Tag Archives: Philosophy

Robert Anton Wilson RIP

Robert Anton Wilson

It is with the greatest sadness that I say that Robert Anton Wilson has died. For those of you who don’t know him, a short bio is below with a death notice from his family below that. For me personally, he was the person most responsible for forming what I believe today. He will be greatly missed. ūüė•

[b]Robert Anton Wilson or RAW[/b] (January 18, 1932 ‚Äď January 11, 2007) was an American novelist, essayist, philosopher, psychologist, futurologist, anarchist, and conspiracy theory researcher.

Robert Anton Wilson arrived on this planet on January 18, 1932 – the 28th birthday of fellow acid head Archie Leach – in Methodist Hospital, downtown Brooklyn, New York, to John Joseph (a longshoreman) and Elizabeth (Milli) Wilson. He traces one branch of his family tree back to a Danish pirate named Olav the Black, who seized control of the Isle of Man in the 7th century. He spent his first years in Flatbush, moving with his family to Gerritsen Beach around the age of 4 or 5, where they stayed until he turned 13.

His was one of many “Shanty Irish” families occupying the rolling dunes of the Garrison Beach environs of Long Island, and he recalls the Deep Depression years before World War II as an age in which many middle-aged women had goiter, it was thought that wearing galoshes in the coal-heated house caused deafness, that Roosevelt was a Wicked Jew itching to get the US into another war in order to become even richer, that if you drank milk right after eating pickles you’d die, and that masturbation caused blindness. In this barbaric age people regularly died of tuberculosis, and children contracted dozens of diseases that have since been practically abolished. Wilson himself had measles, German measles, mumps, flu, rheumatic fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, and in 1934 he was diagnosed with polio, which was later cured by the Sister Kenny Method of manipulation. (For RAW this was the first of many incidences in which he obtained results from methods deemed by Authority to be “worthless”, “dangerous”, “unscientific”, “metaphysical claptrap”, “witchcraft”, etc.) By the time Wilson was four it was noted he was a great talker, and one neighbor told his parents they should send him to law school, because he could “‘talk any judge off the bench’, an Irish metaphor I do not quite understand.” (CT2, pg.44) He seems to have had the typical Catholic grade school education: emotional and physical terrorization by sadistic nuns, rote memorization of “facts”, and indoctrination into the Mysteries of the Trinity.

[b]Some Selected Highlights in RAW’s Life, 1932-1950:[/b]
1936: In his backyard saw a Giant Spider the size of an Australian Shepherd dog.

1940: Began a stupendous lifelong reading career with Believe It or Not by Ripley and Amazing Stories.

1946: Became an atheist, largely due to raging hormones, and convinced his parents to let him go to Brooklyn Polytechnic High School, where he might study engineering. His real goal was to get away from the Catholic Reality Tunnel.

1946-1950: At Brooklyn Poly studied mathematics, learned about virtual reality from films and read James T. Farrell, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Steinbeck; read Orson Welles’s column in the New York Post and saw his stage production of Around the World in 80 Days; read all of Shakespeare and forbidden “revisionist” historians like Charles Beard, James J. Martin, and Harry Elmer Barnes; found Philip Wylie’s _An Essay on Morals_, which turned him on to Jung; read Keats, Shelley, Blake, Whitman, Yeats, Eliot, and Pound; stumbled onto Heinlein, Sturgeon, and Stapeldon; read “many who now seem totally ‘unimportant'”; discovered Picasso; read Spinoza, Hume, Marx, Veblen, Henry George, Sir James Frazer, H.L. Mencken, and “all sorts of folks like that”. (CT2,pp.107-112) He dates his discovery of James Joyce at around 1947 (age 15). He has been reading Joyce’s works ever since.

In 1949 he was browsing Brooklyn Tech’s library and happened upon Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity. He checked the book out and read it all in one weekend, the first time. Then he returned it to the library and went out and bought a copy, “Because I knew I would have to re-read it several times before I could hope to understand it fully.” (CT2, pg.151) RAW says this massive amount of reading and studying exposed him to folks who had “reality-tunnels very different from Irish Catholicism…I had moved in Virtual Space from the one square mile of Gerrison Beach and its Irish Catholic grid to several square miles of Brooklyn/Manhattan and the world of modern thought and modern art generally.” (CT2, pg.111)

1950-1962: Brief Glimpses:
1950: Experienced a “hallucination” in which he felt like he “became unstuck in time.”

c.1950 – next few years: Graduated from Brooklyn Poly, got a job with an engineering firm specializing in the problem of underground corrosion of pipes. Enrolled at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, majoring in Electrical Engineering. Worked 8 hour days with math-heavy night school for 2 hours four days a week, all the while finding time to imitate Ezra Pound miserably and write stories in the mold of H.P. Lovecraft, none of which were ever published.

He changed his major to Mathematics, mostly because he loved pure math and because he realized his basic temperament was analytical, not practical. Spent time as young white hipster intellectual, listened to be-bop greats in NY nightclubs. Had an affair with a black woman, which taught him about racism in a more-than-intellectual way.

Started smoking pot.

1956: Another “hallucination”, felt a “spontaneous satori of immanent divinity of all things.”

The 50s: After a brief fling as a Trotskyite (he quit because he liked the “wrong” artists and Jung), RAW became interested in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. “Like most Randroids, I went around for a few years mindlessly parroting all the Rand dogma and imagining I was an ‘individualist’.” Many years later RAW met Rand. When he confessed to her his doubts about certain Rand dogmas he was “Cast Out Into the Realm of Darkness forever to wail and gnash my teeth in the Realm of Thud.” Rand made the Trotskyites and Catholic Priests he’d known “look like models of tolerance in comparison.” (CT2, pp.119-120)

After his Randroid days he adopted the philosophies of Bertrand Russell, Mencken, and Nietzsche while imagining himself a “freethinker.” He went from agnostic to dogmatic atheist to Buddhist; from Buddhism he migrated to existentialism, then New Left activism, followed by New Age mysticism. (By 1970 he’d done enough acid to remain permanently agnostic.)

