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,

The Revolt of the Public

Ex-CIA digital media analyst, Martin Gurri, explored the politics of negation in 2014 and updated his thesis in 2018 in The Revolt of the Public.

The Revolt comes in pink.

The major thesis is that while the public becomes more highly networked and integrated with each other, elites have remained about as removed as they were pre-internet. This high visibility highlights their many failures, creates widespread distrust in their authority, and enables various revolts against the status quo in the form of (usually unreasonable) demands. The typical elite response is bewilderment and indignation. The savvy elite response is joining the public in blaming the leaders, the bureaucracy, or whatever malevolent force it is, and denouncing the system they are apart of.

Chesterton’s quip about love gains new meaning when the concept of neighbor becomes everyone we encounter on and because of the internet. “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people,” (Illustrated London News, July 16, 1910). This is why Christians are known for their calm and loving presence in the midst of Facebook flame wars…

The key, I believe, to getting the most out of this book, is to avoid thinking about the book in terms of our own favored political armies, and instead to focus on our personal self-adaptation. A noisier world is upon us. Living well within it is the challenge. The movements of today flash out like solar flares. Suddenly a mass of people can turn against an election, or a particular company, a particular minority, a city government, a court, a religion or a statue, a sector of the economy, or a nation. Indeed, anyone can be a besieger and anyone can be besieged by a suddenly formed public. And since criticism is cheap and available, we tend to engage in it too and judge ourselves vigilant and intelligent for seeing all the wrong.

Chesterton’s response is that “what embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism,” (“On Bright Old Things and Other Things,” Sidelights on New London and Newer New York). For if we fail to see our own failures, we will fail to forgive others their own. Martin Gurri’s response adds a little more detail than this. Building trust across a nation built on traditional brick-and-mortar hierarchies requires humility, integrity, and openness. He spells this out as the only way forward for systems to appear legitimate in a highly connected world.

I am concerned with how to build trust in an age of distrust. How to build well and offer a positive vision despite all noise, much of it vile. Martin Gurri’s book lays out a solid analysis of one level of the forces at work, but there are many others. Ideology, economy, laws and culture still matter. However all of these are influenced by the lightning fast information age.

Fortunately integrity in the internet age is about the same as integrity has always been, we just have to use the new tools to fulfill it. At the personal level: never lie, explain your reasons for what you’re doing/believing, be open about the good you wish to do, be open for input, strive for virtue, take responsibility for your actions. In your organizations, serve your clients and colleagues, take responsibility for their good, encourage them to also strive for virtue, be open for input, create goals (and be led by them!), and never lie.

Wisdom from the West

How St. Benedict is a Model for Civilizational Catholicism

Reading the Rule of St. Benedict two aspects struck me as especially important for civilization. First, Benedict’s injunction to abbots to take council with all the members of the society whenever making a large decision. “Hear even what the youngest has to say” clearly indicates that the distribution of valuable input throughout the monastery is not uniform. Wisdom can come from the mouths of the youth, just as from the learned. Thus, the wise person will seek input from the community before making decisions.

As a teacher and administrator  it is so useful getting feedback from students about things that do and do not work, certainly learning at a graduation party that some aspect of one’s teaching does not work is far too late. We must be upfront about providing useful feedback and soliciting it too. Constant improvement is a part of the Christian journey to Holy Wisdom. Hence the examination of conscience, hence St. Benedict’s injunction to the abbot to always seek counsel even in small matters.

To promote wisdom at JPII, we have the house system. The house system provides students the opportunity to be leaders, to organize activities, promote virtue, and provide feedback. Any student with something to offer becomes a participant in the school culture as opposed to passive recipients of it.

Parents, as well, craft our school culture. Feedback and active participation from parents is the bedrock of a hybrid school. The privileged position of parents as first educators and facilitators 2 days each week means that they know things about their students that teachers and administration might not know. This goes both ways, and thus communication is not only necessary for our function but is the beginning of our wisdom.

The second bit of wisdom I gleaned this week from the Rule of St. Benedict was his emphasis upon the equality of the monks with regard to things of the world. Wealth, rank, and honor from the previous life count for nothing in the life of this community, only virtue distinguishes monks from each other. The fundamental Christian dignity shared by all monks alike is enforced by the Rule. This might seem a small thing, but the belief in equal dignity of people before the Rule is a fundamental principle of Western society, which now is based on equality before the law.

The Rule sets out to supply a model of monastic society that closely approximates the true city of God. It is a real constitution for a model Christian society. There is no doubt that Benedictine monasteries, and monasteries based on the same principles, spread throughout all of Europe and saved its civilization in the early Middle Ages. Would there be any “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal” without these monasteries enculturating this “self-evident” truth for millennia? Certainly, much more also had to happen, but nonetheless, it can honestly be proclaimed, that without St. Benedict’s constitution, we would not have had the necessary model for a community of equal citizens which gives modern law its moral force.

