The Pope of Discordianism; Who Was Robert Anton Wilson?
In the world of conspiracies, the occult, and esotericism there is often the opportunity to take oneself too seriously. The interminable rabbit holes of secret government operations, cover-ups, and shapeshifting reptilians rarely elicits lightheartedness or humor. That is, unless one were to read the writings and philosophies of Robert Anton Wilson and his ascription to Discordianism.
The Universe Contains a Maybe
Who Is Robert Anton Wilson?
A novelist, futurist, poet and editor, but primarily an agnostic in every sense, Robert Anton Wilson was one of the most notable names associated with the parodic religion of Discordianism. Wilson helped develop the concepts of Discordianism from a book called the Principia Discordia written by Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley. Wilson also collaborated with notable counterculture personalities like Timothy Leary and Robert Shea to expand on the faux faith.
Discordianism holds three major tenets: that there is order, disorder, and the notion that they are both illusory. Only by rejecting these premises can one truly perceive reality as it is. And it was this paradoxical unknowing at every level that became so appealing to Wilson.
Unlike most religions, Discordians are allowed to believe in other religions and are encouraged to form schisms and cabals; the antithesis of religious dogma, with a nod to the world of conspiracies.
When Wilson describes himself as an agnostic, he doesn’t just mean agnostic in the sense of God, but agnostic about everything. That Socratic paradox, “the only thing I know is that I know nothing,” couldn’t embody the Discordian sentiment any better.
Wilson said, “Discordians don’t have dogmas which are absolute beliefs. We have ‘catmas’ with are relative meta-beliefs.”
Wilson’s m.o. was to pontificate anyone as a Discordian pope. The religion believes that every man, woman, and child on Earth is guaranteed the papal distinction and every time he was broadcasted on television or radio, he would disseminate papacy to his listeners.
It was this religious parody that has more recently inspired similar religious spoofs like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a.k.a. Pastafarianism- may you be touched by his noodle appendage, rAmen.
But more so than Pastafarians, Wilson developed the social commentary of the Discordian satire with his understanding of complex philosophical and scientific concepts. One of the foundational practices of Discordianism developed by Wilson is referred to as OM, which encourages social change through the disruption of paradigms in order to force people to question their reality. This is achieved through civil disobedience, activism, art movements, and hoaxes.
“There’s an old Italian proverb: when four sit down to conspire, three of them are fools and the fourth is a government agent. I believe with modern surveillance techniques that’s more true than ever, and any overt action against the power structure is doomed to failure because of the techniques of control that have been developed. But the anarchistic impulses of art cannot be governed.” – Robert Anton Wilson
Wilson would also refer to OM as guerilla ontology, or the act of subversively exposing individuals to unique ideas, thoughts, and philosophies, in order to rouse cognitive dissonance.
This concept stemmed from his belief that everyone experiences life through their own, individual ‘reality tunnels.’ These tunnels are our perception of reality filtered by any number of things, including education, life experiences, mental states, and societal constructs.
Wilson’s philosophical goal was to expand this tunnel by taking one out of their comfort zone and deprogramming those filters. Deprogramming could be achieved through meditation, hypnosis, controlled use of psychedelics, or neurolinguistic programming. These concepts were fully hashed out in his book, Prometheus Rising.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy
Wilson, along with colleague and co-author Robert Shea, is most famous for The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a series of books that examined the occult and esoteric counterculture with comedic wit. The two wrote about everything from Aleister Crowley, to H.P. Lovecraft, Freemasonry, and of course, the Illuminati.
The series came about from a number of short stories written for Playboy Magazine eventually becoming his raison d’être. The trilogy is a work of fiction, including plots about the illuminati, numerology, and psychedelic drugs. Wilson and Shea also make references to popular names in counterculture and literature, including Timothy Leary, William S. Burroughs, and Ayn Rand.
Though the Illuminatus! books are satirical and poke fun at the conspiratorial state of mind, they are simultaneously playing with plot devices that underscore philosophical concepts, like cognitive dissonance and Kantian metaphysics.
Today the Illuminatus! Trilogy has inspired a number of characters, authors and playwrights, having been made into several theatrical adaptations. And though Wilson’s work is mainly satire, it has become the seminal work of conspiracy fiction, inspiring a genre that includes more serious endeavors like The DaVinci Code and V for Vendetta. The inspiration for Netflix’s Black Mirror can also be partly attributed to Illuminatus!
Despite Wilson’s penchant for parody, he was a shrewd philosopher who could comprehend complex topics like quantum physics and tie it in with the Discordian worldview. Other famous works of his include the Schrödinger’s Cat trilogy as well as Quantum Psychology. Of the latter he boasts that a quantum physicist believed he had a degree in advanced mathematics due to his astute understanding of quantum theory.
It was this type of brilliance that made Wilson’s so prescient, especially in an age of misinformation and media bombardment. Hiding deep-thinking truths in satirical entertainment was Wilson’s trademark and he was well-versed in it. Drawing from occult names like Aleister Crowley, to alternative philosophical gurus like George Gurdjieff, and futurist geniuses like Buckminster Fuller, Wilson acknowledged it all, and none of it at the same time.