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The Key Ideas of Leo Strauss

Below is the text of an interview I conducted with political theorist Michael Millerman, PhD. Listen to this interview on the Other Life podcast or watch it on Youtube. We cover all the key ideas of Leo Strauss: Nihilism, Persecution and Writing, Reason and Revelation, Classical vs. Modern Philosophy, Education, and Politics.

Justin Murphy: Your course begins with Strauss’s essay on German postwar philosophy. What is the most interesting aspect of German postwar philosophy, that most people who are interested in Leo Strauss might not understand?

Michael Millerman:  Strauss is addressing a situation where there's a crisis of modern rationality, there's a crisis of thinking concerning guidance for human life. There’s a view that we're steadily marching towards a nihilistic era where you can no longer say that one way of life is better than another way of life and where there's no standard or measure for how a man ought to live, or how political communities should be ordered and structured. He observed all kinds of movements and schools and tendencies, for example, the restoration of state authority, and Carl Schmidt's thought, or the restoration of divine revelation. Or the restoration of natural law thinking, where people who are trying to restore a rational standard turned back to 18th century thought, they turned away from Nietzsche, and away from some other of these dark, vitalistic sources to try to find some guidance.

Strauss's essay and lecture on those tendencies is so important because we ourselves will be encountering so many of those tendencies in our own time. A tendency to turn towards Schmidt, Nietzsche, or some other version of modern rationalism. What Strauss shows is that we don't actually have the resources to think seriously about those problems. The problems that face us, as people, and again, as political communities, the most important problems, the problems that are life and death in the biggest way, and in the most comprehensive sense, we don't have the resources to deal with them, unless we can make sense of how we got to where we are in our history, in our intellectual history, and especially to see on what grounds we can motivate and restore the possibility of philosophy and political philosophy as classically understood.

So I wanted it to begin with the sort of contemporary analysis, the crisis, not only the main crisis, but the crisis of all the alternatives as well, none of which is ultimately satisfying. Because when we see that in his thought, when we see it in our own situation, we get a little bit of the motivation, that Strauss had to turn back to Plato and say, not only Plato, but Plato primarily, to justify the study of the roots of the tradition of political philosophy in the West. He says that when we try to look at some other resource and we ignore the roots, then we don't really see the problems that have crept into our analysis. So it's very helpful, and it's still so relevant. And I think that's going to be an amazing thing to bring out. 

Justin: And so what is that root of classical philosophy? How do you think about that? 

Michael:  I'll give you a broad narrative arc on how Strauss sees the development of the history political philosophy. Our crisis, the crisis of the West, the crisis of modern rationalism, is related to a deliberate break that was affected by Machiavelli in particular, but a deliberate break from a well-established classical tradition of thinking about the good life.  He calls the classical teaching "classical political rationalism," or just classical political philosophy, and the deliberate break that Machiavelli made when he openly and indecently put morality and religion under the gun of his criticism... The break that Machiavelli inaugurated in lowering the standard of classical political philosophy from human excellence, to Glory, for example, a tradition that was later modified after Machiavelli to comfortable self-preservation... Strauss's view is that the classical teaching orients human life and political life by what's best in us, what's best in us is our intellectual activity in the contemplation of the highest intelligibles. The standard of human life is the excellence of our nature, the virtues, our flourishing, and specifically wisdom. The moderns, starting with Machiavelli, saw that as too lofty a goal. It's very difficult to try to orient political and human life by what's best because what's best is rare, and therefore not particularly reliable if you're trying to get a strong foundation for instituting political orders. Machiavelli lowered the standard from human excellence, specifically contemplative or theoretical or intellectual excellence, to something lower, but more stable and more reliable. And his followers lowered the bar even further, so that we get to the teaching that political life is about comfortable self-preservation, and it's about conquering nature, in the service of comfortable self-preservation. Whereas the classical teaching, had a different interpretation of nature, which saw again, the goal of life is to perfect human nature.

Michael: But when nature becomes interpreted as something that is a problem that is dangerous, that is threatening, that can kill us, or that limits the possibilities of our acquisition in our comfortable self-preservation, then what happens is you turn against nature as something to get away from. And this sets up a variety of dichotomies in history of philosophy between freedom and nature, between reason and nature. So Strauss believed that this modification of the classical teaching, in some sense, the fulcrum of it was the interpretation of nature, what nature means. Modern nihilism can't be properly understood, assessed, and diagnosed and responded to, without tracing the history that moved us from Plato to Machiavelli, ultimately, to the state that we're in. Now, so you can say the classical teaching that he wants to restore is a combination. My simplest way of putting it although this leaves, this leaves a lot of things that would have to be elaborated on… For Strauss, the classical teaching is a combination of wisdom and moderation that's oriented by man's excellence, but that still makes its peace with the necessities of political life. And that the modern teaching has decoupled wisdom and moderation, has let technology loose from moral control, and really is steadily on the way now—to just extrapolate beyond Strauss—to some more radical statements of this, to a post-human universal tyranny, where human nature is going to be replaced by artificial intelligence, the singularity, and the destruction of everything meaningful in human life. That's the extrapolation of these tendencies. And so, everything is at stake. Everything is at stake in these problems. And Strauss thinks we can do no better at first and to return, again, to the roots of the classical tradition. Let me just add, we don't understand the modern alternative Strauss says, if we don't understand what it broke from, and therefore, it's not that we are defending Plato, when we try to understand Plato well, and try to figure out all of the ways in which we don't understand them properly. We can’t get the full significance of modern political thought without absolute clarity on what it broke from on, why we broke from it.

