, Girard says, until it becomes a war of all against one — one scapegoat. The killing of the scapegoat creates peace and stability; one might even say that the killing of the scapegoat creates society and culture.

According to Thiel, the scapegoat’s death “helps to unite the community and bring about a limited peace for the survivors. That murder is the secret origin of all religious and political institutions, and is remembered and transfigured in the form of myth.” In the beginning was the act — the killing of the innocent scapegoat.

But myth glosses over this violence, myth says that the scapegoat wasn’t innocent, the scapegoat deserved death. Religious ritual re-enacts the primal murder “through the sacrifice of human or animal substitutes, thereby creating a kind of peace that is always mixed with a certain amount of violence.”

In modern times, however, society can no longer be united by the killing of the scapegoat, or by a reenactment of that killing, because we no longer believe that the scapegoat is guilty, we realize that the scapegoat is innocent. We’re like children who realize that their Christmas presents don’t really come from Santa Claus. Christ suffered a scapegoat’s death, but we realize that Christ was innocent.

Our times are unstable because we’ve discovered the truth that has long been hidden: “One may wonder,” Thiel writes, “whether any sort of politics will remain possible for the exceptional generation that has learned the truth of human history for the first time.” In our time, violence is no longer expressed in ritual; violence bursts forth on a global scale, targeting soldiers and civilians, young and old. “The word that best describes this unbounded, apocalyptic violence is ‘terrorism.’” In my view, Girard’s scapegoat theory resembles his mimesis theory: both theories start from a kernel of truth, and then are exaggerated into giant hypotheses that explain everything.

Girard’s scapegoat theory reminds me of Freud’s “primal parricide” theory. To create this theory, Freud borrowed Darwin’s idea of a primal horde that was dominated by the father, a father who expelled his sons as they reached adulthood. And Freud borrowed from anthropologists the idea of a totem animal, an animal that’s ritually sacrificed and eaten. Freud combined these two ideas — the primal horde and the totem animal — into his theory of primal parricide. Freud hypothesized that the sons — the sons who were expelled from the primal horde by the father — banded together, murdered their father, and ate him. Freud calls the primal parricide “this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things — of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion.”9 I suspect that both Freud and Girard are stretching the truth.

Why does Thiel call his essay “The Straussian Moment”? Thiel is writing around 2007, he’s writing in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; his essay is a response to those attacks, to the “war on terror,” to the “clash of civilizations.” But it’s not clear to me why he calls it “The Straussian Moment.” Perhaps because he knows that Straussians have influence with the current administration (the Bush Administration), or perhaps because he knows that Straussians supported (influenced?) Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.

Thiel says that Strauss tries to avoid both absolutism and relativism, Strauss tries to steer a middle course between “the Scylla of absolutism, and the Charybdis of relativism.” In other words, Strauss doesn’t want a totalitarian society that controls every aspect of life, and Strauss doesn’t want a permissive society that has no sense of right and wrong. Strauss admits that “there are no universally valid rules of action,” but he insists that “there is a universally valid hierarchy of ends.”

I’d like to see this “universally valid hierarchy of ends.” I suspect that it doesn’t exist, or it’s not universally valid, or it’s so abstract as to be meaningless. Human nature is too various, our worldviews are too various, for people to agree on a “hierarchy of ends.” If you bring together a primitive tribesman, an ancient Greek, a medieval Jew, and a modern American, they’ll never agree on a hierarchy of ends.

What happens when an absolutist society is in a war against an individualistic society? What happens when a society with absolute faith is pitted against a society in which different individuals are free to embrace different faiths? “Hobbes, the first truly modern philosopher, boasted of how he deserted and ran away from fighting in a religious war; a cowardly life had become preferable to a heroic but meaningless death.” Thiel seems to anticipate that Bush’s wars would end in defeat: “When one runs away from an enemy that continues to fight, one is ultimately going to lose — no matter how great the numerical or technological superiority may appear at the outset.”

2. Videos

A. I saw a documentary called The Farthest (2017), which deals with the Voyager probes that were launched in 1977.10 These probes did “flybys” of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, then continued into outer space. Since much attention is paid to manned space flights, it’s easy for a layman to overlook these unmanned probes. Both probes made it through the solar system to outer space (interstellar space), so the mission is considered a very successful one. The Farthest interviews many scientists who worked on the mission, and the viewer can feel their enthusiasm, their euphoria, as their machine approaches distant planets, planets that mankind never before approached.

