Archive | March, 2012

Evil Be Thou My Good

24 Mar

“So farwel Hope, and with Hope farwel Fear,

Farwel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;

Evil be thou my Good.”

Paradise Lost (IV, 109 – 111)

John Milton

I had this notion when I was a lot younger that it might be instructive to meet someone who was really evil.

Some decades later I still haven’t managed to do this.

That’s not because I’ve led an especially sheltered life, I haven’t. I’ve done all sorts of things over the years and if I’ve never managed to make much money or do anything especially heroic, or even very useful, I have certainly met all sorts of people. Many of them have led much more colourful lives than I have and some of them have not always behaved very well.

So while I have met a few people who’ve done evil things, and a great many who’ve done sleazy, nasty or stupid things, I’ve never managed to meet anyone that I would be comfortable in describing as evil.

Maybe that’s because of the way I tend to define the term ‘evil’.

I think of an evil person as being someone of a certain (im)moral authority. Someone a bit like Milton’s Satan, I suppose. Or at the very least, someone like Hannibal Lector would do quite nicely as an example of an evil person, if he only existed. At the very least, he’s a highly intelligent and perceptive character and (as played by Anthony Hopkins) he can be quite witty and even charismatic when he feels like it.

The problem is that, while Milton’s Satan makes for great literature and even Hannibal Lector makes for a pretty good story, real life is seldom quite so dramatic.

In reality most of the people who do really evil things are not towering intellects or fallen angels, they’re very often boring little people who act out of fear, stupidity, greed, arrogance or ignorance. Either that or they’re the victims of their own warped passions who create further victims in following their compulsions.

You could offer Ted Bundy as a counter example. And he certainly seems to have impressed many of the people who knew him socially as being a gifted young man with a bright future in front of him. His hunting techniques (what else could you call the way he manipulated and deceived his intended victims?) also seem to have shown a certain insight, and even intelligence. He drove a VW Beetle because he recognised that people saw it as a ‘friendly’ car. He wore a plaster cast on his arm in order to solicit sympathy and assistance and also to persuade potential victims that he wasn’t dangerous. On the other hand, he probably spent a good deal of his time planning his predatory activities and, given sufficient time and motivation, even a mediocre mind can come up with an ingenious plan.

Furthermore, I don’t think anyone could have accused Fred West of being a towering intellect and when you look beyond the mythology at the biographies of most of the senior Nazis, you’ll find that most of them were opinionated or opportunistic mediocrities. On the whole, they may, or may not, have had some talent for something or other, but most of them were far from being brilliant minds. Adolf Hitler, for example, had something of a gift for graphic design and for public speaking, but he wasn’t the evil genius that some people apparently want him to be. As a matter of fact he generally only spent an hour or two per day on running the Third Reich, preferring to spend his time on long walks, watching films or pontificating to his cronies.

You could cite Reinhardt Heydrich as an exception; he was an Olympic class athlete amongst other things. Herman Goring was also a rather impressive, if deeply flawed, character but these were the exceptions. For the most part the Nazi leadership were a bunch of loud-mouthed bores who would never have amounted to anything but for a quirk of history.

So when Hannah Arendt used the phrase, ‘the banality of evil’ in order to describe Adolf Eichmann, she may have ruffled a few feathers, but I think she had a point.

Amongst the people that I have met personally, the most promising candidate I ever met for the title of ‘evil’, was a distinctly scary individual who, during his detention in the state hospital at Carstairs managed to impress the staff there as being one of their most deeply disturbing guests. (It’s worth bearing in mind that these were trained professionals whose daily business is dealing with violent and dangerous offenders).

I can’t go into detail about this gentleman’s activities for various reasons, but I think it’s fair to say that he showed a certain inventive flair when it came to using sharp implements in order to inflict life-altering experiences on other people.

Having said that, he was also suffering from chronic and severe mental health problems.

That didn’t make him any less dangerous neither did it reduce in any way the need to contain him, But it does lead me to say that he didn’t chose to be evil, so much as he was acting out of fear.

I’m not qualified to make a definitive assessment, but I do think it’s possible that most of the evil things he did (and trust me, some of the things he did really were evil), were just another part of the nightmare he was living through.

I suppose this particular man was exceptional (thank goodness). He was mentally ill and he was a rarity amongst the people who have to cope with mental illness in that he was dangerous to other people. (Most people with mental health problems aren’t dangerous to anyone, or if they’re dangerous at all, it’s mostly to themselves and no one else).

So I suppose I have a lot of sympathy for Saint-Just’s aspiration to establish a form of justice that would not seek to ‘find the culprit guilty but to find him weak’.

Not only do I think this is morally superior, in that it allows more room for compassion in deciding what to do with offenders, but I also think it more accurately reflects the reality of how people come to do the things they do.

Of course I have now committed an offence of my own. I have used the word ‘compassion’ in the context of criminal justice and some people seem to find this infuriating.

When Abdulbaset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, was released on compassionate grounds, many of those who disagreed with this decision seemed to home in on this word ‘compassion’.