Justin: The second week of the course is essentially about Nihilism. And if I'm understanding you correctly, is it fair to say that in the Straussian worldview, this kind of progressive degeneration from classical philosophy, through Machiavelli down to our day, that progressive degeneration produces Nihilism as a kind of result or consequence. Is that fair to say?

Michael: Yeah, that's part of it. So somehow if you pull on the theoretical thread there, it takes you from Machiavelli's break from the classics down to nihilism. But there's another component to what Strauss says in his nihilism essay that I think is so important, especially for the young academics or quasi academics who may be watching this, who may be in university or grad school or somehow related to all of that, because what Strauss says in that nihilism essay, is that the young Germans who opposed Weimar liberalism, who oppose German postwar liberalism, and who opposed the communist vision of rejecting bourgeois consumerism and the rights of man for a classless and ultimately stateless society, Strauss says they were young Germans who were disgusted by both of those prospects. They absolutely rejected liberalism outright, because they felt that it emptied human life of all genuine depth, seriousness, and significance. And for similar reasons, they thought the communists or the Left alternative was the worst nightmare. He asks, can we do a proper assessment of the underlying moral motivation of the young German nihilist who rejected liberalism and communism? Because what he ultimately says is they didn't have a positive program to suggest. But there's a lot of significance in their rejection of the liberal and left alternatives. And the reason that the academic side of the question is so important here is because he says that they had progressive professors who completely failed to understand the positive significance of their moral revolt against liberalism and leftism, and who, therefore, push them further into what I will call right-wing anti-liberalism, radical right-wing anti-liberalism, without providing them any guidance, without throwing them any bone, so to speak, with no acknowledgement of the positive moral significance of their protest against the status quo and against the communist dream or nightmare as you see it. Strauss puts all the blame on the teachers, all the blame on the professors. And he says that what they needed were old fashioned teachers who could understand and speak to and address and guide the moral protest that they had, which he actually treats. I mean, he himself is such an old-fashioned teacher, that's why it's so important. But it's impossible for me, and I think for so many other people who will look at that in the course, and just maybe as a result of our conversation, now, it's impossible to read that and not to see 2020… Where people are getting pushed onto the margins of the intellectual black market, because there's no old fashioned professor who can understand what is legitimate in hating, or at least in somehow being disgusted by the prevailing political and moral alternatives. So, Strauss here is an absolute maestro when it comes to understanding the moral inclinations of his students, because he understands the human soul in a way that today's professors will never. They are just taking their hands and heads and sticking them under the sand further and further, their own heads and the heads of their students. And Strauss is absolutely not like that. 

Justin: Wow, that's really fascinating. It’s as if the types of professors that Strauss thought necessary are precisely the kinds of professors that you're not allowed to be today. 

Michael: Those are the professors who are getting kicked out of academia, and either they get sidelined when they're tenured, their office will be somewhere in the basement, or if they're on their way into the system that'll be nipped in the bud before it has a chance to blossom into anything meaningful. And it's absolutely the case that those professors are being choked out of out of academia, it exacerbates the problem that they say they're concerned with. They totally lack an understanding of genuine, moral, political, and philosophical education. And Strauss by contrast is the maestro when it comes to that.

One other thing I just want to say about German nihilism essay, which is great, which concerns you know, the students and the professors. He writes that these progressive professors had no sensitivity to the genuine, underlying dimension of the students' protest, like they didn't even care to understand, they didn't even entertain the thought that there might be something worth criticizing in the status quo, they didn't see any of that. What he says is that when these professors responded to the students with their platitudes, about the liberal open society, it just confirmed the students in their beliefs that these professors were totally clueless, as concerns the most important questions. I know there are a lot of students, when I was a TA, I had students come to me and give me a very similar type of type of account, you know, that they went and talked to some professor and they were confirmed in their suspicion that these professors are clueless. Not all of them. There are some good people, but you know, it's still a big problem. 

Justin: So the third week of the Strauss course, as you've designed, it will be on Reason and Revelation, this is one of Strauss's perhaps most well-known themes. We see, over the long term, a progressive secularization of Western culture. Is that linked to the degeneracy of philosophy from classical to modern? Or how would you think about the trend of secularization, where today revelation is hardly anything more alien to modern consciousness?

Michael: Well, for Strauss, one of the key things that happened in the shift from the classical to the modern modes of thinking was that revelation was supposedly refuted. Now this becomes a key, crucial topic for Strauss because what he was involved in doing, in some sense from early in his intellectual career, was reawakening the prejudice in favor of the possibility of revelation by assessing the supposed refutation of the possibility of revelation. What he says is that we've inherited a tradition that we now treat unthinkingly, according to which revelation is in principle impossible.

For Strauss, Spinoza is the person who, at the peak, developed this argument by trying to show that miracles are impossible. He tried to refute revelation, we go into some of that in the lectures, and Strauss has treated Spinoza in detail. He was one of the first thinkers that Strauss wrote about, at great length; Spinoza and Hobbes. So when you bring the question of revelation back up to the surface, building from the basics, what's presupposed by the view that there cannot be revelation? Has that actually been established in the way that we take for granted? That's the question that Strauss raises. So he tries to restate as forcefully as he can the arguments against the possibility of revelation. And what he finds is that they are not decisive. He concludes in one of his essays that the possibility of revelation wasn't so much refuted, as it was mocked, laughed and scorned out of relevance. But we, thinking beings, can't be satisfied with reputation, by scorn, mockery, and laughter, we actually need the argumentation and the demonstrations. So Strauss restores the possibility of revelation to a place of dignity. And it's one of the reasons why among his followers and students, there are some prominent Catholic thinkers, there are some prominent Jewish thinkers, and in short, there are some prominent religious figures because Strauss reestablished the nobility of a revelation tradition by showing it had never properly been refuted. Let me say more along the lines of what you asked, though.

