Perfectibilists

Perfectibilists: The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati by Terry Melanson is a rich treasure trove of history, much of which I found I hadn’t quite been familiar with yet, and that, in spite of the author’s barely hidden bias, really puts the infamous Illuminati in a heroic position in their time.

I’ve always been surprised, and am now even more surprised, that the Illuminati are vilified. They were on the ground in the front lines of what became the Enlightenment. They were struggling against entrenched and violently repressive regimes in religious, scholastic and secular society. I think, ultimately, the Enlightenment and Revolutionary periods left them in the dust, perhaps justly, but they were there, at the beginnings, part of the vanguard for what has become the modern world. In the days before Revolution was possible, it seems rational to think “the only recourse, it would seem—short of a revolution—is to operate in the shadows.”

For example, I think, aside from the, perhaps spurious, part about poisoning and a caveat in regard to “passion rather than reason”, I can agree quite strongly with “such vicious moral and religious sentiments as that life should be controlled by passion rather than reason, that suicide is justifiable, that one may poison one’s enemies, and that religion should be regarded as nonsense and patriotism as puerility.” And, I largely laud “how harmful and dangerous the Order of the Illuminati will be for the State and religion, if allowed to flourish here and beyond.” I find I am mostly in agreement with the sentiment that “every King and every priest is a traitor and a thief,” just maybe not quite the Populist rural rabble’s revolting take on that, but in rather an equalitarian and egalitarian way of where humanity could be, if only it were perfected. I fear, for the author’s sake, I’m more aligned with the idea and ideals of this historical Illuminati now having read this history than I was ever before.

I agree with Weishaupt “in the indefinite perfectibility of man” and that humanity “may in time be rendered so perfect that he will be able to govern himself in every circumstance so as to injure none, to do all the good he can, to leave government no occasion to exercise their powers over him, & of course to render political government useless.” To the extent this is a “conspiracy against all government” and against the “evils of private property” then so be it, but we’re also not there yet.

The role of the Rosicrucian orders as agents of the Counter-Enlightenment was a bit of a surprise to me. Finding that out explains several things I found curious, not the least of which is Franz Hartmann’s switch from a Rosicrucian to an Illuminati focus in his fiction. But, I have a stronger idea of the tension around what became of literary Rosicrucianism when it began to accrete later innovations. But, suffice to say, it turns out, for me, anyway, the Rosicrucians are the villains that most people seem to think the Illuminati are.

I’ve gotten a lot of new book titles and names of people from this that I’ve put on my list of things to research. I’ve also become far more interested in the way Deism has played out in the Enlightenment in Europe and the Revolutionary period in North America. I’ve also started to read ancillary materials mentioned here, for example I picked up Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey because of this book. So, in addition to the historical information contained directly, this was a great point of departure as well.

Through this book I developed an appreciation for how the secrecy and hierarchical nature of the Illuminati went from being a reasonable and rational security culture to being a burden and ultimately, I think, the reason they were left behind by the overall Enlightenment, which proved too popular and too widespread for them to stay in control as much as the opposition was unable to control its advance. There’s much in the critical analysis of how the Illuminati failed as an organization that could be considered and contemplated by other orders that exist in the world. For example, Baron von Knigge is quoted:

“[As a rule, under the veil of secrecy, dangerous plans and harmful teachings can be accepted just as well as noble intentions and profound knowledge; because not all members themselves are informed of such depraved intentions, which sometimes tend to lie hidden beneath the beautiful façade … because for the most part, unknown superiors lie in ambush and it is unworthy of an intelligent man to work according to a plan, which he does not fully see, for whose importance and goodness he is responsible to people, whom he does not know, whom he must bind himself to, without them binding themselves to him.. because they [secret societies] cost time and money;…because they soon became the assembly places for adventurers and idlers; because they favor various species of political, religious, and philosophical Scwärmerei [zealous or insane enthusiasm]; because a monkish esprit de corps prevails in them and brings about much harm; finally, because they provide the opportunity for cabals, discord, persecution, intolerance, and injustice against good men, because they are not members of such an order or at least not the same order.”

In addition to technocratic autocracy dangerously enabling organizational dysfunction and antagonists, there’s much to be taken seriously here in the analysis of how hierarchical and secret orders can become burdens to themselves and their membership and the society in which they operate. I’m afraid that here I must finally, for reasons principled and philosophical and personal, part ways with this illustrious company so closely aligned with my own thinking, but ultimately not my allies.

The author makes a largely credible case that the Illuminati continued at least indirectly to exist past the point when it is largely considered to have demised as an order. I don’t take very seriously the idea that indirect influence and inspiration qualify as absolute continuity of conspiracy, as the author seems to believe, but it seems clear enough that the ideas of Enlightenment and methods of organization championed by the Order of the Illuminati were broadly influential long after the order, per se, ceased to be.

But, one thing else, that does come across for me, is that the Enlightenment is an ongoing struggle against which the collective diverse forces of Counter-Enlightenment are constantly and continually resisting. This is even more serious a point to me in the intervening months since I read this work to the time that I am writing now. There are people of serious mind to return to the way things were before the Enlightenment, and some of them are currently running the United States. The struggle is real. The Enlightenment is in danger.

Perhaps there is still a place, and moreover a need, for the Illuminati to continue to exist after all. But, it’s clear they don’t exist, because even if they did still exist, then they’re doing a really damned shitty job.

In the Kindle edition, the illustrations are awful and tiny. There’s also a lot of errors that appear to me likely problems of taking the original text and turning it into an ebook without proper quality control. One of the most common issues is that hardcoded line endings end up in the wrong place, causing lines of text to be split mid-sentence. Someone just didn’t bother checking the ebook output, I think. But there’s other numerous egregious errors, for just one example repeatedly misspelling something as obvious and central as “Wishaupt” instead of Weishaupt.

I made 151 highlights.

If I were starting a Rosicrucian group …

… it would probably look a lot like the Hermetic Library Fellowship Program, or, rather, what that would be if more fully developed toward what I hope that project will become. And, I’ve been meaning to write more about my ideas and aspirations for the Fellowship Program, so I just might actually do this, even if it’s only in theory for the most part.

Recently, you may have noticed, Jeffrey Kupperman, of Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition, posted a series: “If I were to form a Rosicrucian Order …“, “Why I’m not Starting a Rosicrucian Order” and finally, even after he posted the image of a lamen suspiciously like something for such a thing, “I Did Not Start a Rosicrucian Society“. Likely inspired by this Anthony Silvia, of Gnosis NYC and the Talk Gnosis podcast, posted “I Am Not Forming an Open Source Order of Martinists …“.

Here’s my sense: Rosicrucianism as described in the source material is simply a group of people bonded together by a brief code to be of service to humanity and to develop and preserve certain esoteric knowledge. All of the oft associated structural and dogmatic cruft is either imported from the wider Western Esoteric Tradition during the 17th Century’s Rosicrucian Enlightenment, or accreted during the Victorian and Edwardian period of development by Freemasonry of the Rose Croix degree within Scottish Rite and SRIA/Golden Dawn style syncretic Hermeticism. The literary Rosicrucians of the Fama and Confessio are really quite simply organized without much of anything by way of necessary dogma.

Anyway, the whole highly-structured fraternal and/or teaching order thing has been done and done and occasionally “stick a fork in it” and, even, sometimes “can we bury it now because it is starting to smell.” Many still exist, so why start another one just like something already done? If you want to get involved in one of these, let me commend you to a few excellent organizations, about which I can personally vouch more or less, OTO [also], A∴A∴ [also], Golden Dawn [also, and] … and so on, YMMV. Keep your wits about you and do your own research.

Instead, I would focus on starting from the barest and most minimal interpretation sufficient and necessary. I would be inspired primarily by what the Fama and Confessio say about the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, and some few later developments such as Joséphin Péladan’s Salon de la Rose-Croix; and, some few indirect inspirations like Benjamin Franklin’s Junto [also], Utne‘s Salons: The Joy of Conversation, my own dialogical work, and so forth. However, for me, the temptation to develop complicated and convoluted structures is strong and therefore something to strongly avoid.

 

Although I am trying to adhere closely to the simplicity demonstrated by the model of the literary evidence, I am clearly going to eject certain elements. For example, no one will need be German, a Crusader, or even Christian. Nor need one be directly connected to some lineage, order or other organization. Members will also not be required to conform to some such period customs like drinking warm, non-carbonated German beer from tankards made from lead-laced pewter.

If I were to start a Rosicrucian group … it would be a bit of salon, communitarian and egalitarian, for students and scholars, and very likely organized in support of the mission of the Hermetic Library. The group would occasionally meet in person, but connect frequently via modern communication tools and perhaps a private forum. Like a Junto, the group would be dedicated to inquiry and self-improvement; with members providing a weekly summary of some interesting developments to share with the group as well as offering longer form presentations quarterly. I imagine a small group of people, each dedicated to some particular theory and practice. Each would have a personal practice of some kind and they would be engaged in some project to present esoteric thought in service to the larger community, and I imagine that these presentations would be done through Open Access [also] repositories of articles collected in sub-sites for each fellow at the library and also made available via the blog and journal.

There would be no initiations or other accouterments of the Victorian esoteric or pseudo-masonic orders, but there could be shared rituals. I have in mind here the observation made by Ronald Hutton in The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft that without unifying dogma it is the shared rituals that maintain the neopagan community. There may be some shared rituals or practices to help group cohesion, synchronic and diachronic links between members and the collective, including some expressed when apart and some when gathered.

Membership in the group could follow this idea somewhat like the master and apprentice relationship between Jedi and Sith, including the idea that the apprentice only takes the place of the master upon that person’s death, though hopefully without the Sith’s Rule of Two custom of fragging! Within the literature, generation two doubles membership size to generation three, so there is a suggestion that at some time the ranks of the group could be allowed to double, or at least that is something to consider if it ever comes up that members have found a number of suitable potential members to justify growth. Or, instead of setting a rule about this, the group could simply welcome new fellows as they are welcomed to the library site, while helping that process with suggestions and outreach.

In spite of the rule about not being constrained to wear any particular habit, it’d be nice to have some kind of way to identify each other when necessary. Even if that were something similar to and as simple as the shock of red against one’s fashion adopted by Rêveurs, described in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. But, perhaps this would be a choice made in the moments when necessary, such as prior to any meeting.

 

The organizing principles of the literary Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross are enumerated in just six explicit rules, though there are within the literature other obvious organizing principles, such as that of each member maintaining and developing volumes within the order’s Philosophical Library. This last I would interpret as members participating in both theory and praxis around topics that suit them and their interests, and that they are involved in the preservation and presentation of that information; clearly suited to the overall mission of the Hermetic Library.

Translating the core six rules from the literature, I would propose the following for this new group:

1. That none of them should profess any other thing than to be a student and researcher, and to be involved in making their studies available in accord with the principles of Open Access;

2. None of them should be constrained to wear one certain kind of habit, but therein to follow their own custom and that of their country;

3. That every year, or some reasonable interval, the group should hold some gathering, to meet in person;

4. Members should cultivate relationships with other students and researchers who might be suitable for membership in the group if such openings become available, but in any case, who may interested in participating in the various projects at the library.

5. There should be some identifying insignia or symbol to represent the group, and members should make known their involvement in the group.

6. The group would maintain the privacy of members and their details, in accordance with the general principle of not revealing anything about another that they have not themselves made public; including personal details and details about their studies and research.

 

At this point, one might wonder what makes this specifically Rosicrucian, as opposed to simply a group of people engaged in and organized around esoteric study. To this I would simply elaborate that the group is inspired by the principles of human perfectibility through esoteric study and practice along the lines of the Rosy Cross formula of the Great Work, about which plenty more could be said. However, I think this notion is one that might need to be expressed explicitly for the group to be Rosicrucian. Although, it could also be left unexpressed, and the group could simply be inspired by the model provided by the literary Rosicrucians and this could instead simply be the Hermetic Library Fellowship Program more fully developed, much as the Invisible College and the Royal Society were inspired but not fully constrained by the notion of a network Rosicrucians.

 

Benjamin Franklin details his Junto project in his autobiography writing:

“I … form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.” [via]

With this in mind, I would like to have a group of core people who are actively presenting information of interest not only to themselves, but also to the audience of the library. This means helping to develop content for the site, and related social media.

I also imagine that a group I formed would follow a few of the membership principles set out by Franklin for his Junto, in the form of some questions to which they might answer in particular ways:

1. Have you any particular disrespect to any present members? Answer. I have not.

2. Do you sincerely declare that you are dedicated to the Great Work in service to humanity? Answer. I do.

3. Do you think any person ought to be harmed in his body, name, or goods, for mere speculative opinions, or his external way of worship? Answer. No.

4. Do you support the Hermetic Library and will you endeavor support its mission yourself, and share information about and via the library to others? Answer. Yes.

The group might also generate a series of ongoing questions to guide their inquiries, and make those part of the set of customs for the group.

 

Inspired by Joséphin Péladan’s Salon de la Rose + Croix, ignoring for the most part his overall Mystic Order of the Rose + Croix movement, I would personally would enjoy this more if there were effort to promote esoteric arts and culture, and, like the original, developing actual Salon de la Rose + Croix events could be part of the praxis of the group.

Obviously, this is something that I try to do with the various participatory pools at the library (such as the audio, visual, video and arts and letters pools) as well as within the Anthology Project through the Hermetic Library Albums and Hermetic Library Journal. And, to no small extent, this is one of the motivations behind the idea of a Hermetic Library Reading Room, as it exists in my imagination and also on the library blog.

So, maybe I’m starting to import my other existing projects into this idea, which can and perhaps should remain separate.

 

T Polyphilus has the personal practice of writing something about each book he reads, as he says, “on the principle that if I have nothing to say about something, I can hardly justify the effort to read it in the first place.” I could imagine that it might be good for members of the group to also take up this practice, and that these reviews, like those by T Polyphilus, would be made available via the blog.

 

I recognize that there may be need for more structure to function, and I’d propose that the group keep track of the set of organizing principles, the necessary and sufficient structures, and also a set of customs, the agreed upon additional behaviours. Generally, for this discussion about organizing principles and customs I’m going to use terminology imported from Peter Suber’s Nomic. At the core, I would would begin at Nomic rule zero, that all participants must agree to the rules. Organizing principles would be Nomic immuntable rules. Customs would be Nomic mutable rules. The organizing principles and customs would all be subject to self-ammendment, but always subject to the necessary and sufficient cohesion of rule zero. I also propose an even more primary rule, which I’ll call rule i (imaginary unit), which represents the simple observation that all rules have a scope of real effect, beyond which they are meaningless, in other words rules which attempt to legislate delusions or absurdities are self-evidently meaningless and without need to attempt they be enforced. I see this last as a guard against the group trying to legislate overreach beyond its own self-governance.

 

Recognizing that so far I’ve talked about this idea being tied closely to the library, there’s two alternate directions one might take in modifying the idea: more or less meta. For a less meta alternative, the group might simply be something like a “Friends of the Library” organization; but it would seem a bit presumptuous of me to start my own friends group, and it might be a bit duplicative of the options I already provide for people to show support for the library in a variety of ways. A more meta alternative direction would be to understand that all the specific references to the Hermetic Library and related projects are my particular projects, but that a group could be formed for mutual support and improvement between like-minded site owners who have projects of their own, sites and blogs; a kind of association of project owners. This last reminds me of the point that there appears to be no particular organization or association around esoteric venues, an example of one such is my speculative Reading Room; but that there may be a lot of sense in having some way for people doing similar things, running or planning such venues, to communicate, share and support each other.

 

I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be written about this, but as a final note I think I’ll mention that one thought that has occurred to me is that others might create similar organizations as what I imagine. I’ve always had in mind that the work I do to post on the various social media platforms and so forth is really about trying to encourage people to engage with the materials on the site. So, I could imagine that there might be groups of people who form themselves around their own research and study related to the library. I can also imagine that groups like this might offer information about what they’ve been up to on some regular basis, such as monthly, and I might then post about these presentations and research so that they are available to others as well.

Obviously, there’s no real reason why groups of students would necessarily organize around the library and participate in this idea in particular, but, it’s a thought that came to me in a kind of daydream.

Secret societies, societies with secrets, and societies with spoilers

When thinking about secrets and mysteries in practice, I’ve long tossed about the idea of a difference between secret societies, societies with secrets and a society without spoilers. Especially in this day when so much is being made available online, but that really is just a matter of scale when there are plenty of historical examples of similar things, such as Aleister Crowley revealing the initiatory rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as serialized in the pages of the Equinox, the varied publication and exposé of so much Freemasonic ritual, and so forth.

There are still some pretty legitimately secret societies, which while well-known to exist are not revealed, such as the Skull and Bones society, and recently breaking the Copiale cipher seemed to tantalizingly promise that there might be still some complex and completely unknown societies, at least until it was revealed the material was pretty clearly Freemasonic in nature. But for the most part, I object that when people talk about secret societies they are engaged in flights of fancy about group about which not only their existence but much of their particulars are known. Quite often, of course, such wild imaginings are part and parcel with an agenda of fear mongering, but even still there are otherwise sane and rational people talking about certain societies as if they were actually not completely or almost completely public. Certainly Freemasonic tradition and ritual cannot rationally be called secret anymore, and the membership is in the habit of parading around, not to mention things like having decals on their cars and fobs on their keychains, and thus it cannot be called a secret society. Even traditional boogeymen like Aleister Crowley and Ordo Templi Orientis can only by the slimmest margin come anywhere near being called a secret society, with websites, public spaces, public event calendars, and so forth. There may indeed be legitimately unavailable secrets still, for example within A∴A∴, but that’s not enough to call these fraternal orders by the name of a secret society. In these cases there’s perhaps some legitimate secrets, but there must also be a practical recognition that most material related to these groups is available, outside the structured system of the society itself, somewhere, if one wants to find it.

Of course, just as much as one can avoid spoilers for movies and books and other things sequentially revealed, it is possible to avoid, for the most part, much of that material. It is not that there are no spoilers. Rather that spoilers do very much exist. Which is to say, the existence of spoilers requires one to decide to avoid the spoilers in order to fully enjoy the reveal. This is quite different from a society that pretends it doesn’t exist to outsiders, or a known society with things that it keeps secret.

 

There are modern examples of working with secrets within esoteric systems, and there’s clearly something interesting going on around secrets. There is smoke pointing to something important and useful at the source. There’s a tension, perhaps much as it ever was, between the urge to make information available and the various efficacies of secrets. T Thorn Coyle wrote a bit about the division in Feri between what had been called the “Mystery tradition” and the “public religion” factions, at “The Sundering of Feri“. Thorn, of course, also runs an online Mystery School. I was trying to find a quote where I recall her saying something about how paganism needed to have a Mystery tradition as part of it, but can’t find that right now.

Generally, when I talk about such things to people who ask, I suggest that initiation ritual, especially, is like a good book or movie with a savoury plot twist or two. You will only ever get a single chance to experience the participatory drama without knowing how it develops; that’s if one goes through it the first time not having read the materials. One and only one chance. Ever. So why throw that away by reading ahead? One can always read the materials afterward, as many times as one likes; but to read the spoilers is to waste a wonderful opportunity that cannot ever, barring soap opera amnesia tropes, be experienced once the reveal has been spoiled.

Whether one “gets” it or not (either initially or on subsequent viewings of a ritual or readings, of material) is another question entirely. And, it seems to me, in my experience, what constitutes “getting it” will likely evolve and change over time no matter what else is a consideration. When given the opportunity, I like to point out that one can go to many stagings of a play by Shakespeare and get new things, new depth of understanding and new enjoyment, as well as savour slightly different interpretations, so to me the re-play value depth of meaning of a work or body of work is something that is a different question to the idea of seeing something for the first time without spoilers.

But, still, people freak about things unknown, and try to minimize and control things by figuring things out ahead instead of being comfortable with being uncomfortable as a thing itself. Seems to me the still prevalent modern desire to conquer Nature and the pervaisive post-modern existential nausea about information overload and slavish ‘inbox zero’ mania are examples, perhaps symptoms, of where the ability to just relax about not knowing, not being in control, would be useful for people to practice in specific so they can have skill in applying it in general.

 

Another aspect that always comes up around secrets is the idea that somehow no matter what is revealed, the real secrets are impervious to such petty concerns. Seems to me blather about mystery being unspoilable is semantically empty jazz hands (or worse self deception (or worse-worse deception of others) about “spiritual” exceptionalism), and misses the point of initiation as orchestrated stressful situation intended to create a kind of imprint vulnerability, an altered state, in the initiate, and attempts to diffuse that stress and that experience before experiencing it is an attempt mitigate and in some form to not have the experience at all. The efficacy of secrets in a system are not just about the information, true, but the information is interwoven into an experience, and the experience is changed by the quality and obscurity of the information on which the experience is built. If one knows the rollercoaster has a blind drop at the end, one still experiences the drop in and of itself, but the surprise in and of itself is changed into anticipation, and that’s a different thing entirely which not only changes the experience of the drop but distracts from the experience of what occurs before.

For me, when I talk about “reading ahead” (spoiling) I mean that as a placeholder for activity the diffuses the effectiveness of initiation and mystery, whether written down and read or spoken and heard or whatever and whatevered. For me, being a candidate in initiation and mystery is to be an improv actor stumbling into a rehearsed stage play, and both savoury and exciting. One tends to think all kinds of things about structure and likely scenarios, if nothing else than a rite of passage (exit normal, experience liminal, re-enter normal changed) but it is the actuality, specifics and plot twists, the things that can be spoiled, which I think should be avoided and, yes, allowed as a personal experience.

 

To bring it around, my point of wondering about classification of societies is that there is a kind of society which is not itself attempting to pretend it doesn’t exist, and which has essentially much of its material revealed or potentially could be in future somewhere, but that points out there is a reason not to “read” ahead as a practice of discipline in and of itself; that there is a place for not knowing as a thing, and experience, to be embodied through ritual, especially dramatic ritual like initiation.

The trick of improv is to have characters and bits of business prepared and figure out ways to fit those into any circumstances, so perhaps the corollary is to become good at mystery and a good initiate prepared by building the foundation of skills, whatever those are in one’s tradition, that make the personal experience of the unknown richer.

If an initiatory working is in some form or another purely ecstatic, then perhaps more than one person will have no prior exposure. That seems quite different than a mystery tradition where something is being revealed. But, whether there is an actual script or not, a mystery tradition will have participants who have experienced or developed a relationship with the mystery who are inducting others. If those others have exposed themselves or been exposed prior to some element meant to be revealed, then they have failed to avoid spoilers, they have whatevered the whatever.

Maps certainly won’t always apply, especial when applied outside their intended scope. Just add as given to any structural approach “except where this doesn’t apply”. But, to be clear, there are other structures, but I’m primarily talking about a mystery tradition where something is being revealed. But, whether there is an actual script or not, a mystery tradition will have participants who have experienced or developed a relationship with the mystery who are inducting others. Here the word ‘mystery’ in a religious sense comes from Greek mysterion “secret rite or doctrine,” as in a thing to be revealed to initiates, whether, additionally as previously stated, those are “written down and read or spoken and heard or whatever and whatevered”, a secret doctrine passed on or a secret rite enacted.

Which begs the question: without a mystery (neither secret rite or secret doctrine) to be revealed, whither the mystery cult? Further, without a mystery, one might even be tempted to ask how can there actually be an initiation at all?

 

Perhaps, one might say of a modern non-mystery that an “impromptu ecstatic divinatory rite” took place which offered UPG, such that a previously unknown rite is enacted or previously unknown doctrine is developed. But without the secret rite or secret doctrine, which would have to have previously existed to those initiated few inducting others, there’s nothing to pass on that was previously held sacred, no previously held in secret doctrine or rite, tautologically.

“Nothing to pass on that was previously held sacred” may offer another name, perhaps more tripping, instead of “society without spoilers”: a “sacred society”, a society with things held sacred as in separate, something bound, enclosed and protected.

Unfortunately, one can follow the etymology of ‘secret’ to essentially the same place, the difference being one implies holiness and the other does not, I suppose, which “holiness” seems, to my mind, just a special case of any of the others three terms I suggested.

 

I suspect the apparent failure of the modality of a “mystery cult” in the modern world has to do with modernity, modernism and existentialism, and the lack of acceptance of shared concrete and coherent gnosis, thus the ground on which a modern mystery cult would be built is unsuitable for lavish neo-romantic structures, except for those already conditioned to such things, such as lapsed Catholics and such. Which is to say, perhaps any mystery cult would seem too superficial to a modern person to have the same religious and social impacts, simply because the assumed rich foundation is missing.

So, the feeling one might have that a mystery cult or tradition in the modern age has lost its luster is due not to the mystery cult but rather due to the overall modern age. There is still a lingering notion that something may be missing for rootless moderns which a mystery cult can offer by way of a more structured ritual, initiations, and a focused mythic basis for ritual; more robust spiritual meaning which then, in turn, offers deeper experience of life in general. But, I find myself wondering if the project of modern mystery traditions is undermined by a general lack of cultural foundation, those foundations of community and cohesion being so efficiently eroded in our public, political and even private lives. Not to mention the lack of what is still called a “classical education” with the broad base of and relationship of familiarity with languages, myths, archetypes and so on. This, then becomes a chicken and egg, which can only be resolved by realizing the false dichotomy that one must be completed before the other, and that the development in general is aided by development in specific, and visa versa, synergistically.

One possible route out of the morass, for moderns and post-moderns, I sometimes come to is the suggestion that situational certainty is a tool for meta-cognition. By this I mean, that the ground on which a mystery cult could be built, the solid ground of structured ritual, initiations, and a focused mythic basis for ritual is sufficient when internally consistent for its purpose and held to be true for the time that it is necessary. But, that threatens what is perhaps an entirely different discussion.

 

But, to bring it back around again, a ‘mystery cult’ is a cult with a mystery. A ‘cult’ is the external activity enacting a religious metaphor, a ritual behaviour. A ‘mystery’ is a secret rite or secret doctrine (to be revealed). Therefore, a ‘mystery cult’ is specifically ritual behaviour that involves a secret rite or secret doctrine. ‘Tradition’ is shared belief or behaviour through time. Therefore, ‘mystery tradition’ is belief and ritual behaviour that involves a secret rite or secret doctrine shared through time.

I’m so strongly reminded by this of something. I believe it was something by Karl Kereny (but it might be form Van Gennep or Turner, I can’t recall right now) which I paraphrase: “Ritual enacts Myth and Myth explains Ritual.”

 

It seems possible to conflate a general meaning of “mystery” as more of a kind of ‘gnosis’ or noetic experience with how I understand it is used in the specific sense within the term “mystery cult” which is more what I am talking about here. When speaking of the idea of whether a ‘mystery cult’ within modern systems would be useful in order to ground the work in structured behaviour, I’m assuming that we’re actually talking about ‘mystery cult’ not general unspecific noetic experience or so forth. This of course somewhat ironically points out a possible initial critique of paganism as a generalized, syncretic, eclectic system which lacks the benefit of what a mystery cult offers and hence the possible utility of that structured influence, offering specific external ritual behaviour around a secret rite or secret doctrine.

If you want mystery without mystery cult, that already exists in various forms of wild and wishy-washy moments of gnosis within the ecstatic traditions of modern life; but, why not try adding an actual ‘mystery cult’ back into the cultural mix? In fact, I could easily argue that there already is ‘mystery cult’ in various places within neopaganism, with a facile example being initiatory orders like OTO and others, which are perfect examples of mysteries for which spoilers exist and which spoilers therefore can be intentionally avoided.

A very salient point for this modern information age is the value an experience of not knowing, so that one can and must do less thinking prior to events, not more. Perhaps the suggestion contained within the experience of not knowing is that one should do one’s thinking after: praxis before theory, so that theory is informed by praxis without prejudice. If this is the case, why not work toward maximizing the possible experience instead of minimizing the probable damage of knowing by seeking after spoilers of any kind, even the mundane accidents surrounding specific quanta and quality?

Indeed, I would suggest that one approach an initiatory experience within an mystery tradition not as a result of successful prior thinking or a seal on attainment, like we are so often familiar with from diplomas, certificates and honors; but an invitation to view the world through a particular lens for a particular period of time, determined by the particulars of the ritual and tradition in which the initiation takes place. In other words, the initiation is really the beginning, suggested by the word itself, of an pervasive life experience.

The full experience of a mystery event intended to involve surprises, plot twists or situations unknown can be self-evidently spoiled by prior knowledge of those circumstances. Especially if part of the trigger for the full experience is the stress of not knowing. Certainly, I don’t mean that these things are binary (and it may be possible to salvage some part of the experience even if spoiled, but why not go for the whole thing instead of the tatters?), but that avoiding spoilers is a discipline that seems worthy if one is serious about that experience, and looking to have it be as rich as possible.

And, that this, in specific, will inform one’s general life as well.

 

And yes, one can point out that for completely ecstatic visceral events and such that are not within a mystery tradition, there’s mostly nothing to spoil by prior knowledge, per se. Except that maybe even still, for example, having that ecstatic visceral experience is based on a not knowing, in some fashion; for example, there’s only one time for the first such experience. All subsequent such experiences are informed by prior such similar events; but also, there may be circumstances around how the experience is induced that involve some fashion of not-knowing the mechanisms being used, which after the initial experience become less effective in themselves and experienced practitioners then rely on other means more, such as anchoring past experience to ease induction subsequently.

Also, for purely personal experience based on involvement in a mystery cultic practice, the former requires the latter, so saying the former can’t be spoiled is only true on the former level but it’s a logical typing fallacy to presume that spoiling the more primary function of mystery cultic practice can’t spoil the dependent personal experience of it. Mystery rituals are built around some kind of surprise, a revealing of the secret practice or doctrine at least. One could try to criticize the practices of mystery traditions by bringing up features of non-surprise ritual is not a feature of surprise ritual merely because they participate in the prior category of ritual. But, still the one is not the other. Noetic mystery is not mystery cult merely because the English word mystery is in both. But these are mostly different topics than suggesting the efficacy a mystery cult with structured ritual behaviour involving a secret doctrine or secret rite to a previous practice of generalized, syncretic, eclectic practice.

 

So, for my own part, I have come to prefer the discipline of having structured ritual events with their reveals unspoiled so that I can experience them with as little prior knowledge as possible, because it’s the only time I will ever get that experience in that way, ever. Of course, you go about your experiences however you like, but I suspect if the initial spoiler free experience is not preserved you’re not actually experiencing ‘mystery cult’ anymore, but rather just, one might say, an extended re-enactment of a transcript of someone else’s dramatized experience. And, if you want that, just watch reruns of some reality television program, or another, instead.

Societies with secrets, security culture and online social media

There’s a post about a new Social Media Code of Conduct for Massachusetts Freemasons [PDF] (HT @Masonictraveller) over at Freemason Information, part of The Beehive series by Fred Milliken. This document mentioned is particularly interesting to me because it touches on some issues I think are important; and the reactions to the document are also interesting. (I’m also more amused than I should be that the date on the original document is May 1st, International Workers’ Day, due to the frisson between seemingly oft conservative Freemasons and the ideas of the, frankly quite often more broadly fraternal to my mind, international workers’ movement; and, also because of the connection between the ideas I’m going to talk about and the direct and indirect history of May Day.)

I should also say that I’m intentionally using the term “society with secrets” here to mean not just Freemasonry, but really any group with secrets that is publicly known. Freemasonry is not a secret society, really, after all. But, like everyone sharing a book or movie recommendation who doesn’t want to reveal the important points of the plot, let alone the ending, Freemasonry does have secrets. (I’ve been meaning to write about my thoughts around “society with secrets vs secret societies” for a long time, but, I suppose the fullness of that topic will remains one of my own secret for now.)

 

The “code of conduct” document itself offers a number of specific directives about how the Freemasonic Grand Lodge of Massachusetts wishes its members to behave online, not just in social media though that’s what the title suggests is the scope.

 

“As a Mason, he must be aware that his postings are a permanent record; therefore, his conduct may influence the world with a positive or a negative opinion about him personally and also about any organizations to which he belongs.”

As the librarian of the Hermetic Library, I can say I’ve received email from people several times wishing my help to remove, alter or obfuscate content they wrote that still appears online.

In some cases, people want their names removed. In some cases, people want the content to go away. In others, they want links to archives of their content removed so that Google stops indexing the linked to archive. In even other cases, people have contacted me to let me know they’ve removed previously written content from their site due to a new role they’ve taken in which those comments aren’t now appropriate, as if the whole of one’s history is merely, and must conform with, the current accidents of the moment (which ironically requires history to constantly be changed to make an illusion). In some cases, it’s clear that the person contacting me is embarrassed by something they’ve written in the past and wants to distance themselves from that; which motive I personally find revolting and pathetic and deceitful. In other cases, the motives are more or less clean, such as needing to manage how others might use past writing as a weapon, how others might twist and misrepresent the past to impune the present person. (You might, or not, be surprised at how much vitriol and willful harassment there is out there, sometimes hidden in back channels and sometimes not, in which cases managing access to one’s information becomes important as a defensive measure against evil, unscrupulous or stalker-y people.) So, there’s a whole gamut of reasons why people seem to want their previous work forgotten.

Interestingly, there may seem a serious disconnect in my own views on this matter. For example, I am viciously adamant about my own right to remove content from services like Facebook, but I am relatively lassez-faire about my content being permanently on display in various revisions at the Wayback Machine. Of course, the primary difference is that Facebook, and corporations like it purporting to offer a service, is in fact constantly and expansively trying to enclose and encumber not just the works of our minds but every hour of our lives in order to control and monetize both; and to that my resistance is very consistent and internally consistent.

 

“Do not identify any Freemason as a member of the Craft unless he has provided his consent, or has already identified himself as such.”

Another of the points in this code of conduct is not to reveal the identity of a member unless they’ve already done so. This point is a big one for many sub-cultures, and is an important one. “Outing” another person is a serious breach of security and etiquette. But, it should also be considered a serious breach to reveal information about not just the identity but also the location and activities of another member, especially to strangers. (This point is a hint at why personally I almost universally refuse to broadcast my future whereabouts or add instant, or even relatively contemporaneous, geolocation data to my content. I also do not participate in any service which is either dedicated to showing my instant location data or where I cannot hide that, even from “friends”, even so far as to eschew instant messaging services in favour of asynchronous email.)

Anyone with any IT security experience should be able to share strong reasons not to succumb to social engineering, revealing important details to not only strangers but even well-known people who should not have some bits of information. Anyone who’s worked in retail or the service industry should be able to confirm how dangerous it can be to reveal personal information or work schedules of co-workers, both about their time at work and their time away from work. Loose lips not only sink ships and breach internal security, but lead to things like stalking and other antisocial behaviour.

I can hardly begin to tell you the times I’ve gotten strange looks and had eyes rolled at me when I’ve tried to educate people about the dangers and dimwittedness of revealing information about not only others but about themselves to strangers. I cannot count on my fingers the number of times I’ve tried to shush someone who’s speaking on the phone to some random stranger who’s just called and to whom they are revealing all kinds of privileged information about someone else’s schedule and whereabouts … It’s just shocking and disheartening to have people I know, or moreover people I’ve cared about, be so dumb about such things. Really, the Pavlovian desperation to respond most people have to phone and electronic communications, and moreover the ease with which most people reveal information (passwords, account information or even just random particulars) to some unknown person as if merely by being on the phone or online imbues some Milgrim-like authority, is something both breathtaking and bizarre to me.

Developing security culture is not just about the security of groups, but is also protecting individuals. I hope those people prone to such information breaches are never in the situation where they learn the hard way by ending up pursued by a stalker, pursued by someone so mentally stunted or backward that they cannot understand the meaning of “no” or even the basic social contract of consent, and then to have information about their activities and whereabouts revealed by themselves or others simply because they didn’t know better. And if that ever happens I hope that nothing seriously harmful happens as a consequence other than learning to be more careful next time, though so many worse things are possible.

Just one more story, of any number of others, about this: At one of the really big Occupy marches in Portland, OR, I have to tell you I cringed every time someone yelled out another person’s name to get their attention. Really? Serious protest foul, that, people!

But, really, the lack of awareness about security culture is a symptom of not having one in the first place. How’s that for a tautology? No, seriously, the adoption of a general security culture could be helped by having serious security culture in subcultural groups, and thus pushing out the wave of adoption by having smaller groups educate and inform their members who then end up bringing that awareness to larger groups and the overall culture in which they each participate. (So, now that you’ve read this, go and find out more so I can pretend I’ve been effective in widening the general awareness of security culture …)

 

The commentary in the post itself, and the comments by readers to that post, over at Freemason Information are interesting to me as well. Primarily the reaction is focused on how some of the points in the code of conduct are just common sense ideas about protocol and etiquette, but there’s also a perception that the code of conduct is an overreaching attempt to control the actions of members. I think this code of conduct document, while not perfect, seems to me a good first step toward building a meaningful and reasonable security culture. The worth of that, at the very least, is as a catalyst to considering and talking about meaningful and reasonable security culture for any subcultural group of people, whether that’s in, to name a few, a fraternal organization, social club, workplace, or, yes, even in one’s own home environment. But, recognizing that such ideas can be seen as unreasonable attempts to control behaviour suggests how important it is to reveal and share the reasoning behind them, and the reasons why they are being suggested.

 

There’s a lot of useful thinking and writing that’s been done on creating security culture, and this post is merely a few initial words on the topic. I wrote a setup document for GnuPG, aimed at members of a society with secrets in which I am involved which has a mandate for the use of encryption which is not supported by a culture in which use of encryption is easy for non-technical users or even has much use in spite of the mandate. In that document I tried to include some background and links to further information about security culture, by way of saying how important it is to at least think about such things in any social group with secrets. In the same way that the encryption requirement by the US Grand Lodge of Ordo Templi Orientis is essentially and largely mooted by the apparent lack of implementation among the membership, the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts has started down a pretty slippery slope of creating mandated behaviour and requirements that it cannot hope to maintain ahead of breaches of conduct, but rather only after the fact in selective punishment against those who happen to get caught. Without a security culture, these rules are mostly meaningless as far as stopping behaviours from happening and are really only rubrics that can be used to evaluate behaviours that have already occurred. In other words, it seems to me, these kinds of guidelines need to be part of a program of proactive education instead of taken as proscriptive measures to control behaviour, and where they are merely the later they should be transformed into the former. Guidelines like these need to create a culture in the implementation not create criminals in the breach.

But really, I think the exposure to the ideas of, and how to create, security culture can offer an essential and necessary set of skills for people in this modern day information age to understand and implement the many overlapping circles of information scope in our lives. (Just as I believe thinking about and deconstructing propaganda models and theory offer essential skills for resisting the influence of not just canonical propaganda but also in resisting the influence of pervasive and invasive marketing and advertising in this Western culture.)

For a general primer, I’d encourage you to check out check out a few documents which stand out in my memory as good initial surveys: Towards a Collective Security Culture, Affinity Groups and Why do you need PGP?.

For further reading, you may be interested in Activism and Security Culture, Security Culture, and Security Culture. Beyond those, I commend you to your favourite search engine for further study.

As a last note, I can’t help but suggest and recommend two works, in no small part because these two are on the list of works that appear in my own thoughts consistently, which I think connect to this post and the broader subject of resistance culture. First, both for the history of the resistance of but also the resistance to the international labor movement, I’d like to suggest an excellent history of Industrial Workers of the World, The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States by Patrick Renshaw. And, secondly, for the history and role of Freemasonry in the resistance culture of colonial and early American periods of United States history, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 by Steven C. Bullock.