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Thoughts on Shakespeare and Sam Bankman-Fried
ignorance of the deeper springs of human character
The new Michael Lewis book reveals that Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto founder whose company either lost or stole a lot of money, said it was statistically improbable that Shakespeare was a great writer because so many more people have been born since then, many of them beter educated. Maybe he was joking or being provocative. Subsequently Richard Hanania asks: “Why do people have to pretend Shakespeare is great?”
You won’t be surprised to know that I don’t think the question of whether Shakespeare is “the best” is subjective. Shakespeare is widely agreed on as the centre of the Western canon; he is still performed globally, shared online, sells in large numbers, and crops up in many writers’ work. You quote him daily. Hollywood movies use his plays as inspiration. Shakespeare remains hugely influential.
However, SBF’s comments do raise some interesting ideas.
First, there’s an obvious riposte to SBF. If there ought to be someone better than Shakespeare, where are they? This is part of a bigger question about great talent. Why is there no Florentine Renaissance today? Why no Newton? Where is our Ramachandra? For science, it may be that there are no more easy answers to find, or that bureaucracy is making it hard to innovate. In the humanities, Scholars Stage notes that great books courses stop at the 1950s, but in earlier generations the great thinkers like Marx and Tolstoy were more immediately obvious. Maybe, but it took a century for Shakespeare to be properly canonised. Mill was hardly universally eulogised at his death. Darwin only became unimpeachable after the discovery of genetics. Many modern influential names like Pynchon, Parfit, Foucault, suggest that post-war genius is simply more abstruse, less likely to have universal acclaim.
And technology plays a role. That the world was increasingly un-bookish after the war seems like the major explanation for why the late twentieth century didn’t have its roster-equivalent of Marx, Tolstoy, and so on. As I wrote recently, film is to the twentieth century what the novel was to the nineteenth. Maybe we won’t get another Tolstoy, even though we still have many great novels, because we won’t be that sort of culture again.
Let’s say we bite the bullet and take SBF seriously. Byrne suggests that one way of testing whether any modern writers are “better” than Shakespeare “is whether you can imagine a 16th-century person struggling through 21st-century English to enjoy it.” I don’t think we’re close to being able to comprehend a sixteenth century person that way. Only time will tell. Plenty of immensely popular writers, once canonical, have now gone to dust. For every Tolstoy, there was a Carlyle.
The low-hanging fruit argument might be sound. Not because Shakespeare did things other writers therefore can’t, but because his influence looms so large in a way no-one else had done before. Before Shakespeare, England had Chaucer and Spenser, but not a Homer, Virgil, or Dante. After Shakespeare takes that role, his influence becomes a double edged sword —try and beat him if you think you can…—and so the low-hanging canonical fruit is gone.
SBF is hardly the first person to dislike Shakespeare. Tolstoy hated him. Tolkien and Voltaire too. Until he was middle-aged and saw a film of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rene Girard didn’t think especially highly of him—but Girard went on to write an interesting book about the plays. What SBF said about Shakespeare’s failures as a dramatist is unimpressive. But Bernard Shaw’s letters to Ellen Terry are full of complaints about Shakespeare getting things wrong.
However, SBF’s argument speaks to more than literary opinions. It seems to me that SBF either hasn’t read or didn’t absorb J.S. Mill’s essay on Bentham. The essence of this essay is that “human nature and human life are wide subjects” and Bentham “failed in drawing light from other minds.” SBF is “anti books” (Hanania has made the case against books). There’s a sensible version of this argument, recently made by, but that’s not the version put forward here. Comparing the production of poetry to the running of a marathon is classically Benthamite.
Like many Effective Altruists, though by no means all of them, SBF’s views on Shakespeare show a philosophical narrowness that underpins his other, more important, intellectual mistakes. As Mill said of Bentham,
his ignorance of the deeper springs of human character prevented him… from suspecting how profoundly such things enter into the moral nature of man.
Knowing the deeper springs of human character is precisely why Shakespeare has been so central to the canon for so long.