He does think that if you play that out, if you say the possibility of revelation is out of the picture, you also begin to minimize the importance of religion for public morality. For Strauss, that combination is disastrous, it's definitely a ticking time bomb. It can only culminate in some bad political circumstances. Somehow, we need to do the theoretical work of restoring the possibility of Revelation, and the political philosophical work of seeing the importance of religious morality, and religious law, and the gods, for the political community. 

This is an old problem, as I'm sure some of your listeners know, in philosophy, because Socrates was accused of not believing in the gods of the city, of introducing new gods, of not necessarily being pious. I mean, Socrates was sentenced for that, among other things, and killed. Some of Socrates’ most prominent defenders tried to show that he was pious, that he did not empty the city of Divine Presence, that that kind of thing did not undermine the gods. This relationship between moderate wisdom as crucial for the political community, and the scorning of revelation and emptying out of religious morality from the public domain… Those two things are crucial for Strauss. And I want to add one more component to this picture, which is that if you play secularization out, and you go into some of the postmodern tendencies, there is, like Alexander Dugin writes in The Fourth Political Theory, a return of archaics and a return of myth, a return of the gods.

There was something similar in Heidegger, who talks about the gods, although it's a big story about how to interpret that properly. And what Strauss would say is that return of talk of the gods is not necessarily a solution to the problem of secularization and nihilism. Because these are the gods of postmodernity. You see, they're the gods who have already lived through the dark night of modernity, and who are somehow just coming back like nature that's been expelled, with a pitchfork, they're coming back with a vengeance, in a way. Whereas what we need is a sober, thinking about philosophy and revelation as to fundamental ways of life and as to potential sources of guidance for the political community. He did not think that Heidegger's restoration of the talk of the gods, and he would probably not think contemporary thinkers’ restoration of talk of the gods is necessarily good, just because it's not secular. We must do this, to use a spatial metaphor, in the highest possible way. And at the deepest possible foundation. We don't just want to be positing a god, or being overly mad.

Justin: So was Strauss religious himself, did he have revelatory experiences?

Michael:  I like to characterize Strauss as a philosophical supremacist. Strauss comes down on the side of philosophy. And if he had a conversion experience, because he spoke about philosophy in terms of conversion from time to time, then his was a conversion to the life of philosophy. And that required a sensible and respectful departure from his religious tradition. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. And when he spoke about political philosophy in Jerusalem, in the essay called “What is Political Philosophy?”, which we look at in the course, his opening remarks say: I will compel myself to turn away from, or not to address, the biblical tradition that is more properly rooted in Jerusalem. If you have to say, where did he come down, Athens or Jerusalem, philosophy or revelation? I think it's fair to say he came down on the philosophy side of things.

It's another question to what extent philosophy is not a religious revelation, like an all-soul conversion experience. Philosophy is not just something you do when you're out gardening. It's not just something you happen to do, one of your hobbies, among 10 other things. It's the decisive fact of a person's life. The questions, “Who is a philosopher? What is philosophy? And even, is philosophy possible?”, is all consuming for Strauss. He comes down on the philosophical side of that. I want to add just one thing briefly.

What Strauss said is that ultimately, every thinking person who thinks these matters through to the end, must be either on the side of philosophy or on the side of revelation. And if they take the side of philosophy, they must give the most—he wouldn't say charitable, but—they have to give every possible, the strongest possible, understanding of revelation that they can muster up. And vice versa. If you belong to the biblical tradition, or to some other tradition, revelation, you have to see philosophy as the most serious alternative to your own way of life and give it the most robust or charitable reading and understanding that you possibly can. For him, those were the two key ways of life facing all of us, ultimately. 

Justin: Now probably the most well-known idea associated with Leo Strauss, the idea that, I would say, dominates his public perception, is this idea of persecution and the art of writing. If at a cocktail party you encounter someone who knows a thing or two about Strauss (or pretends to), they're going to say something like, “Oh yeah, he believed that philosophers have to encode their thoughts in an esoteric language so that the dumb masses can't figure it out, and they're not going to get persecuted.” What does the popular image get wrong? Or how would you characterize it, in your own view?

 Michael: There are a couple of things that I don't think the popular image really gets right. First of all, the whole question of persecution is not just that philosophers have to lie to the dumb masses. In fact, that's not at all the way that I think is best for us to phrase it. Let me give you a couple of different approaches to it.

First, why he thought it was important to acknowledge that philosophers sometimes write between the lines is this… He said, if we look back at the history of political philosophy, we may be left with the impression that authors are scions of their time, that they share the reigning prejudices of their time and place. So if you read Plato, he says something about Zeus. If you read somebody else, he says something about whatever happens to be the reigning prejudice of his time, and therefore you could want to conclude that all philosophers are culturally circumscribed by their immediate context in this way, right? You can understand Plato by understanding him as a function of ancient Greece, because you can see it reflected in what he writes. What Strauss said is that, if authors wrote between the lines, if they just paid lip service to the prevailing opinions on the surface of works, then the conclusion wouldn't follow that everybody is just a product of their time. Because if there was a common thread, from time to time to time, from author to author to author, but this common thread was not on the surface, but somewhere beneath the level of lip service, then what you'd have to say is that there's a constant concern among the philosophers that is not circumscribed by their cultural context. The view that all thought is circumscribed by its cultural context he calls historicism. This view that all thought is historical is an obstacle to the possibility of philosophy as classically understood and is also an obstacle to a standard of political judgment that'll keep us sane and sound in politics. When you reject the possibility of a rational standard, a transhistorical rational standard, you're left with just accepting dispensations of faith without being able to judge them as to their merit. So it was very important for him both politically and theoretically, to establish that there's a transhistorical interest among political philosophers. But he could only do that by showing that they wrote between the lines. So that's something that is not understood in the common knowledge about his persecution thesis. Now, that's separate from the question as to why they wrote that way. But it's still absolutely fundamental for him in justifying the possibility of sound rational politics. 

