Friday, March 23, 2012


            Of the many challenging documents of the Enlightenment one stands out as particularly enlightening. Its author is widely presumed to be John Toland, but it was formally an anonymous treatise with the confrontationally challenging title “The Treatise of the Three Imposters.”  The three were Moses, Christ, and Muhammad and one can easily imagine why the piece caused such a stir. Authority then, as now, was vested in lies mostly, and this piece challenged one of the biggest, the very legitimacy of the two transcendent authorities of the time, kings and popes. King, of course stands for the whole system of divine-sanctioned monarchy and pope for the equivalent in organized religion. The essential tension between king and pope was one of the driving dynamic forces causing human social and political evolution throughout the late Middle Ages extending into the Enlightenment to be sure. But what was ordinarily assumed to be beyond the reach of criticism was the fact of divine authorization. One could love or hate king Richard, but if you really wanted to dethrone him your justification had to be that God had grown tired of him.
            The Three Imposters went beyond the normal popular criticism of the foils of the king or church, to the core of their institutional legitimacy. It lampooned the three key figures of the Judaic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), casting them as regular men whose claim of providential authority and ultimate wisdom were as legitimate as would be a court jester’s claim to the same. Debunking the lie was pulling the rug from under the structure that kept the whole society functioning. If the king were king by a flip of a coin and the pope pope by accident rather than providence, why not just dispense with them?
            There was a fourth imposter waiting in the wings. Adam Smith wrote about him (or perhaps we could institute a female imposter here – doesn’t make a difference).  Although Smith’s most important writing was about the importance of the social contract, it is the divinity of the invisible hand for which he is best remembered. Free market fundamentalism is so basic to the core of how the modern world is organized that it takes on the characteristics normally associated with king and pope. The invisible hand is to the free market what God was to the King and Pope. Political parties offer sacrifices to quell its anger, failing states offer prayers (in modern terms, bailouts) to try and coddle its favor, the largest communist party in history adulates its grandeur and seeks its blessings.
            Much as the three imposters before her, this fourth imposter creates the conditions for wealth and authority to accumulate unabated. Today’s rulers, be they standard billionaires and their lackeys, or the new class of corporate persons, gain their privilege and rulership prerogatives through divine right.  This much is agreed, although the divinity is the invisible hand they all talk about. Could we imagine what might happen if people began thinking about that fourth imposter, they way people began thinking about the first three imposters in the 18th century? That would be a brave new world, in a good sense.


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