The big secret about secret societies

Step right up, folks, and read the one true guide to Western and Eastern esoteric societies from the Freemasons to the Rosicrucians. Relics, totems and secret handshakes revealed!

Published January 28, 2008 12:09PM (EST)

Why are secret societies so secretive? The automatic assumption is that they're up to no good. At the Bohemian Grove, rich and powerful men convene to hatch plots and direct world events -- or so we're told, by people infuriated at having been excluded from the California campground. But, hey, wouldn't a corporate boardroom or a private dining suite at a pricey restaurant do just as well for that sort of high-level skulduggery -- and attract much less press? On the other hand, it's probably a lot easier to sneak a van full of hookers into a campground than into 30 Rockefeller Center or the Four Seasons.

In either case, their discretion has backfired. It may well be that the activities of the world's most notorious secret societies consist of little more than grown men cavorting in drag and performing dopey ceremonies under the influence of strong drink. Whatever -- the public will never believe it's all innocuous. Secrecy turns out to be the most effective attention-getting, fantasy-inciting trick in the book. Remember how the neighbor kid's previously unimpressive playhouse became instantly and irresistibly fascinating the moment he taped a "Keep Out" sign to the door? If a cabal of evil masterminds really wanted to keep their fiendish plans quiet, they'd cook them up in a Christian Science Reading Room and hand out fliers on street corners.

Of course, Christian Science has its own set of secret doctrines, and once protected them as fiercely as the Church of Scientology now shields its own wacky space-opera theology. Religions were the first institutions to really milk the secrecy gambit for all it was worth. Swear your acolytes to silence and make any violation of the sanctum punishable by death, as the orchestrators of the Eleusinian Mysteries and other ancient cults did, and you cloak your relics, totems and chants in an extra-thick layer of otherworldly glamour. The current presidential administration isn't the first cabal to obsess over controlling "the message," or to realize that sometimes control is the message.

Nowadays, however, it's hard to keep even the most awesome secrets under wraps. Sooner or later, no matter how tight your security or how fearsome your lawyers, a disgruntled apostate will leak your closely guarded scripture to the Web, where, stripped of mystery, it often looks as absurd as middle-aged white guys wearing purple robes and trading funny handshakes. Somehow, the precious sacred writings always turn out to be endless, badly written tracts stuffed with woolly, incomprehensible abstractions. Christian Science and Scientology are among the very few "secret" societies whose beliefs Mark Booth doesn't promise to unveil in his new book, "The Secret History of the World: As Laid Down by the Secret Societies," but in this respect, at least, they fit right in. Booth, an editor at a British publishing house, presents his book as an alternate history of the cosmos and humankind, with the early chapters relating the creation of the world and later chapters devoted to all of crankdom's usual suspects: "Egyptian" hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, the Knights Templar, the pineal gland, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry -- you name it. He maintains that his version of the creation narrative, distilled from all these sources, is "a teaching common to Mystery schools and secret societies from all over the world." To have written such a comprehensive synthesis of Western and Eastern esoteric mysticism would be a formidable accomplishment indeed -- if there were any reason to think that Booth's claim were true. For what it's worth, the metaphysics can be summarized thus:

The material universe is an emanation of the cosmic mind, which began to "precipitate" (the central metaphor is of crystals forming in a solution) when the mind (i.e., God) first reflected on itself. The thought of God became more and more "dense," turning to "gas, then liquid and finally solids." Matter continued to pass through a series of stages of increasing density until it formed the Earth, living creatures and finally human beings. Humanity, in turn, continues to evolve toward the ultimate end of the entire process: the universe becoming fully aware of itself. Memorable early milestones in this saga include the stage at which the universe consisted of a "vast vegetable being" and the part where the "fish gods" came along to teach us all how to talk to plants.

From this you might conclude that "The Secret History of the World" is a truckload of drivel, and you would be right. It is a mess of a book, disjointed and rambling, rife with puzzling non sequiturs that are obviously meant to be suggestive or evocative but that more often read like the symptoms of an advanced case of Attention Deficit Disorder. The many illustrations culled from Western art ("Egyptian snake goddess with knives," "Zarathustra with rolled scroll") are largely undated and unsourced, as are most of the colorful but unenlightening anecdotes. We are informed that the 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus was "a strange, aggressive character" who "seems never to have grown a beard" -- but Booth leaves out his contributions to the world's store of knowledge. (He was the father of toxicology.)

