Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Gnostic Confidence Man

Herman Melville’s novel, The Confidence Man, is set aboard a Mississippi riverboat. On board is a confidence man who manages, during the course of the voyage and in various disguises, to bilk most of the passengers aboard the boat.

“I do not jumble them; they are co-ordinates. For misanthropy, springing from the same root with disbelief of religion, is twin with that. It springs from the same root, I say; for, set aside materialism and what is an atheist, but one who does not, or will not, see in the universe a ruling principle of love; and what a misanthrope, but one who does not, or will not, see in man a ruling principle of kindness? Don’t you see? In either case the vice consists in a want of confidence.”

And it struck me while rereading the novel recently that the Confidence Man is, if not the devil, then at the very least, diabolical. He is able to appeal to each passenger’s weakness, be it vanity, greed, or egotistic altruism. And of course the Confidence Man is all head; he has no heart. The emergence of a heart would be suicide for a confidence man or the devil. The Confidence Man must be a Gnostic.

And in various guises the Gnostic devil has plagued mankind since the Garden of Eden. He comes in various disguises, but his object is always the same: To get man to think in the abstract and then to make that abstracted thought an end rather than a means. If pure thought is the ultimate that man can achieve, then the mind of man is God, and Satan can master that mind.

The Gnostic Confidence Man is not so foolish as to use the same disguise twice. In the medieval ages he came disguised as a Dominican Friar, in the 20th century he donned a lab coat and a clipboard, and in the 21st century he comes in the guise of the expert. He wears a different disguise depending on the area of expertise, be it clerical, academic, or general working class, but he is always in the guise of the expert. And through patience, diligence and cunning, the Confidence Man has extended the reign of the expert over the land that once eschewed the expert, be he alchemist or Thomist.

The Confidence Man has perfected his system. There is no aspect of 21st century life in which you will not encounter him. And yet, because he is so well disguised, you will never know you have encountered him. The Catholic neophyte, for instance, enters the Church and quite naturally wants to do things the right way. But the Church leaders have already been duped into adopting the Confidence Man’s system. Thought is the goal. So the neophyte pursues his studies. And who helps him with his studies? The Confidence Man, of course, in the guise of the kindly Father Catechist.

In business the Confidence Man reigns supreme as well. He stands ready to assist with mortgages, taxes, stocks and bonds. So long as he keeps people pursuing the idea of wealth rather than the blessings of sufficiency, he will be the one with whom they have to deal.

And throughout the modern world the Confidence Man appears to Joe Average Citizen. He might be the school psychologist, the local MD, or an Amway salesman. He’ll don whatever disguise fits the occasion. He is always up to the mark. Of course, it is academia in which the Confidence Man prefers to work. That is the very best place to peddle his wares. But in the end, it doesn’t make much difference. He can create an academic environment wherever he goes. He is in fact a “gol’ darn spellbinder.” And this should be no surprise because he studied under the master spellbinder, Old Scratch himself.