Truth to tell, I’m bleary-eyed as I’m writing this, because I was up most of the night reading Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. Take it from me; its pages turn really quickly–that is, until about fifty pages before the end, when the villain dies, the last loose ends of the story are tied up, and Brown’s infomercial for the New Age begins in earnest. Then it gets really, really slow.
The Lost Symbol sold a million copies out the gate and another million copies within less than a week; it is the fastest selling book in history–at least until Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue hits the stores next month. Compared to it CULTS, CONSPIRACIES AND SECRET SOCIETIES is hardly a blip on the screen. I can’t deny that this fills me with envy and resentment, but on the other hand (conspiracy minded readers, take note), I have every reason to root for The Lost Symbol’s success. What with its title and all those Masonic symbols on its cover, my book stands a small chance of being captured by Dan Brown’s commercial gravity, much as a tiny planetesimal can get pulled into a gas giant’s orbit.
No one has ever accused Dan Brown of being a literary stylist; he’s too easy to parody. The Lost Symbol’s narrator natters on like a chatty tour guide, bludgeoning us with trivia and heavy-handed exposition. Robert Langdon and his female sidekick are weirdly disembodied; the celibate bad guy, with his massively muscled physique and S&M proclivities, is creepily fetishized–plus he has this really annoying penchant for explaining himself in stilted, contraction-less English. “I have been practicing…preparing…anticipating the moment when I am only mind…when I am released from this mortal shell… when I have offered up this beautiful body to the gods in sacrifice. I am the precious one! I am the pure white lamb!”
But Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and now The Lost Symbol do more than merely lead their legions of readers on a merry chase, they exhort them to reconsider their world view. The answers he provides may be trivial and sometimes historically inaccurate, but the questions Brown asks us to consider are worth pondering. Does the church misrepresent Christianity? Is history filled with mysteries and intrigues that mainstream chronicles elide? Do miracles only happen in Bible stories and myths or do humans have the capacity to make them happen ourselves? Brown earnestly wants us to expand our view of human potential, to open ourselves up to a whole new paradigm–one that is more capacious and filled with possibilities than either secular scientism or traditional Christianity.
In a very broad sense, that was the Mason’s philosophical program as well. Stripped of all its pageantry and mumbo jumbo, Freemasonry (which nobody can date further back than the early 18th century) celebrates the non-dogmatic, reasonable, individualistic values of the Enlightenment. God-the-Architect is a Deist idea; the Masonic openness to Rosicrucian arcana, alchemy, and Kabbalah is an attribute of the same unfettered curiosity that led to the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the early industrial era and for that matter to the rise of the bourgeois merchant class and the overthrow of entrenched Aristocracy. French Masons did play the out sized role in the Revolution that their enemies accused them of; Adam Weishaupt’s Bavarian Illuminati envisioned an age in which Kings and Catholicism would no longer hold sway. Augustin Barruel and John Robison’s 1798 exposes of the Illuminati conspiracies sparked a transient panic in the United States that anticipated 1950s-style McCarthyism; a second wave of anti-Mason paranoia swept the country in the late 1820s.
It’s ironic that the prospect of world revolution was so frightening to Americans since we were revolutionaries ourselves–not only did we throw off the shackles of king and church, we thrived because we did so. Benjamin Franklin is the very type of the American Freemason–an inventor, a scientist, an entrepreneur, a moralist, a pleasure-seeker, a figure of the establishment and a revolutionary all at once; he was a Leonardo Da Vinci, except he couldn’t paint or sculpt. And like most of our founding fathers, he also had a healthy skepticism of democracy. The founders had read Plato and Cicero; they knew how easy it was for a state to be hijacked by an ignorant mob. The genius of our constitution was that it provided democratic institutions with effective checks and balances.
