Sunday, August 30, 2015

August Reads – Part 1, Discomfort Zone

Not all recreation is pleasant. A work-out comes to mind. Yet, we like having done it if not actually doing it, so it still counts as “fun” in the longer view. The same is true of our reading choices, whether it’s, say, War and Peace or the complete works of Shakespeare – yes, I’ll admit to having found much of Will a slog. This August I haven’t been as ambitious as all that, but there were a couple of titles I wanted to have read, and so went ahead and read them. (Part 2, Comfort Zone to be posted later.)

The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley

There is a certain class of book in the humanities and social sciences that is written by academics for other academics, though it may be foisted on hapless students, particularly if it is written by the professor conducting the course. Within the class are deconstructions of literature, analyses of historical methodology, examinations of poetry in psychoanalytic terms, and so on. It is no wonder only a minority of adults ever read books again recreationally after graduating college. Of those graduates who not only read but write, all too many have been corrupted into writing this way themselves.

Carroll Quigley’s The Evolution of Civilizations threatened to be one of these books at the very outset: “This book is not a history. Rather it is an attempt to establish analytical tools that will assist the understanding of history.” Oh dear.

“Take a deep breath,” I encouraged myself. “You have a history degree and have plowed through this sort of stuff before. You still can do it. There might even be the odd nugget of wisdom in the gobbledygook if you don’t glaze over too much to see it.” I did and there was.

Grand theories of history have a long history of their own. Aristotle’s cycle still generates interest and still has some merit: monarchy degenerates (“perverts”) into tyranny, which is overthrown by an aristocracy; aristocracy then perverts into oligarchy, which is replaced by a constitutional republic (polity); a constitutional republic perverts into democracy; and back around again. “Perversion” consists of the ruling person, minority, or majority trampling the rest of the people primarily for its own factional benefit rather than governing for each and all. Since Aristotle there has been a steady parade of cyclical theorists, Spengler and Toynbee among them.

Quigley’s cyclical version is more complex than those of his predecessors but owes much to them. Like Toynbee, he formulates his theory at the level of civilizations, not nation states – e.g. Classical Civilization which is Greek, Roman, and more besides. Also like Toynbee, he counts only two dozen civilizations as having existed in the world in all of human history. Quigley’s stages of history, however, are his own:
  1. Mixture
  2. Gestation
  3. Expansion
  4. Age of Conflict
  5. Universal Empire (not necessarily a single political entity)
  6. Decay
  7. Invasion
He describes the characteristics of each in detail using ancient and modern examples. He knows his subject matter and his analysis is persuasive. To the extent this is actionable information, rather than just the analytical tool he describes in his opening sentences, however, it is because the seven-stage sequence by his own contention is not inevitable. Quigley, who was Bill Clinton’s favorite professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, describes how it has been and can be short-circuited either by intervention from without or by reformation within.

At what stage are we now? It’s always harder to tell from the inside. Did Romans under Marcus Aurelius hear the fat lady backstage warming up her voice? Arguments could be made for 4 and for 5. Nonetheless, I’ll offer another quote: “The Stage of Decay is a period of acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between the varied vested interests, and growing illiteracy…Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation. But the decline continues.”

Whether that sounds at all familiar, I leave to the reader to judge.

The Book of Lies by Aleister Crowley

There is a tendency for skeptics (such as myself) to conflate superstition with mysticism, but the two are not the same. Superstition and magical thinking are hardwired into the human brain, as they are in other animals. See Superstition in the Pigeon by B.F. Skinner in which he documents ritualistic behaviors acquired by birds that are fed on a random schedule. Humans have enough reasoning ability to reject superstitious behaviors, but not the impulses: we can choose to walk under that ladder, but we might still feel funny doing it. Mysticism, on the other hand, is not a gut feeling; it is itself an intellectual exercise. It is a way of looking at the universe – of perceiving an order, meaning, and significance to things beneath the surface. It often presupposes unseen outer forces or internal powers that can be tapped if one knows how.

I’m not a mystic of any kind, whether in terms of mainstream religion or the occult. Skeptics are a minority in the world, however. They never can understand the bulk of their fellow humans properly if they don’t try to see things as they do – not agree, at the end of the day, but at least see. Every now and then I give it a whirl.

Aleister Crowley was a central figure in the pagan revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He sparred with W.B. Yeats for control of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Through the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orienti) and its stepchild Gardnerian Wicca, his philosophy of thelema has had a greater influence on the 20th and 21st centuries than is commonly acknowledged, particularly in the counterculture and its heirs:
1- Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law;
2- Love is the law, Love under will;
3- Every man and every woman is a star.

Crowley was a multifaceted fellow: a bisexual mountain-climbing poet who worked with Ian Fleming, of all people, on wartime disinformation schemes. A contemporary of Freud, he spoke of the need to “cure the world from sexual repression.”

The Book of Lies consists of poetic aphorisms and paradoxes that relate to qabalah, tarot, gematria, and astrology. I’m told that more informed students of the occult than I will see much more in it. For outsiders, it is a window into his manner of thinking though it would not be the first book I’d recommend; the more straightforward The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: an Autohagiography might be a better place for a beginner to start.

While Aleister and his circle of friends seem to have been a fun crowd, I must admit all this still leaves me (if you’ll forgive the word) mystified. Also, Crowley was a prankster and I never quite know to what extent he is serious and to what extent he is a put on, as in aphorism 88, which is likely both:

Teach us Your secret, Master! yap my Yahoos.
Then for the hardness of their hearts, and for the
softness of their heads, I taught them Magick.
But... alas!
Teach us Your real secret, Master! how to become
invisible, how to acquire love, and oh! beyond all,
how to make gold.
But how much gold will you give me for the Secret
of Infinite Riches?
Then said the foremost and most foolish; Master, it
is nothing; but here is an hundred thousand
This did I deign to accept, and whispered in his ear
this secret:

Up Next

In Part 2 will be titles entirely within my comfort zone: the novels Wool, The Martian, and The Judgment of Paris.

Ozzy Osbourne - Mr. Crowley


  1. Both of those books would have been tremendous slogs for me. I have to admit, not much of interest for either but I'll commend you highly for giving them the go.

    I've often wondered if we as individuals are hardwired someway to appreciate certain things over others or if that's just some learned behavior we drift towards. For instance, I seemed to enjoy music and movies, and less sports or reading to a degree--some things come easier, whereas others seem more a chore. I assume everybody's brains aren't exactly the same and some people's brains might be made better for analytical thinking over say another made for some other endeavor.

    1. As far as appreciation goes, both, I imagine. As in most things I think we inherit a range of tastes, and narrow that range according to life experience. So, we may be naturally predisposed to certain things but we rarely pursue all of them; we even may convince ourselves we inherently dislike some of them when this is really a conditioned response. Or maybe I'm just predisposed to think that.