The Grail Code 
Relativism, right and wrong
January 4th, 2008

This fascinating essay by an archaeologist named Timothy Taylor started me thinking about how I understand history, which is always fun to think about. He wrote it in response to this question:


Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?

Mr. Taylor has changed his mind about relativism: he used to be for it, and now he’s against it. “Where once I would have striven to see Incan child sacrifice ‘in their terms’, I am increasingly committed to seeing it in ours.”

He explains how useful what he calls relativism can be in understanding history and archaeological findings, but he finds now that there are limits. “But what happens when relativism says that our concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, kindness and cruelty, are inherently inapplicable?”

Recently, Mr. Taylor and a colleague have been applying some serious science to the remains of sacrificed Peruvian children of the Inca era.

Contrary to historic chronicles that claim that being ritually killed to join the mountain gods was an honour that the Incan rulers accorded only to their own privileged offspring, diachronic isotopic analyses along the scalp hairs of victims indicate that it was peasant children, who, twelve months before death, were given the outward trappings of high status and a much improved diet to make them acceptable offerings. Thus we see past the self-serving accounts of those of the indigenous elite who survived on into Spanish rule. We now understand that the central command in Cuzco engineered the high-visibility sacrifice of children drawn from newly subject populations. And we can guess that this was a means to social control during the massive, ’shock & awe’ style imperial expansion southwards into what became Argentina.

The “relativists,” however, have attacked these conclusions (not the science, of course: it’s much easier to skip that and just attack the conclusions). The archaeologists, these “relativists” say, have revealed only “the inner fantasy life of, mostly, Euro-American archaeologists, who can’t possibly access the inner cognitive/cultural life of those Others.” He finds special significance in that capital O: the Other is always virtuous, and always irreconcilably Other. “Here we have what the journalist Julie Burchill mordantly unpacked as ‘the ever-estimable Other’ — the albatross that post-Enlightenment and, more importantly, post-colonial scholarship must wear round its neck as a sign of penance.”

Relativism, Mr. Taylor concludes, has its use in understanding the past, but it goes too far. “By denying the basis for a consistent underlying algebra of positive and negative, yet consistently claiming the necessary rightness of the internal cultural conduct of ‘the Other’, relativism steps away from logic into incoherence.”

Did you ever think you’d hear me make a defense of relativism? Well, here we go. The problem with Mr. Taylor’s admirably clear analysis, I think, is that he’s confusing two layers of understanding: the intellectual and the moral. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment. I think Mr. Taylor is actually much more of a relativist than he knows, and far more of one than the people he calls “relativists.”

Oddly enough, I see Mr. Taylor’s late epiphany, not as a rejection of relativism, but as a triumph of right relativism over wrong relativism. Wrong relativism is the kind displayed by the people he calls “relativists”: it assumes that all other cultures are basically good and only ours is corrupt and evil. Thus the human sacrifices of the Inca can only have come from the purest religious motives, whereas the Conquistadors alone were greedy, self-serving tyrants.

Now, you won’t find me arguing that the Conquistadors weren’t greedy, self-serving tyrants. Some apologists for colonialism would tell you that they weren’t as bad as they were painted; I think they were, every bit. But the notion that the Conquistadors alone were bad men is not real relativism at all: it is bigoted and uncompromisingly dogmatic absolutism, though a topsy-turvy sort that attributes virtue to anyone but ourselves.

Real relativism attempts to understand a foreign time or culture on its own terms, and allows the possibility that the Other may be as complex as we are, with as much vice admixed with virtue—in short, fully human. This is the relativism Mr. Taylor and his colleagues are exercising when they suggest that the Inca human sacrifices may have been part of a totalitarian empire’s oppression of the masses. They are attempting to understand the culture from inside, to see it not as a monolith but as a complex society made up of groups and individuals with conflicting motivations. This is the real route to understanding history: not to see the objects of your study as uniformly admirable, but to see them as human.

What the so-called relativists are doing, on the other hand, is something like trying to understand American society by listening only to what the White House press secretary says. Presidents and their spokespeople will tell only those parts of the story that suit them. In the not-too-distant past, presidential administrations have even lied to the American public, although we can of course be certain that such a thing is no longer happening and will never happen again in the future. Would we have a true history of the early 1970s if we went only by the announcements that came from Richard Nixon’s staff—at least the ones he hadn’t fired?

So I say that real relativism is essential to understanding history. That may be called the intellectual layer of our understanding. We have to come to that kind of understanding before we can move up to the next layer, which is the moral layer of understanding. Here we stop studying and start judging. This is where we can say that, whatever the culture, it is repugnant to natural law—or, if you prefer David Hume’s term, the “moral sense”—when a government arbitrarily kills to terrorize a conquered population. That, of course, is what was so horrible about the Conquistadors; but if it is horrible in Pizarro, then it must be horrible in Huayna Capac as well. Oddly enough, the peoples Huayna Capac conquered would almost certainly agree with me. In a peculiar way, even my moral absolutism is relativistic, because natural law is universal. People feel injustice as keenly whether they are twenty-first-century Americans or fifteenth-century Peruvians.

