Descent into the Absurd

Religio-Moral Exoticism (Gladwellocalypse, Part 3)

Some of Malcolm Gladwell’s critics say he’s a stupid person’s idea of a smart person. His enthusiasts refute that, one such describing his process of popularizing intellectual thought in his books and podcasts as:1

[U]nearthing material lying dormant in the rarefied realms of academic psychology, sociology and anthropology and shooting bolts of narrative electricity through it.

Even though it had been my intention to put this series to bed—and indeed, I had never intended it to be a series at all—the Gladwellocalypse was in full swing during this last season of Revisionist History (RevHist) to such a degree that I couldn’t ignore it.

I still usually enjoy Gladwell; when he’s the interviewee on a show I might not normally tune in to, I will. There are several topics on which he can contribute reliably, such as the US’ broken system of higher education and he’s hardly ever dangerously uninformed, like many hosts of political satire programs.

At base, the type of criticism pushed back on here is one strongly rooted in elitism, specifically the notion that mere accessibility invalidates something as intellectually worthwhile. Gladwell himself notes that such popularization is literally what his process is about, with an added kiss-off to any such critics:2

If you’re in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify […]. If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!

His work along these lines has led many to hail him as a “public intellectual”, but a different bearer of that same title, Umberto Eco, has also warned against the dumbing down of culture for capitalistic ends:3

The culture industry appeals to a generic mass of consumers (for the most part quite unaware of the complexities of specialized cultural life) by selling them ready-made effects, which it prescribes along with directions for their use and a list of the reactions they should provoke.

At a certain point when no sources are cited or incorrect information is given, the public intellectual becomes a pop intellectual. One work directly relating to the Italian semiotician is The Da Vinci Code, widely known to have borrowed its plot and details from Eco and the sources he was satirizing in Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault). Dan Brown’s particular take on the popularization of material from the intellectual realm had some predictable consequences because of his lack of real research and careless use of unreliable sources. When these are unraveled, it’s a descent from bad to worse to dismal:4

[T]he legitimacy of the Priory of Sion history rests on a cache of clippings and pseudonymous documents that even the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail suggest were planted in the Bibliotheque Nationale by a man named Pierre Plantard. As early as the 1970’s, one of Plantard’s confederates had admitted to helping him fabricate the materials, including genealogical tables portraying Plantard as a descendant of the Merovingians (and, presumably, of Jesus Christ) and a list of the Priory’s past “grand masters.” This patently silly catalog of intellectual celebrities stars Botticelli, Isaac Newton, Jean Cocteau and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci—and it’s the same list Dan Brown trumpets, along with the alleged nine-century pedigree of the Priory, in the front matter for The Da Vinci Code, under the heading of “Fact. Plantard, it eventually came out, was an inveterate rascal with a criminal record for fraud and affiliations with wartime anti-Semitic and right-wing groups.

Eco is hardly heavy-handed on the score of morality but as he is a former Aquinian scholar, his works are almost necessarily steeped in it. Simon Simonini, who creates the real-life hoax of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Eco’s The Cemetery of Prague, is clearly portrayed as an evil man perpetrating an evil deed. While Eco portrays the scheme at the heart of Foucault’s Pendulum as a misguided game, Brown fully endorses a similar plot, portraying it as fact, and even winning some of the lawsuits arising from his work through use of the claim that history can’t be plagiarized. Although the content of the two works is similar, the intent is thus completely opposite: Where Eco’s is a postmodern look at the irrationality of the universal conspiracy theory, Brown’s is a post-ironic embrace of alternate facts.

Also, a bit of inaccessibility is neither here nor there to me; I’d never condemn anyone for being readable, but I’ll also do what it takes to get to the information I’m looking for, up to and including learning a smattering of dead languages. I enjoyed the weighty opening chapters of each book of Les Misérables as setting up important historical, political, and philosophical context before diving back into the melodrama. I appreciated the way the density of Joseph Campbell’s writing early in The Masks of God acts in a medium-is-the-message manner as an initiation into the mysteries therein revealed. I’m definitely not down with slogging through a bone-dry read with no payoff though and even when Gladwell is wrong, at least he’s still typically entertaining.

No, my critique is a different one. The tagline for the RevHist informs us it’s:⁵

[A] podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood.

But there are reasons some things have been forgotten and also reasons they should remain so. Or, in the case of casuistry, the topic on which Gladwell dwells for no fewer than three episodes, rather than needing to be rehabilitated as he attempts, it is precisely that type of history which should be studied so it might not be repeated. In brief, casuistry is a process of reasoning which reached its height in the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries under the Jesuits. The term remains one which is almost universally used in a pejorative sense, which is indeed the history Gladwell is trying to revise.

I’m somewhat hesitant to dive into a diatribe about a religious group; my general attitude is live and let live, although I don’t partake. And I must also acknowledge that my point of view is decidedly Anglocentric, therefore, all forms of Catholicism carry some amount of negativity to me, but there are plenty of other well-known reasons apart from that. It’s also important to note that Gladwell is not a Catholic either, and so seems to be engaging in a bit of religio-moral exoticism here.

In any case, let’s turn the clock back to Elizabethan England (1558–1603). When the Religious Settlement put the capstone on the Reformation, Continental powers sent Jesuits to the island to sow dissent, up to and including assassinations and violent overthrow of the government.

One such was the Babington Plot, which saw Jesuit priest John Ballard recruit Anthony Babington into a French-backed plan to assassinate the queen, support a Spanish invasion of England, and finally place the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the throne in her stead. Double agents uncovered the scheme, which ended instead with 15 executed for treason, including Mary herself.

