A New Republic of Letters

A New Republic of Letters

Daniel James Sharp
Daniel James Sharp
10 min read

For the past few years, I have been corresponding with an old school friend via email. We write to each other as if we were exchanging letters, which makes the correspondence richer than if we were merely texting. But my friend once expressed his dissatisfaction with the digital medium—if only stamps were not so expensive, he sighed, he would write on paper.

I am not so unhappy about digital letter exchanges. For one thing, my handwriting is atrocious. So, while I enjoy receiving handwritten physical letters, I much prefer the convenience of typing. And corresponding online is cheaper, easier, simpler, and faster in ways that do not negate the benefits of long-form communication. Letters have interested me ever since I read Tobias Smollett’s wonderful eighteenth century epistolary novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. I don’t see why our society’s switch from pen and paper to virtual exchanges mediated by screens should mean that the culture of letter writing needs to die.

To ensure that it doesn’t, a new platform has been launched which aims to unite the old art of letter-writing with our digital age. It is called, simply, Letter, and it is intended to provide an alternative to the much-discussed ills of internet echo chambers, and to revive the spirit of enlightened debate. The brainchild of the brothers Clyde and Dayne Rathbone, it has already proven popular among people seeking intelligent, good-faith debate and disagreement. In a conversation with Andrea Lynn, the Rathbones argue that Twitter is a pulpit—a kind of chaotic open mic forum perhaps—which tends to reward those who shout the loudest, whereas Letter is more like a coffee house, an arena for friendly conversation and fruitful debate.

Letter-writing goes back to the time of ancient India, Egypt, and Sumer and has been used for private and personal purposes, of course, but also to exchange ideas across borders. For millennia, people have used letters to express themselves, to learn, and to hone critical reading and writing skills. Letters have a vivid immediacy that articles and books can lack. As the nineteenth century teacher James Willis Westlake once wrote:

It is [the] natural and unstudied character that renders their style so attractive. In other productions there is the restraint induced by the feeling that a thousand eyes are peering over the writer’s shoulder and scrutinizing every word; while letters are written when the mind is as it were in dressing-gown and slippers—free, natural, active, perfectly at home, and with all the fountains of fancy, wit, and sentiment in full play.

Westlake sees letters as valuable for three reasons: we can learn about history and other subjects from them; they give us contact “with the great and the good” and so can impart moral lessons; and they are an important part of literary culture and provide us with a guide to improving our own writing skills. While one should exercise caution as to Westlake’s second point, since the great are not always good (one is not likely to find much moral guidance, except perhaps in the negative, in Hitler’s letters) his others remain valid.

Many thinkers have praised the epistolary art form. Artemon, the editor of Aristotle’s letters, writes that “a letter should be written in the same manner as a dialogue”—advice of which Jane Austen approved. In the sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne expressed his irritation at the finery and formality he saw in letters: “The letters of this age consist more in fine edges and prefaces than in matter,” he complained (some things never change). Much better, he advised, to write naturally and spontaneously and to dispense with endless fripperies. Instead, let your subject carry you along, such that “The first word begets the second, and so to the end.”

One of the most beautiful evocations of the power of letters comes from the medieval period. Abelard and Heloise were two lovers, forcibly separated for life after falling foul of the strict sexual morality of the day. After her jealous uncle discovered their clandestine marriage, his henchmen captured and castrated Abelard and he and Heloise both took holy orders. Despite their separation and isolation from one another they continued to exchange hundreds of passionate love letters, right up until their deaths. Heloise wrote beautifully, if sadly, to Abelard about the power of these letters:

I have your picture in my room; I never pass it without stopping to look at it; and yet when you are present with me I scarce ever cast my eyes on it. If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present; they have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it.

These letters were deeply personal, but they were not parochial. The passage above offers a wonderful summation of the philosophy of letter-writing which could apply to all its permutations, with only a little alteration and addition.

So, letters can be incredibly powerful. But they can be useful too, and for broader purposes than just the personal. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, just as Enlightenment thought was beginning to flourish, an international Republic of Letters promoted exchanges between the great intellectuals of that time. Though the Age of Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters were distinct historical moments (the term itself dates from as early as 1417), they were closely connected: the Enlightenment spirit of debate, rationality, and civility permeated the correspondences. The Republic of Letters led to the founding of numerous journals and clubs devoted to intellectual discussion. The period was characterised by frenzied debate: the correspondents invested as much energy into their epistolary conversations as our current pundits typically devote to Twitter—but with much more productive outcomes.