So I say this to Mr. Taylor: Don’t abandon relativism so quickly. You still do need to understand a culture in its own terms, and you’re already doing a better job of it than the so-called relativists are doing. But do make the distinction between intellectual understanding and moral judgment. Both are necessary, but they are separate operations, and one precedes the other.

Intellectual property gone mad
January 1st, 2008

I usually stay out of politics on line, because I think it distracts from the messages I consider more important. You don’t have to know whether I’m a Republican or a Democrat—or Labour or Tory or Lib Dem, or Progressive Conservative or Regressive Liberal, or whatever the parties are in your part of the world. You can just assume that I agree with everything you believe, and you don’t have to know that I always vote straight Bull Moose. (Anyway, that’s a lie. I don’t have many opportunities to vote Bull Moose, and when I have them I don’t take them. It is literally true that a candidate for city council in my rather colorful district ran on the Bull Moose ticket a few years ago, but I didn’t vote for him. That’s as much of my voting record as I care to divulge right now.)

But once in a while I do take a stand on issues I consider both important and relevant. For example, I came out against throwing bloggers in jail, on the important and relevant grounds that I am a blogger and don’t want to go to jail. There, in a nutshell, are my criteria for importance and relevance: namely, blatant self-interest.

Now it’s time to talk about another area that engages my blatant self-interest: intellectual property. In this area I admit that my views are on the wacky radical side. I believe that the purpose of copyright and patent law is not to build up dynasties of intellectual-property billionaires, but to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries. Since I’m an unreliable radical, however, let’s see what powers the founders of the United States of America gave Congress in this area. Let’s see—here it is: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Well, what do you know.

Remember those words as I tell you that the government of Egypt is moving to “copyright” Egypt’s ancient monuments.

Egypt’s MPs [the BBC tells us] are expected to pass a law requiring royalties be paid whenever copies are made of museum pieces or ancient monuments such as the pyramids.

Zahi Hawass, who chairs Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told the BBC the law would apply in all countries.

The money was needed to maintain thousands of pharaonic sites, he said.

Correspondents say the law will deal a blow to themed resorts across the world where large-scale copies of Egyptian artefacts are a crowd-puller.

Now, I’ve never met Dr. Zahi Hawass, but he’s one of my heroes. He combines scientific rigor and vast learning with a theatrical flair that succeeds in conveying the excitement of history and archaeology. He has his own fan club. How many archaeologists can say that? It’s true that he’s made a lot of enemies, but that seems to be mostly because he doesn’t have much patience for people whose standards don’t meet his own. The people who think Martians built the pyramids positively hate Dr. Hawass, and I’m sure that’s fine by him.

I’ve given Dr. Hawass such a big buildup because I’m disagreeing with him here, and I want to make it clear that I don’t ordinarily take it upon myself to disagree with someone who’s both an august authority and an international media phenomenon. One or the other, but usually not both.

But the precedent for copyright laws, and intellectual property in general, is very bad if people take this Egyptian initiative seriously. Works of art, literature, and architecture should belong exclusively to their creators for limited times, because artists, writers, and architects have to make a living somehow. From society’s or government’s point of view, the purpose of such exclusive copyrights is to encourage the growth of art and literature.

But that exclusivity can’t and doesn’t need to be indefinite. After a certain time, the original creator is dead, and the exclusive copyright can’t possibly encourage him to create anything more. Works of lasting value become part of our heritage. All art progresses by learning from the works that have come before. Every great artist, at least until the past few generations, learned to paint by copying the works of old masters. The plots of Shakespeare’s plays are taken almost entirely from older sources, to be transformed by his genius into things far greater than the originals.

There are no monuments more ancient than the monuments of Egypt. If those are to be “copyrighted,” then there is no time limit at all on copyright. If people who did not build the Pyramids can, thousands of years after they were built, begin to demand a fee for representations of them, then there is no more culture. Anyone with enough power and chutzpah can take any human accomplishment out of the domain of shared human heritage and demand royalties for it. Artists can no longer paint views of ancient ruins; calligraphers can no longer copy the inscription on Trajan’s column; architects can no longer use elements of ancient monuments in new and unusual ways; poets and novelists can no longer re-imagine Homer; hacks like me can no longer bring the literary wealth of the Middle Ages to a new audience. My wife wouldn’t even have the rights to her high-school graduation photos, since she went to high school in Cairo and graduated in front of the Pyramids. Culture, in short, grinds to a halt, because culture grows by building on the great accomplishments of our ancestors.

Fortunately, as justifiably high as Dr. Hawass’ opinion of himself is, he can’t really make a law that “applies in all countries.” There are reciprocal treaties that govern intellectual property, to be sure, but the United States, for one, cannot make a treaty that abrogates its own constitution. I am not a constitutional scholar, but the words “for limited times” must have some meaning, and if the Pyramids can be under copyright in the United States then there is no limit. I don’t think our Supreme Court would allow any copyright claims to be enforced in such obvious violation of the letter of the Constitution. But then I’ve disagreed with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution before, and where has it got me? I’m keeping an eye on this issue.