It seemed to induce a mouth frothing fury in many of them.

I wonder why.

Compassion and a respect for truth seem to me to be the two basic concepts on which any form of morality that I can understand has to be based. (I think I’ll come back to this in a later post).

Of course some people seem to measure their moral status by how many people they can disapprove of and condemn.

My answer to that might be unexpected given that I’m an atheist, but I would suggest to such people that they should try not to reject the sinner along with the sin.

I suppose this is one of the principles associated with Christianity that I picked up from my mother. (She was a sincere, if idiosyncratic, Christian. If more Christians were like her then I might be a bit more comfortable with Christianity and the world would probably be an easier place to live in).

Or if this is too much to ask, maybe we could at least try to understand our sinners a little.

After all, if it isn’t always comfortable, it really isn’t all that hard. We’re all connected to each other, even if we don’t want to be.

Another small thought for you.

Maybe we should try to give people what they need instead of what they deserve. If nothing else, this practice might increase the chances that we, in our turn, might get what we need rather than what we deserve. (And most of us don’t really deserve all that much, if we’re being really honest with ourselves).

That idea didn’t come from my mother, I picked it up from watching Hombre, a western starring Paul Newman, Dianne Cilento and Richard Boone. If you have any sense, you pick up the ideas that appeal to you from wherever you find them, not just from ‘respectable’ sources.


Grunts in Space

18 Mar

At the moment I’m busy designing a space ship.

This is a slightly eccentric thing for me to be doing, particularly given my total lack of competence in engineering, physics or anything else remotely practical, but the good thing is that the spaceship will never really be constructed, let alone fly anywhere.

Basically the whole exercise is about building a credible background for a story.

I more or less gave up writing science fiction some years ago, having reread a science fiction story I’d written and having come to the conclusion that, while it wasn’t necessarily badly written, it was very, very old-fashioned. (What I mean by that is that it might have been reasonably acceptable about 50 years ago).

I think a large part of my problem is that I grew up watching Star Trek on TV (I’m talking about the original series, not Star Trek The Next Generation) and that’s probably shaped my thinking about science fiction to an extent that I find it difficult to escape.

That’s not to say that I think Star Trek is the last word in science fiction. I enjoyed watching it, but in some ways I found it frustrating. As a matter of fact I really wanted to take the whole thing apart and redo it in order to edit out some of the silliness. (Many of the issues that bothered me were addressed when the series was rebooted for Star Trek The Next Generation and its spin-offs, but the price they seemed to pay for making the series more sensible was that they seemed to lose a lot of the warmth. I should also mention that if I hear Commander Riker mention Honour and Duty one more time, I’m just liable to puke).

Some of the more obvious problems with the original series were Captain Kirk’s tendency to solve interplanetary disputes with a right hook, and his habit of snogging aliens at the drop of a hat. (Only female aliens however. They just about managed an inter-racial kiss in those days, but we were still some decades too early for a same-sex snog).

There was also Captain Kirk’s practice of gallivanting off on every planetary expedition that cropped up, however hazardous, generally taking his Chief Science Officer, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Engineer with him, (pretty much the entire Command Staff of his ship in fact). I don’t suppose I need to point out that if things went badly on one of these expeditions, Enterprise would be left with virtually no senior officers left to take command.

Obviously this problem arose because Gene Roddenberry wanted to make Kirk his central character, and that meant sending him off to deal with things personally, rather than delegating to a subordinate, even if it did undermine the plausibility of the series. (This issue was addressed in Star Trek The Next Generation).

Other problems with the series resulted, I suspect, from Gene Roddenberry’s worldview and the particular issues that attracted or repelled him.

Star Trek has often been hailed by the humanist movement because, in general, it had little place for religion. Perhaps Roddenberry felt (much like Karl Marx) that religion is going to wither and die as people grow more civilised, and the need for faith as a palliative declines.

He may also have felt that there would be less scope for religion as science progressed and answered many of the questions currently addressed by religion. Although he may also have felt that religion, like racism and sexism was part of the package of nasty habits we were going to have to grow out of if we were going to survive long enough to build star ships and explore space.

In any event, while I do recall one episode where Kirk had a rather cringe-making episode of faith, (it was the one where they came across an updated version of the Roman Empire complete with televised gladiatorial contests) there seemed to be a general assumption that Star Fleet doesn’t do faith.

Other themes that were notably absent from Star Trek were politics and economics. My guess is that these subjects didn’t interest Roddenberry very much so he simply left them out with some blithe assumptions about material needs no longer being a problem. (Maybe this was just another symptom of his apparently all-pervasive optimism).

As an atheist myself I might well be expected to believe that religion will fade away some day, but as a matter of fact I don’t think this is going to happen in any big hurry (if at all) and as a matter of fact I think that as long as people are recognizably human, some will have religious faith of one sort or another. (I don’t even think this would necessarily be a bad thing).

I also doubt that we will ever be free of the need to work for a living or to cope with limited resources, which means that politics and economics will probably also be with us for as long as we are recognizably human.