Justin: The philosopher is just he who does not modulate true thought to historical circumstances, which requires something like what we call reading between the lines. But it doesn't sound so sinister when you describe it.

Michael: The impression that Strauss’s rediscovery of esoteric writing or promotion of esoteric writing is sinister, is linked to the Iraq War and the premises of going into Iraq; that they have weapons of mass destruction, they must have lied about it for the sake of oil. When Strauss was linked to neoconservatism, linked to the Iraq war, the thought was that, “Oh, the lies that were made concerning the Iraq War, were a function of Strauss's teaching that it's good for the elites to lie to the masses.” That's a total distortion of his actual teaching about these things. So I want to just say something that's very important about how Strauss himself understood the political philosopher who writes between the lines.

He calls that way of writing “Socratic rhetoric,” in one context, in a book that we’ll actually be looking at, it’s called On Tyranny. He calls it Socratic rhetoric and it has a few functions but one of the things that he says about Socratic rhetoric is that it's perfectly harmless and animated by a spirit of social responsibility. The reason that the philosopher does not want to put everything out there on the surface of his writing is not because he's getting his minions to go and get some oil money from the Middle East, or any other version of that argument. It's because he wants to preserve the basic requirements of social and political cohesion in the best possible way that he can. If there's a tension between the requirements of theory, philosophy or science on one hand, and the requirements of law, politics and morality on the other—and for all we know, there might be—if there is such a tension, then it could be unjust for the philosopher to just dissolve politics in the acid of theory, you know? And what Strauss sees on the basis of his understanding of Socratic rhetoric, as he found it in Plato, and not only there but then also, other contemporaries like Xenophon, as well as in the whole tradition of Platonic political philosophy is that the philosopher has to be socially responsible and preserve the conditions of political community.

One other thing, Strauss actually said, there are three reasons why a philosopher would write between the lines. Number one, to protect philosophy from persecution. Because if a philosopher says some things openly that non-philosophers don't like, well, we have a history of what happens under those circumstances, past and present. To protect philosophy from the city. Number two, to protect the city or the political community from philosophy, because again, it may have a corrosive effect on the fundamentals that keep the community together. And number three, this is a very important one for Strauss, since as I mentioned, he's the maestro when it comes to education, a philosopher who writes between the lines can seduce, or bring out the potential philosophers who are reading that work. Because the non-potential-philosophers, they won't pick up on the hints, they won't be interested in them, they won't necessarily give them the care and the attention that they deserve. But if, in composing a text, the philosopher leaves little breadcrumbs, so to speak, he can ensure through his writing, that the right kind of reader from a pedagogical perspective, not a political one, from a philosophical perspective, not a military one, that the potential philosophers will catch that little glimpse of what he left between the lines, and want to see the rest of it. Therefore, the philosopher is writing between the lines in order to educate potential philosophers. So, none of that has the aura of the sinister, popular view.

Justin: To save the philosopher from the city, to save the city from philosophy, and then to better pull in and educate potential philosophers who are not yet philosophers. Is that right? 

Michael: That's right. He has some accounts here and there about why a philosopher should care about winning over potential philosophers. He says a philosopher can't help but love a well-ordered soul when he sees one. There's a lot more to say about that. 

Justin: Do you have a sense of how one might apply this today? The pedestrian takeaway is often, “If you speak certain dangerous truths, you can get your head chopped off. So we need to all use obscure language to hide what we really think.” I have a sense that this kind of pseudo-Straussianism is often used incorrectly. Often in a cowardly way, where people want to invoke Strauss to feel sophisticated and smart for never saying what they really think, for never really writing courageously about anything. How do you speak to that? Or how do you translate the Straussian insights to the contemporary moment for thinkers or writers? 

Michael:  The main takeaway would not be that we ourselves need to write between the lines but rather, we need to orient ourselves toward the possibility of philosophy. That's a precondition. You don't just start writing between the lines because you're worried that your boss isn't going to like what you say. In Strauss's view, everything depends on whether or not we're motivated by the problems as we as we see them. And the problem is that we’ve lost our points of orientation. And wherever we think we get one, if we look a little bit more closely, we'll see that it's somehow free-floating. We have to bring to light well before the thought of writing between the lines, whatever crosses our minds, the crisis situation that we face, as human beings concerning the good life, the right way to live, and the options available to us as human beings. The takeaway message for Strauss, the big one, is education, education, education. But what education means for him is reacquainting us with the fundamental questions, the fundamental transhistorical questions facing the human being and the range of potential answers to those questions. Without that, I mean, if somebody became a master of anonymity, okay, if someone were very good at their Op Sec—Operational Security—but had no inkling of the fundamental questions concerning the good political community or the good life and wasn't able to state the alternatives as strongly as possible, there would be nothing Straussian about that. Whereas if someone could tell you the fundamental problems and had no Op Sec, that would be much closer to what Strauss wants to convey to us. 

