Anthony Campbell

The Casaubon Delusion

Extensively revised 23-08-2021

Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch

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 Casaubon delusion.

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.

A delusion?

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 approach them.
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.

Emotional appeal

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

Totality belief 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 scienrce.

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.

Elitism

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.