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Most People Are Other People
Why Shakespeare is great
Their lives a mimicry
SBF believes that Shakespeare is not great:
I could go on and on about the failings of Shakespeare…, but really I shouldn't need to: the Bayesian priors are pretty damning. About half of the people born since 1600 have been born in the past 100 years, but it gets much worse than that. When Shakespeare wrote almost all of Europeans were busy farming, and very few people attended university; few people were even literate--probably as low as about ten million people. By contrast there are now upwards of a billion literate people in the Western sphere. What are the odds that the greatest writer would have been born in 1564? The Bayesian priors aren't very favorable.
In Are History’s “Greatest Philosophers” All That Great? Gregory Lewis asks us to assume that philosophical greatness is a result of innate talent. If this is so, we should expect philosophical greatness to be a matter of a natural lottery. Now:
The Attican population in the time of Plato is thought to have been 250 to 300 thousand people... The population of modern day Attica…is 3.8 million. If we say Plato was the most philosophically able in Attica, that ‘only’ puts him at the 1 in 300,000 level. Modern Attica should expect to have around thirteen people at this level, and of this group it is statistically unlikely that Plato would be better than all of them. I am sure there are many very able philosophers in modern day Athens, but none enjoy the renown of Plato; were Plato alive today, instead of be [sic] recognized as one of the greatest of all time, perhaps he would be struggling to get tenure instead.
This indicates that we don’t value the philosophy and literature of the past for its intrinsic properties but for some other reason. We can do better today.
There’s something to this argument, but it ultimately doesn’t work.
Most people respond by quoting Shakespeare or citing Plato. That's not sufficient. Those blinded by a priori reasoning rarely regain their sight with a posteriori treatments.
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Most People are Other People
Set on your foot,
And with a heart new fir’d I follow you
To do I know not what; but it sufficeth
That Brutus leads me on.
Follow me then.
René Girard reads Shakespeare through mimetic theory. The central idea is that humans are deeply imitative creatures. As such, we learn what to desire only by copying others.
We can clearly see this dynamic in groups. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare depicts the conspiracy to assassinate the tyrant growing with increasing ease. One man joins because he likes the idea that “Caesar is responsible for the bad weather." Another, Ligarius, enters without even knowing the identity of the victim. Girard explains:
[I]n Julius Caesar we watch three individuals in a row join the conspiracy; with each one, we go down one more notch in regard to their ability to think for themselves, to use their reason and behave in a responsible way. It is less a matter of individual psychology than the rapid march of mimetic desire itself. As the conspiracy becomes larger, the job of attracting new members becomes easier.
Theater Of Envy: William Shakespeare
The power of the mob is nothing new. What Girard urges us to recognize, with Shakespeare, is that our urge to imitate goes deeper than external behavior. We copy who other people are: their thoughts, desires, and actions.
The rivalry and conflict of the late republic are the product of men who duplicated others' pursuit for power. Their desires are not their own. Girard captures the paradox this creates when discussing Caesar’s killer Brutus:
To a Roman with political ambition—and Brutus’s ambition is great, being patterned on Caesar’s—Caesar has become an insurmountable obstacle… He is both the hated rival and the beloved model, the incomparable guide, the unsurpassable teacher.
Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare
Brutus is threatened by Caesar, but loves his “majesty and authority.” When Brutus faces the crowd after destroying Caesar, a shout erupts out of the mob: “Let him be Caesar!” They recognize him for what he is – a copy.
Perhaps most surprising of all is that despite our oversized brains, our kind are not that bright, at least not innately smart enough to explain the immense success of our species.
Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success
Cultural evolutionists like Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, and Peter Richerson claim that cultural learning makes humans successful. Humans dominate the planet because we’re the only species that creates culture.
Any evolutionary process requires mutation, selection, and inheritance. Mutation occurs when some human-animal decides to do something new. Selection occurs when it doesn’t work. Inheritance occurs when that behavior or trait is transmitted to other individuals.