Justin: So the Straussian idea of reading between the lines only really comes into play for you if you're doing the really hard work of pursuing the truth in a very steady, painstaking, patient way, doing proper philosophy. It's only at a certain point does one have to measure one's words for these reasons. But short of a serious philosophical research project, any invocation of Straussian esotericism, to justify your cowardliness, is probably not appropriate. Is that fair? 

Michael:  He doesn't think we should be tactless, or indecent, or brazen, you know, or all of those kinds of things. But that's really different from writing esoterically in the specific ways that he mentioned, because one is just a matter of common decency, basic morality, and a good upbringing, reading the air and being respectful of a situation. Whereas another belongs to the problem of the relationship between philosophy and politics. Strauss would say we shouldn't be so presumptuous as to think that we have exited the cave, and received illumination. We are back in the cave, and therefore our task is just to understand that we're still shackled, you know? Or as he put it, when he assessed where we've come in the modern political and moral development, he said—so I assume that the people who are listening to this are roughly familiar with the image of the cave, in Plato's Republic, where we're all chained, we see the shadows and all that—but what Strauss said is that technological society is a cave beneath the cave. And that, in fact, we have to exert a great effort just to get back to the condition of natural ignorance, which makes genuine philosophical education possible. If we believe that we have exited the cave and are in the light, and therefore have a reason to be writing esoterically, we more likely are still in the cave beneath the cave, and probably digging down to the molten core of the Earth or something like that. So that's why I said the emphasis is really on education, not Op Sec. Although, you should still be tactful, and decent, and respectful, and all those things.

Justin: It reminds me of Heidegger on the cave, which I know a lot about nowadays from my colleague Johanness, who teaches Heidegger in my courses. He likes to say that even if you get out of the cave, you choose to go back into the cave out of a kind of compassion.

Michael: That's a part of it. I just want to add that for Strauss, even when, and maybe especially when we have doubts about the nature of our philosophical progress, when we're not convinced that we have stumbled upon or discovered the truth, the final truth of things, because we have the Socratic knowledge that we don't know, we know that we don't know the most important things. And we know that it's the most important for us to try to seek them. That makes us gentle, it reduces the zealotry of dogmatism in a way. It’s not just because the philosopher has possessed illumination, and therefore is kind and compassionate. That's one option. But Strauss more often talks about the fact that in his quest for illumination, in his knowledge that he doesn't know and doesn't possess it, the philosopher becomes mild and beneficent not to all humanity, but to the friends that he talks to about what he's discovered and what he hasn't discovered. That's his model, it's less that he possesses illumination than it is that he gets that wisdom is an ongoing quest. But you see the problem for the way the esoteric writing comes in. If you think that philosophy is a quest for wisdom, rather than the possession of wisdom, it's still the case that the quest for wisdom is motivated by doubt about the answers that we have entertained, right? Because we have to call into question, the answers that were, that we stopped, so we can keep the inquiry going. But politics, he seems to think the political order, the constituted political order, rests on a foundation that, if you call it into question, and you sort of put in some danger… Now, it's not that you can't question it at all. But you must find the right balance or the right extent to which you can question it. So in other words, you don't write between the lines just to conceal your secret doctrine. Because Socratic philosophy, as Strauss understands it, doesn't possess a secret doctrine. All it possesses is the open quest for wisdom in the knowledge that we don't possess it. And yet, even there, it comes with the social responsibility of not wanting to corrode the opinions that keep a community together.

Michael Millerman teaches an Other Life course, The Philosophy of Leo Strauss. If you'd like to learn more about these ideas, and discuss them with Michael and others over the course of 8 weeks, sign up below to receive updates.

The Meaning of Clubhouse vs. Taylor Lorenz

This is not just another Twitter beef, but a bellwether for the changing structure of intellectual influence.

Clubhouse is a “drop-in audio” chat app especially popular in tech circles. People come in and out of ephemeral chat rooms; the rooms split users into speakers and listeners, with users moving between the two.

Taylor Lorenz writes for the New York Times, mostly about how people in tech are immoral (racist, sexist, harassers, etc.). Right now Lorenz is going hard after Clubhouse.

This conflict is more interesting than it appears. First, the design of the Clubhouse app is surprisingly profound because it allows high-status individuals whose status is based on superior belief-calibration (successful founders and investors, by definition) to calibrate their beliefs privately, and also, paradoxically, to an audience.

On the other hand, for high-status individuals whose status is based on prestige institutions, their only raison d'être is the historical inability of other high-status people to calibrate and distribute their beliefs independently. Prestige opinion writers once solved a coordination problem for high-society; though not everyone would agree with any given prestige opinion writer, they provided a focal point and the basic premises which all high-society players could assume that all other high-society would respect.

Insofar as the Clubhouse app allows for private belief formation among high-status individuals, while also distributing those beliefs semi-publicly in real time, it’s hard to overstate the threat that Clubhouse poses to institutional opinion leaders. Taylor Lorenz’s campaign against Clubhouse is best understood as desperation in the face of an existential threat.

If one journalist is able to dominate the development roadmap of Clubhouse, then we have not yet reached the peak of what proponents call The Great Awokening and critics call Cancel Culture. If the Clubhouse team proves that hosting genuine high-status belief-calibration has a payoff greater than the cost of negative influencer campaigns, then we are likely past the peak. Even if Clubhouse fails for other reasons, the key question to watch out for is whether negative influencer campaigns are able to destroy the specific feature of private belief-calibration combined with real-time distribution. If not, a number of new communities may replicate this feature in a way that’s too decentralized and private for prestige journalists to even monitor, let alone attack.

