In all the hype surrounding the trial of quirky financial tycoon Sam Bankman-Fried following the collapse of his crypto empire FTX, his comment about a certain English bard caught my attention:
“I could go on and on about the failings of Shakespeare … “but really, I shouldn’t need to,” Bankman-Fried is recorded as saying in Michael Lewis’s “Going Infinite,” a biography released earlier this month about the entrepreneur. “About half the people born since 1600 have been born in the past 100 years, but it gets much worse than that,” he continued. “When Shakespeare wrote, almost all Europeans were busy farming, and very few people attended university; few people were even literate - probably as low as 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 in 1564?”
This comment reminds me of another one made by the disgraced billionaire about literature more generally. Bankman-Fried insisted he “would never read a book” and that all books should be “a six-paragraph blog post.”
It’s clear that Bankman-Fried is no fan of literature.
I’m not here to here to poke holes in Bankman-Fried’s argument about Shakespeare. The Elizabethan playwright has no shortage of disciples to provide for his defense. Rather, I intend to argue that Bankman-Fried’s attitude toward literature is misguided.
Why would we read literature if we could obtain the same amount of information from a six-paragraph blog post, as Bankman-Fried suggests? Because the point of reading literature is not to obtain information but to discover a different kind of knowledge: wisdom.
Literature tells us very little about empirical facts – that two-plus-two equals four, that the stock market is up or down, or that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. It does, however, tell us about who we are as human beings and about what we are supposed to do. We don’t gain this knowledge in the same way we gain informational knowledge when reading an instruction manual. We learn by reading stories.
There is a reason Christ chose to teach his followers in parables rather than by laying out pieces of information in a bulleted list. Christ’s teachings are not meant to show us how to operate a machine or pass a multiple-choice exam, but to live as human beings in the world that He created.
Literature is also particularly apt to teach us critical thinking. By documenting the experiences of authors as early as 12th century B.C. Mesopotamia to 2023, literature shows us the history of thought. This increases our critical thinking because we witness history’s great debates about human nature, metaphysics, language, knowledge, government, religion, ethics, and more.
Reading Greek literature, for instance, exposes us to the poems of Homer and Hesiod, who present a certain narrative of man, the gods, and the cosmos that heavily influenced playwrights like Sophocles, but were challenged by early philosophers such as Xenophanes and Heraclitus and later by Plato in his “Republic.” That debate continued with his student Aristotle, and it is said all European philosophical traditions are merely “footnotes to Plato.”
This great debate is not confined to headache-inducing philosophical tracts. Some of the best arguments are inadvertently made through stories. Alabama-born author Walker Percy, for example, calls into question certain philosophical conclusions of early modern philosopher René Descartes in his “Love in the Ruins.” George Orwell and Aldous Huxley both warn against the logical conclusion of totalitarian and technocratic ideas in “1984” and “Brave New World.”
The ideological discourse of today is sullied by unnecessary combativeness, big personalities, and meaningless words. Literature helps us escape this by introducing us to something closer to the full scope of arguments and perspectives that have already been fleshed out in written history.
But, most importantly, literature connects us with the human experience. A story is necessarily about a human being facing difficulty. Similarly, a philosophical argument is an attempt to either uncover some truth unknown or clarify a truth that is unclear.
By placing us in the minds of people from all over the 4,000-year stretch of civilized history, we recognize what parts of the human condition change over time and what parts remain the same. We see that both tragedy and hope lie beneath it all, the tragedy of our own futility combined with the hope of redemption.
Thus, as long as it is genuine art, and not merely an economic product or piece of propaganda, literature helps us see man as man. It reminds us of what it means to be human, and, through that, helps us see each other as humans.
Again, this runs counter to contemporary discourse and thought, for we live in a world dominated by aspiring social engineers. Whether CEOs of corporations with hundreds of thousands of employees, bureaucrats governing nations with hundreds of millions of citizens, or data-driven tech and financial gurus like Bankman-Fried, it’s easy for these people to see the human beings they govern as statistics and society as a machine to be taken apart and put back together according to their whims.
Even average folks like us spend countless hours scrolling through social media, witnessing arguments between profiles representing real people we think we’re supposed to love and hate. We mistakenly think others are purely evil and that we are purely good, latching onto trends without thinking about them.
A helpless ideologue when I graduated college, reading literature reminded me that I was young and didn’t know everything after all. That was a painful realization, but it freed me from an illusion about who I am, helping me get closer to following the great Delphic commandment, “Know Thyself.” It also helped me recognize that those who disagree with me are not demons to be screamed at and silenced, but human beings living in this same fallen world.
On that note, I humbly offer Mr. Bankman-Fried the following saying from his oh-so-beloved playwright:
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
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