In George Eliot's Middlemarch Edward Casaubon spends his life
in a attempt to find a comprehensive explanation for the whole of
mythology. He is writing a book which he calls The Key to All
Mythologies. It is intended to show that all the mythologies of the
world are corrupt fragments of an ancient corpus of knowledge to which
he alone has the key. His young
wife Dorothea is at first dazzled by what she takes to be his brilliance
and erudition, only to find, by the time he is on his deathbed, that the
whole plan was absurd and she can do nothing with the fragments of the
book that she is supposed to put into order for publication.
In honour of Mr Casaubon I have named the tendency of the mind to
search for all-inclusive explanations—totality answers—the
A real-life Casaubon
The late John G. Bennett (1897–1974) provides a remarkable instance of
how the Casaubon delusion can come to dominate someone's thinking.
Throughout his life he was taken over (taken in?) by an extraordinary
variety of spiritual teachers and mystagogues including G.I. Gurdjieff,
P.D. Ouspensky, Pak Subuh, and Idries Shah among many others. In fact
there was hardly any esoteric system of the twentieth century that he
did not try out. Underlying this was his conviction that there
was a secret tradition of teachers and initiates in Central Asia,
existing from time immemorial and guiding the destinies of humanity, as
he explains in his monumental work on the inner history of the cosmos,
The Dramatic Universe. He spent much of his life teaching his
own understanding of what he had learned from the people he had studied
under, and finally set himself up as a teacher in his own right.
To speak of a delusion in these cases may seem a little harsh. In using
the term I don't mean to imply any kind of mental instability in those
who hold totality beliefs. As the psychiatrist Anthony Storr (see below)
has remarked, one should never judge anyone to be insane simply because
they hold bizarre beliefs.
Most people in the world subscribe to belief systems for which there is
no evidence and which do not stand up to critical evaluation. The
diagnosis of insanity must include an assessment of the individual's
social behaviour and relationships with other human beings.
By these criteria Bennett does pretty well. He was a man of great
practical ability in other fields and he attracted many people to what
he taught. As for Casaubon, he is of course fictional but a real book
published in 1969—Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the
Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth , by
Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend—came quite close to
what Casaubon had in mind. Both its authors were recognised academics,
although their theory has not been taken seriously by most scholars. The
real problem in these cases isn't so much the content of what they
believed, which wasn't irrational, but rather the all-inclusive nature of
these beliefs; they were totality beliefs.
What's wrong with totality beliefs?
In 1948 the BBC broadcast a radio
debate on the existence of God between Father Coplestone, a Jesuit,
and Bertrand Russell. In the course of the debate Coplestone said: "An
adequate explanation must ultimately be a total explanation, to which
nothing further can be added." Russell replied: "Then I can only say
you're looking for something which can't be got, and which one ought not
to expect to get."
This exchange encapsulates the essence of the disagreement between the
two speakers. But note that it doesn't mean that religious belief is
necessarily due to the Casaubon delusion. Coplestone's explanation
wouldn't leave any room for doubt, but some profoundly religious people
experience serious doubts. In his book In God We Doubt John
Humphrys records that Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury,
admitted that he could only "just" sustain his belief in God in the face
of human suffering.
Where should you go if you really want to find someone who holds an
unshakable totality belief? To a guru.
The psychology of gurus
Anthony Storr has provided a valuable analysis of the guru phenomenon in
his book Feet of Clay: A
Study of Gurus. He finds that gurus usually arrive at their
insights by a process similar to that which gives rise to artistic and
scientific creation. He distinguishes several stages in this process. It
begins with a period of intense concentration, which is succeeded by a
fallow period of unconscious reflection; this may also be a time of
stress or depression. Then comes the discovery of the new insight, which
may be almost instantaneous and possibly accompanied by a brief ecstasy.
