Sometimes book reviews are better than the books they're reviewing.
The following review, titled "When the Son of Man Comes, Will He Find Faith on Earth?" is written by a poster only know as "Kristin". Buried in an innocuous Amazon comment on the product page for The Contrarian, it's a deeply thoughtful breakdown of Peter Thiel's philosophy and religion.
I've reproduced the entire text below for posterity. Before you look, the reviewer gave the book three stars.
When the Son of Man Comes, Will He Find Faith on Earth?
There are many great things to say about this book: it is engagingly written, the author has done an incredible amount of research, and the book is both thorough and readable. The Contrarian is a comprehensive take on Peter Thiel’s life from birth up to the very present day, yet it reads easily, like a gentle long-form essay, perhaps ideally consumed on a languorous Saturday morning, in the bathtub with a glass of crisp rosé at hand.
I would give this book five stars for the excellent readability, the thoroughness, and the depth to which the author has gone in writing it. Why the two stars docked? Read on.
The Contrarian, despite its title, does not fully unpack why Peter is a contrarian and how his life may have made him so. It does raise these questions in the epilogue, but the author misses a great opportunity in further exploring Peter, an exploration with which this book would have been a complete and stunning biography, first-of-its-kind in most fully explaining Peter. Instead, the epilogue ends on a note not dissimilar to the film The Social Network, suggesting that Peter is at heart like the hoodie’d Mark Zuckerberg of the film, a lonely contrarian nerd with few friends or relationships that might “transcend money and power.” At the end, Peter remains a distant figure, and while we close the book knowing a great set of new facts about him, we seem do not seem to have grasped the man himself in his essence.
I give this critique with four caveats. First, the author didn’t have an on-the-record interview with Peter. Second, the author shows some awareness of his difficulty in grasping Peter, referring to him often as inscrutable, somewhat socially removed, and reserved. Third, the one off-the-record discussion that he had with Peter for this book ended abruptly. The author describes, in appropriate detail, all of these things, and it is to his credit that he is so upfront with the reader. He is certainly no braggadocio creating an overly familiar biography where none exists, as many biographers have done before in disservice to their readers. Fourth, while quite comprehensive, this book does focus more specifically on Peter’s entrepreneurial efforts and his venture into politics, with background coloring throughout of his social and personal life.
However – rather than we vox populi find ourselves like Dagny Taggart, crashing our planes into the mountains of Colorado as we scream, “Who is Peter Thiel?”— I suggest instead that there is a golden thread that seems to weave in and out of Peter’s life, which has a deep impact on everything that is discussed in this book. This thread can be a kind of hermeneutical key to better understand Peter’s choices. This much-needed exploration is missing from The Contrarian, and with it, a proper exegesis of Peter, but I will attempt to supplement here.
If you’ve wandered to this page, you may know of René Girard, most likely because of Peter. For the few of you who might not have, Girard pioneered “mimetic theory,” the idea that metaphysical desire (those beyond the basic needs of food, water, shelter) is all based on imitation of another, a person who becomes a “rival” for the desire. Eventually, the mimetic pair continue to imitate each other step by step until all the borders between them are gone (and the object of desire long forgotten as each is fully consumed by the other). This creates a mimetic crisis which is ultimately only resolved by violence.
Girard suggested that, at times, mimetic crises can arise throughout a community when members of the community become undifferentiated, or indistinct, from each other. These crises result in the community seeking a scapegoat, usually a person who occupies a unique insider-outsider role in the community. The innocent victim is killed, resolving the mimetic crisis, thus becoming the central founding point of the community again as it is allowed to slip back into a calm, controlled differentiation. Girard argued that many texts are “persecution texts,” that is, history written by the victors – the persecutors – and that the differentiated characteristics of the scapegoat are in these texts exaggerated beyond belief, in order to justify the violence against the victim. The violence is important because it is a “founding murder,” something that organizes the community together. Trees have been felled on this subject, but that is the elevator pitch on Girard.