The subtle genius of Clubhouse

Clubhouse is unlike any other platform right now insofar as you easily encounter a bunch of previously “canceled” people—unable to tell their story anywhere else—not only telling their story, but to diverse interlocutors who both listen honestly and challenge aggressively. It’s frankly amazing, given the current wave of hypermoralism that started suffocating public intellectual culture since about 2013.

I’ll give you a random example from my experience on the app. Take the case of Kyle Kashuv. I never even heard of him, until one day I dropped in on a chat he was in with Mike Solana and Mason Hartman, among others. After a few minutes I grokked the basics: He survived a school shooting and then became a gun-rights activist, against the grain of what one would expect. He was recently canceled for something or other. OK, whatever.

Then Kmele Foster mentioned that he was receiving messages about racist comments Kyle made in the past (in text messages when he was a kid). They talked it out, maturely on both sides. Kyle clarified his apologetic view of his past behavior, and a productive discussion was had about youth in the digital epoch. Kyle’s past use of racist language was never excused, but neither was it obsessed over with hours of collective self-flagellating virtue display. It was basically ideal reasonable human discourse, from a diverse cast of interesting personalities. Compared to what you’ll find in virtually any other public or semi-public sphere available today… I almost had to pinch myself.

That’s when I realized why there is a weirdly intense and weirdly personalized conflict between a whole platform and one institutional journalist (who is, by the way, not only active on the platform but likely in the 90th percentile of the most followed people).

It’s not just that Clubhouse allows canceled people to exist and talk, what’s most significant is the influence math. In the above example, I got an immediate and direct view on this Kyle Kashuv kid, which doesn’t let me say too much about him but it does let me quickly and confidently reject any obviously false statements about him. For instance, if I read in the New York Times tomorrow that he is a “white supremacist,” it would be psychologically impossible for me to integrate that into my neural network, and the only possible result is that my respect for the New York Times decreases drastically.

That’s one reason why Clubhouse is particularly terrifying for the Taylor Lorenzes of the world. But there’s another reason, which is more interesting.

Private formation of high-status beliefs is an existential threat to prestige editorial

Historically, the superpower of establishment journalists is that they’re able to reliably anticipate what high-status opinion will think or feel about any current event. That’s because they’ve historically owned a majority share of it.

If you have a strong read on what high-status opinion is today, it only requires a moderately capable person to profitably churn out opinions that will be enjoyed by most high-status consumers (and therefore all aspirational middle-brow consumers) tomorrow.

But what if, suddenly, high-status individuals started calibrating their beliefs in private but scalable groups, segmented by personality, industry, etc.? It destroys a key competitive advantage of prestige editorial. The cutting edge really starts to cut, and thereafter the only way for any public intellectual to think or write on it—for an intelligent audience—is to calibrate one’s own mental models against the raw data of the world, ignoring prestige middlemen as much as possible, respecting only other people with similarly uncorrelated minds calibrated to the raw data of the world.

To the degree this technology scales, journalists are no longer able to confidently estimate what exactly high-status people think at any given moment. For most of the broadcast epoch, it was easy for prestige journalists to know what high-status people will respect on any given day: roughly, what prestige journalists opined yesterday. But Clubhouse does not just remove from prestige journalists this one competitive advantage.

Burned bridges bring desperation

The Clubhouse design is an existential threat for people like Taylor Lorenz in part because the stock of cancelable truth-statements that has accumulated over the past several years has grown so large that prestige editorial is an impassible minefield for everything but the anticipation and flattery of prevailing moral fashions.

Zoom out for a moment. To postpone the obvious undermining effect of the internet on the rents extracted by gatekeepers of prestige institutions, many gatekeepers have already gone all-in on moralism over truth-telling. It has been the best career strategy since 2013 for all non-STEM and verbally gifted segments of the young-professional class.

Building an intellectual career on moralism is a bridge-burning gambit. For today’s rising stars of prestige media, there is simply no return to a truth-telling career. (Maybe ~10 of the worst offenders could do a big splashy book where they say everything I’m saying right now, confess their sins, and from the demonstrated courage of this, pivot their career into something intellectually respectable; but that would get old quick and after the 10th author of this kind, everyone will just feel bad for them like the “celebrities” you see on Cameo selling video messages for $100.)

Aside: The moralistic career intellectuals of the world can and may get by for a while on the Substack-defection model, but in equilibrium social-justice-based content plays are doomed. Moralism (without monopoly distribution) is an undifferentiated commodity. If such an author figures this out in time, they may learn how to find some kind of truth-edge that people might continue to pay for. So it’s not all doom and gloom for Taylor Lorenz, even if Clubhouse and similar communication networks threaten to vitiate the basis of her current career.

Another reason why many of today’s institutional intellectuals seem so desperate is that the public record of their morally inspired dishonesty is often massive. All the bad faith tweets, the shameless deviations from uncontroversial scientific findings, etc. The public record of these punch-drunk moral enthusiasms over the past six years almost certainly exceeds what accumulated in the Soviet Union’s now-insane-seeming public displays of love for Stalin (if only because we have more data).

Why else would someone like Taylor Lorenz be so obsessed with Clubhouse? It’s not obvious. A few years ago, if someone like Taylor reported on a place like Clubhouse being racist, they certainly never would have stepped foot in it! Notice how that’s changed.