It’s fairly well known that Gene Roddenberry was a marine, who became a police officer, and as far as I know, a fairly liberal and decent police officer. I think this shaped his ideas of what government and other institutions should be like in his universe, hence Star Fleet is a remarkably benign organisation. (Did he really find the USMC and LAPD that benign, or was this a reaction against things he didn’t like? Maybe Star Trek was an escape for Roddenberry as well).

Call me a cynic, but I tend to the opinion that there is a certain irreducible quantum of brutality inherent in any institution and, although it can be kept to a minimum when everyone involved tries really hard, it will always be there somewhere. I really don’t think any organisation can be totally benign, least of all a government.

As a storyteller Gene Roddenberry obviously had every right to create his universe in any way he wanted and he was equally entitled to exploit or ignore whichever themes he wanted to, but I do think he cut himself off from a lot of material that could have enriched his creation.

In particular, I think that religion, politics, economics and the tension between the needs of the individual and the demands of the institution can provide huge scope for story lines and Roddenberry pretty much ignored all of these areas. That was his prerogative, but it’s not the way I would want to do things.

What I’ve said so far is obviously just my personal opinion, but what follows is even more a matter of my personal tastes and perspective.

One of the things I find a little irritating about Star Trek and its spin-offs is the determination on the part of the programme makers to concentrate on the best of the best of the best. As a result, it seems that everyone involved in Star Fleet was the top of his, or her, class at the Academy, and the premise seems to be that if you aren’t in Star Fleet you’re rubbish.

This tendency is accentuated by the series being set on a flagship (which would admittedly have an élite crew) which tends to leave me wondering how everyone can be the best ie who’s left for them to be better than?)

In my experience most organisations seem to be composed of a pretty mixed bag of talents and personalities, and I also think it’s more interesting when at least some of the people involved in a story are less than brilliant. (I think this is another area where Roddenberry cut himself off from potential story lines).

All of the above tends to shape the decisions that I would be inclined to make if I ever get around to writing another science fiction story. (It would almost certainly be more of a Space Western than an epoch-making TV series that ends up having a major impact on popular culture, but then again, what’s wrong with that? We can’t all be brilliant, oe even especially original. All I’m trying to do is have some fun).

In short, I have thought for some years that it would be interesting to set a science fiction story aboard a smaller, less prestigious vessel than the USS Enterprise. Preferably one that was engaged in routine, unglamorous, but necessary work patrolling out in the back of beyond where no one really cares what happens as long as the paperwork stays clean.

It might also be interesting if the ship’s captain, far from being an outstanding officer who enjoys the respect and admiration of all and sundry, is perhaps someone who is not altogether in good odour with his superiors. (This being the reason why he, or she, has been posted to the back of beyond). I think the central character still has to be good at what they do, unless you’re doing comedy, but that doesn’t necessarily make them anyone’s poster boy, or girl. Sometimes gifted people are a pain in the ass to their superiors, and sometimes good people are not recognised simply because someone in authority simply doesn’t like them.

I wouldn’t want to veer off into the well-worn cliché of the brilliant maverick. (And in any case fictional brilliant mavericks never seem to suffer too much damage to their career prospects, regardless of how insubordinate or undisciplined they might be). I was thinking more of someone who is competent and dedicated, who has perhaps talked out of turn or committed some other indiscretion and now has to be content with a career of useful service rather than spectacular success.

(You could argue that Joss Whedon might have been thinking along similar lines when he created Firefly, his ship clearly wasn’t a naval ship, it was a distinctly unglamorous vessel crewed by misfits, crooks and malcontents).

It’s fairly well documented that Gene Roddenberry was a great admirer of CS Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower novels and that character of James T. Kirk was strongly influenced by Hornblower. I can see why Roddenberry was attracted to Hornblower’s world it provided a great deal of autonomy and hence a huge scope for stories.

Personally, I tend to read more history than literature and I would tend to go a little further back for inspiration, maybe 1690 – 1725. This was a rather more lawless period where the legal status of armed vessels ranged from the regular navy, through privateers (licensed pirates) and buccaneers who might or might not carry letters of marque, to out-and-out pirates.

I was also very taken by the universe created by J. Michael Straczynsky for Babylon 5 where humans came somewhere a bit further down the pecking order than they do in Star Trek and where the central characters can’t always trust the institutions they work for.

So I suppose this is why I’m taking the trouble to work out the organisational structure of a fictional navy along with the dimensions and specifications of a space faring frigate.

I’ve pilfered Wikipedia for the vital statistics of various naval vessels and I’ve worked out that I want a ship that would correspond in status to a frigate, and have a similar sized crew. I’ve derived the physical dimensions from a nuclear submarine. (Scaled up slightly to reflect the slightly larger ship’s complement). The reason for choosing a submarine is that it provides the crew with an enclosed artificial working environment to protect them from a hostile external environment. (I may have to rethink this because there are constraints on the size of a submarine that wouldn’t necessarily apply to a space ship, but in any case at least I have a prototype that would allow enough room for the crew to survive in reasonable comfort for an extended period).

