Category Archives: Interpretations

The Politics of The Lost Symbol

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Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you have not yet read The Lost Symbol.

Most of the commentary about The Lost Symbol so far has focused on its belief system, philosophy, cosmology, and its view in particular of the Freemasons. Several critics have noted that, with The Lost Symbol, as opposed to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown seems to be taking a stand for what he believes in.

Philosophically, that seems to be a New Age ideal of an ultimate spirituality for mankind based upon a commonality of beliefs and religions. But could he also be driving at a social and a political theory too?

If a reader was inclined towards hidden meanings, subtexts, codes and ciphers, he would not have to look far for evidence of Brown’s socio-political code:

  • The Hero Freemason. Brown praises the ideals and vision of the Freemasons throughout the novel. And he pre-empts some of the most frequent questions about the Freemasons’ reputation for discriminatory practices through his choice of characters. In general, Freemasons do not admit women, though U.S. lodges do have affiliated groups for girls and women. It’s hard to square that rigid definitional aspect of membership with inclusiveness and tolerance. But Langdon tells his Harvard class that Masonry is a “spiritual fraternity that does not discriminate in any way” and Brown seems to believe this. Thus, he creates Katherine Solomon not only as a brainy, beautiful, world-class scientist, but also as someone who has been essentially initiated into all of the most important ideas of Freemasonry by her brother, Peter. Additionally, although there is a long history of African-American participation in Masonic lodges, there is an equally long history of discrimination as well. Some critics allege a close association between Albert Pike, the nineteenth century Freemason leader, and the Ku Klux Klan. So it is very convenient that Brown has chosen Warren Bellamy, the Architect of the Capitol, and an imposing, elegant, gravitas-imbued African American to play the role of a distinguished Freemason.
  • Characterization of the CIA. Langdon solves the mystery of The Lost Symbol and rescues Peter Solomon despite director Inoue Sato, of the CIA’s Office of Security, rather than because of her. Indeed, far from being an efficient, evil-fighting organization, the Agency, as personified by Sato, is stubborn, authoritarian and always two steps behind Langdon. Brown chooses his historical terms carefully. So it is notable that in Chapter 48, after Langdon and Architect Warren Bellamy have escaped, Sato threatens Capitol police chief Trent Anderson and security guard Alfonso Nuñez with a “CIA inquisition.”
  • Torture. Torture was on the minds of Americans during a significant portion of the Bush Administration and will forever be entangled with America’s controversial interrogation techniques following the invasions of Afghanistan and, particularly, Iraq. Torture plays a significant role in The Lost Symbol too. Trish Dunne is tortured to reveal her pin code, Robert Langdon is tortured to translate the symbols on the bottom of the pyramid. And Katherine Solomon endures a gruesome torture, being slowly bled to death, to force Peter Solomon to help Mal’akh complete his quest. Unlike other pop culture tales of this decade–such as the TV series “24,”–there is no ambiguity here about the evil of torture. Only the bad guy uses torture. Everyone else—Langdon, Solomon, et. al.—must use their brains to figure things out. The good guys are never violent in Dan Brown’s world.
  • Water as a means of torture. Mal’akh’s method of securing information from Robert Langdon—nearly drowning him in a sensory deprivation tank filled with liquid—immediately suggests the years of recent debate over waterboarding. The standard American waterboarding technique involves laying a hooded prisoner on a board with his head slightly lower than his heart, covering his face with towels and slowly pouring water over the towels to simulate drowning. Mal’akh’s props may be different—a glass crate slowly filled with a warm liquid—but he does generate the same sense of drowning effect.
  • Religious Fundamentalism. Mal’akh is clearly his own uniquely mad character, not part of any known group or movement. But the ease with which he blends into the tony neighborhood of Kalorama, in his meticulous planning, and in his ultimate zealot’s drive and murderous logic, cannot help but connote Al- Queda-type Islamic terrorists. And how do Dan Brown’s heroes deal with this evil incarnate? Peter Solomon won’t kill Mal’akh even when he has the opportunity to do so. Instead, he tries to reason with him.
  • “Rush to War.” When Langdon, Sato and Anderson discover the Masonic Chamber of Reflection hidden in the subbasement of the Capitol building, Langdon explains that it could be a room where a powerful lawmaker might “reflect before making decisions that affect his fellow man.” He then imagines “how different a world it might be if more leaders took time to ponder the finality of death before racing off to war.” Is Brown editorializing on the Iraq war?
  • Hope. Dan Brown ends his novel with a one-word paragraph – Hope. In a book that has been devoted throughout to a discussion about “the word” the very last word just happens to match Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan and the single word that will forever be associated with Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster. Given the usual six- to nine-month gap between the submission of a manuscript and publication, it’s a fair guess that Brown was tweaking, and perhaps even writing, the conclusion to The Lost Symbol while the 2008 election was at its peak. Was “Hope” sitting at the end of the manuscript before Barack Obama’s campaign began? Did it find its way, subconsciously, into Dan Brown’s brain during 2007-2008? Or did he place it there on purpose, one final, powerful message for our times?
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Ye Are Gods!

