October 4th, 2009



So … a week or so back there was this book fair … and Daughter #1 and I made it there for the last hour, they were pretty much picked over, but I found this little gem (the only one I got). Needless to say, I'd read on-line versions of Principia Discordia before, but I'd never had an actual copy of the book. I see that there are numerous versions of this available out there, but this particular edition is the 1991 one from IllumiNet Press, which I believe contains the original graphics from the various hand-made volumes generated by Kerry Thornley (aka Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst) back in the 1960's.

For those who don't immediately recognize it, the Principia Discordia is the “founding document” of the generally-credited-as-satirical religion of Dicordianism, which worships the Greek Goddess of Discord, Eris. This volume is 1/3rd very interesting introduction (which I'm not sure is in other editions) and 2/3rds the main document. According to the introduction, Thornley and Gregory Hill (aka Malaclypse The Younger, credited as author), “in 1958 or 1959 in a bowling alley in Friendly Hills or maybe Santa Fe Springs, California”, had an experience with Eris, which resulted in Her taking up residence in Thornley's pineal gland, thus generating all this fascinating text.

The edition at hand is (once out of the introduction) quite graphic, in a “pasted-on-a-lamppost broadsheet by unstable persons” kind of way, with each of the “canonical” 75 pages numbered with a numbering stamp (as 00075, etc) and generally tarted up with assorted random rubberstamps and purloined clipart. The official title is “Principia Discordia, or How I Found Goddess and What I Did To Her When I Found Her – Wherein is Explained Absolutely Everything Worth Knowing About Absolutely Anything”, this being “The Magnum Opiate” of Malaclypse the Younger. The text meanders through various conspiracies, cosmologies, psychologies, and assorted theories about, well, absolutely anything, spinning out a strange (if somewhat incoherent) web of all things Erisian. The most familiar element here may be the symbol, “The Sacred Chao” which is a Yin-Yang symbol on its side with Eris' golden apple (inscribed with “Kallisti”) on one side and a pentagon (symbolizing order) on the other, expressing how order breeds chaos and out of chaos … well, there are theories.

For something so odd, Discordianism has had quite an effect in the culture. It claims The Church of Sub-Genius (of Bob Dobbs fame) as a sister religion, with Discordianism providing credentials as a “Pope” and Sub-Genius providing credentials as a “Tsar”, with other obvious similarities. Because the Bavarian Illuminati “are totally infiltrated” into the Discordian ranks, Thornley also claims the cult of Eris to have been the inspiration for Wilson & Shea's Illuminatus Trilogy, and subsequent memetic ripples through the cultural unconsciousness. Of course Discordianism had its own inspirations, such as the strange figure of Emperor Norton, whose exploits get a certain amount of attention in the book (perhaps as a figure of "Discordian governance"?), but it would be impolite to the Goddess to imply that all this material did not emanate from her specific beneficence.

As noted, this copy of the Principia Discordia is a long-gone and out-of-print edition (although copies are available via Amazon's new/used vendors, some with ridiculously high price tags), but other, more recent, versions do seem to be available, although if you're looking for the 60's graphics, it appears that you're going to have to go with used. On-line versions (such as http://www.principiadiscordia.com/) are similar, but most seem to have been re-set in computer faces (or to HTML text), and so have lost a good deal of the retro charm.

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About "what is" ...

I am somewhat bemused that just a day or so back, a reader of my regular journal (from whence these book reviews ultimately emerge) suggested this volume as something that I should read. He was pointing me to an on-line version (that I had, frankly, downloaded and printed out a few months back, being that most books composed a couple of millennia ago are well out of copyright and these days “out there” for the taking), however I had picked up a copy of the Dover Thrift Editions printing of Epictetus' Enchiridion in the meanwhile (I needed another $2.50 to get to Amazon's free shipping level, as usual for these books) ... but one has to figure that the confluence of these various factors may well indicate that this was something advisable to inject into my mental stream at this point!

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher who was born in the first century C.E., a student of Musonius Rufus, and teacher to Arrianus, who was responsible for collecting together his master's lecture notes into the Enchiridion, or “Manual”, as a distillation of Epictetus' teachings. For those not familiar with the Stoics, here's a bit from the book's introduction on this philosophy:

In the Stoic view, our capacity to be happy is completely dependent on ourselves – how we treat ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we react to events in general. Events are good or bad only in terms of our reaction to them. We must not try to predict or control what happens, but merely to accept events with equanimity.
It would appear from the biographical info that survives about Epictetus that he certainly had a lot of opportunity to practice these approaches, having been born in Phrygia a cripple, he ended up as a youth a slave in Rome, but managed to become a freeman, and be apprenticed to a philosopher of note.

The format here is a large number of relatively small blocks of text, the largest being about a page in length, the smallest, a single line. The Enchiridion proper just takes up 52 of these, with the rest of the book being “fragments” which have footnotes pointing to the opinions of various scholars as to the authenticity or provenance of many of the other 178. This is not a particularly hopeful philosophy, but it is not morbid either. The focus is on “what is” and getting one's perspective in a place where that is sufficient. Here are a few samplings:

Of things some are in our power, and others are not. In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts. ... (E-I)

Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life. (E-VIII)

It is not poverty which produces sorrow, but desire; nor does wealth release from fear, but reason (the power of reasoning). If then you acquire the power of reasoning, you will neither desire wealth nor complain of poverty. (F-XXV)

It is better by assenting to truth to conquer opinion, than by assenting to opinion to be conquered by truth. (F-XXXVIII)
As noted, assorted versions of Epictetus' Enchiridion are available on the web, but I'm not sure if this particular one (with the "fragments") is out there (the ones I looked at didn't have that). Of course, you can get the hard-copy version with both parts from Amazon for a whopping $2.50 ... a perfect add-on for those times when you're just a bit short of the $25 free-shipping level!

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