I think I would also want a contingent of marines (or some equivalent group) on board in order to carry out missions where someone has to leave the ship. (Star Trek Next Generation dealt with this issue with ad hoc ‘Away Teams’, which seldom included Captain Picard, but still often seemed to include a number of senior officers).

My feeling is that it would make more sense to send a paramedic than the chief medical officer, or a technician rather than the chief engineer. Hence you would shift the focus of  some story lines away from the senior officers over to those members of the crew who specialise in ‘away missions’. (This might complicate matters by increasing the number of major characters involved, but I think this could be kept within manageable limits and it would have the advantage of including a greater range of characters ie grunts as well as senior officers).

I don’t know if I’m actually going to write this story, (I’m in the middle of writing a first draft of yet another vampire story at the moment), but even if I do, most of this information will probably never be mentioned explicitly. Having said that, I find that I need to know a lot of background detail about what things are called, where they fit into the grand scheme of things and what they can do, (if not necessarily how they do it), if I’m going to put a story together.

‘Write what you know’, is such a cliché. It also be very depressing if you take it to mean ‘write about the boring everyday stuff that makes up most of real life’, which is what I think a lot of teachers have in mind when they trot this piece of advice out to aspiring young writers. But what you know doesn’t have to be the real life stuff you have to wade through and that most of us read in order to escape from. It can be the stuff you make up. Personally I think that made up stuff works better is it has some basis in reality, but all it really has to do is hang together in a coherent way and provide a consistent, detailed environment for your characters to operate in.

Which is probably why I’m obsessing over the details of how my frigate is going to be organised.

And anyway, it’s kind of fun to think about these things.

Once I’ve got this stuff sorted out, I’ll have to start thinking about politics, economics, diplomatic relations, sociology, not to mention the physical characteristics of various aliens.

Once I’ve got all that sorted out I can start to populate the environment with characters and after that I suppose I’d better start thinking about what they’re actually going to do.

If you think this story might be interesting to read, then I suppose I should point out that it might be a while before it’s finished.

Talking about God (Or Not) Part 5

11 Mar

I have a bit of a problem with the doctrine of original sin.

Well, more than one, if I’m being honest about it, but we’ll come to that in due course.

Of course I’m aware that not all Christians necessarily believe in this doctrine. Pelagianism and modern existential theology suggest that sin is not inherited, ie that sin is a matter of individual choice, not a defining characteristic of our existence.

If you tend to that opinion then much of what follows will be irrelevant, but to me original sin seems to be crucial to the Christian worldview. What I mean by that is that it is an essential functional component of the Christian narrative. (Possibly also of Jewish and Islamic narratives, but I’m less familiar with their traditions and therefore not inclined to comment on them).

I should start by making it clear, just in case anyone isn’t already aware of the fact, that I am not a Christian and you might feel that my opinions on this subject are of limited interest for that reason.

I should also point out that none of what follows is intended to challenge anyone’s faith, nor is it intended as any kind of rebuttal of Christianity as a whole. It’s just a train of thought provoked by the problems I see in one particular Christian doctrine.

The reason that I see original sin as being central to Christianity is my perception that Christianity does not run on love, as many Christians claim, but on guilt.

Put very crudely, if you don’t feel guilty, you won’t feel the need for redemption, if you don’t feel any need for redemption then you won’t feel any need for a redeemer, and that leaves Jesus Christ with greatly reduced scope for playing a central role in your life.

Of course the doctrine of original sin is not just a crude mechanism for inflicting guilt on the faithful, it’s also a necessary plot device if the Judeo-Christian creation narrative is to keep God in the place that His believers would want Him to be in relation to humanity.

It is convenient, for the purposes of my argument to consider the account of The Fall as related in Genesis, without taking a position on whether or not it is true, simply in order to allow an examination of the implications of the doctrine of original sin. None of what follows should be taken to suggest that I believe in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis. (Pretty obvious point, but there’s always going to be someone dumb enough, or simply disingenuous enough to miss it).

Essentially God created man and woman, so the story goes, and we should be grateful to him for our creation and also in awe of him for being the Supreme Being who is capable of such acts of creation.

The difficulty with this, of course, is that human beings are fallible and prone to misbehave.

These failings in human beings have the potential to take some of the gloss off God’s act of creation since they would seem to imply that God either chose to make us badly, or was unable to make us any better. (The perceptive reader will note that this takes us close to the central dilemma involved in the theological problem of the existence of evil ie does evil exist because God chooses to include it in his creation, or is it because he is incapable of excluding it?)

Either way, God has to accept some responsibility for the failings of the human race and, in my view, that would undermine any right he might have to sit in judgement on our misbehaviour.

Clearly this situation would be unacceptable for those who believe in God.

Some kind of escape route is needed, and this is where the doctrine of original sin becomes important.

Therefore, God creates Adam and Eve and they are free from sin.They don’t even know what sin is.

Eve is persuaded by the servant to disobey God, and Adam essentially commits the same sin effectively as an act of solidarity with Eve. Sin is therefore introduced into the world, but as an independent act originating in human beings and not in God.