Booth is forever intimating that he's about to explain something important to the reader and then abruptly dropping the subject. He has all the smoke and cymbals of the Great and Terrible Oz, but can rarely muster even the fake disembodied head as a crescendo. He makes a promise, for example, in the caption to a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" -- "It has been suggested that this painting alludes to suppressed secret doctrines regarding the feminine role in Christianity. We shall see shortly that this is true, but not in the way proposed by 'The Da Vinci Code'" -- that is never fulfilled; he never mentions the painting again.

Furthermore, much of the "information" Booth chooses to supply is either incorrect or, frankly, untrue. Some of these errors seem to be the result of simple ignorance. He has, for example, the idea that the "laws of probability" dictate that "a coin flipped in strict laboratory conditions will ... land heads up in 50 percent of cases and tails up in 50 percent of cases." (Probability only indicates that a coin is equally likely to land on either side on any single toss.) He entirely misconstrues the thought experiment known as Schrödinger's Cat -- not an uncommon confusion, it's true, but since Booth chooses to make "modern science" the villain of his secret history, complaining incessantly that it fails to understand the "deeper" philosophical issues of existence, he should at least make some effort to grasp what it does understand.

Like most writers working this particular vein of mumbo jumbo, Booth traffics in a lot of unsubstantiated stories that have been discredited by historians he dismisses as slaves to "convention." This, of course, doesn't prevent him from flaunting the credentials of academics whose ideas he likes. (Either a professorship lends credibility to a scholar's claim or it doesn't -- make up your mind.) A fringe theory about the chronology of Egyptian dynasties that seems to support the historical basis of the Bible is, Booth approvingly notes, "gaining ground even among the older generation of Egyptologists." But the fact that no Egyptologist would endorse Booth's bizarre assertion that the Great Sphinx at Giza was built around 10,000 B.C. (7,000 years earlier than it was actually built, and long before Egyptian civilization was even founded) doesn't trouble him a whit.

Some of Booth's untrue assertions (such as the claim that the writings of C.S. Lewis are rife with coded "Rosicrucian" symbolism) are clearly examples of wishful thinking. Others are rank misrepresentations: Charles Darwin did attend a couple of séances at the request of his older brother (an enthusiast), but he pronounced spiritualism to be "rubbish" and the medium in question was later proven to be a fraud. Still other errors in "The Secret History of the World" are simply baffling. Why does Booth write that Pythagoras perished in an arson attack in the city of Croton, when the Greek philosopher was instead banished and died in Metapontum?

And these are only the errors and misrepresentations I happened to spot because I have a little knowledge of the subjects in question. No doubt there are many more that will be leap out at readers with more expertise, especially in the sections on the Cabala, Hinduism and the French Revolution. Nevertheless, there is something to be learned from "The Secret History of the World" -- not about the world, certainly, or about its history, but about the things people want to believe and the rationales they invent for doing so.

Unlike the authors of most other books purporting to introduce esotericism to a lay audience, Booth hardly bothers to fabricate a facade of coherent argument in order to make "The Secret History of the World" more plausible. By contrast, that masterwork of pseudohistory, "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (source for the Mary Magdalene theory in "The Da Vinci Code"), is more typical of the genre and of historical conspiracy theory in general. Baigent, et al., inundate their readers with a tidal wave of obscure footnotes, uncheckable sources, faux scholarship, cherry-picked facts and ingenious sophistry. To the unsuspecting, "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" can easily pass as well-researched and even reasonable. To refute it, you have to spend all your time tracking down and disproving a bunch of trivial details without ever getting around to asking why anyone would embrace such a preposterous theory to begin with.

Booth, on the other hand, can't concentrate on anything long enough to fashion a convincing lie about it, and as a result, the desperate longing lurking behind the ideas he trumpets -- and, by extension, behind much of esoteric lore -- is stripped bare. After surveying other popular writings on his theme, Booth complains that "you have only to dip into these books and web sites to see there is no guiding intelligence at work, no very great philosophical training and very little hard information" -- a pretty accurate characterization of "The Secret History of the World." Without any sort of intellectual apparatus to hamper the view, you can very clearly see the desire that drives this author.

