Apr 3, 2015

On the Cult of Books

Ancient Wisdom Sees the
Universe As a Volume to Be Read

Jorge Luis Borges

Just as our planet and the Kosmos are similar to books,
there must be also a  resemblance between a book and a human being

“Philosophy is written in that very
large book that is continually opened
before our eyes (I mean the universe),
but which is not understood unless first
one studies the language and knows the
characters in which it is written. The language
of that book is mathematical and the characters
are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.”

(Galileo Galilei, quoted by JLB)

A 2012 Editorial Note:

Human beings can be described as living words and sentences in an eternal Book of Life which periodically undergoes new readings - and new editions.  

Individual life unfolds like a book. It is always being simultaneously written, and read. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin made his famous epitaph:

“The Body of Benjamin Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book - its contents torn out, and stripped of its lettering and gilding - lies here, food for worms. But the book shall not be lost, for it will, as he believed, appear once more in a new and elegant edition, revised and corrected by the author.” [1]

The book of life is both individual and universal, and Helena Blavatsky wrote in her 1888 work “The Secret Doctrine”:

“The [word] Lipi-ka, from the word lipi, ‘writing’, means literally the ‘Scribes’. Mystically, these Divine Beings are connected with Karma, the Law of Retribution, for they are the Recorders or Annalists who impress on the (to us) invisible tablets of the Astral Light, ‘the great picture-gallery of eternity’ - a faithful record of every act, and even thought, of man, of all that was, is, or ever will be, in the phenomenal Universe. As said in ‘Isis’[2], this divine and unseen canvas is the BOOK OF LIFE. As it is the Lipika who project into objectivity from the passive Universal Mind the ideal plan of the universe, upon which the ‘Builders’ reconstruct the Kosmos after every Pralaya, it is they who stand parallel to the Seven Angeles of the Presence, whom the Christians recognise as the seven ‘Planetary Spirits’ or the ‘Spirits of the Stars’; for thus it is they who are the direct amanuenses of the Eternal Ideation - or, as thought by Plato, the ‘Divine Thought’.” [3]

Few, however, are able to “read” in the tablets of astral light the story of life in our planet, or in the solar system. In the “Letters From the Masters of the Wisdom” one can see a reference to the Maha Chohan, an Eastern sage and a Master of Masters - “to whose insight the future lies like an open page”. [4]

The following text, written in 1951, is reproduced from “Selected Non-Fictions”, Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin Books, UK, 560 pp., 1999, pp. 358-362.

(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)


[1] See for instance “Theosophy” Magazine, volume I, August 1913, p. 446.

[2] See “Isis Unveiled”, H. P. Blavatsky, Theosophy Co., Los Angeles, volume I, p. 343.

[3] “The Secret Doctrine”, Helena P. Blavatsky, Theosophy Co., Los Angeles, volume I, pp. 103-104.

[4] “Letters From the Masters of the Wisdom”, TPH, Adyar, 1973, first series, letter 16, p. 41.

On the Cult of Books

Jorge Luis Borges

In Book VIII of the Odyssey, we read that the gods weave misfortunes so that future generations will have something to sing about; Mallarmé’s statement, “The world exists to end up in a book”, seems to repeat, some thirty centuries later, the same concept of an aesthetic justification for evils.

These two teleologies [1], however, do not entirely coincide; the former belongs to the era of the spoken word, and the latter to an era of the written word. One speaks of telling the story and the other of books.

A book, any book, is for us a sacred object: Cervantes, who probably did not listen to everything that everyone said, read even “the torn scraps of paper in the streets.” Fire, in one of Bernard Shaw’s comedies, threatens the library at Alexandria; someone exclaims that the memory of mankind will burn, and Caesar replies: “A shameful memory. Let it burn”. The historical Caesar, in my opinion, might have approved or condemned the command the author attributes to him, but he would not have considered it, as we do, a sacrilegious joke. The reason is clear: for the ancients the written word was nothing more than a substitute for the spoken word.

It is well known that Pythagoras did not write; Gomperz (Griechische Denker I, 3) maintains that it was because he had more faith in the virtues of spoken instruction. More forceful than Pythagoras’ mere abstention is Plato’s unequivocal testimony. In the Timaeus he stated: “It is an arduous task to discover the maker and father of this universe, and, having discovered him, it is impossible to tell it to all men”; and in the Phaedrus he recounted an Egyptian fable against writing (the practice of which causes people to neglect the exercise of memory and to depend on symbols), and said that books are like the painted figures “that seem to be alive, but do not answer a word to the questions they are asked.” To alleviate or eliminate that difficulty, he created the philosophical dialogue.

A teacher selects a pupil, but a book does not select its readers, who may be wicked or stupid; this Platonic mistrust persists in the words of Clement of Alexandria, a man of pagan culture: “The most prudent course is not to write  but to learn and teach by word of mouth, because what is written remains” (Stromateis), and in the same treatise: “To write all things in a book is to put a sword in the hands of a child”, which derives from the Gospels: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” That sentence is from Jesus, the greatest of the oral teachers , who only once wrote a few words on the ground, and no man read what He had written (John 8:6).

Clement of Alexandria wrote about his distrust of writing at the end of the second century; the end of the fourth century saw the beginning of the mental process that would culminate, after many generations, in the predominance of the written word over the spoken one, of the pen over the voice. A remarkable stroke of fortune determined that a writer would establish the exact instant (and I am not exaggerating) when this vast process began. St. Augustine tells it in Book VI of the Confessions:

“When he [Ambrose] was reading, his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. He did not restrict access to anyone coming in, nor was it customary even for a visitor to be announced. Very often when we were there, we saw him silently reading and never otherwise. After sitting for a long time in silence (for who would dare to burden him in such intent concentration?) we used to go away. We supposed that in the hubbub of other people’s troubles, he would not want to be invited to consider another problem. We wondered if he read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties, or who might wish to debate some difficult questions. If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished. Besides, the need to preserve his voice, which used easily to become hoarse, could have been a very fair reason for silent reading. Whatever motive he had for his habit, this man had a good reason for what he did.”

