The Allure of Ideas

4 mins read

By Egil Sturk

In his short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940) Jorge Luis Borges imagines a secret 17th-century society of scholars called Orbis Tertius, akin to the Rosicrucians  and Freemasons,  dedicated to the creation of a new country: Uqbar. This secret society consists of idealist rationalists like George Berkeley, but also gnostics, kabbalists and other mystics. The society is revived in 1824 by the American slave-owner Ezra Buckley, who suggests that the society should create a planet rather than a paltry country. Buckley also oversees the creation of a systematic encyclopedia that documents this world, in order to show God that mortal men are autonomous agents with creative faculties, without need for providence. In 1942, the narrator finds the eleventh volume of A First Encyclopedia of Tlön: Hlaer to Jangr, which describes the fictional(?) planet Tlön: one among many mythological worlds of Uqbar. 

One entry describes the origins of Tlön. It, too, was invented by a secret society of astronomists, engineers, metaphysicians, and geometricians led by a sage endowed with creative genius and the vision necessary to subordinate all knowledge to a rigorous and systematic plan. It is an orderly world governed by inscrutable rules and natural laws. The inhabitants of Tlön are Berkeleyan idealists: nouns are meaningless to them, space lacks continuity, and the world consists of one essential substance: thought. The metaphysicians of Tlön pursue neither truth nor verisimilitude: one doctrine teaches that all time is past and that our lives are mere reminiscences, while another denies the existence of time altogether. Neither is wrong. The only heretics of Tlön are those who believe in materialism and causality. All literature is about the same thing and all books are thought to have been written by the same author: the idea of reality as one single indivisible subject is self-evident to the inhabitants of Tlön. 

Borges’s novella is rich in allusions and references to philosophy. The description of Tlön alone – which constitutes most of the story – is essentially an exploration of the implications of Berkeleyan idealism. But the short synopsis above also alludes to the grandiose visions shared by some rationalists in the 17th- and 18th-centuries: dreams of total and absolute knowledge, and a “foundationalist” effort to rethink and remake the world anew after the destructive decades of religious warfare between 1618-1648. To forge a rational order, free from superstition and bigotry and unbound by divine law or convention, built on indisputable and universal principles. Some of the most extreme examples of this doctrine can be found in French 18th-century Enlightenment rationalism. 

In Code de la Nature (1755), Étienne-Gabriel Morelly presented his theory of natural morality, which was as universal and self-evident as mathematical axioms to him. He hoped to expel chance from the universe and create the conditions for universal happiness through deliberative planning: by imposing the objective “plan” or “order” embedded in the fabric of reality, on society. This order was wholly “natural,” just and rational, and since virtue was embedded in the fabric of reality, it was also purged of all human vices and imperfections. It was – to paraphrase Borges – an angelic order conjured by chessmasters.

Marquis de Condorcet believed that humanity had discovered a “universal instrument equally applicable to all fields of human endeavours”  in the scientific method, and Abbé de Mably considered politics an exact science akin to astronomy: its laws were as certain to him as Newton’s laws of motion. All three believed that this political science served to conform reality to a universal and objective order. If the laws of society were known, its trajectory could be foreseen and its development guided. 

The idea of natural order became an animating force of the French revolution, promising a total renovation of society that would deliver universal happiness. Revolutionaries like Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just happily embraced the role of supreme legislator, whose role it was to govern in accordance with this natural order: there to be discerned and then applied by those with superior insight. But within a few years, Robespierre’s “Republic of Virtue” had degenerated into a “Reign of Terror.” 

In a postscript dated to 1947, Borges describes how objects from Tlön gradually infiltrate and supplant reality, and how the world succumbs to Tlön when the complete forty volumes of the Encyclopedia of Tlön are found in 1944: 

“Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plan? […] The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world […] already the teaching of its harmonious history […] has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood […] A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world.”

Per The Onion: “There are no more mothers or fathers or brothers or sisters,’ said the single consciousness […] ‘[Tlön] is mother and father and brother and sister. There is only [Tlön].”  Mankind cannot withstand the enigmas of the cosmos: they recoil from the obscure and ambiguous. Enchanted by the chessmasters’ promises of a comprehensible and orderly world, they abandon the chaos of reality and submit to the realm of ideas; and their convictions destroy the world. Borges invoked nazism and communism, but these systems of thought include all theories that claim the ability to describe, explain, and predict reality as a whole. The illusion of order, of possessing the key to history – the final, indisputable truth – inevitably ends in tragedy.

Ideas can transform the world, as J. M. Keynes famously observed, echoing Borges’s scattered dynasty:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers […] are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men […] are usually slaves of […] some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
But ideas should not be equated to reality, as the inhabitants of Tlön believe. In his parable On Exactitude in Science, Borges uses the map-territory relation to illustrate this: reality is irreducibly complex, and any attempt to represent it in abstract constitutes a violation of it. In order to accurately represent the signified, the map would have to be scaled at 1:1. Indeed, in his Preliminary Discourse (1751) Jean d’Alembert explicitly compared his and Diderot’s project of systematizing all the world’s knowledge in an encyclopedia to “a kind of world map.” Abstract models may be useful, but in mistaking the map for the territory as some enlightenment rationalists and their political enforcers did – “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air” –  we commit a grave mistake.

By Egil Sturk

Illustration: Gabriella Borg Bruchfeld

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