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"Et tu, Ilya?"
Why I Think Sam Altman is More Like Julius Caesar Than Steve Jobs
Sam's firing has been compared to Jobs at Apple.
But, even though Apple's Board made a bad decision, it did make sense: Apple II was making money, the Mac was not. Invest in what's working
Instead, I think Sam's story at OpenAI is closer to Julius Caesar.
Though I am a fan of Caesar, many are not. So, I want to give due to the negative narrative around him first.
Here is what it looks like:
In the year 505 BC, the Romans (led by Lucius Junius Brutus) drove out the monarchy and installed a Republic that stood for 400 years, until...
A power hungry young general named Gaius Julius Caesar arose. Fearing his gaining influence, the Roman Senate tried to recall him from Gaul...
But instead of coming back peacefully, he took the unprecedented action of "crossing the Rubicon" with his army and invading Rome... the first Roman General to do so.
Ambitious and bloodthirsty, he reigned as Dictator, until the noble Senators - led by Lucius Junius Brutus' descendant Marcus Junius Brutus - put an end to his Dictatorship by killing him.
That would be a great story... if it were true.
Instead, the history of the Roman Republic is far more tumultuous.
We view the government as stable - because that is how ours is, with a Constitution, a Senate, a House, a Supreme Court, etc. - but Rome's was anything but. There was a complex system of positions (Senator, Tribune, etc.) all of whom had varying degrees of power, based on who occupied the position at the time and how much power they believed they could exercise.
Rome was in constant upheaval as one politician or another attempted to gain power at the expense of others.
"Okay, but he still took the unprecedented step of marching on Rome and installing himself as Dictator."
Again, a terrible charge... if it were true.
The anti-Caesarists play this slight of hand where they say, "Caesar was the first general to bring his army past the Rubicon and into Rome." This makes it seem as if Caesar was the first general to march on Rome.
But, actually, Caesar was the first Roman general to invade Rome from the North. Others have invaded it from the South.
In fact, Lucius Cornellius Sulla had done just that only 20 years earlier! I'm not going to go into his entire story, but he is the person that people pretend Caesar to be.
The real story of Caesar is more like this:
Since the time of the Gracchi (around 133BC), the Roman Republic - which had already been tumultuous - had been in a nosedive. There were constant civil wars, coups, ousters, etc.
By 60 BC, there were three main power centers in Rome:
Julius Caesar, who was the undisputed military savant of the time (and probably of all time)
Pompey, who represented the "old guard" noble families
Crassus, who was the "new money" (how he made his money is actually its own interesting story).
Military + Aristocracy + Money = The First Triumvirate, as it was called.
Though there were issues, they reigned in relative peace until...
Crassus died in the Battle of Carrhae.
Though the alliance between Pompey and Caesar lasted for a few more years, the writing was clearly on the wall.
The Senate in Rome was made up entirely of Rome's aristocracy. Pompey was from an Ancient Roman family, while Caesar's clan (the Julians) were a group of upstarts. Pompey held sway with the Senate, and - when he felt the time right - decided to strike against his former ally.
Caesar - unable to play the political game as well as Pompey - decided to invade Rome. They had a Civil War, and Caesar came out victorious.
Pompey, by the way, escaped to Egypt in hopes of gathering forces there and attacking Caesar again. But, Ptolemy XIII had no appetite for war against Caesar, and killed him the moment he stepped on Egyptian soil. Caesar was declared Dictator of Rome.
How was Caesar as Dictator?
We can disagree, but - generally - he was a reformer, not a revolutionary. He put into place some positive changes, but wasn't interested in a wholesale restructuring of Roman society. In general, his policies favored "the people" over the aristocracy - but, that's mainly because the people supported him in the civil war. Even as a Caesar defender, I have to admit that if the aristocracy had supported him, his policies would have probably rewarded them.
Nevertheless, the aristocracy was apoplectic.
But, I will contend, that they weren't apoplectic about any particular set of policies, or even because he was harming the aristocracy as a class. Instead, I believe, that by placing himself as Dictator of Rome, he was harming each Senator's individual ambitions. As long as Caesar was dictator, each Senator's could only rise so far in Rome.
So, on March 15th, 44BC, they killed him.
Led by Marcus Junius Brutus.
To quote Brutus' speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (which is based on Plutarch's Lives):
"As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition."
That was the main charge that they lay at Caesar's feet: that he was ambitious.
At Caesar's funeral, the conspirators gave a speech to the public, justifying their treachery. They assumed that everyone would be on their side.
Instead, the reception was cold.
And soon, it turned hot.
Mark Antony (Caesar's right hand man) came onto the scene and fanned the flames of their anger against the conspirators.
He gave what was one of the greatest speeches in the history of man, and turned the crowd completely against them.
The city of Rome was now on Caesar's side.
To quote again from Shakespeare:
"Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And, sure, he is an honourable man. I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke, But here I am to speak what I do know. You all did love him once, not without cause: What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?"
Cassius and Brutus were chased out of the city.
There was another Civil War: this time Cassius and Brutus versus Mark Antony and Octavian (Caesar's nephew).
Mark Antony and Octavian won, setting up the Second Triumvirate (with Lepidus).
(as an aside, I find these Shakespeare speeches interesting, because his version of Mark Antony's speech is probably the greatest written speech ever, though still not likely as great as Antony's actual speech. It's sort of like the Tenacious D song Tribute).
How is this similar to Sam?
Sam started OpenAI with an investment (sorry, "donation") from Elon Musk, with a set of principles that it would be a nonprofit and it would be "open."
Initially, this partnership worked well - like the First Triumvirate - but soon it soured.
In 2018, there was a power play between Elon and Sam, and Sam won.
Elon left and wiped his hands clean of OpenAI.
4 years later, ChatGPT rolled out. Sam became the face of the AI revolution, the same way that Caesar became the face of Rome.
Though Musk resigned from his board seat in 2018... in 2023, he suddenly became very angry about OpenAI. It could have been the fact that it was closed. It could have been the fact that they moved it from being a nonprofit to a for-profit...
But, what I really think it is was ambition.
Elon, Ilya and the rest of their cohort didn't like that Sam (who had been unknown outside of the valley for the past 20 years) was now in the sun.
That Sam was the face of AI.
That Sam was getting all the attention.
So, Ilya - the Brutus to Musk's Pompey - decided to take him out. Like the conspirators of Rome, they gave us some EA reasoning about how "scared" they were about what Sam was pursuing... but I think it's BS.
I think it came down to raw ambition.
And just like Brutus and Cassius at Caesar's funeral, they assumed that the OpenAI engineers would be on their side.
That if they just told the people about the evils that Sam was pursuing, that they could unify their company and make something stronger.
But they didn't understand how transparent their own ambitions were. Just like Brutus at the funeral, the OpenAI engineers greeted Ilya's justifications with a cold reception...
Then outright anger...
And now there is a mutiny at OpenAI - and, I think, similar to Cassius and Brutus' alliance, it will be defeated. This time, not by Caesar's nephew, but by Caesar himself.
I believe Sam will rise again.
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