Peter seems to have had a deep connection with Girard. Anyone familiar with Girard who reads Zero to One will see that it is suffused with Girardian ideas: avoid competition (have a monopoly), differentiate people in your organization as much as possible (to avoid mimetic rivalry), and build the future you want to see (the subtitle of the book is Notes on Startups, Or How to Build the Future). Peter was a student of Girard’s at Stanford, he organized a 2004 conference on Girard, he wrote a paper for this conference, he has spent some portion of the 2000s attending seminars with Girard, and he spoke at Girard’s funeral in 2015. Peter doesn’t reference Girard in every single talk or interview he gives, but Girard is certainly referenced frequently enough.
Despite all of this, Girard and Christianity are given little attention in the book, but I suspect it underlies almost everything about Peter. Girard is given small treatment, and Robert Hamerton-Kelly, an associate of Girard’s, is mentioned only a few times. Peter’s Christianity is only referenced a few times in passing, and never as an explanation for any of his choices. The lack of attention to Girard results in a few missteps in the book in properly unpacking the full meaning of some of Peter’s comments, like when he is quoted as saying that greed is better than envy, or when he is said to have made a comment in college while playing chess with a friend, that “There’s always someone to blame.” These remarks are about Girard and the scapegoating mechanism, but the book doesn’t call these out or guess at the proper contextualization of the comments. At one point, Google is referred to as Peter’s “main rival,” a phrasing that made me wince. Peter, I can almost say this definitively, is hyper-aware of rivalry – the word itself has great import to him – and likely seeks to avoid it at all costs. To suggest that Peter’s comments on Google are out of rivalry misses an opportunity to uncover his real thought process there.
Let’s turn to the essay written for the 2004 conference with Girard, “The Straussian Moment,” published in the 2007 book “Politics & Apocalypse.” This essay is only given three paragraphs of treatment in The Contrarian, two of which are background to explain the essay itself. (The one sentence quoted in full from the essay suggests that Peter believes that there should be a global intelligence network. However, in the context of the essay, it is not Peter stating his own belief but rather positing how the philosopher Leo Strauss might have viewed the post-9/11 remedy.) In any case, to the extent that TSM is used in the rest of that chapter, it is only to set up Peter’s work with Palantir in the wake of 9/11.
But TSM deserves at least a chapter’s worth of treatment, especially considering that it is a much later work than The Diversity Myth, which is discussed much more extensively in the book. Of Peter’s published works, TSM is the most confessional. Telling too might be the remainder of the essays that surround it in “Politics & Apocalypse,” which may also allow us to hold in our hands the golden thread that we’ve been seeking.
It’s not clear if Peter ever really found himself entranced by the founding myths of the U.S. – of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, of apple pie and noble dreams of freedom to pursue happiness, of equality, of justice and liberty for all across these amber waves of grain – the way that so many of us who had the formative years of our childhood in the U.S. may have. Peter may have simply slid into a fashionable libertarianism that sidestepped any paleo-conservatism, but, if he did ever flirt with the American founding myths, then TSM may be the story of love lost, and seems to mark the transition, at least in public, from a libertarian into a post-libertarian.
In any case, an essay so tantalizingly titled begs a further reading, which the book does not attempt. A possible Straussian reading of the essay is that it is not about international politics, 9/11 at all, or Palantir, but rather it is about posing the suggestion that the Enlightenment values to which neo-conservatives of the early 2000s clung might, especially when coupled with the fallout of the current socioeconomic strata in the U.S., be tainted in such a way that could cause the collapse of American society from within, something perhaps even more devastating and apocalyptic than the terrible events of 9/11. Peter spends very little of the essay even talking about 9/11, and only ends the majority of the discussion on 9/11 with one poignant sentence before he moves onto spend the remainder of the essay discussing the Enlightenment: “Had he been born in America, bin Laden could have been a Rockefeller.”
There are many questions to ask here. Even as Peter questions the Enlightenment, he would later go on and seem to promote a sort of nationalism about the U.S. and a resistance to globalization. This position is certainly not without controversy, but it merits investigation if we are to try and answer our question, “Who is Peter Thiel?”
