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The time to withdraw

Being, as the most unique and most rare, in opposition to nothingness, will have withdrawn itself from the massiveness of beings, and all history—where it reaches down to its proper essence—will serve only this withdrawal of being into its full truth. Yet the successes and failures of everything public will swarm and follow closely one upon the other, whereby, typical of that which is public, nothing will be surmised of what is actually happening.

Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy

I've built a decent audience across several social media platforms, but I can't shake the feeling that something fundamental is going rotten.

For people doing longer-term and more sophisticated work, such as writing serious non-fiction, participating in the "creator economy" is something like settling an unmapped foreign jungle: the irresistible allure of adventure, the enchantment of pioneering unchartered territory, and hundreds of things that could kill you.

Constant public posting produces a set of negative psychological side-effects we continue to underestimate.

I do believe it's necessary for indie thinkers to build a public audience, and this requires a certain amount of systematic public sharing of work. The error in my thinking has been my presumption that the independent intellectual life would maintain audience growth as a constant goal and metric. In retrospect, this makes no sense because the comparative advantage of genuine thinkers—disciplined, erudite seekers of disinterested truths—is the capacity to conceive and deliver truly original, researched, and socially de-conditioned insights. Obviously this is impossible if one is frenetically glued to the same screens, and the same Discourse, as every other pedestrian of the information superhighway. For the indie thinker, maximizing audience growth in the long run must require periods of extreme detachment, distance, and solitude.

So how is one to know whether one should be building an audience via public posting, or withdrawing to work patiently in detached focus?

In the early days, when your audience is nil, some kind of systematic public posting is essential to achieve one's basic existence in the public sphere. This period requires great discipline, intrinsic motivation, and self-confidence (or else some support from a private community such as IndieThinkers.org).

But if you have something real to say, you'll inevitably earn your way onto the radar of at least a few discerning people.

The first important milestone is when your audience grows large enough that you feel extrinsic motivation to post. The number of expected recipients is large enough that it feels worthwhile to post, even if you're not naturally overflowing with the internal drive to post.

This milestone represents an exciting turning point, as it becomes easier to regularly post. But this is also where one's mind enters into a bargain with the devil: Insofar as external recognition feels like a tailwind, it is to the same degree a straight-jacket. As soon as thinking aloud becomes dopaminergic, thinking aloud starts optimizing for dopamine. The mind can hardly do otherwise; it is an unconscious dynamic that is, to a certain degree, irreducible. Once thinking starts optimizing for dopamine, it starts optimizing for positive social feedback, which means it enters the gravity well of popular opinion, which guarantees a long-term endpoint other than objective truth. For the indie thinker, falling too far into this gravity well is nothing short of doom, for it takes away the only edge that honest and patient thinkers have ever enjoyed: that Truth is always unpopular and difficult, but therefore scarce and hard to fake.

I am now of the view that, once this milestone of extrinsic motivation is reached, one should enjoy the victory but immediately step away from it. One should begin a specific, longer-term project that involves deep focus and prolonged distance from the public web altogether! Not forever, one will return; but only after reaching the next level dopamine-free. As one makes progress on the project, one will periodically post chunks to the public web, but without caring or engaging or watching the results. For this detachment is necessary to produce the work that rises to the top on the public web. And the truth is, patient work in psychological detachment is increasingly hard to perform, even for the educated and literate classes. As scholarly patience becomes increasingly difficult and rare, the simple achievement of frequently reading real books and writing real ideas will increase the price commanded by indie thinkers, given the increasing quantity of undifferentiated opinion.

One hour of truly focused attention is significantly more valuable than 25 hours of scatter-brained Twitter posting.

One hour of focused attention is sometimes sufficient to conceive one original idea, write it down clearly, and do something purposeful with it, such as post it to your blog. The quality of the idea, the quality of the decision about what to do with the idea, and the basic follow-through—all of these are more valuable, and harder than we appreciate.

When I'm scattered, I can have many good ideas and not write most of them down. Of the couple I manage to write down, one is posted on some public abyss like Twitter, and one is posted in some writing app and forgotten. The one posted to Twitter was substantively and lyrically poisoned by some degree of inescapable algorithmic competition psychology. The one posted to the notes was only half-baked anyway; when I wrote it, I was thinking partially about the last tab I saw and partially about the next tab I want to "check."