The classical way to pass traits to future generations is genetic. However, humans are social learners too. We pass on traits by replicating others' behavior. Culture is nothing more than the “practices, techniques, heuristics, tools, motivations, values, and beliefs that we all acquire while growing up, mostly by learning from other people.” It's the vehicle by which we inherit knowledge and error. Through imitation, we transmit what works through time.
Cultures mutate, are inherited through imitation, and are selected like anything else.
In this way, the cultures evolve.
This is just a more rigorous way to capture what Girard saw in Shakespeare.
Your Life Is Not Your Own
In many cases it's more accurate to model the world as 500 people than 8 billion.
The skeptical argument points out how surprising it is that the great works should appear early in history when so much of humanity has existed in the past 100 or so years.
However, another way to look at the matter a priori is to use centuries as the reference class. Charitably, there have only been about 15 centuries of English-speaking civilization – if we assume equal probability that the greatest English writer is born in any of them, the probability that he arises in the 16th is ~6.66%.
If we do that, the fact that so many greats are in the past isn’t that surprising – there aren’t that many centuries.
Of course, this would be stupid, but it’s instructive.
Given people’s capacity to copy, we should expect most people to be products of their contemporaries. In other words, our reference class shouldn’t be individuals, but larger social units, like cultures. And, we know some cultures are much more productive than others.
The upshot of all this is that when we look at Attica in 428 AD we’re not looking at 300 thousand individuals. Nor should we consider the 3.8 million inhabitants of modern day Attica as potential Platos.
How the exact calculation should be done, I don’t know, but any reasonable way of counting up the relevant social units won’t have the same force as our original argument. As such, it’s not as surprising that so many greater things exist in the past. The “Bayesian priors” may even be favorable.
The obvious objection to this is that many of the best performers are contemporary. Richard Hanania writes:
Whenever we have objective measures of something, the best performers are always from the recent past. This holds for running, darts, field goal kicking, weightlifting, memorizing the digits of pi, and chess.
This shows that the mimetic rebuttal is incomplete. If we’ve made massive progress in so many scientific and philosophical fields, why haven’t literature and philosophy seen the same?
I suggest that the difference between literature and philosophy against darts and field goal kicking is that darts and running have higher fidelity. Dart and field goal kicking culture is easier to inherit.
The best survives and is passed down in physical competition, but that is not so in philosophy. There are multiple reasons for this. The principal one is that it’s difficult for people to reason in the asocial way that’s required for recognizing humanistic innovation (and what created it). It’s easier when the world gives you clear feedback – like the final time of run or strike of a dart.
If I want to test out dart-throwing techniques, I can make serious progress in an afternoon. But if I want to try out philosophical methods that’s going to be difficult to do in a lifetime. Philosophical feedback is mysterious. The Athenians killed Socrates.
Copying Aristotle, as so many did, isn’t a recipe for philosophical progress. Political, ethical, social, and religious biases blind many who aim to make philosophical contributions.
Similar considerations apply to literature – so much so that many people think whether some piece of art is better than another is completely subjective. Yes, I know some of you say that what’s great literature or not is subjective, but it’s not so. Not in the sense that anyone can just choose to say something is great and that’s that. Check out David Hume, one of the greatest philosophers (born 1711 AD) on how to make sense of aesthetic judgment without the objective.
How Great Are Our Greats?
The a priori argument has some force, but not enough to dismiss our greats.
Perhaps, we shouldn’t be confident that Shakespeare is one of the best writers in the English language. But he’s certainly in the top 100, likely top 10. We probably haven’t accurately identified what all of the top 100 are.
Turning to philosophy, this poll of academic philosophers is reasonable but includes names that shouldn’t be there. The historical greats are chosen by the prestigious people of today and the near past. They overlook many great thinkers and schools while overrating others.
Even if the argument for dismissing past works is unsuccessful there’s still a case for thinking that we overrate the past. But whether or not you’re doing that depends on who you’re imitating.