PLS in action
December 30th, 2007

Oh, I love getting unexpected gifts in the mail. Especially when those gifts are books, because I especially love books. And particularly especially when those books are sloppily printed, cheaply bound rants by conspiracy theorists. As my long-time readers already know, I have a particular affection for conspiracy theorists.

For Christmas, someone I don’t even know (how did he know my nickname was “Resident”? Only my closest friends call me that) sent me National Sunday Law, a long rant by a splinter Seventh-Day Adventist that shows how the Papists are conspiring with the United States Government to make you stop working on Sunday, in spite of the fact that Saturday is the real Sabbath. Satan is behind it all, you can be sure. (You can read it on line, but nothing can duplicate the experience of holding the actual foul-smelling newsprint pages in your hand.)

Personally, I’d be in favor of a law to make me stop working on Sunday, as long as it was understood that it was merely the first stage in a long-term plan to make me stop working on Saturday, Friday, Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday, and Monday as well. This working stuff is terribly overrated. But according to the book, it stops at Sunday, which I agree is wrong. A law that places one religion above another has no place in our (theoretically) tolerant society.

This book is such a classic combination of conspiracy theory and eschatological speculation that I can’t help myself. I have to read it, and I have to tell you about it. If I get a rant for Christmas, you get a rant for New Year’s.

There are just so many amazing things about this book. First off is that the national Sunday law is an imminent danger. It’s happening any moment now. And that’s still true in the newly updated edition of the book, even though the first edition was published in 1983. It doesn’t look like we’re any closer to a national Sunday law; in fact, it looks as though the idea of Sunday as just another shopping day has become firmly institutionalized. But, in the immortal words of Dick Martin, That’s what they’d like you to believe! Like every conspiracy theory, any apparent disproof only makes the theory stronger. The diabolical forces must be really diabolical, because they hide their work so well!

I hardly need to tell you that the book of Revelation gives our author most of his best material. Every generation reads Revelation and sees its prophecies coming true in our own time. This book follows the standard pattern. We start out with a standard description of how much more awful our age is than the ages before it were. Lots of stories about horrible murders and perversions lead up to this amazing declaration:

Crime doubles every ten years.”

This, by the way, is probably the most perniciously evil statement in the book. As far as I can tell, it’s just a bald lie; but it’s exactly what many people, perhaps even most people, believe. We make our political decisions based on perceptions like this, and your freedoms are always in danger of being eroded by them. Habeas corpus? Innocent until proven guilty? Maybe crime has spiraled out of control so much that we can’t afford such luxuries anymore.

Think for a moment what it would mean if the crime rate, usually measured as a percentage of the population victimized, doubled every ten years. Suppose we start at 5%, which was about the property crime rate in 1973. Count with me: 5%, 10%, 20%, 40%, 80%, 160%—it takes less than sixty years for there to be more victims than people.

I’ve written about this kind of PLS before, but here’s one of the clearest examples of it I’ve ever seen. The truth, by the way, is that crime has gone way down; for real crime statistics, see this page from the Department of Justice (“Since 1994, violent crime rates have declined, reaching the lowest level ever in 2005”; “Property crime rates continue to decline”). And then notice how, while the actual crime graphs go down, the generic graph icon for “Crime facts at a glance” shows a line rising steeply upward. That’s how firmly the impression of rising crime is planted in our minds!

Of course, the updated version of the book adds the September 11 attacks, painting terrorism as a new level of horror never experienced before. How easily we forget that the 1970s were the golden age of terrorism. Here in Pittsburgh, the Weather Underground tried to blow up the Gulf Building; radical groups of all sorts terrorized Europe. The September 11 attacks killed more people at once, but terrorism was actually more of an epidemic thirty years ago.

Shortly after that, the number of the Beast is decoded: one of the titles of the Pope is found to add up to 666 in Roman numerals, if we completely ignore the order of the numerals (so that IV denotes 6, for example) and count the letters that aren’t numerals at all as 0. Then we find that the mark of the beast is observing the Sabbath on Sunday rather than Saturday, and from there the whole Apocalypse falls neatly into place.

But even after the apocalypse, we’re not done. There are thirteen appendices devoted to individual subjects (numbered 1 through 12 but including a 1A). You can always count on appendices in conspiracy books. As the author gets deeper into the conspiracy, more and more things fall into place, and there just isn’t room for all of them in the main body of the book.

Now, what are we to make of all this? I think the message here is that we live in a state of permanent apocalypse. This book has been predicting the imminent arrival of the tribulation for almost twenty-five years now, and it claims “32 million in print.” I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m predicting that, in 2033, it will still be in print, still announcing the imminent tribulation, and with no excuse offered for the fifty-year delay. Meet me back here in 2033 and see if I’m right.

A more important lesson, though, is that we need to be very suspicious when things start falling neatly into place. Our minds are designed to see patterns; that’s how we learn and survive. But our pattern identifiers are quite capable of going slightly mad. If I told you that you were being pursued by a secret cabal of Masons in blue Chrysler minivans, you’d laugh at me. But the next time you went out driving, you’d begin to notice how many blue Chrysler minivans there are around you, and how many of them seem to be right behind you, and how many of them have Masonic symbols on their license-plate holders. Not all of them would have the Masonic symbols, but that just shows how clever those Masons are. Now, if you’re thinking rationally, you’d realize that Chrysler makes the most popular minivan, and blue is a very popular color. But that pattern-recognizing part of your brain is always working, tempting you to see patterns in random events.

