Philosophy

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

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.

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Remi le Marche

As many of you know – since that’s all I’ve been talking about – I just finished reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. If any of you are looking for a book to read I would highly recommend it.  Even if you aren’t looking for a book, or you’re already reading a book, I would still highly recommend it. What really got me was how real the magic in Jonathan Strange seemed. It references an entire library of invented books on English magic, and it all seemed so authentic that I almost found myself googling some of them. When I finally accepted that as real as it seemed, the history of magic in Jonathan Strange was invented, I naturally became curious to see if any history of magic does exist.  The answer might seem obvious, but I was still so entangled in the world of Jonathan Strange that a small part of me expected to find at least a rumor of something plausible.

I found a lot of historical information regarding ‘magic’, but at first none of it was what I was hoping for. I came across a lot of magic mentioned in relation to the religious ceremonies of ancient civilizations and modern day indigenous populations, but none of it seemed convincing. There were medicine men and shamans that upon closer inspection seemed to only cast placebo effects.  I found modern figures like Alistair Crowley who’s name is usually  associated with magic, but who came across as more of an occult philosopher.  There were others like John Dee, who though they were fascinating, didn’t seem to have ever actually done anything supernatural.  Lastly I came to the new age crowd that inspires the same grimace in me as it probably does in you. Most, if not all, of their ‘magic’ seems to be vague and un-testable.  All in all the real history of magic seemed worlds apart from Jonathan Strange.  

Then I came across Remi LeMarche.

I was surprised that I’d never heard of him before, but from talking to some of you it sounds like I wasn’t alone in my ignorance.  Remi le March (1732-?) is one of only three people that are ‘considered by history’ to have performed magic.

le Marche was born in Paris on November 21st, 1732 to wealthy parents. His father had aspirations of priesthood for his son but le Marche instead chose to pursue philosophy. His privelidged upbringing helped him in this endeavor because he’d learned to read and write several languages as a kid.

He was drawn to idealism, especially the radical sort that said thoughts were all that existed. George Berkeley had reasoned that since we only ever experience matter indirectly, by way of our thoughts, we have no reason to assume that it exists at all (1).  But, if objects only existed as thoughts, how could they remain in existence when a mind wasn’t experiencing them?  In other words, does a tree you’re looking at actually cease to exist when you close your eyes?  Berkeley’s answer to this was that God was always experiencing everything, and thus everything was constantly being experienced.  It was also God that put the appropriate ideas in your head to correspond with the outside world, so that when you looked at a chair, you saw a chair.  This presented problems for le Marche who didn’t believe in the existence of God and was forced to develop his own theory of metaphysics.

le Marche believed, as Berkeley did, that the internal world of ideas was all that we ever experienced.  He also posited the existence of an external world that we experienced indirectly through those ideas.  However instead of a God, le Marche concluded that there was a natural and immutable law of reality that kept the internal and external worlds consistent.  You couldn’t see something that wasn’t there, and there couldn’t be something there without you being able to see it (2).

This is where his story gets interesting. He asked the question: what if you could force yourself to see something that wasn’t there? Would it necessarily have to exist?  What was ‘out there’ determined what you saw, but if the internal and external worlds were inextricably linked, then what you saw should be able to determine what was ‘out there’.  He was so convinced of his metaphysical theory that the validity of this seemed unquestionable.  This would become his life’s work, a way to provide tangible evidence for a theory about intangibles (3).

It wouldn’t be enough for him to imagine seeing something that wasn’t there, he would have to actually see it.  He reasonably stated that this was easy enough with one’s eyes closed. Everyone can imagine things with their eyes shut, and with a bit of focus can actually see them. It would just require an immense amount of concentration to be able to do that with one’s eyes open, while also experiencing the world. If he could do this, the imagined thing would have to exist along with everything else that was being seen because since the internal and external worlds had to remain consistent.  He expounded these ideas in the final article that he would ever publish in 1765.  Soon after this le Marche disappeared from the public eye and the academic world to cultivate the kind of mental focus that he needed.  Thus, for the next decade or so the record of his life becomes a bit foggier.

Beginning in 1766, in the records of a monastery in Tibet, there is mention of a ‘European who wished to see his thoughts’. Historians generally agree that this was le Marche and all we know of his efforts for the next eight years comes from these records. They talk about the European spending every moment of his time sitting in private focusing on his thoughts. From what happened later we can suppose that he started with something small and easy to visualize: a speck of light.  Every few weeks he would approach the monks and ask if they could see the bit of light that he was trying to picture, but for a long time they couldn’t. Then finally one day he managed to create what the monks called ‘a jewel of eternity’ – a speck of light out of nowhere. Over the next few years the bits of light that he conjured became larger and larger until they were the size of a small pebble (4).