In a state of attention, I can write one decent idea and also overcome the bit of anticipatory anxiety surrounding the "submit" button on my blog. At the time of this writing, my blog posts go out to about 6k people. I could very feasibly publish good ideas on my blog a few times per week, if I wanted to and decided to. Many smart people read them, opportunities consistently drift my way from these posts. And yet I haven't been publishing blog posts half as much as I could, if I simply decided to. Why not? The calendar and the email and all the tabs are just so absorbing, one partially forgets that higher-value activities even exist, and are viable candidates for what one should be doing. Blogging somehow feels irresponsible; the tabs and apps feel like moral obligations and blogging a kind of self-indulgence. And yet, the reverse is true—but it takes a quiet mind to see this, and a focused mind to act on it.

When you're in the rhythm of bouncing around between podcasts, Youtube videos, Twitter, and all the rest, the decision to stop in favor of reading and writing is more devilishly difficult than any educated person wants to admit. It is perhaps the most underestimated social harm afflicting the literate classes today, in part because it's embarrassing to admit it.

I'm a pretty disciplined and productive person, on average, but I've been extremely embarrassed to confront just how stubbornly mushy my mind and media habits have become over the past year. Several half-baked attempts to correct course have been attempted, and they've failed.

The problem is much more insidious and significant than I previously appreciated. It's a form of mental capture so severe that it's self-effacing, a kind of usurpation where you're really not steering your own ship anymore and the quiet moment where you realize you're not steering your own ship never arrives, unless by some exogenous accident.

I will continue writing and publishing to this email list, here—indeed, this is where I should be writing and publishing most consistently—but I will tell you: I am planning a period of withdrawal from the public web. I'm going to write my second book and I'm going to institute a systematic re-ordering of my time and attention, away from all the tabs and metrics and replies.

I'll send you more details soon.

In the meantime, if you're interested in René Girard, we've produced a nice PDF study guide that will guide you through all of his key ideas in 8 weeks. You can download it for free at GirardCourse.com.

Eric Weinstein's Error

Eric Weinstein has released his highly self-aggrandized anticipated research paper on geometric unity.

I read the paper. I gave it a solid hour or two. I did read the whole thing.

The paper is not really a research paper, it's a collection of briefly formalized mathematical intuitions combined with some comments about how these intuitions could possibly be turned into a significant finding, plus a number of paranoid intuitions about why and how this significant finding is thwarted by various political forces.

I'm not sure we've seen this kind of megalomania since Nietzsche. To be clear, I would say that's a compliment, given that Nietzsche was the absolute chad of late-19th century Europe. What happens to this kind of intellectual temperament in the 21st century is, of course, a different question.

I was mostly interested in this paper as an example of what a sophisticated outsider intellectual could do, after having gained a large social-media audience. For a couple years now, I've been listening to Eric's story about his suppressed theory, which, he has claimed, overturns all of modern economic theory, transcends Satoshi Nakamoto's conception of the blockchain, and more.

If I have any horse in this race, my bias is in favor of Eric dropping a world-historical research paper and totally dunking on the institutions from his outsider social-media perch. If anyone is capable of doing it, at this very moment, it would be him—and it would vindicate and flatter a lot of my recent theorizing. I would love to see it.

This paper and its whole self-flattering build up, unfortunately, reveal the author to be tremendously out of touch with both institutional legitimacy dynamics and indie legitimacy dynamics.

The paper certainly demonstrates that Eric knows advanced math, and has some creative ideas. But this simple fact is already priced into his stock as a public intellectual, and it means virtually nothing inside of institutions... given the basic nature of institutions.

What you have to understand about mathematics and mathematical physics is that lots of people in these fields can generate highly impressive numerical edifices making all kinds of claims about possible applications to other fields. Search around and you can find a ton of physics-based theories of the economy, most of which do not win Nobel prizes and do not overthrow the economics profession. But those authors don't feel like persecuted victims, perhaps because they are not megalomaniacs or perhaps because they lack large internet audiences. They understand that, ultimately, super-advanced math is a language game (not unlike woke theory, actually, except that woke theory is the econo-physics of verbal-IQ elites).

Advanced mathematics can occasionally find vindication by experiment, or inspire creative application in the world, or gain some public awareness for highly stochastic reasons, but to imagine that advanced mathematical sophistication combined with some creativity entitles one to any amount of institutional recognition is to woefully misunderstand the epistemology of scientific method (rooted in experiment), the nature of institutions, and the sociology of intellectual history. What gets power and credit in academic philosophy, for instance, is largely a function of who your teacher was (see Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies). Most super-mathy academics understand that, while worth doing in the pursuit of truth, especially if it can get you an academic job, super-advanced math is very often strictly useless. Most artists will agree about their own work, find it worthwhile anyway, and never complain. Eric seems genuinely not to understand this.