The seventeenth century monk Noel d’Argonne gave us a comprehensive overview of the value of the Republic of Letters:

The Republic of Letters is of very ancient origin … and existed before the Flood. It embraces the whole world and is composed of people of all nations, social conditions, ages, and sexes, neither women nor even children being excluded. All languages, ancient and modern, are spoken. Arts are joined to letters, and the mechanical arts also have their place in it … The politics of this State consists more in words, in maxims and reflections, than in actions and in accomplishments. People take their strength from eloquence and reasoning. Their trade is entirely spiritual and their wealth meager. Glory and immortality are sought above all things…

Though d’Argonne went on to lament the multiplicity of opinions and types of people involved and the irreligiousness of some writers, his overall view of the Republic was positive. He was aware of its shortcomings, but extolled the power and value of this international network and its underlying ideals. Although the irreligiousness of some of the intellectuals involved may not strike us as a bad thing today, some of d’Argonne’s criticisms are also relevant to us moderns: he complains about the bad manners exhibited by some, for instance—but the cure for that ill is to lead by example, by making one’s written interactions more civil.

Although the Age of Enlightenment was the high point of international discourse mediated through civilised letter writing, the art did not go out of fashion thereafter. Napoleon Bonaparte wrote around 33,000 letters on a huge variety of topics and for many purposes.

He wrote desperate love letters to his first wife, Josephine—who, incidentally, was so touched by the story of Abelard and Heloise that she had their remains entombed together. On one occasion, he famously implored his spouse to remain unwashed for three days so that he could enjoy her scent. He wrote a flattering, orientalised, and bombastic letter to Shah Fat’h Ali of Persia, to ensure his country’s neutrality while he warred with Britain—it is in this letter that he refers to Britain as a “nation of shopkeepers,” borrowing Adam Smith’s phrase. The Emperor corresponded with scientists from all major disciplines and, naturally, wrote many epistles on military, administrative, and personal matters. In 1807 alone, he wrote 3000 letters.

Letters were also used for a variety of purposes by the English-American political radical Thomas Paine. In 1796, he wrote an open letter attacking his old hero George Washington, whom he blamed for abandoning him to imprisonment by the French Jacobins. In his last years, he wrote desperately sad letters about his financial difficulties to one of his few remaining friends, President Thomas Jefferson:

I have been a volunteer to the world for thirty years without taking profits from anything I have published in America or in Europe. I have relinquished all profits that those publications might come cheap among the people for whom they were intended.

Paine also advised Jefferson on the Louisiana Purchase—a momentous event for the United States—and railed against slavery in the new territories:

Had I the command of the elements I would blast Liverpool [the departure port for slave ships bound for New Orleans] with fire and brimstone. It is the Sodom and Gomorrah of brutality.

George Orwell’s private letters, written while he was involved in the Spanish Civil War and composing his memoir Homage to Catalonia, give us insight into the company he kept and his experiences and intentions at that pivotal moment of the twentieth century. To his publisher Victor Gollancz he wrote, movingly and with typical dedication to the principle of truth:

I greatly hope I come out of this alive if only to write a book about it … I hope I shall get a chance to write the truth about what I have seen. The stuff appearing in the English papers is largely the most appalling lies—more I can’t say, owing to the censorship.

And, to the poet Stephen Spender, Orwell wrote, again with great dignity and honesty, about the intertwining of the political and the personal, which every thinking person who lived through the rise of fascism and communism must have experienced:

I hate writing [about the political events in Spain] and I am much more interested in my own experiences, but unfortunately in this bloody period we are living in one’s own experiences are being mixed up in controversies, intrigues, etc. I sometimes feel as if I hadn’t been properly alive since the beginning of 1937.

Meanwhile his wife, Eileen Blair, who was with Orwell in Spain, wrote to Leonard Moore of a bombardment by the fascists that she had “never enjoyed anything more” and, a month later, she described her husband to her friend Dr Laurence O’Shaughnessy in the following terms: “George is here on leave. He arrived completely ragged, almost barefoot, a little lousy, dark brown, & looking really very well.” Eileen’s wit has been underappreciated. These letters also show the intoxication with which the couple fought for their cause—in his letter to Gollancz, Orwell expresses a joy at being with “genuine revolutionaries.”