1956: Read Wm. S. Burroughs’ unpublished m.s. of Naked Lunch, and pronounced “This man is the greatest prose stylist since James Joyce.” (CT1, pg.43)

1950s: Underwent at least three different varieties of psychoanalysis in order to deal with conflicts between his old Catholic indoctrination and his newer atheistic hedonism. He finally went to a Reichian therapist, and was cured of chronic sinus headaches and of the underlying fear of having ground glass dumped into his eyes by Satan, something a well-meaning nun had brainwashed into him way back in the early 40s.

c.mid-50s: Quit his engineering job and became a medical orderly (riding in an ambulance), enrolled as an English Education major at NYU.

1956: Was bowled over by a Buckminster Fuller lecture at a seminar on General Semantics.

1956: Gave his first public lecture, on “science, pseudo-science, and science fiction” at the New York Academy of the Sciences, sponsored by the Society for General Semantics. He auditioned for the talk in front of an audience that included Arlen Riley.

1957: Dated a jewish gal named Bobbie, and he thought things were going great when she dumped him. He got drunk and contemplated suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.

1957: Wilhem Reich’s books burned.

1957: Alan Watts turns RAW on to zen.

1958: Married Arlen Riley, a former script writer for Orson Welles’s radio show “The Lives of Harry Lime.” Thornley and Hill invent Discordianism.

[b] Faint Outline of the Weird Years, 1962-1976:[/b]
1962: Began a 14 year experiment in “induced brain-change, which Dr. John Lilly more resoundingly calls ‘metaprogramming the human biocomputer’. In simple Basic English, as a psychologist and novelist I set out to find how much rapid reorganiztion was possible in the brain functioning of one normal domesticated primate of average intelligence – the only one on whom I could ethically perform such research – myself.” (CT1, pg. iv) On December 28th, 1961 he began experimenting with psychedelic drugs (at age 29), first using peyote while living with his family in an old slave cabin in the woods outside Yellow Springs, Ohio. He taken a job as Assistant Sales Manager for the Antioch Bookplate Co. [RAW documented his 14 year experiment in his book Cosmic Trigger, vol 1 (1977 New Falcon Publications).] late 1962.

Had logged at least 40 peyote trips. Had seen Mescalito. Alan Watts and his wife Jano visited the Wilsons at the farm. RAW had introduced Alan to Jano a few years earlier. Jano talked about her idea of The Net: a web of coincidence/synchronicity which connects everything with everything.

1962: Moved to Millbrook, Ohio to become editor of The School of Living’s magazine Balanced Living, of which name he changed to Way Out, and convinced Norman Mailer to write a few poems for the first issue. In the School’s library he read most of the classics of anarchist theory.

1964: Arrested in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for engaging in an illegal sit-in at a segregated barber shop. Eventually he was bailed out by an anonymous benefactor. RAW guesses it was one of the rich Quakers in the area. Later he found out the charges had been dropped. Took a job as Associate Editor with New York magazine Fact. Moved the Wilson clan to Northern New Jersey.

1964: Alan Watts alerted RAW to an interesting Harvard professor named Leary. While under assignment form Paul Krassner’s mag The Realist RAW visited the mansion at Millbrook, NY. He and Leary discussed Game Theory, LSD, psychotherapy, and relativity in psychology. RAW returned home and shortly afterward the Wilson family had their first UFO encounter.

1966: Met in person William S. Burroughs and was startled to find “a rather prosaic, almost academic, quite gentlemanly genius.” (CT1, pg.43) Burroughs told RAW about his bizarre synchronicities with the number 23.

1966-71: RAW became Associate Editor at Playboy in Chicago. His main job was editing the letters to “Playboy Forum” and writing the replies (in italics). He began a correspondence with fellow libertarian pacifist-anarchist Kerry Thornley, writing a few articles for Thornley’s New Libertarian.

1968: Smoking pot regularly. Practicing yoga scientifically, “without piety”. Discovering much about “reality” and the nervous system, conditioning, and re-programming. Made much progress in learning Korzybski’s “consciousness of abstracting.” Got tear-gassed at the Democratic Convention with his friend Robert Shea. In a time-out from the Convention’s insanity he took Burroughs and Ginsberg out to lunch; Ginsberg talked about his sad meeting with Pound. Around this time Shea and Wilson begin cooking up The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

[Note: CT 1/2/3 refers to the volumes of the Cosmic Trigger Trilogy]

[b] Death[/b]
On June 22, 2006, Huffington Post blogger Paul Krassner reported that Robert A. Wilson was under hospice care at home with friends and family[1]. On 2 October 2006 Douglas Rushkoff reported that Wilson was in severe financial trouble[2]. Slashdot, Boing Boing, and the Church of the Subgenius also picked up on the story, linking to Rushkoff’s appeal[3][4]. As his webpage reported on 10 October, these efforts succeeded beyond expectation and raised a sum which would have supported him for at least 6 months.

On the 6th of January, 2007, he wrote on his blog that according to several medical authorities, he was likely to have only between two days and two months left to live[5]. He died five days later, a week before his 75th birthday, at 4:50 AM[6], on Albert Hofmann’s 101st birthday.