Science is deeply rooted in experiment, whether one likes it or not. In the paper, Eric mentions that not all mathematics need be demonstrated by experiment. That is correct, but note that the academic variants of woke theory also make the same point in favor of themselves. The problem is that, as a matter of historical reality, scientific method is the one and only high-status validation and legitimation method recognized in modern culture. You can cite any number of theorists who have shown or theorized something like this—from Weber, to Heidegger, Adorno, Foucault, many others, most of the twentieth-century continental tradition revolves around this massive fact.

Scientific experiment is the only way an intellectual can claim to be more correct than others, in the public sphere, with inter-subjectively recognizable criteria to calibrate judgment. If your field doesn't lend itself to experiment, that's fine, some work can be described as better or worse than other work, but you can never claim some objective or inter-subjective superiority that would ever avail itself of universal recognition—in the way that you can with experimentally validated and engineering-generative insights.

The supreme irony here is that what's called postmodernism is the academic field where this basic problem has been most fully specified and ethically questioned. They are the ones who have been saying for years that modern culture over-weights that which can be validated by experiment, denying legitimacy to important truths that happen to not lend themselves to that particular mode of veridiction. This critique of science indeed plays some role in the unleashing of increasingly unhinged woke epistemology, but apparently it also unleashes the paranoid victim complexes of extremely intelligent rationalists as well. Rather than claiming to be persecuted by the economics profession, Eric should read post-structuralism and understand that his unique ideas are de-legitimated in the same way all "non-scientific" ideas are de-legitimated, but that, in this elision, he may also find unique forms of power and freedom. Even more ironically, Eric can thank the Deleuzian nature of the internet for already granting him historically novel and extraordinary sources of power and freedom. But it seems that Eric does not recognize these powers for what they are, or he doesn't understand how they work, which explains why he tried to publish a research paper in the way that he did.

The paper is almost explicitly pseudo-scientific in that he self-consciously typesets the paper using LaTeX (the cool kid's writing application in STEM research disciplines) and it contains advanced math, but it does not deliver the basic promise of a scientific research article, namely a competent review of up-to-date research followed by a specific, novel insight which is then integrated back into the literature. He punts on those basic requirements of a scientific research paper, bizarrely mentioning in the opening footnote that he is merely an Entertainer. And yet as an entertainer he is constantly claiming he has a revolutionary theory that has been suppressed by academia.

Basically he does not have the grand, unifying, discipline-shattering research paper or discovery that I honestly hoped he did.

So the overall effect of this paper is quite a let down. There are only a few thousand people who will be capable of judging the formal math in the paper, but even if they are correct and interesting—which I'm happy to grant!—his naivety on the sociology of science and the sociology of the internet significantly deflates my estimation of Eric as social thinker.

I think Eric is a genius and a courageous, fascinating, impressive individual who could have extraordinary impact in the long-run of intellectual history. But sadly, he is becoming a genuine crank, insofar as the distinction between an independent intellectual and a crank is that the independent intellectual supersedes institutions and gains long-term influence, whereas the crank becomes possessed by resentment toward institutions and fails to gain long-term influence.

He makes good points about the selection effects of institutional science. It is true certain findings are likely to be rejected, even if true. But this is a reason for doing extra-institutional science. The error Weinstein insists on making is trying to force extra-institutional knowledge into institutional acceptance. The result can be nothing other than failure, crankhood, and the paranoid bitterness which, frankly, Weinstein exudes in his recent appearances. Fortunately he has plenty of time to change course. I hope that he does, and I wish him nothing but success.

Technology, Class, and Ideological Realignment

Before we get to my latest essay below—I’ve now opened enrollment for John David Ebert’s 8-week masterclass on the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. The first live group discussion seminar will be Saturday, February 20th at 3pm Eastern. If you’re curious, download the free study guide and/or join us for a private Q&A meeting this Saturday, where you can sniff us out and get answers to any questions you might have. If you’re curious about John’s mastery of the material or his thinking style, I’d recommend his recent appearance on the Other Life podcast. OK—onto my post!


