Postmodern Conservative

Two Reflections on Thielism

So I’ve really gotten a lot of mail in various places on Peter Thiel. It might be a sad commentary on the state of most conservative imaginations today that the theme of most of it is basically that guy is nuts. One very smart exception is the comment from Richard Schweitzer at Law and Liberty:

I said: “For the libertarian Thiel, the startup has replaced the country as the object of the highest human ambition.”

Richard’s commentary:

If we are to take “singularity” as “individuality,” or as having some relation to it, and we are looking to where individuality can find “liberty” (of objectives, choices of means and indeed in significance of existence), then the “country” (nation or political organization) which tends to constrain, often repress, individually desired expression of individuality, loses its priority of instrumentality to the “startup” as vehicle for finding commonality and significance with and to others.

My response: Spoken like a true Silicon Valley libertarian. That kind of thinking is somewhat pathetic from a deeply relational point of view. But it’s not nuts to think of the startup as the place where personal significance — or some combination of love and work — is found on the grandest scale these days. There’s no denying that the best and the brightest –or at least the brightest — are flocking to the Valley. Our biggest startups guys much more than our political leaders seem to be the dominant “role models.” And, of course, much, much more than the Koch brothers or anyone on Wall Street or the entertainment industry.

This innovative libertarianism might actually be, in a way, worse than nuts, though. Thielism might be, in the precise sense, Satanic. Another distinguished conservative sent me the following by Pope Benedict XVI to account for it:

The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbors the suspicion that, in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom. The human being lives in the suspicion that God’s love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself.

Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God. He himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God’s level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. He does not want to rely on love that to him seems untrustworthy; he relies solely on his own knowledge, since it confers power on him. Rather than on love, he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trusts in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.

Peter is, from the view of the pope emeritus, unrealistically weak on God, love, personal and relational trust, and on acceptance of death and dependency, just as he puts way too much hope in what we can do with our power and freedom. But that doesn’t mean he’s nuts. It means he’s succumbed quite fully to a characteristically modern temptation. It doesn’t mean he should be branded a bad guy, though. Quite the contrary, he means well, even if he “trusts in deceit rather than truth.” He hasn’t come to terms with who he really is. Sin, as Saint Augustine says, is based on a mistaken judgment about who we should love and how we should direct our will.

That doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that we shouldn’t think that technological innovation can make our lives in many ways better. It’s just that it won’t free us from time and chance by bringing all of being under our rational control. And the technological progress we do enjoy, if we don’t think clearly about what it should be for, can come with the cost of a degradation of the conditions in which most people find personal significance through love and worthwhile work. That kind of thought isn’t going to come from Silicon Valley.

Peter responds, of course: Why should he trust in a providential God who, as far as we can see, hasn’t given us much of value but our brains and our freedom? And we have lots of evidence for what we can do for ourselves. And lots of reasons to think that our techno-progress has, in some ways, only just begun. That objection isn’t nuts or even un-American. It’s pretty much Lockean. It’s also in accord with our general libertarian drift these days, which Peter wants to transform into an intelligent or industrious and rational plan.

We (maybe we Straussians, among others) can say that Peter is in the thrall of a post-political, post-familial, post-religious, and even post-biological fantasy. He could respond that the history of the Enlightenment so far is overcoming what we wrongly believed to be necessary or natural and/or divine limits to our liberty. What John Lennon imagines (sort of) can continue to become real, but only if we work harder — and more intelligently – than ever to make it real.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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