[b] Writings[/b]His best-known work, The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), co-authored with Robert Shea and advertised as “a fairy tale for paranoids,” humorously examined American paranoia about conspiracies. Much of the odder material derived from letters sent to Playboy magazine while Shea and Wilson worked as editors of the Playboy Forum.[7] The books mixed true information with imaginative fiction to engage the reader in what Wilson called “Operation Mindfuck”; the trilogy also outlined a set of libertarian and anarchist axioms known as Celine’s Laws, concepts Wilson has revisited several times in other writings. Although Shea and Wilson never partnered on such a scale again, Wilson continued to expand upon the themes of the Illuminatus! books throughout his writing career.

In Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977) and other works, he examined Discordianism, Sufism, Futurology, Zen Buddhism, Dennis and Terence McKenna, the occult practices of Aleister Crowley and G.I. Gurdjieff, the Illuminati and Freemasons, Yoga, and other esoteric or counterculture philosophies. He advocated Timothy Leary’s eight circuit model of consciousness and neurosomatic/linguistic engineering, which he also wrote about in Prometheus Rising (1983, revised 1997) and Quantum Psychology (1990), books containing practical techniques for breaking free of one’s “reality tunnels”.[citation needed] With Leary, he helped promote the futurist ideas of space migration, intelligence increase, and life extension (SMI2LE).

Wilson also supported many of the utopian theories of Buckminster Fuller and the Fortean theories of Charles Fort (he was a friend of Loren Coleman), as well as those of media theorist Marshall McLuhan and Neuro Linguistic Programming co-founder Richard Bandler, with whom he had taught workshops. He also admired James Joyce, and had written commentary on Finnegans Wake and Ulysses.[8]

Ironically, considering Wilson has long lampooned and criticized new age beliefs, his books can often be found in bookstores specializing in new age material. He has claimed to have perceived encounters with magical “entities,” and when asked whether these entities were “real,” he answered they were “real enough,” although “not as real as the IRS” since they were “easier to get rid of.” He warned against beginners using occult practice, since to rush into such practices and the resulting “energies” they unleash can lead people to go “quite nuts.” Instead, he recommends beginners start with NLP, Zen Buddhism, basic meditation, etc., before progressing to more potentially disturbing activities.[citation needed]

Wilson had a long-standing relationship with the Association for Consciousness Exploration, beginning in 1982. He was the keynote speaker for their center’s open house in 1984, and appeared at many Starwood Festivals. Both Illuminatus! co-author Robert Shea and Wilson’s wife Arlen Riley Wilson have appeared with him at the WinterStar Symposium[1]. They served as his American lecture agency while he lived in Ireland, and hosted his first on-stage dialog with his life-long friend Timothy Leary in 1989 in Cleveland, OH, entitled The Inner Frontier.

In a 2003 interview with High Times magazine, RAW described himself as a “Model Agnostic” which he says “consists of never regarding any model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial. Following Korzybski, I put things in probabilities, not absolutes… My only originality lies in applying this zetetic attitude outside the hardest of the hard sciences, physics, to softer sciences and then to non-sciences like politics, ideology, jury verdicts and, of course, conspiracy theory.”[9] More simply, he claims “not to believe anything,” since “belief is the death of thought.”[citation needed] He has described his approach as “Maybe Logic.” Wilson wrote articles for seminal cyberpunk magazine Mondo 2000.[10]

While he had primarily published material under the name Robert Anton Wilson, he had also used the pen names Mordecai Malignatus, Mordecai the Foul, Reverend Loveshade [citation needed], and other names associated with the Bavarian Illuminati, which he allegedly revived in the 1960s.

As a member of the Board of Advisors of the Fully Informed Jury Association, he worked to inform the public about jury nullification, the right of jurors to nullify a law they deem unjust.[11]

RAW held the post of American director of the Committee for Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal (CSICON) and had appeared at Disinformation events.[citation needed] He summed up his attitude towards life as one of optimism, cheerfulness, love, and good humor.

Maybe Logic: The Lives and Loves of Robert Anton Wilson, a documentary featuring selections from over twenty-five years of Wilson footage, was released on DVD in North America on May 30, 2006.[12]

Wilson’s writings connect to the madcap satirical fiction of Flann O’Brien in a several ways, including his free use of O’Brien’s character De Selby. The views of De Selby, a would-be obscure intellectual, are the subject of long pseudo-scholarly footnotes in Wilson’s novels as well as O’Brien’s. This is entirely fitting, because O’Brien himself made free use of characters invented by other writers, allegedly because there are already too many fictional characters as is. O’Brien was also known for pulling the reader’s leg by concocting elaborate conspiracy theories, and for publishing under several pen names.[citation needed]

[b] Works by Robert Anton Wilson[/b]
Playboy’s Book of Forbidden Words (1972)
Sex and Drugs: A Journey Beyond Limits (1973)
The Sex Magicians (1973)
The Book of the Breast (1974)
The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975) (with Robert Shea)
The Eye in the Pyramid
The Golden Apple
Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977)
Neuropolitics (1978) (with Timothy Leary and George Koopman)
The Game of Life (1979) (with Timothy Leary)
The Illuminati Papers (1980)
Schr√∂dinger’s Cat trilogy (1980-1981)
The Universe Next Door
The Trick Top Hat
The Homing Pigeon
Masks of the Illuminati (1981)
The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles
The Earth Will Shake (1982)
The Widow’s Son (1985)
Nature’s God (1991)
Right Where You Are Sitting Now (1983)
Prometheus Rising (1983)
The New Inquisition (1986)
Wilhelm Reich in Hell (1987)
Natural Law, or Don’t Put a Rubber on Your Willy (1987)
Coincidance (1988)
Neuropolitique (1988) (with Leary & Koopman) [revision of Neuropolitics]
Ishtar Rising (1989) [revision of The Book of the Breast]
Semiotext(e) SF (1989) (editor, with Rudy Rucker and Peter Lamborn Wilson)
Quantum Psychology (1990)
Cosmic Trigger II: Down to Earth (1991)
Reality Is What You Can Get Away With: An Illustrated Screenplay (1992)
Chaos and Beyond (1994) (editor and primary author)
Cosmic Trigger III: My Life After Death (1995)
The Walls Came Tumbling Down (1997)
Everything Is Under Control (1998)
TSOG: The Thing That Ate the Constitution (2002)
Email to the Universe (2005)

RAW Essence
Robert Anton Wilson Defies Medical Experts and leaves his body @4:50 AM on binary date 01/11.