I appreciate Michael Lind's model of the contemporary American class structure. He asks us to visualize two horseshoe structures:

a lower horseshoe whose two prongs point up, and an upper horseshoe whose two prongs point down. The lower horseshoe has the underclass at the bottom/midpoint and the hub city working class and the heartland working class as the points of its two opposing prongs. The upper horseshoe has the managerial elite proper as its midpoint/apex and the professional bourgeoisie and the small business bourgeoisie as the points of its two opposing prongs.

This model is pretty nifty, and it parsimoniously captures some ideological variation as well. Roughly, Lind suggests, the “center,” “left” and “right” map onto the managerial elite, the professional bourgeoisie, and the small business bourgeoisie. True elites just want stability, institutionalized bourgeois professionals want more government funding, and the self-employed want freedom from regulation and taxation. So far, so good.

But his sense of the near future is quite limited. It was only a parting remark, but

Lind suggests that any new cross-class alliance will have to create “powerful mass-membership, working-class organizations..."

I do not think this needs to happen, and I do not think it will happen. This is a powerful meme from pre-digital labor history, but I don’t think it bears much scrutiny. It’s the kind of thing Gen X socialists say when they don’t know what else to say.

I see a very different trajectory.

Consider Lind’s ”small business bourgeoisie,” which currently includes a lot of obsolete business models, like many local brick-and-mortar stores. There is a new player in this class, and it's the bootstrapped internet business—which doesn’t even require computer programming or much startup capital anymore. This includes a whole new breed of "DTC" or direct-to-consumer brands, but also the "creator economy" and even some of the crypto economy.

A non-trivial portion of Lind's "professional bourgeoisie" is defecting from legacy bureaucratic institutions (technologically indefensible prestige cartels), into this new tech-savvy faction of the small-business bourgeoisie. The clearest and most recent example is the massive wave of journalists quitting their jobs in favor of writing independently on Substack. But the 2 million people working full-time as internet “creators” already would have been enough to substantiate my claim.

Then within Lind's "managerial elite" (the major titans of industry and government), there is an increasingly salient cleavage between tech-centric libertarian types and paper-centric bureaucratic types. Think “west coast” figures like Marc Andreesen or Peter Thiel versus “east coast” figures like the Sulzbergers.

The "professional bourgeois" defecting from institutions into the small-business bourgeoisie are doing so because their institutional wage premia are being eroded by technology, so their shift is almost intrinsically tech-centric and libertarian.

We’re beginning to see an ideological realignment where the professional bourgeoisie increasingly defects from the old state-centric, pro-bureaucracy socialism into a new, more tech-centric communitarianism with socialistic longings but libertarian characteristics.

It’s not as contradictory as it sounds. For most left-wing intellectuals since Marx, their ideological alignment with state power was only ever a marriage of convenience. Their ultimate preference is always to abolish the state, but until that’s possible, they love the state as a necessary vehicle moving in the direction of liberation. In the digital age, left-leaning bourgeois intellectuals will retain their radical egalitarianism but their marriage of convenience will now be with technology and private wealth, which they will correctly see as the only viable bulwarks for egalitarian political structures moving forward.

If you doubt that ideologies and alliances can shift so quickly due to external changes in the economic landscape, read this classic political science paper. Is “free trade” a left-wing or right-wing position? There’s no clear answer to this questions, because the content of “left” and “right” party programs fluctuates depending on opportunistic factors. If you look at left-wing parties across time and space, their position on the Free Trade issue is a function of how much land, labor, and capital there is in the country under consideration.

The newfound allies of our defecting professionals will be the tech-libertarian elites and, most confusingly, the working-class heartland—the true believers in the American freedom ethos. This is the only way to understand the new cleavage that puts on one side right-leaning media figures like Tucker Carlson, with defected left-leaning professional-bourgeois figures like Angela Nagle and Ariel Pink, with right-leaning tech figures such as Curtis Yarvin and Peter Thiel, with an army of anti-institutional solo-business creators as big as Joe Rogan and as small as the Patreon podcaster who is barely scraping by but nonetheless paying all of their bills with complete intellectual freedom.

A major catalyst of this realignment will be crypto. Crypto is fundamentally a redistribution of wealth and power away from the managerial elite (whose income is based on legacy cartels and fiat currency) toward anti-institutional outsiders (whose income is based on being correct before being accepted). This is another independent vector of change, which is also intrinsically tech-centric libertarian.

The American class structure is approaching a great schism that might very well make the Civil War of 1861 seem like a sibling rivalry.

