Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.
In his novel Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow imagines a wonderfully improbable conversation on metaphysics between the financier J.P. Morgan and the auto magnate Henry Ford. Morgan has invited Ford to lunch at his home on Madison Avenue. On a tour of his library, the financier ushers Ford into a hidden chamber, where he has on display some of the most treasured artifacts in his vast collection of ancient texts and illuminated manuscripts. He shows off a folio of an early Rosicrucian text and a fragment of stone tablet with cuneiform writings attributed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. Morgan's collection also includes the mummified remains of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to his luncheon guest.
Morgan has concluded that reincarnation is the only explanation for why a bumpkin like Ford can be possessed of such genius. Ford, as it turns out, has arrived at much the same conclusion, albeit by a different route. He declines Morgan's invitation to join him on an expedition up the Nile with his scholarly retainers to decipher the wisdom of the ancients. He has learned all he needs to know on the subject from a tract called An Eastern Fakir's Eternal Knowledge, which cost him 25 cents. He tells Morgan, "You don't have to pick the garbage pails of Europe and build steamboats to sail the Nile just to find out something that you can get in the mail order for two bits!" Throughout history there have been mystery cults and secret societies devoted to the study of esoteric knowledge that was believed to hold the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe. Adherents were comparatively few in a world where most people could not read or write, much less master an arcane body of knowledge that was often written in a language other than their own. The writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a mythological figure of mixed Greco-Egyptian origin, were the basis for the Hermetic cults that existed alongside Gnostic and Christian communities in the first centuries of the Common Era. A thousand years later, the Florentine prince Cosimo de Medici -- the J.P. Morgan of his day -- acquired a number of lost Hermetic texts and had them translated. These had a wide influence during the Renaissance on practitioners of alchemy, astrology and magic, as well as on such groups as the Rosicrucians and Freemasons. The Hermetic tradition has continued into the present with the work of Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, among others.
Modern-day scientists rigorously avoid metaphysical speculation but in other respects resemble the practitioners of occult science more closely than they might care to acknowledge. They are also comparatively few in number and are initiated into their field through mastery of a body of arcane knowledge. Those at the cutting edge of science operate in a realm that is largely invisible to the naked eye and that may be as improbable as anything conjured up by the wizards of old. For example, scientists seeking to incorporate the four known physical forces into a "unified field" theory believe all matter is made up of tiny strings vibrating in an eleven-dimensional universe. String theory has made no predictions that can be empirically tested, and the strings are too small to be detected by any scientific instruments, leading some critics to complain that it has more to do with metaphysics than with science.
For men like J.P. Morgan and Cosimo de Medici, rarefied knowledge has an attraction quite apart from any truths that may be revealed. Its acquisition subtly confirms their view of the world and of their privileged place in it. They assume that anything so dearly purchased must have value. And the effort required to decipher it shows them to be men of uncommon intelligence and discernment, even if most of the intellectual labor is performed by hired hands. They mistake owning for knowing.
There is another kind of knowledge whose value cannot be measured in dollars or in intellectual effort. Jesus refers to this way of knowing when he gives thanks to God that "thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes." How can this be so? A child knows no higher truths, no sacred traditions, no hidden mysteries. He knows nothing of the laws governing the motion of heavenly bodies or how the stars supposedly govern the destiny of mankind. He knows nothing of such things, yet from him nothing is hidden. All the world for him is the world he is happily absorbed in right now. He laughs; he cries. He lives without premeditation or regret, an innocent. He knows only love and pain and the joy of the present moment. To such, Jesus said, belongs the kingdom of God.
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