Athens, Jerusalem, Silicon Valley

An update on what this newsletter is about

“What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” This question was originally asked by Tertullian, a Roman citizen in Carthage, Africa, who lived from 155 — 240 AD. He started out as a student of Stoicism, the most popular philosophy of his day, and he is now known by some as the father of Western theology. 

His question (“What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?”) was not referring to geographic places. It was referring to the relationship between philosophy (symbolized by Athens) and spirituality (symbolized by Jerusalem), or the relationship between reason and faith; the relationship between those things that we can know with our minds alone, and those that require different modes of knowing—truths which are not accessible to us through reason alone. 

Tertullian was trying to work out the tension between these two spheres of life because there was great disagreement about what their proper relationship should be in the early days of Christianity. Should they be treated as entirely separate domains? Or should each one inform the other? 

“Faith alone” and “Reason alone” were like mimetic rivals, and few realized that there might be a healthy, un-rivalrous relationship between the two.

Peter Thiel once told me that he felt Girard’s ideas are situated in the liminal space between reason and revelation. I agree. So for those who may have come here for Girard, this particular edition actually has everything to do with mimetic theory.

There is still great disagreement about the question today. My own view is that faith and reason are like two wings on which a person rises to the contemplation of truth. If either wing is broken, you can only get so far. They’re complementary goods.

(By the way, substitute the word “revelation” for faith and it’s the same idea: revelation meaning the things that must be revealed to us, which we couldn’t know through our own powers. A human example of how revelation and reason work hand-in-hand: when my dad revealed to me how babies were made, it was a “Son, this is the way it is” moment—and I’ve spent the rest of my life understanding the truth that he revealed to me in a more rational way, not just accepting it on his authority alone. But without the revelation, I would’ve been way behind.)

Perhaps this was one of my earliest examples of the old theological maxim, popularized by Augustine, which defines the sublime science as Fides quaerens intellectum: “Faith seeking understanding.”

I like to introduce a third location to Tertullian’s question by asking: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem—and what do they have to do with Silicon Valley?”

Silicon Valley does not refer to the physical place but to everything that it represents: namely, technological innovation, capitalism, and storytelling. (There has never been a successful start-up that didn’t know how to tell a good story.) 

Understanding Silicon Valley is important when it comes to reading the signs of the times. I think it’s important to bring this age-old discussion about Athens and Jerusalem into dialogue with this third location: the metaphorical place driving so much of human life (and yes, I include the blockchain under this umbrella of Silicon Valley, decentralization aside—Silicon Valley is simply the meme I give this general meaning-making narrative, or cartoon. Again, I don’t mean Silicon Valley literally).

We live at a time of great technological innovation and simultaneous abandonment of fundamental philosophical and theological principles that could help us make sense of some of the things happening in our world: the embrace of body/soul dualism (modern-day Gnosticism), a widening gap between religious and non-religious people’s understanding of the world, and a general belief in “progress,” unclearly defined.

I don’t believe we can truly make sense of many of the most important questions today without a synthesis of these three spheres—Athens, Jerusalem, Silicon Valley. Yet in a world of increasingly specialized knowledge, where experts vie for monopoly power in their own domains, it is increasingly hard to see the bigger picture. 

With technological analysis alone, we don’t have the ability to see what is going on within a broader context. This approach lacks an appreciation for the depth and complexity of the human person—in short, it suffers from the lack of an adequate anthropology: an exploration of what it means to be human. Providing some of that foundation is what I try to do in my writing. 

I was educated in Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley. Yes, I have spent literal time in all three places—but that’s not primarily what I mean. By some circuitous path (on which I found myself lost in a very dark woods at one point), I worked in corporate finance, spent a decade founding and running companies, and then formally studied philosophy and theology. I spent most nights reading classical literature until I fell asleep and woke myself up with a book drop.

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There is also a certain spirit that I hope to cultivate here.

I lived in Rome for three years where I learned the fine art of what the French call flâneuring—strolling or wandering around cities with no agenda.

In Italy, flâneuring has a counterpart. There is the tradition of the evening passegiata where one takes a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood before or after dinner (my favorite one being on the Bay of Naples). 

But there’s another thing that I learned to do in Italy that is similar to flâneuring, but a peculiarly Italian thing to do with a peculiar Italian word given to it: meriggiare. 

Meriggiare is a word coined by the poet Eugenio Montale in his poem of books Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones), published in 1925. It comes from the Italian word pomeriggio, which simply means “afternoon.” Montale transformed it into a verb. In verb form, it means something like “to lazily pass the afternoon.” 

I learned to do this by taking 2-hour lunches with friends new and old—complete with intermissions to smoke Garibaldi cigars in some back alley outside the restaurant—discussing life’s most important questions and enjoying one another’s company.

Meriggiare is the kind of style that I want to cultivate in my writing. Like two friends sitting shoulder to shoulder at a good pub, taking our time working something out together—and having fun doing it. 

Thanks for being here.