03/3/13

The Secret Teachings of All Ages


Secret TeachingsWhen confronted with a problem involving the use of the reasoning faculties, individuals of strong intellect keep their poise, and seek to reach a solution by obtaining facts bearing upon the question. Those of immature mentality, on the other hand, when similarly confronted, are overwhelmed.”

That’s one of the few quotable pieces I’ve found while reading through The Secret Teachings of All Ages, by Manly P. Hall. Originally published 1928, it has gone through several editions, most recently as an oversize, 750-page paperback in 2003. The full, ostentatious title includes this: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophy … Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages.

Whew. Let’s just refer to it as TSTOAA for now. It’s a rambling, unfocused work that attempts to tie together mythology, pseudoscience, spiritualism, the occult arts, magic, secret societies, mysticism, alchemy, symbolism, music, Freemasonry, the tarot and more into some coherent Christian-influenced unified philosophy, and fails majestically in the attempt.

There are a lot of things to quote from it, mind you – just not things I’d want to share as tokens of wisdom or insight, mostly as examples of nonsense, claptrap, fuzzy logic, conspiracy theory and unverifiable claims. He makes a lot of claims like “According to the mystics…” or “There is a legend…” that are not backed up any source reference. Worse are the “It is probable that…” sentences that begin a wild guess without any historical or scientific proof.

Since copyright was never renewed, you can download a PDF of the tome many places online, including here, here and here. You can read it online here. As always, I recommend you get a printed copy if you really want to wade through it. If you want the larger format (legal-sized pages), it’s also available, but this one is easier to carry and read in bed.

I first came across this oddly curious and wacky but yet fascinating book in 1970. It was a time of credulity, when hippies were exploring alternate philosophies and spiritualities, without applying a lot of critical thought to the content (which is why so many spun off into cults and bad drugs). It was the start of the recent infection of New Age “philosophy,” which led otherwise bright and exploratory intellects into dead ends like homeopathy, reflexology, numerology, astrology, crystal therapy, UFOs, New World Order, the Illuminati and more recently chemtrail conspiracies and anti-vaccination cults.

My obdurate skepticism and need for empirical proof of any claim has kept me from falling for most of this claptrap, but nonetheless, I read a lot of it out of sheer fascination.* Every now and then I return to reading about it, if nothing more than to remind myself how outlandishly silly a lot of this stuff really is.

I really didn’t know much about the author of TSTOAA until this year. According to manlyphall.org,

Manly Palmer Hall (March 18, 1901 – August 29, 1990) was a Canadian-born author and mystic. He is perhaps most famous for his work The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, which is widely regarded as his magnum opus, and which he published at the age of 25 (or 27, 1928)

A Canadian “mystic”? I suppose among all our lumberjacks, hockey players and money-sucking secretive senators, we must have a few. Wikipedia tells us Hall’s mother was a member of the bizarre Rosicrucian order, and, as if that wasn’t enough to warp anyone, she took him to live in Los Angeles at an early age, where he became a preacher. Apparently very intelligent, he taught himself by being a voracious reader, but seems to have absorbed much without really analysing or assessing it.

He started writing pamphlets and later books on various arcane, occult and mystical topics. He was quite prolific, for which, as a writer myself, I tip my hat to him. The scope of his interests is breathtaking, but so was his credulity. For example:

“Through the Gypsies the Tarot cards may be traced back to the religious symbolism of the ancient Egyptians. In his remarkable work, The Gypsies, Samuel Roberts presents ample proof of their Egyptian origin. In one place he writes: “When Gypsies originally arrived in England is very uncertain. They are first noticed in our laws, by several statutes against them in the reign of Henry VIII.; in which they are described as ‘an outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians,–who do not profess any craft or trade, but go about in great numbers, * * *.’” A curious legend relates that after the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria, the large body of attendant priests banded themselves together to preserve the secrets of the rites of Serapis. Their descendants (Gypsies) carrying with them the most precious of the volumes saved from the burning library–the Book of Enoch, or Thoth (the Tarot)–became wanderers upon the face of the earth, remaining a people apart with an ancient language and a birthright of magic and mystery.”