The author glosses over Peter’s last public appearances before the COVID-19 pandemic began characterizing these only as “before friendly audiences.” However, there is one interview with conservative pundit Eric Metaxas before a “friendly audience” in January 2020 that is perhaps one of the best public interviews Peter has ever given, and may provide a significant portion of this golden thread. Here, Peter comments that “the globalization project isn’t working out the way we thought,” and that the U.S. should be the “center of the resistance to the one-world state.”
For Peter, nationalism may be linked to an anti-globalization movement, which is not so much anti-globalization so much as it is resistance to the one-world state as he defines it. What exactly is the one-world state? To my ear, it is an apocalyptic term that he uses here.
In a Girardian view, the apocalypse comes about not from a divine ordination, but because of a mimetic crisis of undifferentiation that ultimately demands violence as its natural resolution. After all, if the world becomes completely globalized, then it becomes completely undifferentiated. This could be cause for concern of a mimetic crisis not between two nations like with the U.S. and Soviet Russia, but among the nations: a global disaster that might bear no small similarity to the Book of Revelation. Who is the antagonist of Revelation? The Antichrist. What is the Antichrist’s day job? Being ruler over “every tribe, people, language, and nation” (Rev. 13:7). This description is basically the phrase “one-world state” in Koine Greek.
In Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul speaks cryptically that the apocalypse will not begin until the man of lawlessness (the Antichrist) is revealed, who is being held back by the “katechon,” a restrainer or restraining force. Notably, Peter asks in TSM: “In the debate between Strauss and Girard, perhaps the key issue of contention can be reduced to a question of time. When will this highly disturbing knowledge [of the founding murder on the death of the innocent victim] burst upon general awareness, render all politics impossible, and finally bring the city of man to an end?”
Perhaps the answer lies there. In promoting nationalism, Peter may be attempting to buy time against the apocalypse for the complete revelation of the innocent victim.
Here is the tension in which Peter may find himself. Jesus had the audacity to die on the cross, to be sacrificed to an angry mob and a regional governor interested in avoiding the embarrassment of an uprising. In so doing, Jesus began a multi-millennia project that would slowly unravel our way of being, our nice sacrificial system, in which we scapegoated an innocent victim when tensions got a little too high in the community and we all went on with our lives, minus the murdered scapegoat. No, instead Jesus insisted that the sheep that was lost must be found, even for us 99 in the field. Now, two thousand years later, we are crippled by this message, because Jesus has knocked the knees out from under us, the one method we had that worked for uniting us after mimetic conflict. But we will find no rest, no reconciliation, until we find our knocked knees bending before the Throne of the Innocent Victim, confessing with our tongues the deeds of our persecution.
In the Metaxas talk, Peter says, “I believe in the Resurrection of Christ,” and that there is a way in which Christianity “gives us an understanding of the world.” Providing an overview of Girard, he follows up with, “We’re mimetic. We need good role models; the only good role model for us is Christ. All other role models to lead to interpersonal conflict of one sort or another.” Perhaps, if the world is to become undifferentiated, effectively nationless, then the only way that we can survive such undifferentiation is to put aside all our mimetic rivalry and recognize our own desire to persecute and scapegoat by receiving the forgiveness from the dead-and-risen innocent victim, Christ.
What is on the opposite side of apocalypse, the end of the “city of man”? If the “city of man” is organized on the founding murder, what lies beyond that for a means of human togetherness? The city of God. And here is another opportunity to tug at the golden thread for perhaps understanding the last piece of the puzzle of Peter: his interest in life extension. As a Girardian sees the apocalypse as something that can happen here, I think that Peter believes in the New Heaven and the New Earth as something that happens here, in the created world, at the end of all time as we know it. As Peter acknowledges in TSM, the world will one day “give way to something very different.” This is where I trace back Peter’s concept of “building the future.” I believe he’s speaking a little more elliptically when he uses this phrase. I believe he’s intending to say that Christians are tasked with building the Kingdom of Heaven, and that looks like a world beyond rivalry – in other words, a world of potential beyond our present imaginings.