This description is virtually identical with the scheme that Marghanita
Laski arrived at in her book Ecstasy: A Study of Some
Secular and Religious Experiences, in which she provided a
secular explanation for those states that are termed mystical in the
religious literature. She regarded them as wholly natural but also very
important and meaningful.
The gurus' disciples
The psychology of gurus is fascinating but so is that of their
followers, which Storr also considers. The psychoanalytic idea of
"transference" is probably relevant, and Storr relates this to
neoteny—the theory that humans are in a sense immature apes, both
physically and emotionally. Our ability to learn throughout life is
connected with this trait, which also makes us vulnerable to leaders
who are self-confident and authoritative and can assume the parental
role in our minds. Storr thinks that because this vulnerability is an
inbuilt human characteristic anyone, including himself, could be taken
in by a guru given the right circumstances. And although he concedes
that some of the gurus he considers, such as Freud and Jung, have done
more good than harm, he nevertheless counsels wariness in how we
All authorities, whether political or spiritual, should be
distrusted, and extremely authoritarian characters who divide the world
into "us" and "them", who preach that there is only one way forward, or
who believe that they are surrounded by enemies, are particularly to be
avoided. It is not necessary to be dogmatic to be effective. The
charisma of certainty is a snare which entraps the child who is latent
in all of us.
I have first-hand experience of the guru phenomenon, though luckily not
in a way that now causes me regret. I think this may have vaccinated me,
giving me at least a degree of resistance to later infection with the
Casaubon delusion. My attitude to .totality beliefs now coincides with
that of Richard Feynman, who warned against them repeatedly.
We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no
progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a
question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty.
But there is no certainty. People are terrified: how can you live and
not know? It is not odd at all.... It is possible to live and not know.
Avoiding the Casaubon delusion
Even if you wish to avoid being taken in by the Casaubon delusion it may
happen, as Storr warned us. Here are some of the danger signs to look
out for if you find yourself attracted to any person or group who may seem
to be making claims of this kind.
The very fact that we desperately wish
something to be true is a pointer to the possibility that we may
select the evidence that seems to support our favoured belief and
ignore whatever contradicts it. Many of us are guilty of attending
only to arguments with which we already agree; we prefer to bolster
our beliefs rather than challenge them. If we have spent many
years looking for the answer to a particular problem, we should be
all the more cautious about accepting any apparent solution that may
come our way.
Seeing the universe as a cipher
systems may represent the universe as a giant cipher, to
which they uniquely hold the key. We have to be careful here,
because there is a sense in which mainstream science treats the
universe in this way; think of physicists who speak of looking
for a Theory of Everything. The difference between a scientist and
someone suffering from the Casaubon delusion lies in their readiness
to test their ideas by trying to refute them instead of looking for
confirmatory evidence, but the distinction isn't always easy to
make. In fact, some some scientists say that string theory, often
favoured by those who seek a Theory of Everything, is metaphysics not
Limits to questions
Within many belief systems there is
an apparent readiness to accept questioning, and this may be quite
impressive at first. However, this openness is usually confined within
limits. Becoming a member of a group dedicated to the study and practice
of such a system is rather like learning a new game, with very
complicated rules many of which are never spelled out but have to be
picked up as one goes along. One of the rules is that questions that
threaten the very foundation of the belief system are out of bounds.
Because they believe they have been given the key to
a mystery not vouchsafed to others, adherents of a totality belief
system tend to regard themselves as an elite. What's more,
subgroups—ultra-elites—who are supposed to have specially
privileged understanding of the teaching tend to arise within the main
group and are accorded special respect.
Claims for great antiquity
A feature of many belief
systems is that they are said to be of great antiquity, even if
they have apparently arisen quite recently. Hardly any such group makes
a virtue of being entirely original.
Apply the critical test
Finally, to find out if you are beginning to fall into the Casaubon
delusion, ask yourself this question: what would it take to make me
think I might be mistaken? If you can't answer, or say there is
nothing that could do this, you are probably in trouble.