All Hail Eris!

On behalf of his children and those who cared for him, deepest love and gratitude for the tremendous support and lovingness bestowed upon us.

(that’s it from Bob’s bedside at his fnord by the sea)

RAW Memorial February 2007
date to be announced


Wisdom of Darkness & Light

 Dark Lord of the Sith Darth Sidious:


“The Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.” -Darth Sidious

“The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.” ‚ÄĒDarth Vader

“If one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects. Not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi. If you wish to be a complete and wise leader, you must embrace a larger view of the Force.”¬†¬† -Darth Sidious


“Oh no, my young Jedi. You will find that it is you who are mistaken ‚Ķ about a great many things.” – Emperor Palpatine

“You must break through the fog of lies the Jedi have created around you. Let me help you to know the subtleties of the Force.”
                                                                  -Darth Sidious

“Young fool. Only now, at the end, do you understand. Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the Dark Side. You have paid the price for your lack of vision.” -Darth Sidious

Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn:


“Don’t center on your anxiety, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration on the here and now where it belongs… Be mindful of the

living Force, my young Padawan.”

“The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. “

“You are much wiser than I am, Obi-Wan. I foresee you will become a great Jedi Knight.”

Sith Psychology 101 By Wil McCarthy

¬†Wow. We’ve been watching Star Wars for 28 years now, believing it was the Adventures of Luke Skywalker. But here at the end (or rather, the middle), we find it was the Tragedy of Darth Vader all along. Poor Anakin, snared by the Dark Side like a tiger in a tar pit! The apocryphal Darth Vader blog offers a glimpse of how Vader himself feels about all this, but it leaves the most important question unanswered: If there was good in him all along‚ÄĒa remorseful Anakin struggling to escape from that foul, black shell‚ÄĒwhy did it take so long to find its expression? What exactly is the Dark Side, that is has such power over such an otherwise strong-willed person?

To answer this question, we first have to acknowledge that there are different kinds of badness. In order of severity we have cowardice (not helping others for fear of getting hurt), indifference (not helping even when it costs you nothing), greed/entitlement (harming others in order to help yourself), vengeance (harming others to punish them for past wrongs) and malice (harming others for sport or to relieve frustration). With all due respect to Pope Gregory I and his seven deadly sins, I’ll classify envy, lust and gluttony as forms of greed.

All of these traits are natural, occurring throughout the animal kingdom, but in the modern world we define “evil” as a surrender to these animal temptations. We all understand this, and to a certain extent we excuse and even admire it. It’s all in the terminology: Is the man who runs from danger a coward or a survivor? Is the do-nothing bystander prudent or negligent? Is the business mogul a robber or a builder, the rock star a bold hedonist or a sloppy drunk?

It’d be nice to think that malice, at least, was inexcusable in polite society, but remember Grant Williams as The Incredible Shrinking Man? Once he got small enough, his own darling kitty saw him as an animate cat toy, and he barely escaped with his life. Reality bears this out; captive large cats do sometimes maim or kill their owners‚ÄĒeither by accident or by deliberate attack, as magician Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy discovered the hard way. In most U.S. states it’s illegal to keep tigers without a license for this reason: When you get right down to it, they’re among the most selfish, hedonistic and potentially malicious creatures on the planet. And we love them for it. Conversely, someone who always takes risks is called a maniac or a fool. Someone who always helps others is called a chump. Someone who gives all her money away is broke and powerless, an easy mark, and if there isn’t a mean bone in her body, she’ll also be accused of having no sense of humor.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad there’s good in the world, and we could certainly use more of it. But when Capt. Kirk’s anger and appetites were torn away in a transporter accident, all he could do was act smarmy and fret in his chair while his crewmates froze to death on the planet below. Without a touch of malice, of lust and greed and wrathful vengeance, we’re all like that: useless and doomed. And this, of course, is the real problem with evil: It exists in all of us. Quick, easy and seductive, it’s as much a part of our life support system as breathing and eating. Emperor Palpatine is right: Anger really does make us strong.

B-b-b-bad to the midichlorians

But where exactly are the roots of evil? What causes it to simmer quietly in one person and blossom tragically in another? One possibility is fate. Genetic destiny. Are some people simply born bad? If Anakin is the Chosen One, conceived by the microscopic midichlorians for their own purposes, then was he simply doomed from the outset? Maybe. Genetic disorders like double-Y chromosomes certainly do have a huge effect on violent behavior, and stupid people commit more violent crimes than smart people do. But smart people commit more white-collar and institutional crime, and since criminals like that are less likely to be caught and convicted, there’s no good way to measure who, in the end, does more harm. Overall, stats on the biological and adopted children of criminals suggest that heredity accounts for about 25 percent of criminal behavior. I.e., if you clone a criminal, the clones will have criminal tendencies as well, and about a quarter of them will give in to the urge.

Still, the other three quarters won’t, and herein lies a mystery. What governs the outcome? No one really knows, but a number of models have been proposed, which I’ll summarize here in my own words. The karma model insists that bad environments beget bad people. Abuse or neglect your kids, and you’ll end up with abusive, neglectful adults. Steep people in a blighted environment of crime and ugliness, and they’ll respond in kind. Did Anakin’s childhood as a slave amid the scum and villainy of Mos Eisley seal his adult fate? Did watching his mother die force him, in some way, to become a killer himself? The scientific answer is no; when the children of law-abiding parents are adopted into criminal families, only about 12 percent of them turn to crime, vs. 10 percent for children raised in noncriminal households. Interestingly, when the children of criminals are raised by other criminals, their arrest rate jumps to nearly 40 percent. This suggests that bad environments have little effect on naturally good people, but dramatic effects on naturally bad ones.