What does Booth want to believe in, and by extension, what is the underlying emotional appeal of the "secret doctrines" he touts? He's far from unusual in his attraction to this kind of thing, as demonstrated by the success of not only "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" and "The Da Vinci Code," but also the booming interest in apocryphal gospels, religious conspiracy thrillers and such pop-Gnostic phenomena as the "Matrix" movies. The bad guy in his story isn't the orthodox churches that have long and violently suppressed heretical beliefs, but science and "militant materialists" like the author Richard Dawkins. It turns out that not everyone who objects to today's anti-theists is conventionally churched. Against the "intellectual dishonesty" of "the people who guard the consensus" Booth offers an alternative that rejects both old-fashioned faith and new-fashioned skepticism. It's not a religion, exactly, or quite a philosophy, but if offers the following comforting features:

1. You are the center of the universe. Even in the traditional Christian worldview, in which God's eye rests upon the lowly sparrow, a single soul can feel insignificant. In Booth's universe, "Nothing happens in the cosmos except to affect humanity in some way." The universe cannot attain its destiny until each human mind is reunited with the cosmic mind, and by extension, the littlest event in your own psyche has repercussions that extend throughout creation.

2. Everything has meaning. Instead of inhabiting a world of sometimes frightening randomness, every event and every molecule of matter is suffused with purpose, the purpose of elevating human consciousness to the level of the divine. Far from being alone in the universe, humanity is surrounded by intelligent spirits keenly interested in its affairs. Every work of art and architecture is packed with coded clues alluding to the secret practices that have enabled special individuals to communicate with and even master those spirits.

3. Human beings control everything. Even in cases when bad luck, laziness, disorganization and simple ineptitude might seem to explain why certain events occur (or fail to occur), the truth is that somebody, somewhere is covertly pulling the strings. The string-puller's intentions may be (in fact, quite possibly are) malevolent, but nothing happens by accident or because everybody is running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Just as everything has meaning, everything is intended, even if we don't know by whom.

4. The answers to all life's questions are known within a special club. If you're in it, you get to participate in exciting initiation ceremonies and exchange secret passwords and signs, as well as partake of the mysteries of the universe. If you're not in it, you get to participate in exciting investigations into the club's hidden influence on world affairs and exchange the results of your detective work with other fearless seekers after truth. Either way, you have the inside scoop.

5. Superpowers are attainable. According to Booth, some "adepts" in the esoteric disciplines have acquired the ability to perform such diverse feats as levitation, reading minds, visiting other people in their dreams, rearranging the molecular structure of metals, and killing a goat by staring at it for 15 minutes.

6. History never has to be boring. All major turning points in the past are orchestrated by divinely inspired geniuses who have been initiated into secret societies, communicate with spirits and are invested with superpowers. Artists and scientists achieve wonders not by virtue of unstinting hard work and devotion combined with genetic gifts, but are blessed with supernatural abilities that destine them for success. Wars and revolutions happen not as a result of tedious economic factors like excessive taxation and trade imbalances, but as part of titanic struggles between good and evil. For example, Julius Caesar invaded Britain not in search of tribute and tin in order to fund the Roman empire, but because he planned to pass himself off as the Sun god and needed to wipe out the Druids before their teachings exposed him as a sham.

7. You don't have to die. This is, of course, the killer app of religions everywhere. In Booth's vision of the esoteric philosophies, the main purpose of secret rituals and doctrine was to instruct initiates on what to expect beyond the grave in order to lessen the terror of the "after-death experience" and prepare them for reincarnation.

[Did you notice that I listed seven features? That's the sacred number of the planetary spirit beings! This can only signify that I, too, must be a secret initiate, trying to put the scientists off the scent!]

Obviously, this makes for a thrilling and entertaining cosmos. Although Booth generally misrepresents science and scientists in "The Secret History of the World," accusing them of believing that they are on the brink of figuring out "everything there is to be understood about the structure, origin and future of the cosmos" (something I've never seen any scientist claim), he does make one -- perhaps only one -- valid point. Science is inadequate to answer the "big WHY questions" that have perplexed humanity since our days as a giant vegetable.

Of course, the vast majority of scientists do not purport to answer such questions, at least not in their capacity as scientists. These are metaphysical mysteries about our own existence that scientific materialism doesn't address. Booth complains that while someone like Dawkins says he finds sufficient cause for awe in the contemplation of a purely material universe, the rest of us can't subsist on such thin philosophical gruel.

"However they deck it out with the rhetoric of mystery and wonder, theirs is a universe of blind force," Booth writes, and you don't have to believe in Isis and the philosopher's stone to see his point. Most people will still choose to believe in something "more," whether it's the ninefold path of the Buddha or the pillars of Islam or pyramid power. Chances are that whatever they choose will sound ridiculous to anyone who doesn't also believe. That's something religion has always had in common with sex: If you're not into it, it looks silly. Which explains why all the really clever people do it behind closed doors.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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