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Little Known Philosopher: Boustrophedon Jones

An early eighteenth century non-conformist and Swedenborgian and older contemporary of William Blake, Boustrophedon Jones’ philosophy was influential on Hamann and thereby a key figure in the counter-enlightenment. His greatest work “Midnight Thoughts of a Solitary Walker” makes an analogy between thinking and walking, emphasizing that like walking thinking is a series of falls or stumbles, and fulminating against “The Projectile Fallacy” the view that man is a projectile flying towards a pre-determined goal. For Jones, rather, goals are imminent in the practice of falling. His followers have worked out the implications in more or less radical directions. For Queene, Jones is a fallibilist and an empiricist, for De Rakauer he is a proto-fascist.

An evaluation of Jones’ thought is difficult because it is apt to be overshadowed by the lurid events of his life. Because his tiny community of non-conformists suffered persecution Jones decided to lead them to the New World and establish the community of New Babylon. Inspired by his fiery dialectic sermons his followers sold their goods and chartered a ship. On the day of the journey however Jones was a no-show. He became a figure of contempt and ridicule in his native Essex: children would follow him chanting “No Show Jones” and hurling offal.

His writings are read by some as a justification for his embarrassing change of course. Whether they are meant as such is unclear and this has been a vexed issue in Jones scholarship since the days of his contemporaries. Mary Fletcher his jilted fiancee, who was to have been the Queen of New Babylon, endorsed the view that Jones nobly sacrificed the respect and love of all in order to send the message that every man must be his own leader, while his first disciple Onan Hacker compared his erstwhile teacher’s writings to the cloud of ink a squid releases in order to make it difficult for its pursuers to track its flight.

This initial exegetical agon referberates through his nineteenth and twentieth century critics and followers. There are those who believe that Jones’s indefensible flight is similar to the FELIX CULPA of anti-nomian interpretations of Christianity. The secret of Jones’s flight is that there is no secret, and that paradoxically is its secret. Others have exactly the opposite view — that Jones’s flight had a secret and therefore the only secret of interpretations of his philosophy as anything higher is that they are but obfuscation and air.

Recently though the Jones mystery has been solved. Acting under a grant from UNESCO researchers from the University of Wivenhoe unearthed the grave of Jones and discovered that he suffered from hereditary syphilis. His failure to start new Babylon now seems entirely rational, prudent and compassionate: aware that his syphilis would ultimately drive him insane when it crossed the membrane into his brain, Jones bowed out so as not to take his followers on a doomed journey into the wilderness.

This objective discovery has the following paradoxical results.

Those who agreed with Jones that thought is stumbling and not a projectile are wrong because his own thought was not stumbling at all.

But those who disagreed with Jones because they believed he covered his tracks for no reason are also wrong.

I wonder who was right and who was wrong. Maybe Jones himself was wrong and if he had manned up and founded New Babylon we would all be living there today.

Maybe we are!

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