On the one side, we will have a tech-centric libertarian camp connecting all of the most forward-thinking and freedom-focused people up and down the class hierarchy, boasting a fundamentally new and censorship-proof monetary system and wealth base.

On the other side, we will have everyone whose income is based on having paid dues to a legacy institution, plus the black urban underclass that the institutional bourgeois is essentially holding hostage (exploiting this faction's historical investment in the Democratic party, leaving them nowhere else to go, like abusive husbands do to their battered wives).

The big question is whether the captains of the sinking ship accelerate their bellicosity or ask for a lifeboat. In many ways, crypto provides the best thermometer for this growing cleavage: If the institutions gradually buy into crypto, then I would expect the USA to gradually morph into a tech-libertarian patchwork where all national and state bureaucracies gradually recede into nothingness and all power passes through blockchains.

If the US government tries to institute an outright ban on crypto—like Nigeria is doing right now—then all the crypto millionaires, the small-business intellectuals, and the freedom-loving rednecks would galvanize into a proto-secessionary unit. They would have most of the guns in America, and most of America’s greatest minds.

In the face of serious aggression from US institutions, this camp could either double-down on one of the untraceable cryptocurrencies and alternative networking models like Urbit, to sustain the true American nation in the shadow of the usurper government, or it would simply purchase a small country somewhere else.

Either way, we win.

Barbarians Past the Gate

Legacy institutions are at war with distributed collective intelligence, but the legacy institutions are losing—badly.

2 million full-time “content creators,” outside any professional sanction; the election of Donald Trump against an airtight media consensus certain of its impossibility; mass, hysterical preference falsification due to a normalization of political correctness, with silent mass migration into countless private communities; Big Tech’s capitulation to censorship on all major social platforms; the resilient rise in the price of Bitcoin and a proliferation of durable social currencies on Ethereum; and most recently, an unprecedented execution of decentralized social intelligence, which minted more than a few millionaires out of thin air, by a niche internet community hacking the source code of finance capitalism.

Most of the essential requirements for a functioning polity—fiat currency, leaders, laws, and shared identity—have been fully decoded and open-sourced in the form of cryptocurrencies, content creators, Smart Contracts, and fandoms. It seems inevitable that our roughly 195 nation states must increasingly give way to thousands of digital micro-polities, as these embryonically political structures grow in economic and psychological power.

The only other defining characteristic of autonomous polities—a monopoly on the use of force—is increasingly obsolete as the payoff to peaceful trade raises the opportunity cost of physical violence. Hence the relative dearth of interstate war since the end of World War II.

If you doubt the claim that “content creators” are budding politicians—whether they know it or not—consider the curious case of Mr. Beast.

The most powerful Youtubers are accidentally rediscovering the nature of Aristocracy, a type of social role we like to think we abolished.

Mr. Beast is a Youtuber who currently enjoys 52 million subscribers and earns somewhere in the ballpark of $20-30 million annually at the age of 22. Jimmy Donaldson built one of the most influential and economically successful Youtube channels through a specific concept: Outrageous and conspicuous acts of generosity. His typical video involves him gifting large sums of money or lavish objects to random people, poor people, or friends.

As true aristocrats have always known, and as contemporary elites have forgotten, lavish generosity towards the needy demonstrates one’s authentic nobility, wins public attention and admiration, and genuinely improves society while increasing the political and economic power of the donor.

The so-called “creator economy” is only a becoming-liquid of the circuit connecting noble traits, admiration, and capital, such that the previously abolished form of Aristocracy re-appears in a distributed and ungovernable format. You could try to govern it, but you would need someone as organically admirable as the target, or else Mr. Beast fans will never even hear about your new law, let alone respect it (especially after they upload themselves full-time to the Mr. Beast VR pod and earn all of their income through Mr. Beast’s branded gaming engine). National law enforcement does not generally excel in the domain of authentic nobility, ergo the new form of distributed Aristocracy will not be put back in the bottle.

I am not suggesting Mr. Beast will become the effective President of a new country within the United States. I am suggesting Mr. Beast will be one of thousands who effectively constitute micro-polities, each one optimizing for different personality types and demographic buckets. Power laws dictate a small minority of creators will enjoy audiences far larger than the rest, but I suspect at least several thousands of creators will operate all-inclusive weltanschauungen for audiences of several thousands. I am pulling these specific numbers out of thin air, but I am directionally confident; I would encourage someone to explore more sophisticated modeling of this question.