What malarkey! The Romani people emigrated from India in the Medieval era. Tarot and other playing cards appeared in Europe around the same time – Egyptians never had playing cards – all using distinctly European images and symbols, many with recognizably Christian reference (not universal archetypes). The cards were first used for games, although non-tarot decks were used for rudimentary divination as early as 1540. The use of Tarot cards in the modern style of fortune telling stems from the 18th century. Wikipedia notes:

The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survival in the modern world. De Gébelin first asserted that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. Gébelin further claimed that the name “tarot” came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning “royal”, and ro, meaning “road”, and that the Tarot therefore represented a “royal road” to wisdom. De Gébelin wrote this treatise before Jean-François Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, or indeed before the Rosetta Stone had been discovered, and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin’s fanciful etymologies. Despite this, the identification of the tarot cards with the Egyptian Book of Thoth was already firmly established in occult practice and continues in to the present day.

de Gebelin was another of those occult hucksters who peddled their shoddy wares to the gullible in the 18th century. Pretty much everything he wrote is claptrap. But people bought it then, just as they buy the chemtrail conspiracies today.

As an editor, Hall’s work makes me wince. His writing is clumsy and amateurishly leaden, although sometimes imbued with a passion. John Colombo, reviewing a biography of Hall, writes of Hall’s early work:

“…the writing was breezy and the details were somewhat repetitious. Stock phrases were used and reused to describe the ancient cultures of the past of the Near, the Middle, and the Far East. Everything was always a little bit “mysterious.” There was no scholarship per se, but there was familiarity with classical texts.”

Breezy? Hall clearly learned density as he matured. TSTOAA is to breezy what a Hummer is to fuel economy. Hall is like an unselective jackdaw, collecting every shiny bit of arcana or esoterica he finds and trying to cram it into his preconceived model of the supernatural world. It’s like trying to build a car with bits of Lego and Mechano pieces and anything else you find in the basement. The result is awkward and ungainly, but his believers seem willing to overlook the obvious flaws.

In his chapter on “American Indian Symbolism,” Hall wrote this embarrassingly condescending, colonialist comment:

THE North American Indian is by nature a symbolist, a mystic, and a philosopher. Like most: aboriginal peoples, his soul was en rapport with the cosmic agencies manifesting about him… The red man’s philosophy of elemental creatures is apparently the outcome of his intimate contact with Nature, whose inexplicable wonders become the generating cause of such metaphysical speculations.

In the 1920s when Hall wrote it, a cultural upheaval was taking place. It was the Jazz Age, a time of new politics, new arts, new dances, new music, new beliefs. The hard-headed, prosaic approach of the late Victorian era gave way to a joyous willingness to belief in almost anything anyone pitched.** Much of the West was undergoing a revival in spiritualism that attracted millions of avid followers to pursue some of the most egregious claptrap ever foisted on civilization by a large number of charlatans and hucksters (like Aleister Crowley and Edgar Cayce). But among them were those who sincerely believed in it. Hall seems to have been among them. A little more critical thinking might have avoided statements like this:

EACH of the four primary elements as taught by the early philosophers has its analogue in the quaternary terrestrial constitution of man. The rocks and earth correspond to the bones and flesh; the water to the various fluids; the air to the gases; and the fire to the bodily heat. Since the bones are the framework that sustains the corporeal structure, they may be regarded as a fitting emblem of the spirit–that divine foundation which supports the composite fabric of mind, soul, and body. To the initiate, the skeleton of death holding in bony fingers the reaper’s scythe denotes Saturn (Kronos), the father of the gods, carrying the sickle with which he mutilated Ouranos, his own sire.