Oddly enough, that ability of ours to see patterns has given us some of the world’s best fiction and some of its worst. The Walter Map Lancelot cycle sees the whole story of Arthur and his knights as a giant allegory of sin and redemption, the whole human experience. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code sees a pattern of conspiracy in the same Grail stories. In each case, the brain of the author has imposed patterns on certain events; the result is a masterpiece in one case, a shoddy mess in the other. I leave it to you to decide which is which.

Tomb of Jesus: still not found
December 20th, 2007

In honor of the still-striking writers in Hollywood, here’s a rerun. One of the most-emailed items on the BBC’s web site this morning is this crusty old thing, a story that first appeared way back in February. “Jesus tomb found, says film-maker”—with a headline like that it’s got to be true! Actually, it’s not, but apparently some people are still talking about it as though it were. As you might expect, I thoroughly demolished the filmmaker’s argument when the story first ran, but as a public service to all those who might be taken in by the story on its second go-round, here we go again.

By now you’ve surely heard the wonderful news. But I’ll tell you anyway: the tomb of Jesus and his wife Mary Magdalene has been found—and found, just coincidentally, by a famous director with a movie to peddle.

Mr. James Cameron is no fool. He knows a pot of gold when he sees one, and that’s exactly what he has on his hands here. Alternative-Jesus theories are big money these days. Just ask Mr. Dan Billion-Dollar-Industry Brown.

If you take all this for the hokum it is, it’s really very entertaining. But apparently some people are taking this tomb-of-Jesus story perfectly seriously, and that’s where I really have to draw the line.

I’m not an archaeologist, so I can’t evaluate the supposed find the way an archaeologist would. I probably wouldn’t be allowed to examine it even if I were a reputable archaeologist—or perhaps especially if I were a reputable archaeologist. But I do know a little about history, and about the history of archaeology in general. My little knowledge doesn’t give me much confidence in this supposed discovery.

First of all, it’s very odd that the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene should go undiscovered until exactly the moment in history when a lot of people are prepared to believe that there was a tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Considering the number of hoaxes that blacken the history of Palestinian archaeology, I’m inclined to doubt the authenticity of this find altogether.

But let’s say that the discovery is authentic: that there really is a group of ossuaries marked Mary, Mary, Jesus son of Joseph, Matthew, and Judah son of Jesus, plus four irrelevant unknowns.

Now, Mr. Cameron says that statistics and DNA analysis prove his claim that this is the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Let’s dismiss the sillier claim first. DNA can’t prove anything of the sort. The only thing DNA analysis could possibly prove in this case is that some of the people were related in certain ways to some of the other people. DNA doesn’t include a coded curriculum vitae. So it might (I don’t know enough about DNA analysis to say it would) be possible to prove that one of the Marys was the mother of Jesus son of Joseph, and that Judah son of Jesus was the son of the other Mary and Jesus son of Joseph.

Now let’s talk statistics. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Judah were some of the most common names in first-century Palestine. Jesus had at least two disciples named Judas (the Greek form of Judah): Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him, and Judas “not Iscariot,” who didn’t. (He’s more commonly known as St. Jude.) Almost universal ancient tradition says that the given name of Thomas was also Judas, which would bring the total to three.

As for Mary, think how much trouble average readers have sorting out Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the wife (or mother) of Clopas, Mary the sister of Martha, and Mary Magdalene. Even scholars still debate how many of those were the same person. It’s quite clear that the ground was littered with Marys in first-century Palestine.

Suppose I found a tomb dated roughly the time of George Washington—between 1700 and 1900, let’s say. Suppose it contained the remains of one George whose wife was Martha and whose mother was Mary. Would that prove conclusively that I had found George Washington? No, because those are very common names. Yet I don’t think they’re anywhere near as common as Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and Judah were in first-century Palestine.

Now, let’s look at the assumptions we’re making. Mr. Cameron says that finding the tomb of Mary Magdalene was what convinced him that this must be the real tomb of Jesus. I quote from the BBC article:

Another grave said by producers to be of Mary Magdalene convinced researchers of the truth of their find, Mr Cameron said at a New York news conference.

Unveiling his documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Mr Cameron said the chances of finding that combination of names together was like finding a grave marked Ringo next to others marked John, Paul and George.

“Mariamene is Mary Magdalene - that’s the Ringo, that’s what sets this whole film in motion,” he said.

In other words, what proves that this Jesus is in fact Jesus Christ is the fact that he was buried with his wife Mary, presumed to be Mary Magdalene, with whom he had a son. Without that fact, the find wasn’t convincing even to Mr. Cameron.

Now, let’s step away from the early 21st century for a moment and remember that, in almost all the rest of history, that fact would have proved conclusively that this was not the tomb of Jesus. Relying only on the known histories of Jesus’ life, every historian—Christian, agnostic, atheist, Satanist, or whatever—would have concluded that he died without marrying.