This makes a certain sense, but it also implies that people are machines, incapable of making rational choices. Is all human behavior‚ÄĒand, by implication, all of history‚ÄĒpredetermined? Economists tend instead to favor the self-interest model, arguing that people are rational agents who constantly and unconsciously solve math problems in our heads. This might sound far-fetched, but in fact a handful of simple rules can lead to all sorts of rich and complicated behavior. Armed with an innate sense of supply vs. demand and risk vs. reward, people really are pretty good at recognizing a good deal when they see one. Crime can be an economic decision: Stealing offers wealth without hard work, while violence instills fear in potential squealers or competitors. According to economics, it’s only the chance of getting caught and punished that keeps us all from being criminals.

Certainly, after experiencing both the dark and light sides of the Force, Anakin Skywalker was in a good position to make an economic judgment. Is the Dark Side more powerful? The Sith lords have sworn it is, and since a handful of them were able to kill off all the Jedi and seize control of an entire galaxy‚ÄĒtwice!‚ÄĒtheir claim does carry some weight. Then again, the love of a single Jedi was enough to topple the empire, so I’d call it a draw. Anyhoo, no one disputes the fact that the dark side is easier to master, and from an economic standpoint this makes it a good investment. Equal power for less work, right?

But by this logic, we should all be evil. The argument fails to account for empathy‚ÄĒthe desire not to harm. In the real world, torturers often report feelings of pain and remorse, which they resolve (or at least sublimate) by getting angry at their victims. “How dare you put me in this position? I don’t like doing this. Just talk, damn you!” In the Star Wars universe, this anger feeds the Dark Side and increases the power of the Sith. But it’s costly in terms of manpower (I mean, how many admirals can you strangle in a month?), and it makes the Sith philosophy‚ÄĒhowever lofty in principle‚ÄĒhard to agree with in practice. For most people, no power is worth that price.

Crime is still a choice

Which brings us to the nobility model. Ever since a 1940 treatise by mathematician John von Neumann, a field of science called game theory has been exploring the gray area among probability, economics, behavioral psychology and computer science. By studying the behavior of players in certain carefully constructed games, scientists have learned that most people‚ÄĒclose to 80 percent‚ÄĒwill act against their own best interest if it benefits a group of people they identify with. In a world where only the fittest survive, people are even willing to pay the ultimate price‚ÄĒlaying down their lives‚ÄĒto serve the greater good. This is obviously not a survival trait for the individuals who die, but groups or societies who behave this way have a huge advantage over those who don’t. In a fair fight the smart money is on courage and honesty, not cowardice or cheating, and over thousands of years this should tend to breed bullies and cheaters down to a manageable level. Unfortunately, it’s possible to be brave, honest and evil. Like the Nazis, the Sith believe their cause is noble, and the Jedi are simply too weak to pursue it. So nobility doesn’t fully explain the ratios of Sith and Jedi among us.

For that, we can look to the free will model, which insists that everything is a choice. Yes, we feel temptation. Yes, we feel anger, see economic advantage, occasionally feel like screwing over our fellow man. So what? The choice is still ours, to give in or stand firm. There’s actually not much science to support this idea, but most people seem to believe it on a gut level. Like religion, our justice system is balanced on the twin pillars of responsibility and redemption; if crime is a choice, then it should be possible to turn people away from it, encouraging a life of virtue no matter how far they’ve strayed. Unfortunately, even after lengthy “rehabilitation,” about 70 percent of violent criminals are arrested for new offenses within three years, and some percentage also presumably commit crimes but aren’t caught. If free will exists, clearly a majority of criminals are simply evil by choice.

But this model doesn’t seem to apply to Darth Vader, who protests to Luke that he doesn’t have any choice in the matter. The Dark Side empowers, but also commands, removing (or at least blunting) the free will of those who surrender to it. We might call this the demonic possession model. “The devil made me do it, I’m not responsible for my actions, and no forgiveness or redemption is necessary if the evil inside me can simply be expelled.” On the face of it this may seem a rather medieval notion, but in fact the modern world recognizes intoxication, addiction, mental illness and even temporary insanity as limiting our capacity to gauge right and wrong, or to control our behavior. Under some circumstances, we really can commit evil acts for which we’re not legally or morally responsible. Does Anakin deserve the benefit of the doubt here?

Probably not. Ben and Yoda may have welcomed him to Jedi Heaven at the end of Episode VI, but Anakin’s still a serial killer, and the families of his victims deserve better justice than that. Even if the devil made him do it, even if he had a rough childhood and a wonky genome and fell in with a bad crowd, even if the opportunity looked promising and the cause seemed righteous … no one forced him to pick up that red saber and open his heart to murder and oppression. Ultimately, whether science can prove it or not, there is one Force we all believe in: the power to choose between right and wrong.

Sources:Personal Interview: Steven L. Lopata, former large cat handler, Safari Park, Greenbriar ARFarinato, Richard: “Love Does Not Conquer All When it Comes To Big Cats as Pets,” “The Whims and Dangers of the Exotic Pets Market,” The Humane Society of the United States

Gottfriedson, Michael R. and Hirschi, Travis: “A General Theory of Crime,” Stanford University Press, 1990

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/crimoff.htm#recidivism

Shermer, Michael: “The Science of Good and Evil,” Owl Books, 2005

Wikipedia: (“Evil,” “Sith,” “Ultimatum Game”): http://www.wikipedia.org

The Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com)

The Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004 Edition (“recidivism”)

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other “really cool stuff” he can’t tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov’s, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon “Best of Y2K” The Collapsium and, debuting this month, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter, is now available in paperback.