If you still doubt that someone like Mr. Beast is an embryonic statesman, you might be impressed to learn about his long-term goal. His stated goal is to create a nation-wide system of homeless shelters and food banks. That’s right, he’s going to build a national system of public housing. I see no reason why he cannot succeed, given that he has already proven a business model that turns charismatic philanthropy into attention, admiration, and wealth for himself. Given that the USA Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t even try to create housing any more, it is not particularly speculative or sci-fi to suggest that Mr. Beast is on his way to becoming a kind of shadow Secretary of Housing in the United States. It’s there for the taking, it’s his stated goal, and he’s on track to do it. If he falters, it’s hard to imagine that the next generation of creators will also fail to appreciate such historic opportunities in front of them.

Bitcoin feeds directly into content creators becoming governors, not additively but multiplicatively—in a few ways. This means you should watch out for non-linear takeoffs, where things seem to be unfolding gradually, gradually… and then all at once.

First of all, Bitcoin is becoming the leading inflation-hedge asset as the US government engages in unprecedented money printing. Censorship-resistant and inflation-proof money is becoming increasingly accessible, normalized, and trusted at the same time that legacy institutions are doubling down on… censorship and inflation. It’s not inconceivable that eventually the US government needs Bitcoin—and the intellectual/communication services of leading content creators—much more than anyone needs the US government. If the US government’s balance sheet gets worse, and Bitcoin continues to get better, this alone could trigger a non-linear event where all smart money rushes into Bitcoin rapidly, and the US government’s balance sheet collapses with equal rapidity.

Second, most of the leading content creators have hardly even begun utilizing cryptocurrency. They will. Given the mimetic nature of financial value, leading Youtubers could single-handedly increase the price of any given cryptocurrency, simply by promoting it, using it, and whipping their fans into a frenzy.

Just recently Elon Musk put the word “Bitcoin” in his Twitter profile and the price of Bitcoin immediately rose 15%. If for any reason Bitcoin becomes fashionable among leading creators, the result will be non-linear. The creators would be making themselves even richer, simply by adopting Bitcoin and triggering price increases, so I consider this to be a game-theoretic inevitability (even if many don’t want to take this opportunity at time t1, rising creators who do take this opportunity at time t2 will dominate the others, which means it is hard to imagine a future in which this opportunity is not taken).

Just as we watched the Reddit community Wallstreetbets pump the price of Gamestop on the stock exchange, without a leader, any community with a leader will be all the more capable of such a feat. The Robinhood app was able to halt purchases of Gamestop, but there already exist decentralized crypto exchanges, on which nobody has the power to halt trades. Technically unstoppable versions of the Gamestop pump therefore seem inevitable on decentralized exchanges, meaning communities will eventually have unprecedented power to affect the value of assets by sheer belief and collective will.

There is already a new breed of avant-garde content creators—small compared to Mr. Beast but large enough to be dangerous—investing heavily in crypto assets and infrastructure. Consider Trevor McFedries, creator of the first CGI influencer Lil’ Miquela. He’s minted his own social currency $FWB on the Ethereum blockchain, and its value has been rising steadily as the value of his community increases. If he and his community continue to create value inside the community, the value of $FW will continue to rise, and everyone in the community will see their wealth increase in proportion to their $FWB holdings. It is hard to imagine that there will not eventually be a creator as big as Mr. Beast and as crypto-savvy as McFedries, who runs a private digital community with a market cap as great as the GDP of many countries.

The most influential content creators will build cabinets of advisors and shareholders drawn from different domains: A chief technologist drawn from Silicon Valley, a chief financial officer drawn from Wall Street, etc. This is when the political nature of content creators will become unmistakable. These companies will look and feel like small national governments, running a combination of revenue-generating enterprises for profit and philanthropic enterprises for citizen-recruitment, all organized around their own state-sponsored media.

The nation state may well persist, but only as a shell of its former self, and mainly by hitching its wagon to the leading micro-polities. One can imagine a scenario in which Heads of State and leading content creators broker an informal bargain that allow Heads of State to save face on condition they defer to the new power-holders. In the near future, the relationship of the US President and leading American Youtubers may be analogous to the relationship between the Queen of England and Parliament.

Many micro-polities will initially appear to mainstream observers as religious “cults,” driven by “conspiracy theories,” led by charismatic “grifters,” operating massive “pyramid schemes.” Eventually it will be realized that such things have always been the building blocks of nations. As the myth of Romulus attests, the founding of a nation is always a crime—until it’s the law.

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.

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