Peter Thiel's Hyper-Libertarian Cartesianism
In some ways, the brilliant Thiel might be our instructive Cartesian today, because he has no democratic illusions about the Cartesian “I.”
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
Today, our most resolute Cartesians are libertarians. They’re for gay rights, property rights, and against any ideology that treats the individual as part of a whole. They are typically “nonfoundationalists.” That means MY irreducible existence is the bottom line, and there’s no reason why I have to explain why. Recourse to God or nature or country or whatever to defend myself or account for my significance makes me less than myself, and such foundationalism might well get me slaughtered for a cause that’s not my own.
The fabulously wealthy (the PayPal guy) Peter Thiel proclaims in his spirited “The Education of a Libertarian” that "I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual." He stands against everything that works against the perpetuation of the authentic liberty of the “I” called Thiel.
In some ways, the brilliant Thiel might be our instructive Cartesian today, because he has no democratic illusions about the Cartesian “I.” That thoughtful experience of liberation remains rare, precisely because it’s so contrary to our natures. He's a Cartesian who may well have read Descartes.
At Stanford, the French theorist Rene Girard taught him about “mimetic desire.” People usually don’t make choices about what they want from an individual perspective. One’s desires aren’t actually one’s own, but are mediated through and borrowed from other people. People have always rather thoughtlessly lived in herds, and so they’ve lacked genuinely personal or liberated or Cartesian identities. The omnipresent public opinion or fashion is just the ideology of the herd these days.
With that insight in mind, Thiel got hugely rich by exploiting at early point the unprecedented mimetic or herd-forming powers of the social media—Facebook, PayPal, and so forth. The Girardian insight, it seems, is what led Thiel to Leo Strauss, the philosopher whose theme is the extreme difficulty in rational or philosophic liberation of oneself from all-pervasive social/political dogma or the Platonic “cave.” For Strauss and himself, Thiel explains, the central problem involves how to think independently of the “mob.” Properly understood, that’s the libertarian problem—how to escape from political correctness understood in the broadest sense.
According to Strauss, modern, Cartesian enlightenment hasn’t and can’t liberate most people from the herd. Real enlightenment or liberation has always been the rare exception to the human rule. Thiel expresses his agreement with both Strauss and Descartes that human freedom is the highest human good, and that members of the herd lack that authentic experience. That’s why Thiel, like most libertarians and Socrates himself, sees democracy as opposed to liberty. Authentic liberation, Thiel and Socrates also agree, requires the escape for the collectivist impulses of politics in all its forms.
Now the people who run Facebook must, in fact, be impressed by how easy it is to manipulate the herdish desires or social instincts of most people. And one interpretation of Cartesianism is the liberated “I”—the modern tyrant or entrepreneur—imposing its will not so much on nature in general as on the blind desires of other people. Thiel’s liberation is not the same as that of the Socratic philosopher talked up by Strauss. It’s the very opposite of getting over oneself and learning how to die.
The libertarian ideology of the “I” refusing to be suckered by herd instinct is one that can be shared much more widely than the questionable wisdom of Socrates. So Thiel is more optimistic about enlightenment—or our libertarian drift—than Strauss. He thinks of Facebook both as expression of herd identity and as a possible way of widespread dissident—if not democratic—liberation.
For Thiel, unlike Strauss or Socrates, one precondition for the pursuit of every human good—including the highest good—is being freed from the inevitability of death. So Thiel criticizes the intellectuals and philosophers who “retreated to tending their small gardens” instead of devoting themselves to waging war against “the relentless indifference of the universe” to personal or individual being. The escape from nature to freedom can’t be mere imaginary or virtual or intellectual. It must be real. That's why Thiel’s turns his attention to outer space and “seasteading,” in addition of course to promoting the coming of the Singularity.
Ignoring or failing to come to terms with one’s mortality, according to Socrates, is part of the irrational self-denial of members of the herd. Thiel adds that accepting death in some Socratic fashion is finally part of that irrationality too. Like any Cartesian, Thiel regards himself as going beyond Socrates in a Socratic direction by being deeply skeptical of any sort of rationalization of death. The extinction of the “I” is unacceptable, and a free being can regard death, with optimism, as yet another problem to be solved.
There’s no reason to believe that we’re merely natural beings, and, with the Christians, the Cartesian transhumanists believe that it’s not the necessary destiny of the free person to die. The rational and industrious displays of personal freedom—technology—is the hope we can believe in, and, for Thiel, a key problem of our time that we’ve stopping believing in our technological future enough.
Thiel understands that “the longevity project” is at the core of the modern/Baconian/Cartesian scientific progress to conquer nature. It can’t be abandoned without the needlessly destructive abandonment of the optimism that fuels our hope in what we can do for ourselves in freedom.
So Thiel disagrees with even Steve Jobs’ rather Darwinian observation that each us can welcome death as indispensable for change. That’s not change any “I” can believe in. The argument that my death is good for any kind of evolution or required to fend off the social pathologies of an aging society is too “consequentialist.” I—Thiel—don’t exist for anyone else.
Still, the least we must say that the Cartesian (Straussian) Thiel can be criticizes on empirical grounds for failing to distinguish one herd from another, and so for calling various human social and political forms herds. He can’t accord dignity or real personal significance or identity to anyone serving any whole greater than oneself—from family to country to species.
That criticism goes for anyone who says that the fundamental human alternatives are individualism or collectivism. Both individualism and collectivism unrealistically deny the relational dimensions of personal identity and personal significance, and consciousness itself is redeemed most of all by the experience of joyfully knowing with others a reality (being and beings) outside oneself.