The Demystification of the Spanish School




Part I

by Maestro Ramón Martínez

The Spanish School of Swordsmanship, “La Destreza,” is the most misunderstood subject in the history of fencing. It has been misrepresented by fencing scholars for the past one hundred years as an ineffectual and artificial system of swordsmanship full of absurdities. The intent of this article and others to follow is to present a clearer and more accurate picture of what “La Destreza” is.The principal obstacles to the comprehension of La Destreza are the geometry and philosophy that are the foundations of the school. These two aspects have been ridiculed and completely dismissed as totally incompatible with training for the practical management of the arma blanca (white arm). It is of vital importance to approach the treatises of the Spanish Masters with an understanding that these men were highly educated individuals. They bring to their writings a wealth of mathematical and scientific knowledge along with a philosophy replete with mystical thought. It is presumptuous and non-productive of fencing historians to dismiss the complex frame of reference from which this system was derived. The focus of this article will be to present the geometry in a more comprehensible form.”La Destreza” can not be translated literally but can be interpreted as “high level art and skill.” Don Jeronimo de Carranza is considered the father of the Spanish School and given the title “El Primer Inventor de La Sciencia de Las Armas” (“The First Inventor of the Science of Arms”) by Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez. He is referred to by this title not only by his students but by countless other masters as well. Carranza himself clearly states that he is the creator of this school. His teachings were carried on by his disciple and successor, Narvaez.It was the belief of both Carranza and Narvaez, as well as all of the subsequent masters of the Spanish School, that science, which is irrefutable, can and must be applied to swordsmanship. Their aim was to use science to improve the art of the sword,thus proving the validity, effectiveness, and perfection of their system. The definition of science must be taken into account before continuing. Science is knowledge, as of general truths or particular facts, obtained and shown to be correct by accurate observation and thinking. The science of geometry is the best manner in which “La Destreza” can be set forth because it is incontestable, being demonstrated to be exact by proofs.

During this time period there was an interest in all things that were of classical origin. The science of mathematics, a major part of classical thought, was thoroughly studied in Spain during the intellectual movements towards humanism. “One of the most important of the great methodological achievements of the early Greek mathematicians was the development of the methods of analysis and synthesis, for these methods constitute the basic inferential procedure of Greek geometry. Analysis, according to the Greeks, commences with the assumption of what is to be proved and then proceeds backward by successive inferences to theorems or axioms or postulates generally accepted or previously proved. Synthesis is, of course, the reversal of this procedure, starting with the previously accepted or proved theorem and proceeding therefrom to the proof of the new theorem.”[1] This way of thinking is clearly evident in Narvaez‚Äô use of the phrase, “conocimiento de la cosa por su causa” (understanding of the effect by its cause).

The question arises: What is the purpose of the study and application of geometry to swordsmanship? The importance and relevance can be seen in the study of geometry itself. From a text book on geometry;

“Plane geometry as usually taught has several primary objectives. The most important are: (1) to develop an understanding of the meaning and nature of mathematical proof; (2) to improve the quality of thinking in non-mathematical situations; (3) to further develop mathematical concepts of an arithmetic and algebraic nature; and (4) to provide an understanding of plane and space relationships for a better appreciation of nature and the arts as they apply to daily life.”[2]

Of particular relevance to the study of La Destreza are points two and four. Point two is key to training the swordsman to achieve a manner of thinking that will aid him in analyzing a given combative situation and act upon the circumstance in a logical manner. Geometry was used to train the swordsman to think logically, methodically, and unemotionally. It enabled the swordsman to develop a coolness and detachment necessary for the implementation of this scientific method. Point four is applicable to generalship as will be discussed later in this article.

In reference to the geometry of swordsmanship in “La Destreza” Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez states; “Finalmente quiero que entedays, que el fin de poner La Destreza en demonstraciones, es para que procedays con mas conocimiento.” (Finally, I wish you to comprehend that the end to which La Destreza is placed in demonstrations (proofs) is in order that one may proceed with more understanding.) What does Narvaez mean by this? Narvaez is clearly stating that the geometric proofs are set forth to enable the swordsman to see how the placements of the body, arm or sword are most effective in relationship to adversary’s body, arm or sword. The proofs show how movement can be applied efficiently. When this is transferred into practical application the swordsman can proceed with conviction in the resulting success of the technique.

The stance, attack and defence, are all within a circular concept. All fighting takes place within an imaginary circle on the ground. According to Girard Thibault in his treatise Academie de l’Espee (1628), the circle’s diameter is determined by the length of the swordsman standing straight with his heels together having his arm and index finger extended over his head. The distance from the ground to the tip of his extended index finger is the diameter of the circle. According to Carranza and Narvaez, the “Diestro” as the swordsmen are called, assume an upright, semi-profiled posture with the heels slightly apart. The arm is held straight forward at shoulder level holding the sword with its blade parallel to the ground and menacing the adversary. The points of the swords are held in front of each other‚Äôs sword hilt. This is what determined the diameter of the circle.

Fig. 1: Thibault’s circle

Fig. 2 (foreground): Guard position from Thibault’s treatise

Fig. 3: Guard position from Narvaez’ treatise

The supreme error that has been committed by modern fencing historians is to assume that the demonstrations in the treatises of the Spanish Masters were to be subscribed to literally in a combative situation. It is ridiculous to imagine that Spanish swordsmen stopped an armed confrontation, carefully measured a circle on the ground and then began the fight! Equally absurd would be the idea that a swordsman in those circumstances would ponder if he was properly stepping from point A on the circle to point B across chord AB of the circle.