Therefore the sinfulness of humanity is explained and God is absolved from blame.

Or maybe not.

After all, both Adam and Eve were created without any knowledge of good or evil. The whole point of the forbidden fruit was that it gave knowledge of good and evil, which is why it was forbidden in the first place.

(Has anyone ever explained why God was so intent on denying Adam and Eve knowledge of good and evil? I could understand it if God wanted Adam and Eve to choose good rather than evil, but why would he effectively deny them the choice by denying them any knowledge of the available choices? Can anyone be good by default? Wasn’t that simply asking for trouble in as much as it left them without the knowledge they would need in order to resist evil when it was presented to them? Did God not anticipate what was going to happen? How could he not know about the serpent?).

But if Adam and Eve were truly without any knowledge of good and evil, no civilised system of criminal law that I know about would have allowed either of them to be convicted of any crime. They lacked knowledge of good and evil, therefore they were unable to form the criminal intent that would be necessary for her to be convicted.

(You might say that they knew they shouldn’t have eaten the forbidden fruit because God told them not to and that injunction should have been enough, but without any knowledge of good and evil how can you really know that anything is wrong).

I suppose the pious answer to this point is that I’m arguing on the basis of human legal systems and that God is not bound by our legalistic notions.

Well, maybe.

But to me that suggests that there are human systems of criminal justice that show a greater capacity for understanding and compassion than God’s judgement and I don’t imagine too many Christians would be happy with that thought.

In any case, Eve was clearly a naïve individual who was suborned and deceived into committing an offence that she did not fully understand. The agent who suborned this action was the serpent.

(I can find not account in the book of Genesis of why the serpent does this. Later traditions suggest that the serpent was effectively possessed by the devil, but this does not materially affect the point I have in mind).

The serpent (not to mention the Devil) was also one of God’s creations, so one has to ask why God created the serpent with the will and the capability, not only to sin himself, but also to suborn Eve into sin. (Or if the serpent committed his own sin quite spontaneously, then the real original sin was that of the serpent, not that of Eve).

Either way, if God created all things, then God created sin. (Or at least the potential for sin. If we assume that God knew that this potential existed then this takes us back to my earlier question about why he insisted that Adam and Eve should be denied any knowledge of good and evil).

So if God did not create sin in Adam and Eve, then He created sin in the serpent, or He created sin in Lucifer, who became Satan due to his own sin, and then used the serpent for his own purposes.

Whichever version you choose to accept, if God created us and we are sinful then God created sin. If God created sin, then how can He have any right to judge us for being sinful.

If you’re a Christian you’ll probably want to dismiss most, if not all, of the above as mere sophistry. (Feel free, I’m not trying to tell anyone what to believe, I’m just putting ideas into words. Any reader is at complete liberty to make as much or as little of this as they want).

Having said this, even if you don’t accept any of the above, there is still a problem with the doctrine of original sin and that lies in its dependence on the assumption that sin is somehow transmissible, transferable or in some other way inheritable.

I simply don’t accept this.

Obviously, one person can be blamed for what another person does. Or they can accept responsibility for what another person does. But in either case the actual guilt, or sin, remains with the person who was actually responsible for committing the offence.

Put simply, you just can’t play pass the parcel with sin.

So it seems to me that there is no justice at all in the notion that the descendants of Adam and Eve (that would be us, by the way) can be held responsible for acts that they did not commit and could not have prevented.

This notion of ‘blood guilt’, or guilt by family connection, may have seemed like common sense at some point in human history, but in the modern world only people like the Nazis have tried to implement it as part of their legal system. (It’s quite possible that even the Nazis didn’t think of this in terms of justice. Maybe it was simply an excuse for punishing the families of those who offended them, either out of sheer vindictiveness or as a pragmatic means of deterring further resistance).

So if God chooses to punish all human beings for the sins of Adam and Eve, does that not put him on the same moral level as the Nazis?

This is a pretty blasphemous thought, I know, but if you do the things that evil people do then I don’t see how you can claim that you’re not evil.

I expect that some people would claim that God’s status as the Supreme Being exempts Him from this kind of judgement, but I don’t accept this.

Morality is about what you do, and to some extent why you do it, not who you are. I don’t see how being God would get you off the hook in this instance.

You could go even further and suggest that the very wise and the very powerful should be held to a higher standard of morality as opposed to being considered to be exempt from judgement.

So, Id have to say that I don’t care if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, if He wants to be considered benevolent then He has to act in a benevolent manner. If He acts like a tyrant, then He’s a tyrant.

Of course, you don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the biblical account of The Fall.

But, if you don’t believe that Adam and Eve really existed, and the whole story is to be understood in figurative terms, then where does that leave you?

Does it imply that each and every human being goes through his, or her, own version of The Fall? Does each and every human being, without fail or exception, inevitably commit his, or her, very own sinful act of disobedience?

If that’s the case, then surely it takes us back to the idea that every human being is essentially sinful and then we’re back to the notion that if God created humanity, he made a pretty poor job of it.

In either case, it seems to me that the story of The Fall doesn’t really fulfill its apparent purpose in the Christian narrative. In other words, it doesn’t get God off the hook.