B. The Dig (2021) is about archeology — the 1939 discovery of Anglo-Saxon artifacts at Sutton Hoo. The artifacts were discovered by a middle-class “excavator” named Basil Brown; Brown was later pushed aside by a Cambridge archeologist, Charles Phillips. Like many modern movies, The Dig contrasts the middle-class hero (Brown) with the upper-class jerk (Phillips). The Dig could have taught the viewer something about early-English history, or about archeology, but it doesn’t try to teach the viewer anything. And it doesn’t achieve “suspension of disbelief” — you never forget that these are actors, not real people. But despite these flaws, it isn’t a bad movie; on Rotten Tomatoes, its “Audience Score” is 78.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. This essay is one chapter in a book called Politics and Apocalypse. Since this book was published in late 2007, I suppose Thiel’s chapter was written in 2007. The editor of this book, Robert Hamerton-Kelly, was a Christian, a disciple of René Girard, and a teacher at Stanford. Thiel is also a Christian, a disciple of René Girard, and a teacher at Stanford. back
2. Poe contrasted “ingenuity” with “analysis.” Dupin, Poe’s private detective, has real analytic power, creative power, imaginative power. Poe was influenced by Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination. Poe writes, “Between ingenuity and the analytic ability there exists a difference far greater, indeed, than that between the fancy and the imagination, but of a character very strictly analogous. It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.”

Poe was scornful of chess, so he’d probably be scornful of a machine that could play chess. He distinguished between calculating and analyzing, and he said that a chess-player merely calculates. People don’t realize, Poe said, that a chess-player doesn’t use the higher powers of the mind; “what is only complex is mistaken... for what is profound.” He spoke of “the elaborate frivolity of chess.”(“Murders in the Rue Morgue”)

What Poe calls analysis is higher than ingenuity/calculation, but lower than intuition. Poe says that analysis has the “air of intuition,” but it’s actually methodical. Breakthroughs in philosophy, science, etc. are usually from intuition, not from what Poe calls analysis. New paradigms fall into the mind like manna from heaven, they don’t come through a methodical process. back

3. The co-author of The Diversity Myth was David O. Sacks, who was also a Stanford student, a writer for The Stanford Review, and later a member of the “PayPal Mafia.”

The contrarian-introvert may have a role to play on Wall Street, as well as in Silicon Valley. In an earlier issue, I discussed a contrarian-introvert who anticipated the 2008 economic crisis. back

4. The Prince, Ch. 6 back
5. Symposium, spoken by Alcibiades back
6. See Michael Meyer’s biography of Strindberg, Ch. 25 back
7. Tristram Shandy, Book 2, Ch. 19 back
8. Civilization and Its Discontents, Ch. 5

Thiel discusses Carl Schmitt, as well as Girard and Strauss. Schmitt was a German jurist and political philosopher, known for supporting the Nazis and for helping to launch Leo Strauss’s career. Schmitt was on friendly terms with leading intellectuals like Ernst Junger and Alexandre Kojève. One of Schmitt’s chief works is The Nomos of the Earth (1950); “Nomos” is Greek for “law.” This book “defends European achievements, not only in creating the first truly global order of international law, but also in limiting war to conflicts among sovereign states, which, in effect, civilized war.” Schmitt also wrote about a different kind of war — partisan war, guerrilla war, asymmetrical war, terrorism; Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan has become one of his best-known books. back

9. Totem and Taboo, Ch. 4, section 5

Freud understood the role of the scapegoat. “The dream of a Germanic world-dominion,” Freud wrote, “called for anti-semitism as its complement... The attempt to found a new, communist civilization in Russia [finds] its psychological support in the persecution of the bourgeois.”(Civilization and Its Discontents, Ch. 5, p. 73)

Girard says that the scapegoat-murder, the war of all against one, puts an end to the war of all against all. But I doubt that even the most primitive society is a war of all against all, I suspect that primitive society is largely peaceful and cooperative. There may be frequent conflicts with other tribes, but within the tribe, the default state is probably peace. back

10. Some websites, including Wikipedia, say that The Farthest is 121 minutes long, but the version on Amazon Prime is 96 minutes long. Perhaps there’s a short version and an uncut version? back