Plato, Prose, and "Selective Breeding"
On reading Plato's Republic, writing better, and another nail in the coffin of institutional publishing.
Hey friends, I was solo parenting for 5 days and then our house/car got destroyed by a hail storm! Back on the horse now…
In this issue:
Costin Alamariu / Bronze Age Pervert
Why you should write shorter
Ask René Girard anything
Upcoming Seminar on Plato’s Republic
You really have no right to say anything about politics if you've never read Republic front to back. One of my mentors in grad school said that you should always be reading and re-reading the Republic.
This will take about 9-11 hours of focused reading if you don’t get too bogged down on anything. It’s a mysterious and perplexing text, so spend some time but also try to just keep moving forward
While reading, please prepare some written observations, or at the very least some questions for discussion. I'll begin with some remarks on what I find most interesting, but these meetings are primarily for you to develop your own ideas around the material.
Most of our seminars are members-only but some we open to the public. This one is open. They're friendly and rewarding. I look forward to meeting you.
October 9th, 6pm Central. RSVP here (free).
Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy
I tepidly reviewed Bronze Age Mindset, impressed by the author's spirit and not strongly disliking it... I just didn't find the shtick too interesting or exciting to me personally. After my first quick read of Costin Alamariu's new book, Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy, I'm much more interested and impressed. It's just a fascinating piece of work and I've learned a lot from it.
I think it will likely be a meaningful event in the contemporary history of ideas. It is another nail in the coffin of the gatekept, prestige public center.
The genie is not going back in its bottle, so long as we continue to see tremendously successful examples of provocative academic work—such as Alamariu's—finding large, paying audiences on the internet. I'm confident this book will be, for many years to come, a great inspiration to the burgeoning set of indie scholars and defected academics. I tip my hat to Mr. Alamariu.
I recorded a Twitter/X Space on my first impressions with some friends from the community.
Especially if you're a scholarly type, you should challenge yourself to write everything—every idea, observation, theory, comment, and argument—in the smallest number of words possible. The internet really changes the calculus here.
Most scholarly types have a natural bias toward writing longer pieces. You have an idea and you start planning a 5k-word essay post with citations. But first, it could just be a very interesting two-sentence statement. That might take you 30 seconds and it could potentially get shared with thousands or even millions of people.
Yet many scholarly types will totally skip this first possible version of the idea, which is a huge wasted opportunity.
If your mind keeps coming back to it, and you're convinced it's really important, then draft another 300 words. You can publish that, too. If it still excites you enough to go read a few books about it, that's great. Go read them and write a few more hundred words. Publish those again, separately. And then publish your big long piece.
But today it makes no sense to start with some vague idea that you're going to write a long essay about, and bring in several books, and all this stuff—before you've even fired off a few short versions in the most effective publishing media of our era (right now, tweets and emails).
In many cases, you won't find the time, or motivation, to actually finish that long fancy essay. So you end up with nothing, when at least you could have got your ideas down on paper, and out into the world, if you defaulted to writing shorter.
Let's grant that you are the type who can, and will, publish long essays consistently—you're still better off defaulting to short and building from there. Before your 5k-word essay is published, you've already published a dozen tweets and a couple casual newsletters on the topic, bringing your audience on the journey with you in an interesting and accumulating way over time.
You're getting more shots on goal, more opportunities for the idea to make its way across the world, rather than just the one time you publish its 5,000-word version.
Write shorter—not because longform is bad but because short-by-default is the easiest, fastest, and probably most effective way to produce longform work as an independent scholar in the internet era. Don't give up on producing long, important pieces, just don't default to long. It's a self-limiting mental model in the internet era.
Ask René Girard is Back Up (and Better)
Ask a question on something René Girard wrote about, and AskGirard.com will give you an answer based on his books (with citations). I shared an earlier version with you a few months ago but it needed some work…
Here’s how it works. It will search over embeddings of his corpus and look for sections related to your question, then GPT-4 will synthesize those sections to answer your question.
Don’t ask questions in the second person (“what do you think about X?”). Just ask about the knowledge (“What is X?”). I guess calling it “Ask Girard” has turned out to be a little confusing. I didn’t know exactly how it would work!
It works best if you’re asking about something that you know is in there somewhere. A passage you vaguely remember, for instance. This is really good for that, but it won’t give you anything valuable about topics he never discussed.
I’ve also added more texts and upgraded the back-end, so it’s now more comprehensive and more stable than last time I mentioned it here.