Now a number of popular books have, without a scrap of real historical evidence, convinced the illiterati that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Because of that unhistorical popular delusion, Mr. Cameron is convinced that he’s found the tomb of Jesus.

In other words, the premise is pure fantasy, which is why I can’t really accept the conclusion.

Bringing out the nuts (part 2)
November 28th, 2007

We were asking why the story of the Holy Grail brings out the nuts, and I think to answer that, we have to decide what makes the story of the Holy Grail so appealing in the first place.

First of all, the story of the quest for the Holy Grail, as refined by the medieval writers, is simply perfect. It’s the story every other story wants to be when it grows up.

If I were to take any random novel and tell you that it was really, underneath it all, the story of man’s quest for what is ultimately desirable and how his own failings stand in the way, you’d probably tell me I’d got it just about right. Tom Jones, or Mardi, or A Christmas Carol, or War and Peace—I’ve just given you the facile undergraduate key to interpreting them all. Feel free to use it in your papers. You’ll get at least a C minus, which is better than nothing.

But the story of the Holy Grail is the story of that quest, not underneath it all but through and through, with no fillers and no artificial additives. I’m tempted to say that it’s the story, the one we’ve been telling each other since Gilgamesh, but refined and purified until it can’t be refined any more. It’s pure essence of story, or at least as pure as our current storytelling technology will allow.

But why does a story so good bring out the nuts? Probably because it’s so good—so good that we really want to believe it’s true, at least in some sense. Unfortunately, many of us don’t want to believe the Christian part of it, because we’re still rebelling against the cartoon Christianity that pop culture mistakes for the real thing.

But if you can’t have Christianity, what’s left of the story? Not much. When you unceremoniously dump out the blood of Christ, the Holy Grail is as achingly empty as—well, as a heart without Christ. It has to be filled with something: something ultimately desirable. What do we want most of all? That’s what we’ll put in it. Love, or sex, or the Holy Grail of Information Architecture—whatever we think we want the most, we put that at the center of the story. And then the story is just about magic, which actually isn’t very interesting in itself.

The amazing thing about the Holy Grail legends is the way they use our mundane desires to lead us toward what we really desire. The Grail appears at Camelot and gives each knight his favorite meal: a straightforward appeal to the stomach. The quest is actually undertaken on that basis. But if it never went beyond the stomach, it wouldn’t be much of a story. Things really get interesting when the quest, or the Grail itself, begins to lay bare all the knights’ deepest spiritual failings.

Now, as we said in The Grail Code, there’s a longing born into our hearts. It’s like a spiritual DNA, as Mike always says: everyone is programmed to feel it. It’s designed to lead us toward God, and it takes a powerful act of the will to force it to lead us away from God.

The combination of that profound longing and our willful avoidance of its real goal is what produces silliness in the most benign cases, and madness in the most extreme. Here we can see what’s so appealing about the various perversions of the Grail legend into crazy conspiracy theories: it’s as though, by taking control of what may be the world’s most perfect story, we can somehow take control of God—who is, after all, at the center of the story—and mold him into what we want him to be. That, of course, is madness; but it’s a very common madness. It’s almost an inevitable madness. And that’s why every nut with a grudge against God wants to take over the Holy Grail.

Why does the Grail bring out the nuts?
November 22nd, 2007

Nestled among the multiple copies of Dan Brown’s masterpieces in the clearance section of a local bookstore, I found—no, wait a minute, that sounds like I was nestled among the copies, etc., which is not a position I would put myself in. Let me start over, without taking the opportunity to bash poor old Dan Brown, who, after all, has been the target of a lot of ill-natured abuse these last few years, and only has a billion dollars to show for it.

While I was looking through the clearance books, I found a book by one Giles Morgan with the pleasingly utilitarian title The Holy Grail. For the small price I could afford to take a chance on it, even though the author’s other credits included writing for the Fortean Times, a magazine devoted to the belief that the world is inexplicably weird, or weirdly inexplicable, I forget which. I was surprised to find the book a mostly sensible and balanced history of the Grail in legend, literature, and popular entertainment. It’s a small book and a huge subject, so it skates lightly over the things The Grail Code dwells on at length: Walter Map and Thomas Malory get about a page each. But it presents a good overview of the whole story of the Grail in culture, and it doesn’t dwell on the kind of tabloid-friendly “mysteries” that make up the bulk of most Grail books.

Now, why did I say I was “surprised” to find that the book wasn’t loopy? Partly, I’ll admit, it was just the mention of the Fortean Times on the jacket. If you haven’t experienced the peculiar kind of intellectual loopiness that grows at the Fortean Times, I can’t honestly say that you ought to, but I do sneakily admire it from a distance. Charles Fort, the eponymous founder (don’t you just love the word “eponymous”? Eponymous eponymous eponymous), spent his life searching out odd phenomena that were difficult to explain—a rain of frogs, for example—and cataloguing them in charmingly rambly books (The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, Wild Talents) whose basic theme seems to be that the world is really weird and scientists are deliberately covering up the weirdness. It’s like paranoid conspiracy theory without the invective. Fort’s followers keep up the tradition, searching the world for unusual phenomena and grinding their brains down to the corpus callosum to come up with reasons why all scientific explanations fail. You can probably imagine what sort of Holy Grail book I might have expected from a Fortean.