Another erroneous assumption propagated by many fencing historians that needs to be corrected is their assertion that the circle is in a fixed location. The imaginary circle moves with the swordsmen as they engage in combat. La Destreza is fought in dynamic movement within the circle. The circumference of the circle is in the consciousness of the Diestro. It is well etched in the thought processes after years of theoretical and practical study.

Unlike other systems of swordsmanship La Destreza is based on movement and not solely on technique. What is meant by movement is specific actions of the weapon and body. Each technique (treta) in La Destreza is formed by a combination of movements that compose the technique. As in dancing each step is learned separately, and when performed there are enumerable combinations that create the dance. So it is in Spanish swordsmanship; the varied combinations of movements create techniques (tretas).

The contemporary Italian schools of swordsmanship focused mainly on set techniques. There are a variety of “Guards” that are merely static postures from which to launch an offensive or counter offensive action. The later modern fencing definition for the term “Guard” does not apply here, as these 16th-century positions did not guard the swordsman at all.

Fig. 4: Guard positions from Marozzo

Fig. 5: Guard positions from Vigianni

(It was not until the beginning of the seventeenth century that the concept of a position that actually “Guarded” the swordsman emerged in the writings of Ridolfo Capo Ferro in his treatise Gran Simulacro… (1610).)

Fig. 6: Guard position from Capo Ferro

The swordsman will shift from one posture to another, looking for an opening in the adversary’s defense or seizing an opportunity for an attack as the adversary is changing postures. The swordsman will also attack into an oncoming attack while closing the line of attack (time hits), also known as stesso tempo where the parry and the attack become one. In contrast La Destreza has only one posture, which is truly a defensive stance. A stance that keeps the adversary at bay by a continual threat with the sword’s point is defensive. It creates a strategic problem for the adversary who must penetrate that line of defense to be able to attack effectively and do it with out injury to himself. An attack will not be met by a counter-attack as in the Italian Schools, but will be answered by moving to a defensive position while at the same time controlling the adversary’s weapon with the Diestro‚Äôs own weapon. This would seem to be the same as in the Italian Schools but it is not quite. The difference being that the Diestro secures his defensive position by moving away from an attack rather than attacking into an attack. It is similar to the manner in which a bullfighter deals with the attacking bull. As the animal attacks the bullfighter veers away at an angle, steps around from the onslaught, and thrusts the “banderillas” (long decorated darts) or “estoque” (sword) into the bull in one fluid sequence of movements that constitute this particular technique. To put it in simplistic terms, Italian swordsmen see that the best defense is counter attack into the oncoming attack.

Fig. 7: Stesso tempo from Fabris

(Salvator Fabris in his treatise of 1606, De lo Schermo… advises that the only sure manner in which to fight is to meet your adversary’s body at the same time it comes forward.) Spanish swordsmen see that the best defense is not to move their body into the path of the attack but to move the body away and shift their weapon towards the oncoming weapon thus covering the line of attack by engagement, opposition or simply placing their sword in a manner to cover the line of attack.

Another difference between the Italian schools and the Spanish school is in the management of the weapon. In the Italian schools, techniques such as cuts or thrusts are classified by the direction from which they travel such as diagonal cuts (squalembrato), downward cuts (fendente), descending thrusts (imbrocatta), and upward thrusts (stocatta). In La Destreza cuts are classified by the type of movement executed by the swordsman and not from the direction that they travel. These are from the shoulder (arrebatar), elbow (medio tajo), wrist (mandoble). Thrusts (esotcadas) are not classified. They are executed from all angles depending on the placement of the weapon and the swordsman’s body in relation to the adversary. In the defensive manipulation of the weapon itself there is also a marked contrast. In the Italian schools defensive techniques (parries) are never clearly defined, but are apparently intended to obstruct or block the attack. La Destreza has always clearly defined the defensive techniques with the weapon as a redirection or rerouting of the offensive weapon by the placement of the Diestro‘s weapon against the adversary’s. The positions are not fixed or numerically designated. They can be applied in an infinite variety of ways. All that is required is to make contact on the adversary’s blade with the strong part of the Diestro’s blade and sword guard. This technique is called Desvio.

Fig. 8: Desvio

Spanish swordsmen attack and defend by stepping around each other (Compases) along the circumference of the circle. The swordsmen attempt to create an opening in each other‚Äôs defence by varied changes to the rhythm, tempo, and distance. They attack or defend by stepping, passing, or crossing the circle at angles to each other using chords. Diestros never do this in a linear manner directly at each other. Given their stance, the outcome of impalement by attacking on the diameter would be unavoidable. Narvaez states, “Por la linea del diametro no se puede caminar sin peligro.” (Along the line of the diameter one can not walk without peril.)

All attacks, either by cut or thrust, are always executed at an angle to the adversary on either side of the opposing blade. The chords of the circle indicate the angles from which both offensive actions and defensive positioning are the most efficient. The swordsman does not predict the adversary’s response. The responses are set up and caused by strategic movement as Narvaez states, “ganando los grados al perfil” (literally, gaining the degrees on the profile, i.e., finding the best position for an attack). This is accomplished by sophisticated footwork which is essential to the mastery of the generalship required in applying the geometry with deadly effectiveness. Narvaez’s term for this generalship is “Llave y gobierno de La Destreza” (Key and government of destreza). If the Diestro has accomplished a high level of skill he will be able to command the movements of his adversary by the subtle movements and positioning of his own body. By leading his adversary in this manner the Diestro will be able to create the appropriate angle to launch an offensive action at a moment where his adversary is in a vulnerable position.

The geometry is not solely limited to the illustration and explanation of the spatial relationship between the adversaries. It also applies to the movements and positioning of the weapons. In all of the Spanish treatises it is constantly emphasized that the control of the opposing weapon must be maintained by “atajo” (the taking control of the adversary’s blade with one’s own, an engagement or opposition).

