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Introducing Great Books Streams

@tldr & crypto friends livestream conversations on @unlonely about famous passages from the history of ideas.

Note: skip to About if you prefer getting right to details on joining.

Background and inspiration

My fiat name is Tim Reilly, but I go by @tldr on Farcaster, a crypto-inspired alternative to Twitter.

In my early 20’s – between a career change from business consulting to social coordination technology (currently: – I spent a few very intensive and very amazing years in a MA program in Intellectual History at St. John’s College. I ended up channeling my efforts there into learning ancient Greek and writing about Homer’s Iliad and Aristotle’s Poetics, but my intellectual experience was shaped most by St. John’s “Great Books Program” and the mode of conversation we used in exploring these texts together.

(above) Dr. Eva Brann, a prolific Intellectual Historian, longest serving Tutor at St. John’s College (55 years), and recipient of the National Humanities Medal. Eva was my mentor and dissertation advisor at St. John’s and, most of all, is my great friend.

When I’m not building technology, my primary passion is figuring out how to keep doing what I did at St. John’s with the interesting people I’m meeting in my work. For over 10 years in NYC, I’ve been hosting in-person weekly “Great Books” reading groups with all types of people – artists, financiers, playwrights, technologists, actors, nomads, etc.

This project I'm introducing here – Great Books Stream – is about using technology to both sharpen and widen the circle of we can be having these sorts of conversations with.

Re: the widening, we are offering a stream through (a crypto-oriented video streaming platform) so that our live conversations can be open to anyone. Modern technology presents the possibility of creating an agora across space, which is historically exciting for obvious reasons.

Re: the sharpening, let me explain briefly why I am focusing conversation participation on builders in crypto technology.

Why the emphasis on “crypto builders”?

The simplest answer is that crypto has the densest collection I know of when it comes to attracting adventurous, intelligent, idealistic, non-ideological, and curious people.

The more aspirational answer is that I think builders in crypto – whether they are always aware of it or not – are building an outsized portion of the conditions for future human life. This is because I believe that crypto (and crypto-inspired) infrastructure will increasingly become a way of structuring human coordination, not just at a financial level (this is table stakes) but even more at a social and political level. Particularly for the part of human existence that is digital-first rather than physical-first.

I think crypto can enable a level of impact on human society similar to the introduction of scalable liberal democracy in 1789. If is even directionally true, providing builders in crypto with more profound and effective opportunities for self- and world-reflection would be useful not just to the participants, but to the future we are building for.

An approach to the Humanities

“Humanities” – before it came to mean something like non-productive or decadent studies – simply indicated “the study of human experience”. Obviously, this topic is worth reviving if it is in a bad state. And it seems to be in a bad state.

Source: The article contains a variety of fantastic data on decline of popularity of Humanities.

Most of what I’m always trying to do in my reading groups is to make what I enjoyed in my time at St. John’s more continually accessible to myself, my friends, and the friends I haven’t yet met. The elements of St. John’s that are wholly or mostly unique in the modern approach to Humanities:

  1. There’s no secondary texts – You never read “about” Platonic philosophy, but rather you read Plato directly. Same with Euclid, Einstein, Shakespeare, etc.

  2. There’s no specialization – There are no majors at St. John’s. Every student reads the same exact texts, and these span across all disciplines – music, math, philosophy, history, science, etc. Everyone specializes in the whole human intellect.

  3. There’s no experts – The most fundamental way you see this is that Professors are called “Tutors”, in the sense that they don’t “profess”, but they only lead conversations. There are also no “lectures”, but rather question-based seminars.

Great Books Stream is about using technology to invite more people to try out something like this St. John’s approach for themselves, hopefully reviving some value of the Humanities for them.

An approach to reading

If there is something that I particularly promote that is not always inherent to the St. John’s approach itself, it is about a way of reading texts: I challenge each reading group each time to attempt to understand each text on its thinker’s own terms – not on the terms we the readers may knowingly or unknowingly apply to the thinker from the outside.

Concretely speaking, I recommend reading a text like an actor reads a screenplay for a prospective role: The primary activity is not to judge whether they, the person who does acting, approves of or agrees with their character, but rather whether they, the actor, can get inside of the mind and situation of this character in front of them. The true actor must be sincerely and passionately devoted to this genuine understanding of their character’s state of being.

It was not necessary for Cate Blanchett to morally approve of the title character of Tár in order to do her exercise her deep insights into a certain human character.

When we are reading a text, I encourage us to – like the true actor – resist instantly judging an author’s thought according to our own standards, (“Hm, noble idea for a guy whose culture owned slaves...”), and instead to sincerely attempt to get inside the writer’s thought on that writer’s own terms. And where the actor is more trying to piece together an understanding of actions, the reader is more trying to thread together an understanding of ideas.

The big advantage of this approach – besides that it is more fair and productive – is that, just as the actor is rewarded by their craft with the chance to get outside of their own thinking and prejudices, so the reader is rewarded by their craft with the chance to see their own time and culture more freshly and powerfully.

“Just as another is pleased by a good horse or a dog or a bird, so I myself am even more pleased by good friends. And if I possess something good I teach it, and I introduce them to others from whom, I believe, they will benefit with a view to virtue. And reading collectively with my friends, I go through the treasures of the wise men of old which they wrote and left behind in their books; and if we see something good, we pick it out; and we hold that it is a great gain if we become friends with one another.”

-Socrates, from Xenophon’s Memorabilia, I.6.14