But the Fortean connection wasn’t actually the main reason I was surprised. I was surprised because, without ever really thinking about it, I’ve learned to expect that almost every book about the Holy Grail will be full of hooey.

It’s almost impossible to find a book about the Holy Grail that doesn’t ignore all history and logic in the most cavalier manner imaginable. There’s something about the Grail legends that brings out the wacko in everyone. Mike and I wrote The Grail Code precisely because almost all the other books about the Holy Grail went so wildly off the rails, and none of them showed much interest in what we thought was the most interesting stage of the development of the legends: the magnificent allegories spun out of the Grail legends by great literary figures like Walter Map. We had to write it because it was the book we wanted to read.

What is it about the Holy Grail that makes nutters of us all? I’m going to start right off by admitting that I don’t really know the answer, so all you’ll get from me is a bunch of speculation. Which is all you ever get from me on this site anyway. Stay tuned: in the next installment, we look at what it is that makes the Holy Grail legend the greatest legend of all.

New Dan Brown movie needs a better script
November 18th, 2007

The BBC reports that the writers’ strike has delayed the production of Angels and Demons, the “prequel” to The Da Vinci Code. It’s based on a book Dan Brown wrote before he wrote The Da Vinci Code, using the same hero and the same plot. Apparently “the script needs more work,” which is a bit of a puzzle for a number of reasons. First, couldn’t they just use the same script they used for The Da Vinci Code? I didn’t read Angels and Demons, but my wife (who read it for her book club at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop) tells me that a few global search-and-replace runs would take care of all the minor differences. Second, why does a script that needs more work bother them now if it didn’t when they made The Da Vinci Code? Third, doesn’t delaying until the script can be polished pose a slight danger that the fascination with all things Dan Brown could fizzle before the movie is released? Fourth, when you announce to the world that the script for a Dan Brown story isn’t quite good enough, aren’t you just inviting long paragraphs of dripping sarcasm from the grumposphere? Fifth, if you’re adapting “a novel so bad that it gives novels a bad name” (as Salman Rushdie said about The Da Vinci Code), isn’t a bad script what you actually want? And sixth, if you’re a writer struggling to make a living from your writing, can you avoid lapsing into unseemly grouchiness when you see the Dan Brown empire poised to make another few hundred million dollars? Apparently not.

Anyone remember Dan Brown?
November 9th, 2007

This afternoon I was in a Barnes & Noble bookstore and happened to notice a copy of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress. It was remaindered at $5.98, then marked 50% off that price, then plunked on the “LAST CHANCE” table.

All of which reminds me that no one is talking about Dan Brown anymore, which is a pity because he’s such an easy target. I have not read any of his other novels; my wife read Angels and Demons for her book club, which she thought was pretty much the same book as The Da Vinci Code except with a different MacGuffin. Other people have told me the same thing about his other books. Perhaps he was the sort of writer who only had one book in him, but he kept writing it until it caught on. I admire persistence. According to the Wikipedia’s article, his future projects include two books that also sound like the same book with a different MacGuffin—one about a secret society that’s kept a vast conspiracy going for centuries and the other about, um, a secret society that’s kept a vast conspiracy going for centuries. The fans won’t be disappointed.

What makes me proud to be an American is that none of the members of these age-old conspiracies, all of which have members at the highest levels of government, have been allowed to kill Dan Brown, or even to imprison him on charges of blasphemy. “Should you kill people because you don’t like their books?” Salman Rushdie (a real novelist) once asked rhetorically. His answer was that you shouldn’t. “Even Dan Brown must live,” he said. “Preferably not write, but live.”

Meanwhile, Dan Brown’s descent into irrelevant remainderhood reminds me how glad I am that Mike and I didn’t write a book about The Da Vinci Code. If you haven’t read The Grail Code yet, now is an excellent time—now that you can actually enjoy the history of the Grail legends without worrying about what Dan Brown said about them.

Silly or not silly?
October 26th, 2007

It’s time to play everyone’s favorite game, “Silly or Not Silly,” in which we mock other people’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

People sometimes ask me, “Is it right to mock the sincerely held religious beliefs of others?” And I answer, “Yes, it is, if they’re silly.”

But everything hinges on how we define “silly,” doesn’t it? And it’s very hard to put a definition into words that will distinguish what makes one set of beliefs silly and another not silly.

Perhaps the best way to get a feeling for the distinction is by looking at a few examples.

Christianity: Not silly.

Those cars weren’t made for the sinners, they were made for the righteous”: Silly.

Traditional Sioux religion: Not silly.

Herds of Rayon-clad suburbanites in fume-belching SUVs stampeding down to a little zoo in the countryside outside Pittsburgh to hear what the white buffalo has to say to them: Silly.

Darwinian evolution: Not silly.

Energy, in physics, as the capacity to work: Not silly.

Practically everything anyone says about “evolution” or “energy” in a “journal of meaningful living”: Silly.

Ancient Maya cosmology and mathematics: Not silly.

Ancient Hindu philosophy: Not silly.

