We love to probe the minds of madmen. What books, music or movies did they imbibe? Charles Manson (in)famously reinterpreted the Beatles. John Lennon’s assassin was carrying "Catcher in the Rye." And Lee Harvey Oswald? Don’t get started.
Now, thanks to recently declassified intelligence, we have the chance to troll through Osama bin Laden’s library. And deadline-bound journalists are compelled to reach conclusions about books they often haven’t read. This brings us to the odd case of "The Secret Teachings of All Ages."
As you may have read, this mystic-occult encyclopedic study, published in 1928 by esoteric scholar Manly P. Hall (1901-1990), appeared on bin Laden’s bookshelf. The massive and profusely illustrated volume analyzes everything from Pythagorean mathematics to the esotericism of the Shakespearean dramas. Hall also theorizes that so-called secret societies, from Greek temple orders to Freemasonic lodges, helped shape Western life. This material was of presumed interest to the conspiracy-minded terror leader.
If bin Laden had actually read "The Secret Teachings of All Ages" (which I seriously doubt) he seems to have missed Hall’s point: That “secret societies,” from Ancient Egypt up through the Enlightenment, have vouchsafed some of humanity’s highest ideals, especially the sacredness of the individual search for meaning. And there is truth to Hall’s thesis.
Consider: Hermetic literature (an amalgam of primeval Egyptian thought and late-Greek mystery religions) preserved some of the core Egyptian philosophy; in the early Enlightenment era Freemasonry espoused values of ecumenism and religious liberty; Rosicrucianism (probably less an actual fraternity than a thought movement) stood for political equality and universal education in the late Renaissance; and the highly talked about Illuminati was once a very-real revolutionary-era European fraternity (existing for about eight years), which stood for separation of church and state and celebrated the universal spiritual search.
Hall further explored these themes in a short book from 1944, "The Secret Destiny of America" – a work quoted from by one Ronald Reagan, the full story of which I tell here.
Fans of Manly P. Hall are not foil-hat wearing conspiracy mongers who belong in a book club with the 21st century’s most notorious terrorist. They are, in many cases, passionate seekers. Something bin Laden was not.