Or this:

It was in recognition of Bacon’s intellectual accomplishments that King James turned over to him the translators’ manuscripts of what is now known as the King James Bible for the presumable purpose of checking, editing, and revising them. The documents remained in his hands for nearly a year, but no information is to be had concerning what occurred in that time. Regarding this work, William T. Smedley writes: ” It will eventually be proved that the whole scheme of the Authorised Version of the Bible was Francis Bacon’s.” (See The Mystery of Francis Bacon.) The first edition of the King James Bible contains a cryptic Baconian headpiece. Did Bacon cryptographically conceal in the Authorized Bible that which he dared not literally reveal in the text–the secret Rosicrucian key to mystic and Masonic Christianity?

Atlantis from TSTOAAHall has an almost childlike naivete or gullibility about his sources, although most have long since been exposed as cons or wingnuts – like Helena Blavatsky, Cagliostro and the Comte de St. Germaine.

Hall gives credence in his 45 chapters to far too many debunked beliefs, superstitions and outright fictions like the Gypsies came from Egypt, Atlantis existed, alchemy, astrology, Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works, and that the Freemasons and Rosicrucians are an ancient order.

Despite the occult content, Hall’s perspective is quite Christian and almost evangelical in places; Christianity has a suggestive superiority among the faiths he describes, with the suggestion that it has deep roots in ancient pagan mythologies (that, in Hall’s telling, are precursors to modern beliefs). Christianity is never seriously questioned in TSTOAA. He often cloaks comments about Chrisitianity thus:

“The existence of interpolated material in the fourth Gospel substantiates the belief that the work was originally written without any specific reference to the man Jesus, the statements therein accredited to Him being originally mystical discourses delivered by the personification of the Universal Mind. The remaining Johannine writings–the Epistles and the Apocalypse–are enshrouded by a similar veil of mystery.”

There are many glowing reviews and uncritically effusive comments about TSTOAA online, but remarkably few negative ones; I haven’t found a single site that comprehensively debunks the voluminous codswallop that packs Hall’s magnum opus. The positive ones don’t surprise me: there’s a remarkable dearth of critical thinking, compounded by a remarkable number of gullible, New Agers online***. But there are also a lot of skeptics, few of whom seem to have tackled this work. Boingboing‘s Gareth Branwyn is one of the rare exceptions, albeit no more than passingly critical:

Manly Palmer Hall has been called the America Madame Blavatsky, which probably isn’t far from the truth. Like the controversial Russian-born founder of Theosophy, Hall seemed dedicated to quantity over quality in his writing (authoring more than 50 books on esoterica and self-help), and like Helena, the troubling smell of snake oil swirled in his rotund wake. Manly P Hall is one of the people principally responsible for the birth of the New Age religious movement in the United States…

TSTOAA is a tough read, but it’s packed with enough ammunition to keep any skeptics and debunkers busy for many a long night and if it doesn’t make you throw it against the wall, it might make you chuckle. I wish someone would take a systematic and comprehensive approach and deconstructed it so that it might not continue to be a force for New Age idiocy today. It belongs in the same literary remainder bin as the Urantia Book in bookstores. Read, instead, the Golden Bough and the works of Joseph Campbell.

~~~~~

* Since the late 1960s, I tended to favour the spartan practice of Zen; stripped away from the mystical brouhaha, with a distinct deficiency of deities, angels, goblins, ghosts and other spirits. Don’t get me wrong: I have great respect for the mystical tradition, for the human drive for introspection and insight into unfathomable things. It has brought us magnificent works of prose and poetry, great stories, music and great art. I just separate the drive from the conclusions formed by believers. It’s the conclusions that cause me grief, not the search itself.

** James Frazer, in his scholarly masterpiece about magic and superstition, The Golden Bough, wrote  succinctly, “In short, magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.”

*** “During the past four decades, America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics. Indeed, popular anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are now synonymous.” Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason, Pantheon Books, 2008