Christianity: Again, not silly.

Pittsburgh new-agers gathering in the West End to celebrate some milestone in the Maya calendar by transmitting energy through the crown chakra in order to bring about the return of Christ consciousness, prepare for the next stage in human evolution, and celebrate the Four Rivers (one of them spiritual) of Pittsburgh as a mirror of the Milky Way Galaxy: Silly.

Looking at these examples, I think we can begin to see what distinguishes certain systems of belief as “silly.” Well-developed and internally consistent systems of belief taught and expanded by generations of the wisest minds in ancient cultures are inherently not silly. That’s true even if you believe they’re false. A Hindu would say that Christian theology is at best an imperfect understanding of the world, but Hindu philosophers admire the subtle wisdom of Christ and never hesitate to say so. Likewise, Christians may not approve of the ancient Maya religion, which included liberal doses of human sacrifice; but no one can say that it was silly, and no one can fail to marvel at the brilliant Maya mathematicians who calculated numbers in the billions when Europeans were still struggling to multiply CXLVI by LXXIV.

But when people raid these ancient systems of belief, take a few technical terms and a misinterpreted idea or two, and toss them all in the blender on the “puree” setting, the result is always silly.

In fact, we can put the matter more simply than that. Swallowing a religion whole is not silly; cherry-picking the bits of it you want to believe is silly.

That’s a very hard saying for Americans to hear. People like me are used to being told we should think for ourselves. We bristle at the idea of someone else telling us what we should believe. Why, that’s fascist or communist or something, isn’t it?

But what does the Bible say about it? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That’s so important the Bible says it at least twice, once in Psalm 111:10 and once in Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 1:7 gives us the almost identical variant “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”

Now, scientists instinctively know that principle. Not that all scientists even believe in God, although probably most of them do. (It depends, of course, on how you define “scientist”; if you’re an atheist who defines “scientist” as “someone who doesn’t believe in God,” you’ll come up with a different result.) But scientists know that you can’t build your own wisdom on nothing. You can’t decide what you want to believe about physics without first learning the accumulated knowledge of generations of orthodox physicists. You can’t learn what you need to know about dentistry without first accepting that dentistry is already a well-developed science about which your knowledge is less than adequate.

Or, in more general terms, you can’t learn anything until you accept that you have something to learn.

That’s why cherry-picking bits of different religions according to your own whims invariably leads to silliness. When you pick just the beliefs you like from a cafeteria of religions, you’re merely confirming your own prejudices. You don’t learn anything at all, because you never admit any ideas into your mind that weren’t there already. And a closed mind feeding on itself is—well, it tends to be rather silly.

Lancelot (funny how I managed to work him in after 750 words or so) spends the first half of Walter Map’s giant Lancelot cycle pretty well convinced that he knows what’s what. It takes the quest for the Holy Grail to teach him that he has something to learn. Only after he has failed abjectly in his quest is he willing to admit that he doesn’t know everything.

That’s a classic conversion experience. It’s exactly the opposite of the middlebrow cafeteria approach to religion. Instead of picking the beliefs that correspond most closely to what he’s sure he already knows, Lancelot finally realizes that there’s a gaping emptiness inside him, and prays that it might be filled. He acknowledges that the wisdom outside himself is greater than the wisdom inside himself. He’s ready to learn.

And that is why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The truly wise, like Socrates and Solomon, know that they know nothing. Until we’re willing to admit the possibility of a wisdom greater than our own, we’ll never learn anything at all. And if we can’t learn anything, then we’ll never really have the precious freedom to choose what we believe.

Which books are “great”?
October 24th, 2007

I promised I’d spend some time talking about what books are really “great,” so I’ll do that now. But first, a few warnings.

1. Not everyone agrees on what books are “great,” because—obviously—not everyone agrees on what makes a “great” book.

2. Some books that are almost certainly “great” don’t fit well in some versions of a great-books education. A book must be not only great, but also discussable.

3. The books actually matter less than the method. This is the most startling fact about the “great books” method of learning: it really doesn’t depend nearly as much as you’d think on the greatness of the books. It depends much more on the method of approaching the books and learning from them.

4. Different books are appropriate for different ages. Second-graders are probably not ready for Einstein yet. (Although my six-year-old son has recently been captivated by string theory and M-theory, which has taught me not to make too many assumptions about what a child is ready for.)

Having said all that, I’ll venture a definition of a “great book”: A great book is a book we keep coming back to. We may not even like it, but we can’t escape it. It has become part of our shared cultural heritage, and even people who haven’t read the book have somehow absorbed something about it.

Lots of people hate Moby Dick, for example, and curse the literature professors who made them read it. But it’s always there on the reading lists. You can’t get away from it, because in the end it’s always worth thinking about, even if you hated it. And even if you haven’t read it, you still know about it. Animated cartoons aimed at children (I’m talking about you, SpongeBob) are quite willing to parody Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the great white whale—and the children know what’s going on.

Another example we might mention is the romances of the Holy Grail, especially the Walter Map version. We couldn’t giggle over our periodic lists of holy-grails-of if everybody hadn’t absorbed some notion of the Holy Grail, though almost always without reading the romances.