There are many angles to investigate. Has Peter made a temporary peace with the concept of Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction, especially with respect to China? He criticizes Schmitt in TSM, stating, “A dangerous dynamic lurks in Schmitt’s division of the world into friends and enemies. It is a dynamic that destroys the distinction that altogether escapes Schmitt’s clever calculations: one must choose one’s enemies well, for one will soon be just like them.” Can nationalism exist without approaching friend-enemy distinctions? How do we go about saving the world from apocalypse when the world has already been evangelized once, albeit with a mostly sacralized understanding of Christianity? How can the differentiation necessary to avoid the mimetic apocalyptic crises align with the inherent universalism of Christianity: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28)? How can America be nationalistic when all nations are doomed to fail, because the secret of the founding myth is finding its way out? In 2021, as we pull down statues of the “founding fathers” and have a substantial rewrite of school curriculums which shine a light on the darker secrets of America, how can there be an America that stands together to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? What does it really mean to be an American, at that point, when, like Noah’s sons after the flood, we’ve come to find our father naked and drunk in the garden?
In any case – that is the thread, from the founding murder through the apocalypse to the city of God, that I believe should better supplement an understanding of Peter as he is presented in The Contrarian.
I had one moment at which I truly wanted to throw the book at the wall. This is when the author questions if Peter “really believes in anything,” leaving the question open as he ends a chapter. Later, he cites a source who states that Peter is a nihilist, with no follow-up discussion on this. These two comments, combined with the missed opportunity of a serious investigation into Peter’s Christianity and his interest in Girard, not only add nothing to the book, but seriously undermine it.
The suggestion, even made offhandedly twice, that Peter Thiel doesn’t believe in anything and might even be a nihilist is absurd. Peter was a philosophy major at Stanford and would know very well what it means to “not believe in anything.” He has criticized the post-modern age for being full of people who “don’t believe in anything anymore.” While I’m not aware if anyone has asked Peter directly on the record if he is a nihilist, he has walked, talked, and acted like a structuralist for much of his public life. It is difficult to comprehend how this criticism even slipped into the book, or what value it adds. The philosophies around which Peter seems to find himself in frequent company (as is discussed in the book) are very structuralist. Christianity is structuralist. Suggesting that Peter might be a nihilist is like suggesting that Donald Trump might be a Trappist monk. While it’s not impossible, the dots do not line up.
Ultimately, however, this fault is not with the book, but instead with the haunted house of post-structuralism in which we live. To anyone who has not seriously examined their own outlook and pulled out the post-structuralist thought lurking inside, structuralism makes little sense. Nits of post-structuralism find their way into the book, resulting in a failure to really take Peter seriously. Even the book’s subtitle, “Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power,” is borrowed straight from Michel Foucault, a post-structuralist philosopher who viewed the world through the lens of power. Again, while it is entirely possible that Peter spends his days swan-diving into his Bitcoin wallet while obsessing about power, it is doubtful he understands himself that way. At another point, Chafkin addresses the origin of the name “Palantir,” from the seeing stones in J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings.” Chakfin makes a side comment that the palantiri are owned by Sauron, the archnemesis of LOTR. This likens Peter to Sauron, but here again Chafkin doesn’t meet the moment and investigate further. Is it not possible that Peter sees himself instead as Aragorn, who uses the Palantir to uncover the enemy’s plan to harm Gondor? Could we attempt to understand the subject as they might understand themselves? But no. Post-structuralism: it’s why we can’t have nice things.
Interestingly, Girard’s first book, “Deceit, Desire, and the Novel,” investigates what is needed at this juncture. In Deceit, Girard begins to unwind what would become his life’s work through an exegesis of several novels. He discovered how the great author is converted in the process of writing, rewriting their novel as they realize their own relationship to the story. Girard himself underwent this very same conversion in writing Deceit.
Similarly, there is an opportunity here for another book, provided the author allows himself to enter into the story he writes and try to understand Peter as Peter may understand himself. I hope that Chafkin, with all his considerable talent for crafting a compelling narrative, earnestly looks at Christianity through the lens Girard’s oeuvre and revisits Peter with that new light to pen a sequel, perhaps titled The Contrarian, Revisited: Peter Thiel and the Pursuit of Differentiation.