What follows is the introduction for The Treatise of the Three Impostors, which The Mantle published in 2015. Those familiar with Three Impostors recognize it as an Enlightenment-era indictment against the foundations of three major religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That's only half the story. Published anonymously and attributed to numerous dates, places of origin, and authors—some real, some fantastic—Three Impostors is better understood as a performative act of radical critique and protest against religious authorities.
Our edition of Three Impostors (paperback; ebook) includes a new, critical introduction signed only with the author's initials (below). As presented, we pay homage to and continue this text's subvervise inquiry.
“Nothing is without a sign.” This is the novel thought at the core of Book IX—Concerning the Signature of Natural Things—of Paracelsus’s pioneering treatise Of Natural Things (c. 1572). The work cemented the Renaissance thinker’s reputation as a scientist and a rebel, two designations that then, as now, are often indistinguishable. His observations of the natural world led Paracelsus—a 16th Century Swiss-German polymath—to the conclusion that there is nothing that appears that does not bear a sign, an announcement of something which would otherwise remain concealed. Nothing is without a sign; nothing is without a signature.
But what of the enigmatic text contained in this volume? The Treatise of the Three Impostors is a fierce polemic against the prophets of the three Abrahamic religions: Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Substantially, it is similar to a number of manuscripts that constituted the core of the early Enlightenment clandestine trade in blasphemous tracts. Stylistically it drips with hostility, and is written with an irreverence that may seem familiar to our ears, but was striking to its intended audience. Most significant for contemporary readers, however, is the architecture of the work, and the lengths that were taken to conceal the identity of the author. In place of a signature, which would establish the relation between the work and the author, The Treatise of the Three Impostors presents instead an index of rumor and hearsay: numerous dates and places of origin; many attributable hands, some possible, others fantastic; a multitude of translations and editions. These obscurities are contained in the apparition standing in for a signature, the mark of an absence, of the unnamable: Anonymous.
Just as a coin is marked with the sign of the sovereign, thus acquiring its value and usefulness in commerce, so too the text is marked by the signature of its author. The signature imprints the work with the character of a subject, and situates it within a complex network of hermeneutic relationships. The Treatise of the Three Impostors, severed from the signature, was severed from the sociopolitical milieu in which it appeared, and left to drift to the margins of scholarship. While enjoying status as the most widely-distributed of the clandestine manuscripts of its time, the Three Impostors had little direct effect on the development of Enlightenment thought; the text was held in little regard by the more high minded of the free thinkers. Jonathan Israel, in his monumental history of the Radical Enlightenment, remarked on Three Impostors, claiming: “Philosophically, the text is of little significance and less originality, being little more than a crude vulgarization of Spinoza supplemented with a collage of additional matter drawn from several writers.”1
But we should not confuse marginality with irrelevance. The Treatise of the Three Impostors, by virtue of its wide distribution, was tremendously influential on the radical thought that was laying the foundation for the mainstream Enlightenment. Indeed, marginalization should not be understood to suggest an accident of history but, in the case of anti-authoritarian and heretical texts, a conscious tactic, and part of a larger strategy of political subversion. Attacking from the margins, texts such as the Three Impostors forsake pragmatism; the work appears less an example of reasoned, early modern discourse and more a declaration of war on the entire “empire of falsehood.” Anonymously penned, radical texts surreptitiously expand the horizons of thought, strike at the boundaries that delimit what can and cannot be a subject of inquiry, and so strike a blow against ignorance. To call a thought marginal is near enough to calling it radical, and it is true now just as it was during the Enlightenment upheavals that change—political, social, or theological—comes from the margins.
The character of the Three Impostors is further effaced by the likelihood that multiple hands penned the work over the course of many years, adding or deleting passages at will, emphasizing or de-emphasizing specific themes to suit personal preference. The integrity of the text is stylistically maintained, however, by the imperative to “speak without disguise and to state the case properly.” It is certainly no coincidence that the appearance of the Three Impostors, along with the traffic in clandestine texts in general, roughly corresponds with the appearance of printed works in vernacular languages. A clear discourse in the common language, coupled with an appeal to common sense, has the power to bypass the guardians of knowledge and speak to the people themselves. This alone makes the document a danger. The words themselves, printed without disguise or euphemism, make necessary the obfuscation of authorship. Further, the vehemence of the Three Impostors’ tone, according to a more pious contemporary of the work, “surpasses infinitely in atheistical profanity even those works of Spinoza which are regarded as the most pernicious.”2 Irreverent and populist, the style of the Three Impostors sharply contrasts with the body of work produced by the prophets themselves, which according to our anonymous author(s), “is so obscure that it is not understood, and put together in such a poor manner that we can hardly believe that they comprehend it themselves.” While the opacities of the prophets are elevated as holy, the unaffected and unadorned words of the Three Imposters are treated as an unacceptable threat to the state of superstition and ignorance preferred by “the cunning individuals who profit by the stupidity of the people.”
To be visible, to be named, is to enter into a relationship with power. The anonymous author, like the unnamed multitude, cannot enter into such a relationship. The anonymous author cannot represent the masses; the author is not a subject that can then address another, make demands of another, make promises to another. The anonymous can do nothing of the sort.; it is a protest against their condition and an indictment leveled against the prophets and gatekeepers of their fate. Despite the otherworldly themes, the text is deeply political. It gives voice to the unheard and unseen masses, and expresses their desire to remain invisible to the priests, the statesmen, and the learned doctors. But those who wear the cloak of invisibility are not merely resigned to their necessities of fate. They choose to sacrifice their face and their voice because they do not want to belong.
While it is unlikely that many of those who trafficked in clandestine manuscripts were fooled into believing The Treatise of the Three Imposters was authored by Frederick Barbarossa (as claimed), or dated from the time of the Crusades, the brazenness of the language required a fantastic effort at dissimulation. If an author could be identified, if a subject could be held to account, then undoubtedly the barbed words aimed at the political and spiritual authorities would not pass without response. The story of Michael Servetus, Spanish physician, humanist and natural scientist, contemporary of Paracelsus, and one of the imagined authors of the heretical text illustrates the hazards of authorship. Having been captured in Geneva following his escape from Vienna, condemned by Calvin himself, and under an extradition order from the French inquisitor, Servetus was called to stand trial on charges of spreading the doctrine of Nontrinitarianism and anti-paedobaptism. As was often true in the era straddling the Reformation and the Enlightenment, it happened that the true scholar was cast as a heretic. On October 27, 1553, Michael Servetus was burned to death atop a pyre built of green wood and his own books.
Incidents such as this were not uncommon in an age witnessing the struggle between an emergent rationalism and the entrenched forces of superstition and dogmatism. Outspoken critics of the institutions of state and religion, which had a stake in maintaining the ignorance of the masses, understood the mortal danger posed by their words, and took measures necessary to maintain their anonymity while actively working to disseminate their ideas. How have the challenges facing the authors of anti-authoritarian, blasphemous texts changed in the nearly 500 years since Servetus’ immolation? Given the networked and thoroughly surveilled terrain of the twenty-first century can we escape concluding that now, as then, visibility is a trap? Contemporary radical political movements have shown the latent power of leaderless, horizontal organization. No demands, no promises, nothing but words eroding the façade of authority, just as they always have. Nobody. Nothing. But to be nothing, in the words of another Anonymous, “is not a humiliating condition…but is on the contrary the condition for maximum freedom of action.”3
- 1. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001)
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (Semiotext(e), 2009).