As this brief look at the history of letter-writing has shown, the form has many uses—they have been a vehicle for passionate lovers to express their feelings, for intellectuals to debate and discuss in search of truth, for rulers to further their political ambitions, and for radicals to express their opinions. Whether public or private, letters give us special insight into their authors’ intentions, motives, and desires, as Orwell’s correspondence shows. Their power to bring people together in good faith to further the search for truth and meaning is demonstrated by the Republic of Letters, while Abelard and Heloise teach us that written communication is one of our greatest tools of self-expression.

The Republic of Letters demonstrates the letter’s powerful influence on the exchange of ideas across vast geographical distances. Even Westlake’s old-fashioned injunction to learn morals from great letter-writers still has value: reading Orwell’s missives makes one feel ashamed for not being as devoted as he was to the principles of truth and integrity. And it would be hard to find better models of fine writing than those provided by the correspondence of Abelard and Heloise, Paine, and Austen.

Now, of course, letter-writing is dead, replaced by emails, texts, and social media. But we have lost something along the way—our social media feeds are often filled with drivel and do not provide an appropriate forum for long-form, constructive conversation and disagreement. The new technology has great promise, unfulfilled so far: we use Twitter for distraction and arguments and other platforms, too, tend to degenerate into insult-throwing, while lurking trolls provoke us into redirecting our energies towards the inane and the irrelevant. Of course, these platforms have advantages too—they are not bereft of value—but they are prone to the dangers of time-wasting, narcissism and outrage porn. Emails are poor imitations of letters, mostly used to communicate formalities.

The Rathbones’ new initiative, founded with their partner Monish Parajuli, is devoted to free speech: any subject can be broached and any disagreement discussed no matter how sensitive. The public nature of the conversations on the website means that they are not only for the benefit of the correspondents but can add value to discourse generally. Dayne and Clyde got in touch with Helen Pluckrose, editor of Areo Magazine, who gave them contacts upon whom they conducted market research. Shortly afterwards, Letter was launched, and it has burgeoned. It counts Peter Boghossian and Massimo Pigliucci among its higher profile users.

However, it is not just for academics and intellectuals, as a quick browse of the website will demonstrate. The letter exchanges so far include everything from two eminent evolutionary biologists discussing multi-level selection theory and philosophers tussling over concepts like free will and belief to people exchanging childhood memories, offering each other advice on weight loss, and enthusing about their favourite sci-fi shows. Anyone with curiosity and intelligence is welcome on Letter (yours truly among them). The most interesting exchanges are highlighted in a regular column in Areo magazine, in which Iona Italia takes the correspondents’ ideas and explores them further (see, for example, here, here, and here).

The long-form nature of the platform means that one can think as one writes. Letter-writing is a reflective and progressive endeavour—though it is not as formal or academic as essay-writing. Letters are a cumulative medium: you don’t have to make all your points at once. You can explore your thoughts as you go along, with your correspondent to act as a sounding board, to help you develop a line of thought together. How far away from Twitter we are already!

Epistolary communication has lost none of its power since Abelard and Heloise wrote of their love a millennium ago. And while Letter may not be the appropriate forum through which to write to your lover to ask them not to wash for days, it is a platform which offers a way to improve how people interact online. The ancient art of letter-writing provides a good model for how to reorganise the currently abysmal state of debate and discussion in our society into something more closely resembling the Republic of Letters. This is a noble ideal perhaps, but then, as Robert Browning wrote: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”

Westlake wrote, “A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence, but also as a work of art.” The form itself encourages both reflection and intimacy. In today’s attention economy, we should be wary of the tricks conventional social media uses to seduce us into spending ever more time on those platforms. Time is our most precious resource: we shouldn’t waste it scrolling aimlessly or thinking up “gotchas.” Instead, perhaps we should heed Westlake’s injunctions on the importance and value of epistles. Writing to someone about something you are passionate about is time well spent.

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Daniel James Sharp

Daniel James Sharp is a writer and a student at the University of Edinburgh. He is president of the university’s Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society, and Political Editor of The Broad.