I fully recognise that I’m considering an aspect of Christian theology in terms of a plot device and you may very well feel that this approach is inappropriate.

All I can say in defence of my approach is that it’s the only one I’ve got. To me it seems that the only alternative is a lot of hand waving and vague talk about divine mysteries and things that are beyond our understanding and to me that seems like a cop-out.

Never The King

3 Mar

I am something of an antiquarian by avocation, and I like to think that I am working within the academic tradition upheld by such luminaries as Aleister Crowley, Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner.

I feel that it would not be impertinent to suggest that the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell should also be included in this select company on the strength of his famous A History of Western Philosophy. Although not necessarily for any of his other works, which were of an altogether different standard.

(I should add that I do not necessarily share the views of any of these exalted gentlemen, it is the quality of their work, rather than the nature of their conclusions that I seek to emulate).

In any case, I feel that I should now publicise the fruits of a long and challenging research programme which I have conducted over a period of some years into the origins and nature of an organisation which is now known to initiates by the initials TMG.

Given that this material is intended for the general reader, a little background history is required.

It has been argued that the genesis of this shadowy group lie as far back as the year 711 when the Muslim Berbers began their expansion from North Africa into Visigothic Spain in order to found what they were pleased to call al Andalus.

Personally I feel that this argument is fanciful and that a more credible date for the inception of TMG would be the occasion of the visit of Peter the Venerable to Toledo, in 1142. Having said this, an exact date for the genesis of this organisation is impossible to establish with any precision for reasons that will later become clear.

It was the year 750 when the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasid Caliphate and a young Abd al Rahman, the last of the Umayya still surviving, was obliged to flee for his life.

By the year 755 Abd al Rahman had arrived in al Andalus, and it was in the following year that he became Governor of al Andalus following a battle fought just outside the city walls of Cordoba.

It is well known that the Islamic tradition of translating, thus preserving and later adding to, the fruits of Classical learning was well established as early as the year 800 CE. (A date by which even the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne could only speak Latin haltingly and whose literacy skills were always limited to reading. He never learned to write).

In 1085 the city of Toledo was captured by the Christians under Alfonso and from that time on became the centre of a relative haven of tolerance on the boundary between Latin Christendom (what we would now call Western Europe) and the Islamicate.

Some historians like to claim that al Andalus or Moorish Spain was an early utopia of multi-faith, multi-cultural and multi-racial integration.

Unfortunately this is something of an exaggeration. It would be more accurate to suggest that Jewish Muslim and Christian communities lived parallel lives in al Andalus with relatively little real friction but equally limited contact between them. Even so, this was preferable to the appalling ignorance and persecution that characterised much of Latin Christendom at the time and which has plagued the world since.

Two of the most notable areas of life where Christians, Jews and Muslims did actively collaborate were in the fields of architecture and in translation, and it is scarcely surprising that the educated men of al Andalus (and regrettably the benefits of education, disposable income and above all leisure were so often limited to men), would have wanted to benefit from this tradition.

Nor is it surprising that such educated men as Latin Christendom could actually boast would have flocked to Toledo as being the most productive and accessible source of this new learning. (There were other routes for the transmission of these works, notably Byzantium, but Toledo was, in those days, clearly the best option available).

These developments were obviously gradual and hard to date with precision. But certainly by the episcopate of Archbishop Raymond of Toledo (1126-1151), Toledo was a well established centre of learning and translation which was fuelling the development of the Universities of Medieval Europe and which would lay much of the groundwork for the Renaissance.

This being the case, a man like Peter the Venerable would have found the prospect of a visit to Toledo virtually irresistible.

Peter the Venerable was the legendary Abbot of Cluny, and is significant, amongst other things, for his role as the friend and protector of Peter Abelard. (A brilliant, if controversial philosopher who was in frequent need of protection. He is probably best known these days in the context of Abelard and Heloise, probably the best-known love story of Medieval History).

Peter Abelard was in particular need of protection from the persistent (some would say rabid) attentions of Bernard of Clairveaux whose militant (arguably bigoted and certainly inflexible) views were consistently opposed by Peter the Venerable.

In any event Peter the Venerable went to Toledo in 1142.

He was a man who was willing and able to see wisdom in the teachings of faiths other than his own Christianity. More than this, he was determined to undertake a wide-ranging project involving the translation of major works of philosophy and science to be found in the Islamicate in order to make them more widely available throughout Medieval Europe.

He was not the first man to think of this kind of programme, but he was a man with the vision, the resources and the practical ability to turn the idea into a reality.

It should also be said that this would have been a bold move on the part of Peter the Venerable. Attitudes were hardening in the mid 12th and early 13th centuries both amongst Christians and Muslims.

The Crusading movement had been initiated by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont on 27th November 1095, with the First Crusade culminating in the mass slaughter in Jerusalem following its capture in 1099. But the concept of Holy War was slowly spreading across Europe to the Christians of Spain. (Also to the Languedoc region where the Cathars were soon to be suppressed and finally exterminated).

