Order, Age, and Pareidolia

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In his Essay on Criticism (1711), Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts [swallows] intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely [drinking great quantities] sobers us again.

In Greek myth, drinking from the Pierian spring instilled knowledge. In modern terms, Pope is saying that superficial knowledge makes people imagine they know more than they do about a topic; this false sense of knowledge leads to extravagant conclusions that do not hold up with further information.

An example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing is the web of misinformation and conspiracy theory that has grown up around a Latin quotation on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Note: Images of both sides of the Great Seal can be seen on the back of a one-dollar bill. The image of the reverse is on the left.

The reverse of the Great Seal shows an uncompleted pyramid with an eye in a rayed triangle above it. The words ANNUIT COEPTIS appear above the eye, and the words NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM appear on a scroll beneath the pyramid. Both quotations are taken from Vergil’s Latin epic, the Aeneid.

The first quotation, annuit coeptis, translates as “[He] favors the undertaking.”

In the context of the poem, the line is part of a prayer by Aeneas to Jupiter, and the understood subject “He” refers to the chief Roman god. Aeneas was praying about “undertakings” that included the foundation of Rome. (According to Vergil, Romulus and Remus were descendants of Aeneas.) To the eighteenth-century Deists setting up a country they viewed as a “new Rome” destined to endure for centuries, the eye—and the implied pronoun—represented Divine Providence.

The second quotation, novus ordo seculorum translates as “new order of the ages,” not, as conspiracy theorists would have it, “New World Order” or “New Secular Order.”

The designers of the Great Seal did not attach the same meanings to the Latin words ordo and seclorum that modern conspiracy theorists do. In the quotation from Vergil, ordo implies a sequence of historical periods. And seculorum does not denote the same thing as the English adjective secular.

The most common use of secular today is as an adjective meaning “worldly, not sacred.” To Vergil, the adjective saecularis, (“relating to a long period of time”) derived from the noun saeculum, which could mean “a generation,” “a century,” or “a very long period of time.”

For example, to a modern English speaker, the phrase “secular entertainment” would mean “entertainment having nothing to do with religion.” For ancient Romans, “secular entertainment” meant shows or games that were put on at very long intervals. The ancient Ludi Saeculares (secular games), for example, took place every 100 or 110 years.

The classically trained men who approved the final design of the Great Seal in 1782 were acquainted with the ancient belief that human history progresses and declines by Ages. For example, Ovid describes four ages: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. The quotation from Vergil reflects the founders’ feeling that the creation of the new nation represented the beginning of a new age in the history of the world.

Some conspiracy theorists who misinterpret the quotation also claim to see occult symbols hidden in the designs on both sides of the Great Seal. There’s a word for seeing meaningful images in random patterns:

pareidolia /pair-eye-DOLE-ee-uh/ noun: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful, image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.

One type of pareidolia is “face pareidolia”: the illusory perception of non-existent faces.

Another is “letter pareidolia”: the illusory perception of non-existent letters.

Claims to see satanic images in the Great Seal are examples of “symbol pareidolia.” This type of pareidolia is especially troublesome in the context of logo design because the same image can appear differently to different viewers—even to the same viewer at different times. Symbol pareidolia occurred with the 2014 World Cup logo: some viewers saw it as the depiction of a soccer fan doing a facepalm: “a gesture in which the palm of one’s hand is brought to one’s face, as an expression of disbelief, shame, or exasperation.”

Sometimes an artist intentionally plays to pareidolia by creating an image intended to be seen in two ways. A famous example is the drawing called “All Is Vanity” by Charles Allan Gilbert (1873-1929). At first glance, the viewer sees a lovely Victorian-era woman looking at herself in the large round mirror above her cosmetic-laden dressing table. With a second look, the viewer discerns not the woman, but the image of a death’s head—a human skull that represents death and the fleeting nature of life.

Alexander Pope would probably be amused to see the amount of nonsense about the US Great Seal that has resulted from a little learning and a lot of pareidolia.

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