Lorenz is an active and influential figure in the Clubhouse social graph. Could you imagine if a journalist at the New York Times signed up for a truly racist forum, like the white supremacist forum Stormfront? And also built a substantial following there? Of course it’s unthinkable, because Stormfront is… actually racist. Lorenz can do this on Clubhouse because it’s not systematically racist, or sexist, or bad at all.

Conclusion

The potential scaling of private high-status belief formation, especially when combined with real-time distribution, is an existential threat to the economic viability of prestige editorial as we know it. It’s also a personalized existential threat to individuals whose claim to prestige is based almost exclusively on a social-justice-based personal brand (“expert in feminism,” “expert in anti-racism,” etc.).

If one journalist can destroy what’s genius about Clubhouse’s subtly innovative design, expect many more journalists to do the same, for who knows how long.

But if the team at Clubhouse can weather this storm, and maintain the specific feature of allowing high-status individuals to honestly think and judge for themselves what’s happening in the world—despite whatever prestige journalists say about what’s happening—then all these bad-faith crusades might just go away. At that point, the public narratives generated by cells of independent thinkers would become the focal points around which the rest of high-society must take its cues. The disingenuous moral crusaders would find themselves stranded, their personal stock price down to zero. Fortunately for them, innovation and reinvention is always possible on the internet.

Why I’m interested in blockchain tech for creators

I’m becoming more bullish on crypto, in particular the long-term value of Bitcoin and the shorter-term value of blockchain infrastructure for content creators.

First, the only potential point-of-failure for independent intellectuals is payment processing. Profitable indie thinkers outside of institutions are almost completely cancel-proof; the only exception being if popular protest convinces payment processors you’re too risky. If Visa or Mastercard tell Patreon or Gumroad you’re too hot to handle, then you could be screwed.

Though this has not been a real threat for anyone except the biggest and most unhinged content creators such as Alex Jones, political fashions today can change very quickly.

There are possible futures in which this problem suddenly threatens even small-timers. This factor alone means that independent intellectuals need to at least start exploring alternative payment infrastructures, on the off chance that mainstream payment processors are suddenly captured.

Second, increasingly I want to go long on Bitcoin, especially as an inflation-hedge asset. I’m not going to make the case right now, I just think that A) there are and will continue to be a lot of political tailwinds with inflationary implications, B) Bitcoin is better than gold as an inflation hedge and this will be increasingly realized, especially as Millenials and Gen Z’ers get older, and C) there is going to be a ton of institutional money moving into Bitcoin over the next decade, I think.

Thus, due to the downside political risk of mainstream payment infrastructure and the potentially asymmetrical upside of Bitcoin in coming years—I personally think it’s time to start allocating more energy, time, and resources into crypto infrastructure.

It also seems to me, anecdotally and subjectively, that early-stage crypto applications for creators are sufficiently validated that now is the time for more of us to start taking them seriously.

Currently exploring non-fungible tokens

I was recently talking with Kenny Rowe of the Dalten Collective about how I could allow my audience to own limited-edition, “signed” mp3s (of the podcast) or PDFs (of blog posts)—using non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Then these copies be traded on a marketplace such as OpenSea.

We are pretty sure this is doable, but we’re not sure about the best way to do it.

Does anyone out there know the most effective and efficient way to do this?

Please let me know. Whether it’s just a little quick input or you’re potentially interested in working with us, we’d love to hear from you.

I’ll certainly keep everyone up to date on my experiments, via this blog.

Should you start a Substack?

TLDR: For most of you, no, starting a Substack is not the best way to build a financially sustainable long-term writing project. You should definitely build an email list, but you should do it with a free newsletter you run alongside a website/blog that you own. Especially for people like me, who write and speak mostly about abstract intellectual topics that are not directly useful, writing should be the way you build your audience and not the way you monetize your audience. After you’ve built an email list through consistently publishing your writing for free, you can monetize in other ways that make more sense for our kind of work and will earn you more money in the long-run.

A few people have asked me this, and we’ve discussed it a couple times in IndieThinkers.org, so I figured I’d set down my take on this.

If you don’t know, Substack is a platform that makes it quick and easy for authors to launch paid newsletters.

Substack is a good model for you if you meet at least one of the following two criteria:

  1. You already have a sizable audience on some other platform
  2. You have authority and expertise on something that’s useful

If neither of these describe you, you probably should not start a Substack.

In all other cases, you are better off starting a free newsletter through a blog.

It is true that Substack lets you build a free newsletter just as well as a paid newsletter, but for reasons I outline below, it’s not the best way to go. Substack’s specialty is paid newsletters and that’s what they’re going to be developing the product for over time.

Substack is particularly unattractive if your work is like mine—or what I call the indie thinker model. If your main focus is on relatively disinterested truth-seeking domains such as philosophy, science, literature, or personal creative writing of any kind (i.e. work that can be great and gain huge audiences, but is not obviously useful). If this sounds like you, then Substack—or any paid newsletter for that matter—is unlikely to be the right option for you.

Why a free newsletter is better for indie thinkers

There are a few reasons why most of you will be better off building a free newsletter, by publishing free content, on your own internet property.

If you’re not super famous, then one of your top goals is growing your audience, and the best way to do that is by constantly creating awesome free content.

A paid newsletter might get you some recurring revenue, but you won’t be publishing as much free stuff, so your audience growth will be significantly hampered.

Super famous writers can get away with this because they don’t need to grow their audience to make a good living, and they have other ways of growing their audience (like guesting on top podcasts, etc.).