Fig. 9 (foreground): Atajo

The ability to achieve the atajo is acquired by the Diestro cultivating what was called “tacto” by the Spanish Masters. Tacto can be best described as the tactile feeling sensed in the hand of the swordsman while holding his weapon. This tacto is what enables the Diestro to read the strengths, weaknesses, and intentions of his adversary, on blade contact. (Tacto is in fact the same as the French term “Sentiment du Fer” used in smallsword and foil technique.) In order to achieve this atajo the controlling blade must be placed against the opposed blade at the most efficient position which would ensure the maximum leverage and mechanical advantage. This would be determined by the Diestro‘s knowledge and application of angles. As Carranza states, “El conoscimeinto que se adquiere con el uso . . . .” (the understanding that is acquired by use) and “Del uso nase el conoscimeinto” (From use comes the birth of understanding). This geometric conceptualization is also applied to the movements of the weapon and how they are executed by the Diestro. If the Diestro raises his sword to make a downward cut, the obtuseness of the angle is determined by the distance and positioning of the adversary as well as the intended target for the cut. The angle of the defending weapon in a counter-offensive action is determined by the angle of the attacking weapon. If the attack is coming towards the head of the Diestro, he can deflect or reroute the attack by raising his weapon to cover the attack while simultaneously offending his adversary with the point of his sword. The knowledge of angles also applies to defensive actions such as Desvio (deflect, parry; literally, to change course). To execute an efficient Desvio the Diestro must place his blade against his adversary’s blade in such a manner as to not only deflect the attack but to enable him to counter attack in the same movement. This can only be done correctly if the Diestro has an understanding of angles and the different mechanical advantages achieved by the placement of his blade on the adversary’s blade.

Fig. 10: Desvio

When one is learning a system of fencing or any other martial art, it must be done in a logical progression. It has to be practiced by rote, or “by the numbers”. It is with this type of training, that the mind and body are focused and tuned to be able to use the method in applications to the never ending variety of circumstances that can occur in a physical conflict. In no way can every changing situation be predicted in the course of combat. However if the mind and body are trained to size up a situation and react in a logical manner the chances of victory along with survival are increased many times over. This precludes reacting in an uncouth illogical manner derived from the desperation of self preservation. Carranza said: “The vulgar (fencer), although he professes knowledge of swordsmanship, is easy to discover when in times of anger and conflict he forgets his professed skill, committing vulgarity in his manner and action.” Carranza also warns that: “If the skill of the swordsman is ‚Äėinvented‚Äô the swordsman in a time of danger is forsaken by his false skill.”

The Spanish School has been structured, formal, and uniformly systematized throughout its history. In Italian fencing of the same era there is not a singular “school” but “schools” of swordsmanship all differing in regard to master, city, and region (which persisted into the 20th century). The Italian treatises deal mainly with classification and collections of certain types of attacks (bottas). Consequently the Italian treatises in comparison are much less difficult to understand. The Italian Schools have a more physical (external reactive) approach incontrast to the Spanish which is more conceptual (internal analytical).

The difficulty in understanding La Destreza is that it is a complete system with many levels. It encompasses Science, Art, Experience, Philosophy and Spirituality. These crucial elements can not be viewed out of context, otherwise the entire essence of La Destreza will be lost. The mind set, character, culture, religious, philosophical, and political aspects from which La Destreza emerged must be taken into account. La Destreza is the equal of any of the sophisticated oriental martial arts (along with their socio-cultural aspects) that occidentals have embraced with such awe and reverence. The two main aspects of La Destreza, geometry and philosophy, produce a unique and vastly different manner of thinking creating a cold, calculating swordsman. In any martial art a fighter possessed of these atributes is a formidable force to contend with.

It must be concluded that the manner in which La Destreza has been interpreted by fencing scholars is unjustified. There is absolutely no “mystery” in the Spanish School of Swordsmanship. Nor are there any fantastic, absurd, or arrogant pronouncements on the part of the enlightened individuals that were the founders of the system. More to the point, the questions that must be asked are:

  1. If this system of swordsmanship was so ineffectual, artificial, and absurd, then why did it last virtually unchanged throughout its more than three hundred year history?
  2. How was it so sucessfully practiced by Spanish swordsmen, not only in their native land but against swordsmen of other nations?
  3. Why were Spanish swordsmen feared and respected as extremely dangerous duelists?

The readers of this all too condensed and limited presentation will hopefully assume a fresh vantage point in the observation of La Destreza and begin to see through the clouds of myths that obscure the full understanding of the system of the management of the “Espada Ropera.”


[1] Clagett, Marshall. Greek Science in Antiquity (Barnes & Noble, 1994) p.53.

[2] Schacht, John F. and Roderick C. McLennan. Plane Geometry (Henry Holt & Co., 1957) p.v.


1. Clagett, Marshall. Greek Science in Antiquity. Barnes & Noble Books, 1994.

2. Capo Ferro, Ridolfo. Gran Simulacro… . Sienna, 1610.

3. Carranza, Don Jeronimo. De la Filosofia de las Armas…. Seville, 1569 -1582.

4. Fabris, Salvator. De lo Schermo, overo scienza d’arme… . Copenhagen, 1606.

5. Narvaez, Don Luis Pacheco de. Libro de las Grandezas de la Espada… . Madrid, 1600.

6. Schacht, John F. and Mclennan, Roderick C. Plane Geometry. Henry Holt and Comapny, Inc., 1957.

7. Girard Thibault in his treatise Academie de l’Espee…. Leyden, 1628.

8. Achille Marozzo. Opera Nova. Venice, 1550.

9. Angelo Viggiani. Lo Schermo. Venice, 1575.