Amongst Muslims there was also a growing militancy and a rejection of the liberal views towards the dhimmi (the peoples of the book, essentially Jews and Christians and, by courtesy, Zoroastrians) which were held by the Umayyads. In particular the Berber Almohads were spreading their more militant vision of Islam into al Andalus.

Naturally there was a reaction to these trends amongst academics who could see nothing but good coming from intellectual and cultural links between different religious and cultural groups.

Amongst a small group of these academics based in and around Toledo this reaction took the form of a loose network of friends and colleagues, which gradually, and under increasing pressure from the authorities, grew into first a covert and then a conspiratorial movement.

At some point this group took the name Trimagus. (These days the initials TMG are more commonly used to identify the organisation).

The origins of this name are obscure, and differing accounts can be found in the literature. It may well be a corruption of the Latin tria magi, or possibly tres magistri, meaning three masters, or three teachers. Although, there certainly may also be a connection to Hermes Trismegistus, the semi mythical author of The Hermeticon and founder of the Hermetic Tradition. (These men were academics with a keen interest in language. Word play of any sort would appeal to them, and their earliest records and archives are frequently marred by the most execrable puns, often perpetrated across two or more languages).

The reference to three masters has little to do with the tradition of the ‘Three Wise Men’ of the Christmas story. Members of the Trimagus would have known very well that the number of the Magi is not specified in any of the Biblical accounts of the birth of Christ.

The three masters, or teachers, is instead a reference to the three traditions of Judaism, Christianity and of Islam, also known in TMG circles as The Three Paths.

(It should be remembered throughout the following that members of the TMG were at pains to avoid any taint of heresy. They did not seek to supersede or even extend the existing Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions, they simply sought, as they saw it, to find the common ground that they firmly believed already existed within these faiths).

The founders of Trimagus were of the opinion that these three paths all had the same origin and that they had diverged through a process of error and misinterpretation. It was their aim to reunify these traditions and, by doing so, end for all time the persecution of the Jews and the Crusading wars between the Christians and the Muslims.

Their initial aims were, then, benevolent, but utterly doomed to failure by forces that they could not control.

By 1492 Granada, the last outpost of Islam in Spain, finally surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella, the ‘Christian Monarchs’, who promptly reneged on the assurances they had offered as part of the negotiated surrender and demanded the conversion or expulsion, on pain of death, of all the Muslims in Spain.

1492 also saw the Alhambra Decree forcing the same choice of death, conversion or expulsion on the Jews of Spain and the subsequent creation of the Spanish Inquisition.

The Spanish Inquisition, it should be noted, was never primarily engaged in the hunting of witches. Instead it was charged with monitoring the conduct of the conversos, or ‘New Christians’ in order to see that they didn’t lapse into their old religious practices. They were also charged with the suppression of heresy and also the prevention of any incursion of international organisations, including the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.

In this climate the TMG could not prosper and such evidence as we have suggests that by this time they had already relocated their headquarters to the Hanseatic City of Hamburg.

Hamburg was an obvious choice of location for an organisation seeking to avoid allegations of heresy and which also had become covert and international in the nature and scope of its activities.

As a member of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg enjoyed the autonomy and liberties of an Imperial Free City and had strong trade and cultural links across Northern Europe and beyond.

It is not clear from the archival material exactly when TMG turned the emphasis of their activities from religious speculation to more secular, not to mention practical, activities, but a certain number of key historical events seem to have been influential in making this change.

The practical implications of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 were greatly overestimated at the time (and for some centuries afterwards). But having said this, the steady encroachment of Islam into Europe during this period, through the growth of the Ottoman Empire, certainly seems to have convinced the leadership of TMG that reconciliation between Christians and Muslims was impractical, at least for the foreseeable future.

The Reformation and Counter Reformation movements within European Christianity also seem to have convinced the TMG leadership that Christianity itself had become hopelessly fragmented and incapable of unifying itself, let alone achieving unity with any other faith.

It is also true that the sectarian conflicts, which erupted through the 1618 defenestration of Prague into the Thirty Years War, led to a general decline in the influence of religion in European politics.

I should point out that, although the Thirty Years War became essentially a dynastic proxy war between the Habsburgs of Spain against the Bourbons of France over who was going to control Central Europe, much of the savagery of the fighting was fuelled by longstanding sectarian tensions.

When the war finally ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia it was on the basis provided by the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. (Best understood in terms of cuius regio, eius religio, the law that authorised the ruler of a country to decide on the faith of its people).

As one TMG archivist has noted, an entire generation throughout the Holy Roman Empire and beyond could have been spared its burden of famine, plague, war and death had the settlement available as early as 1555 only been more readily accepted.

At any rate, by the end of this period TMG was taking a more active role in social, political and economic developments, and they had already adopted the motto Numquam Rex, Semper Scurra, which can be translated as Never the King, Always the Jester. (In Medieval courts the jester wasn’t always just a clown, he was very often also a highly influential advisor. Sometimes, in fact, the only man at court who had the freedom to speak Truth to Power).