Esoteric Masonry acknowledges–as do all the mystery religions and philosophies, going back to Egyptian Hermeticism and Pythagoreanism–that some things are best kept within a select circle. That doesn’t mean the Masons were secret aristocrats or magi; only that they knew how potentially dangerous it was when complicated and daring ideas were trivialized, debased, and distorted by people who didn’t understand them. Back in the eighteenth century, the boundaries between science and magic were still porous; Chemists were still trying to turn lead into gold; physicians were practicing medicine without the benefit of germ theory; physicists were only just beginning to move away from Aristotle’s world view and towards Newton’s and Copernicus’s (Newton lived into the 1720s). The fact that some Masons dabbled in mysticism doesn’t mean that they were practicing mystics any more than the fact that virtually everybody with any education was familiar with a vast range of classical references meant that they were pagans. Dan Brown makes much of a forgotten statue that depicts Washington as Zeus. Nobody believed that Washington was a god, that he could throw thunderbolts and the like, it was just a bombastic and pretentious way of saying that he was a really big deal. But to return to Masonic secrecy, just as we worry about what less advanced nations will do with nuclear technology today, the men of the Enlightenment worried about what the ignorant masses would do with the incredible powers–philosophic, economic, political, technological and scientific–that they were unlocking. They were incredible powers and they were right to worry… we are living with some of the consequences of their discovery today. Much of our planet is poisoned; its climate is changing; we live under the shadow of weapons of mass destruction.
One legacy of the Enlightenment is our ability to unravel science and superstition, to distinguish between theology and natural science and between ancient wisdom and ancient ignorance. Those boundaries are now so clearly established that people have come to believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive, that if you are going to be scientific, you have to reject everything religious, and that if you are going to be religious, you have to reject everything scientific. Science and religion may not mix well in practice, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t avail ourselves of the benefits that both of them confer. Poetry and prose don’t always mix either; neither do fantasy and journalism, beer and milk, jalapeno peppers and tapioca pudding. It doesn’t mean that we can’t have them all, just that they’re not always complementary, that you shouldn’t try to swallow them at the same time.
Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol mixes them up promiscuously. He implies that what the Ancients had to offer us wasn’t just philosophy, but a philosophic technology–he intimates that they had mastered ESP and Teleportation; that they knew how to conquer death. He offers up Noetic Science as a unique hybrid of timeless wisdom and cutting edge science. There really is an Institute of Noetic Sciences, but it’s a New Age outfit in Petaluma, California that was founded by an industrialist and an astronaut; it’s not a “scientific” establishment in a way that either Stephen Hawkings or Benjamin Franklin would recognize. Mostly what it traffics in is materialized spiritualism of the sort that you can read about in books like The Secret. I first encountered Lynne McTaggart, whose work Brown specifically cites (and if CULTS, CONSPIRACIES AND SECRET SOCIETIES stands to benefit from The Lost Symbol, Brown’s perfervid endorsement of McTaggart must be worth millions) when I wrote catalog copy for Simon & Schuster. From the way Dan Brown writes about her discoveries, you’d think she was the new Einstein. Her books are replete with references to quantum physics and the like, but mostly they hearken back to nineteenth century New Thought–the movement that inspired Christian Science back then and the prosperity gospel today. (I wrote an article about New Thought for Beliefnet a few years ago; if you’re interested you can click on it in the sidebar.) Katherine’s climactic, much-ballyhooed experiment in The Lost Symbol, in which she weighs a dying man immediately before and after his death, proving that his departed soul had physical mass, was first conducted by a Dr. Duncan MacDougal in 1907 (it weighed 21 grams). He also killed a bunch of dogs and concluded, with equal scientific authority, that they didn’t have souls.As it happens, I also believe that human beings have souls (dogs too), but I don’t think they can be weighed and measured. In fact, I would go so far as to say that that’s what a soul is–the part of us that can’t be dissected and quantified.
I absolutely concur with Brown that we should follow the Masons’ call to study Hermeticism and Kabbalah and Gnosticism, not to mention Plato and Aristotle and Homer and The Book of the Dead and the Upanishads and the Bible. We haven’t learned all that the ancients can teach us by a long shot. Shamans know things that scientists can’t begin to grasp. But Noetic Science isn’t the bridge that Brown makes it out to be; in some ways, it is the worst of both worlds.The Masons had a lot of really fascinating, cutting edge ideas and it’s fun to see them portrayed as idealistic good guys for a change instead of sinister oligarchs presiding over a malign New World Order. But they weren’t New Agers–and despite Dan Brown’s hard sell in The Lost Symbol, neither am I. For all his talk of a New Paradigm, I feel like he’s trying to talk us into taking a giant step backwards.