St. Augustine was a disciple of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, around the year 384; thirteen years later, in Numidia, he wrote his Confessions and was still troubled by that extraordinary sight: a man in a room, with a book, reading without saying the words.[2]

That man passed directly from the written symbol to intuition, omitting sound; the strange art he initiated, the art of silent reading, would lead to marvelous consequences. It would lead, many years later, to the concept of the book as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. (This mystical concept, transferred to profane literature, would produce the unique destinies of Flaubert and Mallarmé, of Henry James and James Joyce.) Superimposed on the notion of a God who speaks with men in order to command them to do something or to forbid them to do something was that of the Absolute Book, of a Sacred Scripture.

For Muslims, the Koran (also called “The Book,” al-Kitab) is not merely a work of God, like men’s souls or the universe; it is one of the attributes of God, like His eternity or His rage. In chapter XIII we read that the original text, the Mother of the Book, is deposited in Heaven. Muhammad al-Ghazali, the Algazel of the scholastics, declared: “The Koran is copied in a book, is pronounced with the tongue, is remembered in the heart and, even so, continues to persist in the center of God and is not altered by its passage through written pages and human understanding.” George Sale observes that this uncreated Koran is nothing but its idea or Platonic archetype; it is likely that al-Ghazali used the idea of archetypes, communicated to Islam by the Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity and by Avicenna, to justify the notion of the Mother of the Book.

Even more extravagant than the Muslims were the Jews. The first chapter of the Jewish Bible contains the famous sentence: “And God said, ´Let there be light`, and there was light”; the Kabbalists argued that the virtue of that command from the Lord came from the letters of the words. The Sepher Yetzirah (Book of the Formation), written in Syria or Palestine around the sixth century, reveals that Jehovah of the Armies, God of Israel and God Omnipotent, created the universe by means of the cardinal numbers from one to ten and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. That numbers may be instruments or elements of the Creation is the dogma of Pythagoras and Iamblichus; that letters also are is a clear indication of the new cult of writing. The second paragraph of the second chapter reads: “Twenty-two fundamental letters: God drew them, engraved them, combined them, weighed them, permutated them, and with them produced everything that is and everything that will be.” Then the book reveals which letter has power over air, and which over water, and which over fire, and which over wisdom, and which over peace, and which over grace, and which over sleep, and which over anger, and how (for example) the letter kaf, which has power over life, served to form the sun in the world, the day Wednesday in the week, and the left ear on the body.

The Christians went even further. The thought that the divinity had written a book moved them to imagine that he had written two, and that the other one was the universe. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon declared in his Advancement of Learning that God offered us two books so that we would not fall into error: the first, the volume of the Scriptures, reveals His will; the second, the volume of the creatures, reveals His power and is the key to the former. Bacon intended much more than the making of a metaphor; he believed that the world was reducible to essential forms (temperatures, densities, weights, colors), which formed, in limited number, an abecedarium naturae or series of letters with which the universal text is written [3]. [4]

Sir Thomas Browne, around 1642, confirmed that “Thus there are two Books from whence I collected my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of His servant Nature, that universal and publick Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the Eyes of all: those that never saw Him in the one, have discover’d Him in the other” (Religio Medici I, 16). In the same paragraph we read: “In brief, all things are artificial; for Nature is the Art of God.” Two hundred years passed, and the Scot Carlyle, in various places in his books, particularly in the essay on Cagliostro, went beyond Bacon’s hypothesis; he said that universal history was a Sacred Scripture that we decipher and write uncertainly, and in which we too are written. Later, Léon Bloy would write:

“There is no human being on earth who is capable of declaring who he is. No one knows what he has come to this world to do, to what his acts, feelings, ideas correspond, or what his real name is, his imperishable Name in the registry of Light…. History is an immense liturgical text, where the i’s and the periods are not worth less than the versicles or whole chapters, but the importance of both is undeterminable and is profoundly hidden.” (L’Ame de Napoleon, 1912)

The world, according to Mallarmé, exists for a book; according to Bloy, we are the versicles or words or letters of a magic book, and that incessant book is the only thing in the world: more exactly, it is the world.


[1] Teleology is that part of philosophy or religion which discusses the cause and the purpose of life and the universe. (CCA)

[2] Note by Jorge Luis Borges: The commentators have noted that it was customary at that time to read out loud in order to grasp the meaning better, for there were no punctuation marks, nor even a division of words, and to read in common because there was a scarcity of manuscripts. The dialogue of Lucian of Samosata, Against an Ignorant Buyer of Books, includes an account of that custom in the second century.

[3] Note by Jorge Luis Borges: Galileo’s works abound with the concept of the universe as a book. The second section of Favaro’s anthology (Galileo Galilei: Pensieri, motti e sentenze; Florence, 1949) is entitled “Il libro della Natura.” I quote the following paragraph: “Philosophy is written in that very large book that is continually opened before our eyes (I mean the universe), but which is not understood unless first one studies the language and knows the characters in which it is written. The language of that book is mathematical and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.”

[4] Regarding Note [3] above, a “book of nature” whose language is mathematical, and whose characters are circles, triangles and other geometric figures, corresponds to the occult records kept by Initiates in their own language, Senzar. See “The Secret Doctrine”, H. P. Blavatsky, Theosophy Co., volume I, pp. 1-22; and also “The Voice of the Silence”, H. P. Blavatsky, Theosophy Co., Preface.  (CCA)


The above article was first published in our associated websites in 2012.


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