In practice this motto refers to the fact that active TMG members are never to be found amongst the very rich, powerful and famous.

Where TMG wish to exert their influence they will do so, instead through the more obscure aides and advisors who always surround law makers and power brokers.

It has also become clear that their favoured approach will not be one of coercion or inducement, but will depend on the presentation of carefully edited information and slanted advice which is designed to encourage the rich and powerful to choose whichever option TMG favours.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that TMG was heavily involved in covert activities in support of the liberation of the Netherlands from Spanish rule throughout the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

There is also reason to believe that, through the Dutch, and later French and English buccaneers of the 17th century, they extended the scope of their operations across the Atlantic and into the New World.

(Buccaneers like Sir Henry Morgan, it should be said, were not pirates. They were; generally speaking, patriots fighting for their country and religious beliefs against the, effectively theocratic, Spanish Empire and they would have carried commissions and letters of marque from their governments authorising their raids. It is also significant that they also carried with them the tradition of political radicalism that often went with non-conformist religion. Many of them would have been, therefore, highly sympathetic to the TMG agenda).

By the 18th Century TMG was well established throughout the courts and parliaments of Europe and the Americas and were making inroads into the capitols of the Orient.

One point that should be clarified here is that TMG is not to be confused with The Iluminati, much beloved of thriller writers and conspiracy theorists though they may be. The real Iluminati consisted of nothing more than a rather childish cabal of grown men who wanted to indulge themselves by playing at secret societies.

The Bavarian Iluminati was founded on the 1st of May 1776 by Adam Weishaupt and the organisation was effectively destroyed by the Secular Edict passed on 2nd March 1785, probably at the behest of TMG.

It wasn’t that The Iluminati could be considered a rival to TMG, far from it. But their attempts to infiltrate and subvert the Freemasons were so inept and so blatant that they were creating a febrile atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia that might, inadvertently, have led to the exposure of TMG activities, hence their suppression.

Since then, TMG activities have been more difficult to trace.

It is likely that they were involved in the highly secret ‘vodka-cola’ deals carried out at the height of the Cold War in an attempt to foster economic relations across the Iron Curtain thereby reducing the risk of nuclear war, but this cannot be proven with any certainty.

There is no basis for believing that TMG had any interest in the assassination of President Kennedy, however. If anything they would have preferred him to have survived long enough for them to complete the task of manoeuvring him into ending America’s involvement in Vietnam. This was a conflict that seriously aggravated Cold War Tensions and also caused lasting damage not only to the prestige of American arms but also to their capabilities for a decade or more.

As it was, the sudden death of President Kennedy launched an ill-prepared Lyndon B. Johnston into the presidency without the benefit of having been privy to Kennedy’s thinking on Vietnam. (Or much else, for that matter, the two men did not get on, their alliance was purely a matter of political convenience). This left him surrounded by Kennedy aides, many of whom were determined that the war should be pursued. (There is significant evidence to suggest that Kennedy, had he lived, would not have followed this policy).

So TMG have had their failures, but they certainly still exist and they still wield considerable influence over world events.

Some say that they greet each other with the letters TMG either verbally or in writing, to which the correct reply is ATJ (That is Never The King, and Always The Jester, respectively). This is not a means of recognition, like a Masonic handshake; rather it is a quick and efficient means for TMG agents to confirm that they are free from surveillance and not acting under duress. Any variation in this parole and countersign greeting is taken as a warning that there has been a breach in security.

TMG have no interest in drug induced mind control techniques, nor do they use pop stars to introduce esoteric symbols into popular culture. Least of all do they care to indulge in satanic orgies or human sacrifice. Unlike Dan Brown’s fictional ‘Priory of Zion’, they would have had no use for a man like Leonardo Da Vinci, genius thought he was, because he would have had no practical value for them. Nor would they be interested in recruiting presidents, prime ministers or tycoons, and least of all would they want to use film or pop stars. These people are much too visible, too egocentric and in any case seldom very bright.


What they seek to do is to maintain a degree of cohesion in human affairs on the assumption that those who take power either through a democratic process or the naked use of power can seldom be trusted to do so.

They are seldom violent and never visible and they never indulge in highly visible assassinations. Where they need to remove someone, they are more likely to arrange a resignation, ‘for health reasons’ or a fall from grace due to criminal charges or some other form of scandal.

In conclusion, TMG isn’t an organisation of the obviously rich and powerful. Such people have no need of a covert network to help them keep in touch, they all went to the same schools and universities, they all go to the same places for their holidays and they all have each others’ private numbers on speed dial.

The real conspiracy does not, then, include the conspicuously rich, famous and powerful. As a matter of fact it controls them through a carefully constructed network built around them. And, of course, you will search the Internet in vain for any reference to them.

After all would you really expect to find these people with a quick Google search?

Inevitably they have left some traces, however.

I will not weary you with the arcane references to be found in the esoteric poetry of Stefan George, instead I will simply refer you to the last line of the 1968 psychedelic anthem I’m the Urban Spaceman Baby by the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, which is the clearest reference to be found to TMG in popular culture.