For us the lesson of St. Benedict could be that even a small community can one day be a cornerstone of civilization. “Let us build our school community on the same foundations, for civilization may depend on it!”

But that conclusion, would be too easy and would ignore a complicated dynamic. There is a tension between the Rule of St. Benedict and what Benedictine Monasteries came to represent. Their purpose is the life of prayer and poverty, not civilization building. The fact that they became something more than a human attempt at the City of God and became so many centers serving the needs of man, the needs of literacy and manuscripts, of food and even at times defense, indicates a drift in the plan towards fulfilling the needs of the moment. The question of conformity then arises. Who is conforming to whom? In the 13th century Benedictine monasteries no longer had a role as the centers of learning, they were superseded by the great medieval universities. But nevertheless, Benedictine orders, and other religious orders, and the culture that sustains such things, continues to produce consequential scholars and scientists, technicians and inventors through to 2020. The culture of Catholic religious orders is astonishingly capable of maintaining that tension between holy purpose and worldly service over millennia.

In the novel The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel) Father Jacobus is a great Benedictine monk and statesman at the same time, serving both the functions of international diplomacy in a life dedicated to that higher purpose. Even when the Order serves the world, it receives its nourishment and direction from faith, and so it is merely looking for a practical way to apply a few centuries of acquired wisdom. The true lesson, I think, is about the relationship between high culture and the needs of civilization. Decoupled they both become dangerous to each other.

Everyone is Watching – Name the States

I say I am from St. Louis. The first response is, “Oh the Blues! Great hockey team!” It is great that St. Louis has some connection to Finland and my hometown evokes some immediate response and not just a question mark. St. Louis also has The Arch, designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. St. Louisians really do not know that fact any more than Finns.

In day-to-day exchanges I want to practice Finnish, and cashiers want to check my I.D. to discover where I come from. Then they take pride in telling me my change amounts in English and “Have a nice day” with a smile which they would never make otherwise. But you can not be mad at someone for being happy to see you.

I enjoy my serious conversations in English, but in those conversations I do not have the luxury of just representing me (whoever that is). I also am an American, a mythical creature hanging around small town Finland. Drinking together in a group, serious questions get raised. And learning that I am from St. Louis suddenly a few people ask, “What do you think about Ferguson? How far is it from where you live?” Suddenly, I represent. Everyday I represent St. Louis, since this question now gets asked every day. Why are our police militarized? Why do we not have gun-free zones? Why do we make it look like a military operation?

My opinion has power to sway, to color, and to direct opinion, whether I like it or not. There is terror in being looked to for insight. Suddenly, on my voice hinges power, and power cannot always be rejected. Suddenly, my opinion on The Second Gulf War is of consequence, the death of countless civilians, the misery of refugees is in my voice. People want to know what I think of current day Iraq, Syria, G.W. Bush and Obama, Russia and NATO, Israel, ice hockey, alcohol laws, income tax-policies, the main-stream media, Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Christianity, religion, fundamentalism, secularism, the two-party system, and why is it that Americans like baseball.

I have some response to some of these questions, but I am mostly an idiot. I don’t know anything about Islam and fundamentalism, the principles of jihad, the four schools of jurisprudence, the critiques of different sects and their individual histories, the genesis of grudges held between them, and the history of American involvement and its effect on the Middle East. Hell, most of how I understand these problems is through Plato, Dune, Henry V, the histories of the Athenians and Romans, and my own limited experience. I take the few things I have found to be true and try to understand how they apply or don’t apply to each situation while I look for better information.

On the other hand, I know and others know I am just one person. My opinions and ideas do not represent more than one voice among a plethora of voices. So we continue to drink together and make merry. There was a rumor in Turku that the U.S. had 52 states. So I asked these guys with heavy accents in Kajaani how many states there are:

Fifty! They shout. Fifty states for sure!
Let’s count them!
Virginia, California, Missouri, New York, Puerto Rico, Indonesia! Iraq!
The Detroit Redwings, North Dakota, South Dakota, Mexico, New Mexico, Old Mexico.
How many Mexicos are there?
I think there are seven.
Seven! Yeah, there are seven Mexicos.
Yet people hate Mexicans.
It’s because they are from Middle Mexico!
That’s so stupid! Why hate Mexicans from a different Mexico?
Well then there’s Philadelphia, Oregon, the one under Oregon…
No, not California, San Diego!
That’s right, that right. Then Los Angelos.
Texas, Detroit, China, Massachusetts, Miami, Chicago
Toronto? Nah, ah-ah! Gotcha, Toronto is in Kaaanada!