No two people will make exactly the same list of great books, and the lists will change over time. I’m sure many people thought The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a shoo-in for “great book” status, but who reads it now? (Robert Benchley gets credit as the lonely voice who called it right: “Of course it is possible for a man to write a great book from which no one would quote. That is probably happening all the time. But it is because no one has read it. Here we have an author [Vicente Blasco Ibáñez] whose vogue in this country, according to statistics, is equal to that of any writer of novels in the world. And as soon as his publicity department stops functioning, I should like to lay a little bet that he will not be heard of again.”)

But, on the whole, the lists will be remarkably similar, and they’ll be more similar the farther back in time we go. The colder the author is in his grave, the more sure we can be that the book is really “great.”

Homer, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Shakespeare, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Rousseau, Marx, Einstein, just to name a few—these will always be on lists of great books, because they changed the course of human thought forever. It doesn’t matter if you love Luther and hate Calvin, or love Calvin and hate Luther, or hate both, or love both because you have a strangely split and warped personality: their ideas are just too big and important to ignore.

So much for determining which books are great; that leaves us with the problem of which great books are suitable. The answer varies widely according to the subject and according to the target audience.

For high-school or college students learning geometry, for example, Euclid is the obvious and only choice. For biology, you’ll want to start with Aristotle and work up through Harvey and into more modern writers; similarly, for physics, Aristotle through Galileo and Newton up to Einstein and beyond.

The assumption, of course, is that you’ll be using some variant of the great-books method to teach every subject. Many students will be lucky to get a literature class taught that way.

For young children, some of the best things to read are in the Bible. Jesus’ parables are perfect. They’re short, but infinitely thought-provoking. The best discussion I ever saw in a Sunday-school class was on the parable of the workmen in the vineyard, in which the employer pays the last to arrive as much as he pays the ones who worked all day. “That’s not fair!” multiple children shouted at once. Well, why not? Didn’t the first to arrive agree on the payment? And so the discussion goes. Our ordinary assumptions are questioned and our complacency offended right away, which is exactly what Jesus intended. Before you know it, an hour has gone by, and everyone—not least the teacher—has met new ideas and thought new thoughts.

Little fables like Aesop’s are also good for young children. Even The Cat in the Hat is worth talking about—or perhaps I should say especially The Cat in the Hat, with its slightly frightening moral ambiguity. It even ends with a perfect opening question for a discussion.

Experiment often shows which books are good for discussions and which aren’t. Some books that are first-rate just never seem to lead to good discussions.

Finally, there’s the cultural question, which is tricky. St. John’s and some other great-books schools follow mainly the western traditionnot because no one outside the West ever wrote anything worthwhile, but because the readings build one upon another. It can be very hard to approach books that come from a tradition completely outside our own without some serious training in the languages and culture of that tradition. The Graduate Institute at St. John’s offers an Eastern Classics program that includes tutorials in either Sanskrit or Chinese, just as the regular undergraduate program includes tutorials in ancient Greek and French.

Anyway, why should I come up with a list when other people have done it already? Here are some lists you can look at and argue about:

The St. John’s College reading list. This reading list was first put together in the 1930s. It changes a bit every so often, and it’s not always quite identical on the two campuses (one in Annapolis, the other in Santa Fe). But it’s been remarkably stable over the years. It’s actually hard to find another list of “great books” that isn’t at least influenced by this one.

The Britannica Great Books series. If it bears a strong resemblance to the St. John’s list, that’s no accident: the Britannica list was heavily influenced by the St. John’s list.

Thomas Aquinas College has a program modeled after the one at St. John’s, but leaning more toward Catholic Christian writers.

The three lists above all have common roots. Here are some lists that are more or less independent of that tradition:

The Harvard Classics. The famous “Five-Foot Shelf” was a serious attempt to gather every important work in one set and sell them all to the upwardly-mobile as decorative accessories for the well-furnished parlor. Even today it’s not hard to find old copies of the Harvard Classics that have obviously never been read. But it was a good list, and you can read them all on line. It also has the advantage of having been compiled before the St. John’s list, which makes it unusually independent.

The Western Canon, by Alan Bloom. Not really as independent as all that, since Bloom was good friends with some of the tutors at St. John’s and was well aware of the St. John’s list. But his list is interesting and long.

Malaspina Great Books is a very long table of books, each entry with information under five categories: birth, death, period, category, and woman. (The “woman” column contains either “yes” or “no,” as appropriate. Some stunning revelations here. Who knew that “George Eliot” was a woman? I had always assumed he was just a cross-dresser. And the implication of the table that a man is in some way a failed woman is a profounder bit of philosophy than the compilers perhaps intended.) is a site presenting a curriculum designed to teach the Christian worldview through the great books.

The 100 Most Meaningful Books of All Time, selected by a poll of famous authors in 2002. It leans more heavily toward more recent books, and I suspect some of those would have already dropped off the list if you took the same poll now. But you’ll still find a large overlap with all the other lists, proving that there really are some books you just can’t get away from.

A list of colleges offering great-books programs, from the National Association of Scholars. A very large number of them are modeled on the St. John’s program.

A huge list of lists of great books.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey