The Cult of Book Burners

Imaginary Places #1

A little while ago I read about a group that existed in ancient Greece known as the Cult of Book Burners.  They were a community of philosophers that lived in the Penteliko Mountains northeast of Athens, where they wrote on many different topics.  They’re best known for a strange ritual that occurred on every new moon, in which they would burn everything they had written up to that point.  They would then write again until the next new moon, when they would burn everything once again.  Because of this peculiar practice none of their work has survived, but we do know a little bit about them from the writing of others at the time.

The Pool of Thought

The Cult’s aim was an interesting one.  They spoke of a “pool of possibility”, a metaphor for the totality of possible thought.  Every time someone experienced an idea, they imagined a bit of that pool being emptied.  They believed that the goal of life was to drain that pool–they wanted to give life to every possible concept by thinking them, one at a time.

It’s difficult to comprehend the immensity of this task.  The Cult would have to think of every possible way to explain what is ‘right’, no matter how nonsensical or paradoxical; every idea of what happens to us after we die; every possible way of governing a society–or rather every possible way of governing every possible society.  Even these examples limit their aims to the fields of ethics, metaphysics and politics.  They not only wanted to experience every possible concept within a field, they wanted to experience every possible concept within every possible field, and then in every possible way of thinking that exists outside of ‘fields’.  They would have to reduce thought to its most pure and abstract level, for example, to think of every way for two things to be related: as opposites, as duplicates, as attractors, as repulsors, one as a container for the other, one as a metaphor of the other, one as the cause of the other, one as a future version of the other, and so on.  Even this task when completed would only be a tiny slice of the immense body of possible thought that they attempted to experience, bit by bit.¹

Book Burners

As incredible as this goal was, what strikes most people about their story is the burning ritual.  It’s important to note that this isn’t as nonsensical as it might seem at first.  They only wanted to have thought every concept, not to actually produce a record of each one.  The act of writing was probably only necessary in as far as it allowed them to explore these concepts and form them coherently.  Nevertheless such a bizarre ritual still begs an explanation.  Since none of their writing survives, any explanation would have to be pure speculation–and there is no shortage of that.

Some believe that the burning was symbolic: returning ideas to the pool of thought that they came from.  Others claim that it was for practical reasons: if they kept a record of every single concept they would have quickly run out of space.  Somehow neither of these seems satisfying.

Many people who hear about the Cult are quick to point out how seemingly counterproductive the burning ritual actually was.  How could they have hoped to experience every concept if they didn’t have a record of those they had already thought?   Wouldn’t they end up going around in circles?  Some suggest that this was actually their intent.  The Cult may have indeed begun with the goal of thinking every idea, but eventually became more interested in the journey than the destination.  Perhaps the burning was a way of ensuring that they never reached their goal and continued writing forever.

A final theory proposes that the ritual was to protect the Cult from a discovery that would have destroyed it.  Perhaps the burning was to avoid a member one day seeing a description of the Cult’s very philosophy–the slow draining of a pool of ideas–among the multiplicity of ideas produced.  Maybe it was to protect the members from the realization that the Cult’s supposed all encompassing philosophy was just another drop in their pool of ideas–to avoid their philosophy dying the death all ideas claiming to explain everything die when they are subjected to themselves.


Today the Cult has been relegated to relative obscurity–only mentioned in the footnotes of a few history textbooks.²  However, it would be impossible for a story about mysterious cults and lost literature to have avoided the attention of conspiracy theorists.  Some of these people claim that the Cult is responsible for many, if not all, of the innovative ideas that the ancient Greeks developed.  The Cult would have been like a random number generator that eventually provides the password to a safe–eventually they would have produced an extremely useful idea.  These theorists attribute everything from Athenian democracy to Plato’s theory of forms, to the Cult.

Others go so far as to suggest that every original idea in the history of human thought is actually an idea produced by the Cult that somehow avoided destruction, and was discovered at some later date.  These people claim that Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Christian theology, Marxism, and so on, are all actually Cult ideas.³  As impossible as this seems, it is interesting to imagine every idea that mankind has ever developed, or will ever develop, having already been written and burned by a group of philosophers centuries ago.   Burned by a cult that didn’t see the value in any one particular idea over another, but saw them as equal drops in a pool of possible thought.

1 – One theory on how they might have approached this is known (by its critics) as ‘the tortoise theory’; it was put forth by Jules de Quincy in his book The Burners.  He proposes that they began with a concept, and then made the smallest possible change that would still result in a new concept.  They then repeated this until–at some theoretical point in the future–they had gone through every possible idea.  Perhaps in this way they stumbled onto ideas that minds would later spend years trying to get at deliberately.

Critics are quick to point out that it isn’t clear what defines a ‘new concept’, or what the ‘smallest possible change’ would be.  They hold that a change in a concept is an infinitely reducible quantity, so that if the Cult had taken this approach not only would they have never arrived at their goal, they would never have even arrived at a second concept.

What I find interesting about ‘the tortoise theory’ is that it imagines ideas as a homogenous field, without any boundaries between categories of thought.  Someone might being with a mathematic proposition that slowly morphs into a theory of music, which then slowly becomes a metaphor for life, which becomes a mathematical proposition once again, and so on.  It’s neat to think about developing ideas in this way–in a sense only being aware of their form and not their content.  Treating concepts like objects that you alter slowly without considering their meaning or their relation to the real world.

2 – Nevertheless we can see echoes of the Cult’s philosophy in various places.  One example is the musician Willie Solmners, who aimed to record every possible three seconds of music–every combination of notes that could be played in that time.  He died before completing this task, but his three hundred CD box set “Forever in Three Seconds” is popular in some music circles.

Another example is the musician John Frusciante who recorded hundreds of songs without ever intending to release them, simply for the sake of creating them.

3 – It’s interesting to consider if there is a limit to the ideas that the Cult could theoretically have produced.  Many agree with Marcelle Adams who, in his book Burning the Burners, claims that the field of possible ideas open to a society is necessarily limited by their advancement.  For example, it’s difficult to imagine the Cult developing ideas of software programming or genetic replication, which require scientific and technological knowledge that they didn’t have.  However others argue that even something like software programming can be, after a number of abstractions, reduced to a form where it exists as a series of abstract propositions.  Ideas in this form wouldn’t necessarily have been beyond the Cult.

…if they existed.


One comment

  1. “to avoid their philosophy dying the death all ideas claiming to explain everything die when they are subjected to themselves.” I’m guessing this means that once the idea explaining everything has to explain itself then it has to explain everything all over again in the context of itself and this creates an infinite loop?

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