Building a Little Letter Republic

[This is an experimental project in letter writing as a renewed art form. You can read CeltAtom’s reply here.]

Dear CeltAtom,

You wrote to me recently mentioning what a pity it was that your friend was pulled in to the “California rationalists.” The implication, of course, was that this was a misuse of his great intellectual talents. Whether or not it was a misuse, I think, is a question worth pursuing at some other time (as you know, I’m more optimistic). But if we consider the likely causes of an intellectual move into the Less Wrong crowd, I think we can discover important lessons for ourselves and our own goals of building community in St. Louis.

The Rationalists come together in digital and sometimes physical space to engage in discoveries, projects, and conversations. And while most of this activity takes place online, nonetheless, the majority of participants are curiously located in the same geographic area. The reclusive rightly guided caliph of the rationalist blogosphere Scott Alexander moved to the Bay from Michigan. Even he needs community. Tyler Cowen, who is intellectually adjacent to the rationalsphere, mentioned that his Emergent Ventures applicants are dominantly from the “usual places” especially the Bay, even though there is no geographic barrier to entry. I think the lesson is that geography matters for community — even open, digital intellectual community.

Your puritanical commitment on the geographically local perplexed me for years. Yet considering that you coined the term “California rationalists” and I knew exactly what you meant speaks louder than my manifold protestations that community can easily be geographically agnostic — the word ‘easily’ was greatly mistaken. Yes, you are correct. I see that if we are to build ourselves an intellectual home it will be local. It must be here.

On the other hand, what good is a community that can’t attract people like your friend? Would I want to be part of a community which can’t be discovered and joined by great people, people filled with potential, who will keep me sharp and help draw out of me a better version of myself? This is another lesson. People leave their native lands for Oakland, not for Oakland, but for the community they discovered and engaged with digitally. They received some benefit from its open output, and now they will make a home there physically. I think the lesson is clear: agglomeration is key to community.

A paraphrase of Marshall’s economics text makes the point.

When a [community] has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same [mode of existence] get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in [community], in processes and the general organization of the [institutions] have their merits promptly discussed: if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas. And presently subsidiary [groups] grow up in the neighbourhood, supplying it with implements and materials, organizing its traffic, and in many ways conducing to the economy of its material.

Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics, 1890 – bracketed terms are mine

What the Bay Area has done is created an agglomeration of different types of rationalists and rationalist adjacent people through precisely these effects.

When you read the works of Seneca, Cicero and St. Augustine, you might notice that much of their work is actually in the form of long discursive letters. These letters, like Seneca’s on friendship were both public and private. On the private side they were motivated by the conversation with a particular person; they are addressed to that person; and they are written to persuade that person. On the public side, the author expected the letter to be shared, shown, distributed, copied, and forwarded to anyone who could benefit from its contents. This is why we still have these letters today.

Similarly, the Enlightenment era Republic of Letters allowed people from the salons and clubs of Europe to stay in touch, receive encouragement, hear of latest discoveries, and, importantly, extend its reach to promising new members. Most of the American Founders were were part of a community of letters: Benjamin Franklin had David Hume, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Condorcet internationally, but locally he had his Junto, which was probably important for development in Philadelphia in many not-so-obvious ways. Letters and local community however were separate affairs in that era. Nonetheless, Franklin brought the value of an international community to his local community by founding a library which housed the latest volumes. He tried to build the culture he wanted to see in the world.

These Antique and Enlightenment era letters also revealed a certain code of conduct, a morality of the scholar, which was built upon a level of courtesy, (the Newton and Leibniz episode excepted), scholarly integrity, and open-handedness combined with rigor and a critical eye.

I submit that if we are to build community in St. Louis, its existence should be discoverable online, but its activity and direction should be local. If we are good, we will attract new good people – like your friend – to us. Nonetheless, our focus should be geographically constrained, because the thing to build and improve is a community here.

You, CeltAtom, are my primary audience. But if others can benefit from this communication, I want them to.

Cheerfully yours,

At Wendy’s Near an Interstate

He sits slumped over with a Where’s Waldo scarf

Slowly sucking down salty Wendy’s fries.

Slowly drooping over like an overladen branch

Slowly shutting down his eyes like a sun eclipsed.

His limp wrist dangles his five purple thumbs

Suspended by an elbow planted firmly on the table.

By that planted elbow a notepad sits with some ink.

The booth is overflowing with his girth, with his mass. 

“Is he breathing?” question the people as they pass.

I return to that notepad, which somber makes me think

A suicide note, or manifesto of a dream gone down the sink,

Or it could be a wish that’s at last been fulfilled.

Is that body breathing? Has he been killed?

His alarm beeps every five, for some meds or is it work?

He doesn’t stir or answer, but his fingers twitch and jerk.

It could be diabetes, a seizure, or a stroke.

Perhaps Lazarus is sleeping, the normal weary folk.

I creep to observe, as the alarm goes off again.

And sure enough he’s breathing, his life goes on and then,

My thought return to that notepad. Alack! What does it say?

Perhaps he’s dying very slowly, and the notepad points the way

To save him from this process of very slow decay.

Closer yet I get and entitled on the page.

3/15/21 it reads, a journal entry of a sage!

Do I dare read on, this man’s soul which laid bare?

I dare not, I dare not, for fear of what lies there.

I get my Wendy’s order. And awake the sleeping man.

“We thought it was a heart attack.”

He wakes, “Long week. Pretty sucky.

“No, not a heart attack – I’m not that lucky.”