Wednesday, December 14, 2016

It Never Fails, or, P.T. Barnum Was Right

I should never underestimate how foolish people can be. In my essay "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast", I wrote about the silly theory that the number of the best, 666 (or sometimes 661), was some sort of hidden message pointing to Nero as the Beast. I argued quite strongly that the theory made no sense, that it misused gematria and was just generally a foolish theory.

In the course of discussing this theory, I mentioned Anthony Burgess' book The Kingdom of the Wicked, where Burgess had Roman era Christians explaining the number of the beast, DCLXVI in Roman numerals, as an acrostic for the message "domitianus caesar legatos xti violenter interfecit", meaning "Domitian Caesar is violently slaying the legates of Christ". However, I made clear in my discussion that I was certain Burgess meant it as a jest, as it was, first of all, improbable Latin -- using the X for chi, rather than writing Christi -- and second, since the Revelation was written in Greek, not Latin, using Roman numerals seemed just plain ludicrous. Burgess was clever enough to know this, and thus I was sure he meant it in jest, not as a serious proposition.

But, never assume anything is too ludicrous for the internet. After all, we have people arguing for legionnaires playing hopscotch ("The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn Piece of Paper'"), real ships of fools sailing through the seas of the middle ages ("Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously"), the beepocalypse than never was ("The Beepocalypse that Never Was - CCD, DDT, Alar, Saccharine, GMOs, Gamma Ray Bursts and other Catstrophes that Weren't or Won't Be"), towering Napoleons ("The Problem with Internet Revisionism") and the belief "gallic" has no relation to "Gaul" ("Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!") among other far fetched beliefs, so I should not be surprised to find that, as absurd as this explanation is, someone would reproduce it in all seriousness as a possible explanation of the number of the beast.

Now, it does appear this absurdity actually does have some "academic" backing, in the form of the support of Robert Graves*. However, even a little thought should show that it is quite improbable that a Greek author would take a Roman acrostic and then translate it into Greek numbers, thus losing all possibility of anyone figuring out its meaning. But common sense and the internet are often strangers, and so I found countless sites promoting this absurd claim.

As I say in the title, though I often thought the man far too cynical, the more I read on the internet, the more I come to realize, Barnum was onto something.

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* It is possible Burgess actually lifted this from Graves, as he did tend to draw on a wide range of sources, and Graves would hardly be unknown to him. Though even if he did, I have a feeling Burgess was not taking it all that seriously, even if it is not presented as an obvious joke. If you doubt his ability to write with tongue firmly in cheek, while appearing to be dead serious, read the introduction to End of the World News, supposedly written by the executor of his literary estate. (Needless to say, he was quite alive at the time of its writing.)


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