An Underestimated Intellectual Contributor: Part 2

When Peter Thiel was a student at Stanford, he encountered an aging French historian, anthropologist, and philosopher named Rene Girard. It changed his life. It also deepened and perhaps darkened his Christian faith.

Thiel went on to become the prime founder — among many transformative companies — of PayPal, Facebook, and Palantir. As well as a key investor in Elon Musk’s SpaceX. He became, in some eyes, the nation’s leading venture strategist.

If you associate with Thiel, you may hear frequent references to this mysterious sage Girard. You may be chilled by his harrowing images of envy, violence, human sacrifice, and apocalypse. You may be baffled by his enigmatic theory of human relations called “mimesis.”

You might not readily grasp that these images and concepts directly inspired Thiel’s theory of business strategy and innovation espoused in his great book Zero-to-One. This book distinguishes between original or vertical inventions and economic growth — zero-to-one — and imitative or horizontal economic growth, one-to-n.

You might not suspect that this esoteric French philosopher was crucial to Thiel’s path to billions in new wealth. And you might never imagine that this Christian theorist might be pivotal to your investment prospects.

The Spread of Globalized Memesis

Recently a young San Francisco consultant and blogger named David Perell of the North Star Podcast published a long and enthralling essay on the relationship between Girard and his theories and Thiel and his companies. It makes a powerful argument that the Girard-Thiel connection is one of history’s most fruitful collaborations.

Mimesis means imitation, mimicry, or copying. In Girard’s vision, it begins by extending human sympathies and common feelings. But it may lead to envy and resentment. It may foster violence.

As Perell explains:

“Our mimetic nature is simultaneously our biggest strength and our biggest weakness. When it goes right mimesis is a shortcut to learning. [It is the way we all learn languages]. But when it spirals out of control, Mimetic imitation leads to envy and to bitter, ever-escalating violence.”

In a critical and difficult Girardian insight, that propensity toward violence may be contained and focused through scapegoating — through sacrifice of a representative of a group outside the compass of copying and memesis. This is the Girardian theory of the Christian crucifixion.

What does this have to do with Thiel’s business theories and successes?

In Zero to One, Thiel offers a quadrant mapping out four different forms of optimism and pessimism. I would sum them up as definite optimism stemming from a specific vision of the future, an agenda or plan; indefinite optimism reflecting a general belief in the evolutionary progress of random mutation and selection — in technological terms the “inevitable” advance toward a “singularity.”

Definite pessimism expresses a particular memory or prophecy of famine and plague, whether from climate change or population growth. Indefinite pessimism reflects a general fear of the future and leads to passivity and retreat.

Thiel believes that “progress is neither automatic nor mechanistic, it is rare.” As a result of an increasing spread of globalized memesis, he sees the world entering a time of stagnation and danger. The remedy is a belief in a better future that inspires particular plans for it.

Zero-to-one innovation does not copy others and compete with them. It launches entirely new things. When it is launched, every new thing is a monopoly. Monopolies are not to be feared. They are the salvation of mankind.

Let us invert the model. An innovation is a reverse scapegoat: it invokes the acclaim of the marketplace because of its inspired and unexpected creativity responding to the needs and wants of others. As Girard puts it: “The more differentiated a society, the more stable it is.”

Perell concludes that Thiel’s definite optimism is “Christian theology cloaked in secular language.” As Thiel puts it: “The cliché goes like this: ‘Live each day as if it were your last.’ The best way to take this advice is to do exactly the opposite: ‘Live each day as if you would live forever.’”

If you live each day as your last, you may do all kinds of stupid self-destructive things. If you believe you will live forever, you know you will have constantly renewed relationships with other people. You will “treat people as if you’ll know them for the next ten thousand years.” With such an assumption, you will not cheat or steal. You will create and serve, in the image of your creator.

Thiel is an enemy of passive investment and reliance on “luck” and inevitability. He passionately upholds human agency and creativity.

Today’s Prophecy

As Thiel concludes in Zero to One: “You are not a lottery ticket… you can either dispassionately accept the universe for what it is, or put your dent in it. But not both. The world is not a mere distribution of luck-based outcomes.”

As Perell puts it: “God is an all-encompassing term for things we don’t understand. ‘Luck’ is the secular God.”

Thiel castigates venture capitalists who try to assemble a large selection of “bets” in the hope that one of them will come through. This is a recipe for failure.

“The big secret,” says Thiel, “is that there are many secrets to uncover… many large white spaces on the map of human knowledge.”

Explore the blank spaces where you’re mostly alone. Thiel asks: “How do I become less competitive in order that I become more successful?”

To paraphrase Thiel: “Do not copy your neighbors. By investing in new things, help rewrite the plan of the world.”


George Gilder
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy

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