For indie thinkers, if you’re content is not directly useful, the fact is that not many people will want to pay for your writing alone. But if people like your work and style, they will gladly sign up for free email updates from you, and this lets you earn money later in a variety of ways that make more sense for indie thinkers.

Examples include books, courses, premium communities, merch (if you build a brand), affiliate commissions, or mentoring (in the biz world they call this ‘coaching’).

These offerings are more sensible value propositions for your audience than asking them to pay for your recurring words. Your words don’t feel monetarily valuable so not many people will want to give money for them. But creating and facilitating a 6-week experience for your readers to think, write, and discuss some of the themes you write about? That’s a genuinely edifying and potentially transformative experience that people can easily justify paying a few hundred dollars for.

And you’re not shutting down your audience growth by paywalling the very thing that should be attracting new people into your orbit. Every time you launch a new paid offering, you can reasonably expect to make more than you made the last time.

If all your most loyal readers pay you a decent subscription fee monthly or annually, it’s a bit harder to launch other offerings later. You risk being overly transactional. By building and maintaining an audience of loyal readers by consistently publishing free work, you’re also building a reserve of good will. If four times a year, you simply let them know you’re offering a paid course, or a book, or whatever, people who choose to pay will be all the more happy to throw you some money, and people who aren’t interested will at least never call you rapacious. If you’re paywalling your main everyday writing, and later you develop paid offerings, you’ll probably have fewer buyers (“I’m already giving this person money”) and might even ruffle some feathers (“All this person cares about is money.”)

A few other things

Substack takes a pretty hefty fee of 10%.

Eventually you’re going to want more sophistication from your email service provider and Substack is currently very, very basic. This is why I use Convertkit, a fully-featured email provider made for writers and creators. You’ll eventually want to build automated email sequences, for instance, to thank someone after they buy one of your books, and stuff like that. Convertkit has a nice free plan to get started. There are a few other options out there, too.

Substack does not let you use a custom domain, which means Substack technically owns any traffic you drive to your posts. This might not seem significant, but if you’re in this for the long-term, then you really want to own every piece of what you build.

One exception

Perhaps one exception would be if you’re truly very bad with even simple technology and you have no longer-term goals to make a living from your writing; you just want to starting writing consistently, for fun, and start building a modest email list for your writings immediately. In this case, starting a Substack with no paywall is not a bad way to go.

Conclusion

The overwhelming majority of writers and content creators should focus on publishing free content and driving your readers to opt-in for free email updates. Offering a free weekly newsletter is a fine way to do this, but you can also just offer content updates (send an email every time you publish a new blog, or every time you publish a new podcast, or every time you publish a new video).

There are many great platforms for blogging and most of them will integrate just fine with email service providers like Convertkit. If you don’t have strong opinions on the kind of platform you want, I generally tell people that a self-hosted WordPress installation on a host like Siteground is probably the cheapest way to start a fully-featured website you have complete control over (~$35/year). Then start a free trial on Convertkit, which gives you 1k subscribers (with limited functionality). Integrate Convertkit with Siteground until you hit 1k subscribers, then start launching paid experiments, which will pay the bill for Convertkit.

In the IndieThinkers.org Library, I have a three-part screencast tutorial on how to do all of this. It will take you less than a couple hours if you follow my walk-through. A little more work than starting a Substack, but for the average indie thinker at the beginning of a longer-term vision, your chances of building something financially sustainable are much greater.

This approach gives you the foundation for almost any kind of monetization model you could possibly want to develop later (including a full-fledged business of any kind). And if you want to get off WordPress for something a bit hotter but more expensive, like Webflow or Ghost or whatever, you can do that later without too much trouble.

Fear and Dissembling

Philosophically, it is impossible to ground claims about the ultimate value or quality of living entities, e.g. genetic quality.

Such ways of speaking can make some sense, like when we say “this horse is higher quality than that horse,” because, for all of our practical intents and purposes, a strong and fast horse is preferable to a weak and slow horse.

But the fact that some horses—or some humans—have more or less of certain qualities generally preferred by most people has no ultimate philosophical or scientific significance greater than the fact that I prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate ice cream.

Evolutionary psychologists are occasionally liable to overconfidence in the philosophical or scientific validity of how they perceive biological quality.

Any criteria or principle by which one might try to justify such rank orderings of qualities suffers from the problem of infinite regress. One cannot fully justify the principle of justification without taking recourse to another principle, which would need another principle, and so on.

Here, it is only religious people who are honest in saying: Reason can take us no further, but we choose to believe—on faith—that this kind of human behavior is better than that kind of human behavior. And we try to live accordingly, but the faith-based aspect requires us to see that—ultimately—we are all in the dark, equally.

Internet Vitalism: A talk given to Gen Z Mafia

A talk I gave to Gen Z Mafia. Thanks to Emma Salinas (@emmalsalinas) for all the great questions.

Where are the hottest countercultures today? What will happen to academia? What is my advice for young people? What Schelling points will emerge after academia? Why has academia has become left-wing since the 1990s? Can we make society more accepting of weird thinkers? Why do many of the countercultures today have a right-wing tendency? What caused the Left to gain dominance over mainstream institutions? Which conspiracy theories are directionally compelling? Should aspiring authors self-publish or try to get a traditional book deal? What will post-pandemic politics look like? What it's like living with two evolutionary psychologists? How will psychedelic drugs affect politics? What is my long-term vision for IndieThinkers.org?

Works Cited:

Hard-Forking Reality

On Liberal Pacification

IndieThinkers.org

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