Saturday, September 25, 2010

Foundation - II

Let me just get it out of the way. I really would have like to start with Proust as the historical foundation for this blog. Unfortunately, he's not really responsible for the namesake, nor was he the first of his kind. He will be in here soon though, forever searching the Champs-Élysées for Gerard's lobster.


Isaac Casaubon was a French scholar who live in late 16th and early 17th century. A Huguenot by birth, Casaubon struggled all his life beset by Calvinists, Protestants, Catholics, and Anglicans to try and advance the knowledge of western Europe. A model of religious tolerance in his day, he traveled between Switzerland, France, and finally England afraid of violence simply for the way he was brought up. While his specific accomplishments are important, he was perhaps the last man to be considered the most learned man in the entire world. Now, this is an awful Euro-centric view. Civilizations in Asia and the Middle East certainly had their share of scholars during the Renaissance, but none searched among their number to find a Most Intelligent Man in the World. When Casaubon died, western Europe was on the cusp of the age of the Rosicrucians, the rebirth of the Cult of Isis from the ashes of ancient Rome, the murders of Elizabeth Bathory, and obsession with the Terra Icognita that would last until this very day.


Do we have a smartest man alive today? Some would certainly say Stephen Hawking. But does Stephen Hawking know everything about everything? Perhaps the scope of what can be considered knowledge has expanded so far that no one man can know it. Either way, Casaubon struck his own blow against superstition and mysticism before his death by compiling evidence proving that the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of texts by Hermes Trismegistus that were supposed to reveal ancient truths from the time of Moses, was written sometime in the 3rd century A.D. While not everyone believed him, his efforts to promote rationalism in the face of both religious intolerance and the search for (not always true) esoteric knowledge. Pretty cool guy, eh fights the superstition and doesnt afraid of anything.


Casaubon is probably the most relevant to people today by virtue of sharing the same name as the narrator in Umberto Eco's 1988 novel Foucault's Pendulum. There too Eco's character seeks to overturn the tide of new age craziness and Denver International Airport plots of the modern day. Rather than the Corpus Hermeticum, the characters of the novel also handle the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, piecing together historical evidence that it was written by agents of the Russian Czar rather than an ancient cabal of Rabbis. The whole book in general is a great web of conspiracies and historical urban myths, really.

Either way, Casaubon and the Corpus as a whole are two of my personal touchstones for how knowledge can turn back the tides of ignorance, and how history can change the present, and vice versa.

14 comments:

  1. Very interesting to read, will daily for additions, so keep up the great work =)

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  2. The Protocols is a pretty funny book for what it suggests about the world. It's been resurgent in popularity since the economic crisis.

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  3. Conspiracies are always more interesting than the truly boring-punctuated by sheer random terror- that is the real world. If everyone is out to get you, that means you're the center of attention and are special. Whether it's lizard people or JFK, people want to believe there's some real order to the world. Impossible to cope with the enormity of an incomprehensibly large series of events with subtle variables no one single person could ever hope to understand.

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  4. I find your blog fun to read and very addicting, so I've decided to Follow you.

    I have a blog as well, which you can follow if you're interested. It's the life story of a badass, modern Pecos-Bill-type character told in daily vignettes. I'm looking for actual readers, rather than just clickers/supporters, so if anyone's interested, feel free to take a look. =)

    http://tornadojackson.blogspot.com/

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  5. THis was really interesting, I haven't heard of many of the things you mentioned.

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  6. This is interesting so I am following you. I learned something new today.

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  7. Thanks commenters! I always wanted to do something like this but was afraid it'd languish unread, you guys are big winners.

    @Charles: I know, this is the circuitous flow of knowledge and thought I'm talking about. A lot of it was prevalent in the late '60s and '70s too, the belief in the End Times was a major factor in the birth of the modern Evangelical movement.

    @Derp: Read Foucault's Pendulum, bro! You will have more evidence for that statement than you ever dreamed of.

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  8. A real interesting read on superstition is anything by Derren Brown. He's an English mentalist. However, he isn't trying to convince people that what he does is magic. Instead, he tries to explain people that what he does is simply a trick of the mind, rather than magic or supernatural powers.

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  9. I think we just have way too much knowledge in most fields for there to be a modern day polymath. You really only have time in your life to become an expert on one topic, maybe two at the most.

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  10. @Heck: Thanks for the recommendation!

    @cjp: Yeah, that's what makes him so fascinating yet frustrating. I want to habeeb that we'll cross a threshold at some point by allowing us to directly interact with digital databases. Even though it's fiction Ghost in the Shell has definitely made me jealous of the next generation haha.

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