October 10, 2023 - 1:00pm

Is William Shakespeare the greatest writer in the English language? Not everybody thinks so — and one of them is the fallen crypto-king, Sam Bankman-Fried. Discredited in his own field of expertise, SBF’s opinion on literary matters may seem irrelevant — until, that is, one looks at the detail of his argument.

It’s contained in Michael Lewis’s new book about the rise and fall of Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire. The relevant extract has been widely shared on X over the weekend. Here it is, via Trung Phan:

This is an ostensibly logical argument based on quantitative information. It doesn’t rely on subjective judgements: it just claims that it’s unlikely that Shakespeare is the GOAT because the population of literate individuals in his time was tiny compared to later centuries. On numbers alone, we’re more likely to find the greatest ever writer among the educated multitudes of the 20th and 21st centuries, not the thinly spread turnip-munchers of the 16th.

And yet, here we are, almost half a millennium later, and we’re still staging Shakespeare’s plays, reciting his poetry, and routinely using the many words, expressions and quotations that he contributed to the English language. This, too, is quantitative information. Bankman-Fried uses the term “Bayesian” to describe his probability-based argument, but Bayesian statistics is all about updating assessments of likelihood on the basis of previously unavailable or unconsidered data. Therefore, the objective reality of Shakespeare’s enduring reputation needs to be factored in as well.

It suggests that the relationship between the size of the literate population and the incidence of literary genius is not as straightforward as Bankman-Fried thinks it is.

Indeed, his hot take illustrates the pitfalls of a simplistically rational approach. Following a set of numbers might appear to provide an objective guide, but they can lead you astray if they’re incomplete, and if other confounding factors are at work. We’ve seen that happen enough times in the world of finance — and the crypto bros have shown that they’re no exception.

Nevertheless, SBF’s anti-Shakespeare argument — as flawed as it is — should haunt us. After all, there’s no denying that we greatly outnumber our ancestors. If we’re not producing our own Shakespeares, it’s not because there’s not enough of us. Nor is population size our only advantage. For instance, we’re also richer, healthier and longer-living. Then there’s our unprecedented access to knowledge: all of human civilisation is literally at our fingertips. Best of all, we have unprecedented freedom of thought and action. In terms of cultural achievement, we should be wiping the floor with our forebears.

But we’re not. The golden age of almost every field of human endeavour — be it literature, painting, sculpture, architecture or music — is in the past. Even the greatest achievements of the modern age, from cinema to science, belong to previous generations.

No wonder we paid so much attention to the crypto craze — with so little else going on it was the most exciting thing at the time. What should really make us cringe, though, is the verdict of our distant descendants. We won’t be around to hear it, but ask yourself this: will we leave them anything as inspirational as Shakespeare is to us?

If not, then why not? To me, the most obvious difference between us and those who built the civilisation that we inhabit is our lack of faith. That certainly includes a turning away from God, but also a faltering belief in ourselves.

After the crypto collapse, the new most exciting thing is AI research. This has hugely more potential — and yet, by definition, it can only succeed where humanity falls short. It’s as if we’ve given up.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.