God and Man

According to Robert Langdon, in Chapter 82 of The Lost Symbol, an ancient Hermetic precept states: “Know ye not that ye are gods.” Langdon refers to this as “one of the pillars of the Ancient Mysteries” and a “persistent message of man’s own divinity” in many ancient texts, including the Bible.

The insinuation is that man is god–and that this is what the ancient philosophers, the editors of the Old Testament, and the Freemasons all believe.

The Masonic architect Bellamy tells Langdon, in Chapter 49: “The Ancient Mysteries and Masonic philosophy celebrate the potentiality of God within each of us. Symbolically speaking, one could claim that anything within reach of an enlightened man … is within reach of god.” And the universality of the assertion of man’s inherent divinity is reinforced, in Chapter 131, when Peter Solomon gives Langdon a quick rundown of instances in Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, when similar assertions have been made.

Langdon, who elsewhere says he is not much of a Bible scholar (a bit strange for a Harvard professor with an eidetic memory who is steeped in symbols and their meanings), remembers the phrase from The Book of Psalms, Chapter 82, A Psalm of Asaph:

1 God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.
2 How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah.
3 Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.
4 Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
5 They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.
6 I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
7 But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.

There are several arguments against comingling the Hermetic injunction, “Know ye not that ye are gods,” with the reference “Ye are gods,” in Psalm 82.

First, most Biblical scholars tend to believe that the Psalms reference is really critiquing those mortal men who have come to see themselves as gods–noting that they will die, just like men. Rather than man’s inherent divinity, this reference seems to most readers to point to man’s hubristic assumption of godly roles.

Second, this specific passage of Psalms uses “gods” – elohim (אלהים) in Hebrew. While elohim is generally another name for God, the fact that it is a plural form has been interpreted in many ways, including “kings,” “angels,” or, commonly, “judges.”

Charles H. Spurgeon, a 19th century Baptist preacher and author of the Treasury of David, wrote: “To the people of Israel this kind of appellation would not seem over bold: for it was applied to judges in well-known texts of the Law of Moses.” While the British Methodist theologian Adam Clarke argued that elohim refers to man as god’s representative on earth imbued with his “power and authority to dispense judgment and justice.”

In other words, according to religious scholars, Psalm 82 may refer to man’s responsibility on earth to act as a judge, not the Hermetic meaning that divinity lies within man.

Finally, at least some Freemasons have taken issue with Brown’s assertion that the inherent divinity of man is a Masonic belief: According to a report on Beliefnet, Most Worshipful Brother Rev. Terry Tilton, a retired Masonic leader from Minnesota points out, “There can be no real substitute for perfection, the infinite and divine truth. And that is why just because God is God and we are not, human beings can never fully bridge the gulf of understanding and perfection in this world.”

As readers of The Da Vinci Code know, Dan Brown has a great interest in alternative histories and interpretations. He emphasizes the importance of the Gnostic Gospels over the traditional Gospels in The Da Vinci Code. In particular, he has previously called readers’ attention to the Gnostic principle that God is interior to ourselves, not exterior, and that through various mystical means, journeys, and truth-seeking, men and women can realize their inner divinity.

While this is, indeed, a view found in some of the Gnostic Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas (see the outstanding book by Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief), it is not the traditionally expressed view of either the Old Testament or the New Testament.  But a Gnostic reading of “ye are gods” converges snugly with Dan Brown’s plotlines in The Lost Symbol. From a Gnostic perspective we are all divine and human at the same time; we are all gods.