A still more extreme plan was hatched during the reign of the next king, James I, which, if successful, would have remained to this day the largest ever act of religious terrorism. The Gunpowder Plot, also known as the Jesuit Plot, would have blown up Parliament during the State Opening, killing not only King James and his close relatives but much of the aristocracy, the Privy Council, the senior members of the legal system, and the heads of the Church of England as well. By any estimation, England would have been plunged into chaos, and it’s likely that its existence as an independent nation would also have been at serious risk.

And the thing that allowed all this subterfuge, all this covert plotting and planning, was—you guessed it—casuistry. The specific fruit of the process at play here was one termed mental reservation, or more simply, equivocation, or still more directly, lying. Lying was considered a serious sin to this point, but the Jesuits reasoned that where justice and truth came into conflict, justice had to trump truth, terming it a “lie of necessity”.

Casuistry additionally offered convenient justifications for other previously morally inexcusable but highly desirable acts, including usury, homicide, and regicide. Blaise Pascal derided and satirized the process in his refutation, Provincial Letters (Lettres provinciales), the TL;DR version of which is that casuistry could essentially be used to justify just about anything. Indeed, the use of the process to wriggle out of any moral quandary rendered the term Jesuitic a synonym for cunning or deceitful.

The order, and its specific deployment of casuistry were broadly condemned even by contemporary Catholics: immediately upon his 1676 accession, Pope Innocent XI condemned 65 of their propositions as “laxorum moralistarum” (lax moralities) and forbade their teaching on pain of excommunication, focusing particularly on mental reservation. Non-Catholics, especially in England, were still less pleased with the order and its works, with someone cited simply as “a recent English author” in 1845 commenting:⁶

[T]he Jesuit […] conceals his right name, hides his real object, contracts his brow and disowns his party, [he] is as contemptible as he is dangerous, and to be scorned as much as he is to be feared. […] The unblushing Infidel, the bold and reckless Atheist can be better met, and is a far less dangerous foe to Christianity, than the slippery, turning, vanishing, masking, equivocating Jesuit.

Gladwell does dig into some of the controversial early modern uses of casuistry with Father James Keenan, a Jesuit theologian. Together they present these problems as straw men and fully endorse with a handwave the justifications that plunged the order into centuries of disrepute.⁷

In modernity, there has been a revival of casuistry based on the notion that it was not the process itself that was the problem, but its abuse. This is closely akin to the slogan, guns don’t kill people, people do. I’ve never understood how this has been used as pro-gun; yes, people are fallible, so giving them the means to act in drastic and irreversible ways is inherently a bad idea. A quite similar saying but with entirely the opposite intent is present in Japanese:

kichigai ni hamono
(don’t) give a knife to a crazy person

To their credit, in more recent years, the Jesuits have become more progressive than the Vatican on a variety of topics, including HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, and abortion. Gladwell does bring up one such area, birth control⁸ without establishing in any way that casuistry was at work, and the other episodes misapply casuistry to topics that have nothing to do with the order or its practices. He sums up the case he is trying to build for casuistry thus:⁹

St Ignatius Loyola […] gave his followers a set of moral instructions: to set aside principle, to descend into the particular, to listen closely. Why? Because only then can you fulfill one of the most important human obligations: to offer consolation to those who are suffering.

But this is some Cloud Cuckoo Land version of casuistry Gladwell has constructed for himself, not casuistry as was practiced in the early modern period when it was originally criticized and discarded, nor yet how it is practiced today. Pope Francis, by all accounts one of the most progressive and sympathetic pontiffs ever, and a Jesuit himself, decries the practice, saying that it seeks to establish general laws on the basis of exceptional cases.¹⁰ Which is not only exactly the error it fell into in the past but also morally far worse than the principled stand Gladwell is attempting to supplant with casuistry in his miniseries. And this is ultimately how casuistry has repeatedly worked in actual practice: insurance for a 16th century merchant ship is “like another captain”⁹ (how weaselly is that?) in that it seeks to keep the cargo safe, therefore usury is morally right in this case, and therefore usury is morally right in all cases—quod erat demonstrandum, hic et ubique.

Just as the news media help elect authoritarian populists by slanting coverage in their favor, sensationalism, in this case applied to the distorted popularization of an intellectual process ultimately with a profit motive, might be what’s behind Gladwell’s search for ever more controversial claims. And I, in fact, might simply be feeding the troll here.

Read subsequent posts in the Gladwellocalypse series

Part 3 Addendum: The Ironclad Test Oath and Why It Doesn’t Work

Part 4: The Immaculate Miscegenation

Read previous posts in the Gladwellocalypse series

Part 1: The Limits of Revisionist History

Part 2: The Unfit “King”

Part 2 Addendum: Golf No Softball


  1. Ian Leslie, “Malcolm Gladwell Is Underrated”, I. M. H. O., September 2013.
  2. Oliver Burkeman, “Malcolm Gladwell: ‘If my books appear oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them’”, The Guardian, September 2013.
  3. Umberto Eco, Opera Aperta (The Open Work), 1962.
  4. Laura Miller, “The Last Word: The Da Vinci Con”, The New York Times, February 2004.
  5. Revisionist History website.
  6. Alexander Duff, The Jesuits: Their Origin and Order, Morality and Practices, Suppression and Restoration, 1845.
  7. Gladwell, “The Standard Case” (Casuistry part 1), Revisionist History, July 2019.
  8. Gladwell, “Dr. Rock’s Taxonomy” (Casuistry part 2), Revisionist History, July 2019.
  9. Gladwell, “Descend into the Particulars” (Casuistry part 3), Revisionist History, August 2019.
  10. Francis X. Rocca, “Pope to meet with sex abuse victims for first time in June”, Catholic News Service, May 2014.

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