Something to keep in mind is that he never saw any of this as an end in itself. He had been thoroughly frustrated by the lack of acceptance his theories received, and all of this was a way to prove them irrefutably. This is probably why he didn’t ride into France immediately to show off his newfound ability. Fame and fortune didn’t interest him in the least.  It seems like he waited patiently until his ability had become reliable and then returned to France some time around 1774.

We know of what happened next because it would be written about in many different philosophical publications over the next few years. On the 16th of July, 1774, le Marche appeared in Paris and succeeded in conjuring a small bit of light in the company of his critics. But instead of convincing them of le Marche’s theories (or amazing them), this just set off a series of articles arguing that the demonstration didn’t necessarily prove anything.  It wasn’t that they doubted the validity of what he’d done, they just didn’t agree that it proved any particular metaphysical theory to be true.  When this feat that he’d worked for years to accomplish failed to convince the philosophical world, le Marche became entirely disillusioned and retired for good (5).

What happened to Remi LeMarche after this is not known for certain. Most historians agree that he retreated to a quiet life, possibly back in Tibet, and lived out the rest of his days in the isolation he’d grown accustomed to. There is no further mention of him practicing ‘magic’, but that doesn’t rule it out entirely since there is hardly any further mention of him at all.

There are of course other theories out there. Some (for example…) believe that his power became too great and that it destroyed him.  Ideas on how this happened range from his nightmares devouring him to a giant hole in reality swallowing him up.  Exciting and romantic as these stories are they seem unlikely, especially since there is never any mention of him creating anything more than bits of light (6). Others say that he never died at all, and is waiting to return one day and usher in a new era for mankind. This also seems pretty unlikely, given that he would be over 200 years old today. Of course another popular but doubtful theory is that the Church, driven by fear that he would use his power to challenge them, had le Marche killed.

It’s sad to say, but Remi le Marche didn’t have much of an impact on the world at large. I don’t know that much about philosophy but it seems like for all of his effort he remains a small ripple in the history of metaphysics. As far as the ‘history of magic’ goes he’s had even less of an impact. There are a few reasons for this. To begin with he was never interested in fame, and knowledge of his ability never quite reached the masses in his time. News of his public feat in 1774 was only written about in esoteric philosophy articles that the public probably never read. Even when he is written about today it is usually as a footnote in the history of metaphysics. Of course he is popular with conspiracy theorists and a few within the new age movement, but they often exaggerate his story to the point of incredibility.  And even if his story were told accurately, it is a story of years and years of dreary isolation in order to achieve what might seem like minor miracles for academic purposes. He certainly isn’t what people think of when they hear the word ‘magician’ – a fact I’m sure he would be happy about. Nevertheless, the world became a little bit cooler when I read about Remi le Marche.

1- For example, when you look at a chair you aren’t really seeing the chair but only it’s representation in your mind. If you want to read more on this idea you’ll find it in Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous.

2 – This law was as eternal, fundamental and beyond debate as the law that makes ‘2 + 2 = 4’.  It was simply was the way the universe worked.  There is of course a lot more to his theory that I’ve left out both because I didn’t quite understand it and because I wanted to keep this short. There is a good summary of it in A History of French Metaphysics.

3 – le Marche also saw this as a challenge to the role of God in Berkeley’s theory.  Berkeley’s God put appropriate ideas in a person’s mind (i.e. seeing a chair when one looked at a chair) but didn’t allow things to work the other way around since he was the one control of all sensations, allowing people access to them when appropriate.  le Marche’s idea was a way to prove that some immutable law, and not a God, kept the internal and external worlds consistent.

4 – There is never any mention of him creating anything more visually complicated than this, ostensibly because it was too difficult to picture.  Some people argue that the monastery records actually say he was able to create small objects like pebbles, not light the size of a pebble, but most don’t agree with this translation.

5 – Most people agree that his critics were justified in not being convinced of le Marche’s theories based on this demonstration. It seems like le Marche had become so obsessed with achieving this feat that he didn’t realize how little water it held as an argument in and of itself.  It’s too bad that he didn’t publish his own articles arguing for the relationship between this demonstration and his theories.  There are rumors that he began writing a book entitled A Treatise on the Mental Creation of Objects, but that he didn’t get further than the introduction.  However no traces of it have ever been found.

6 – I’ve come across theories by some people who believe that he managed to not only create actual objects, but living things.  They say that the Church altered records and removed all mention of his creating life, but this seems dubious. It’s likely that if the Church actually had the opportunity to tamper with records of his abilities they would have simply destroyed them altogether. Or on the other hand they might have instead altered them to serve their own purposes. Historian Garth Edwards brought up a similar idea when he said he was “surprised that the Church hasn’t already canonized le Marche, and attempted to bring the miracles he was able to perform under their jurisdiction”. Of course the fact that le Marche was a lifelong atheist made this rather difficult.