Foucault's Pendulum  

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This page Foucault's Pendulum is part of the mysticism series. Illustration: The Invisible College of the Rose Cross Fraternity
This page Foucault's Pendulum is part of the mysticism series.
Illustration: The Invisible College of the Rose Cross Fraternity

"One fine morning in 1623, Rosicrucian manifestoes appeared on the walls of Paris, informing the good citizens that the deputies of the confraternity’s chief college had moved to their city and were ready to accept applications."--Foucault's Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco

"Wanting connections, we found connections -- always, everywhere, and between everything."

"There are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics…Cretins don’t even talk; they sort of slobber and stumble…Fools are in great demand, especially on social occasions. They embarrass everyone but provide material for conversation…Fools don’t claim that cats bark, but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs. They offend all the rules of conversation, and when they really offend, they’re magnificent…Morons never do the wrong thing. They get their reasoning wrong. Like the fellow who says that all dogs are pets and all dogs bark, and cats are pets, too, therefore cats bark…Morons will occasionally say something that’s right, but they say it for the wrong reason…A lunatic is easily recognized. He is a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his thesis; he has logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars…There are lunatics who don’t bring up the Templars, but those who do are the most insidious. At first they seem normal, then all of a sudden…"--Foucault's Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco

Vestiges of the Alamut Castle (photo Payampak)
Vestiges of the Alamut Castle (photo Payampak)

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Foucault's Pendulum (1988) is a novel by Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco.

Foucault's Pendulum is divided into ten segments represented by the ten Sefiroth. The novel is full of esoteric references to the Kabbalah, alchemy and conspiracy theory, so many that critic and novelist Anthony Burgess suggested that it needed an index. The title of the book refers to an actual pendulum designed by the French physicist Léon Foucault to demonstrate the rotation of the earth, which has symbolic significance within the novel.


Plot summary

After reading too many manuscripts about occult conspiracy theories, three vanity publisher employees (Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon) invent their own conspiracy for fun. They call this satirical intellectual game "The Plan". The three become increasingly obsessed with The Plan, and sometimes forget that it's just a game. Worse still, other conspiracy theorists learn about The Plan, and take it seriously. Belbo finds himself the target of a real secret society that believes he possesses the key to the lost treasure of the Knights Templar.

The book opens with the narrator, Casaubon (his name refers to classical scholar Isaac Casaubon, and also evokes a scholar character in George Eliot's Middlemarch) hiding in fear after closing time in the Parisian science museum Musée des Arts et Métiers. He believes that members of a secret society have kidnapped Belbo and are now after him. Most of the novel is then told in flashback as Casaubon waits in the museum.

Casaubon had been a student in 1970s Milan, working on a thesis on the history of the Knights Templar while taking in the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary activities of the students around him. During this period he meets Belbo, who works as an editor in a publishing house. Belbo invites Casaubon to review the manuscript of a supposedly non-fiction book about the Templars. Casaubon also meets Belbo's colleague Diotallevi, a cabalist.

The book, by a Colonel Ardenti, claims a hidden coded manuscript has revealed a secret plan of the medieval Templars to take over the world. This supposed conspiracy is meant as revenge for the deaths of the Templar leaders when their order was disbanded by the King of France. Ardenti postulates that the Templars were the guardians of a secret treasure, perhaps the Holy Grail of legend, which he suspects was a radioactive energy source.

According to Ardenti's theory, after the French monarchy and the Catholic Church disbanded the Templars on the grounds of heresy, some knights escaped and established cells throughout the world. These cells have been meeting at regular intervals in distinct places to pass on information about the Grail. Ultimately, these cells will reunite to rediscover the Grail's location and achieve world domination. According to Ardenti's calculations, the Templars should have taken over the world in 1944; evidently the plan has been interrupted.

Ardenti mysteriously vanishes after meeting with Belbo and Casaubon to discuss his book. A police inspector, De Angelis, interviews both men. He hints that his job as a political department investigator leads him to investigate not only revolutionaries but also people who claim to be linked to the Occult.

Casaubon has a romance with a Brazilian woman named Amparo. He leaves Italy to follow her and spends a few years in Brazil. While living there, he learns about South American and Caribbean spiritualism, and meets Agliè, an elderly man who implies that he is the mystical Comte de Saint-Germain. Agliè has a seemingly infinite supply of knowledge about things concerning the Occult. While in Brazil, Casaubon receives a letter from Belbo about attending a meeting of occultists. At the meeting Belbo was reminded of the Colonel's conspiracy theory by the words of a young woman who was apparently in a trance. Casaubon and Amparo also attend an occult event in Brazil, an Umbanda rite. During the ritual Amparo falls into a trance herself, an experience she finds deeply disturbing and embarrassing, as she is Marxist by ideology and as such disbelieves and shuns spiritual and religious experiences. Her relationship with Casaubon falls apart, and he returns to Italy.

On his return to Milan, Casaubon begins working as a freelance researcher. At the library he meets a woman named Lia; the two fall in love and eventually have a child together. Meanwhile, Casaubon is hired by Belbo's boss, Mr. Garamond (his name refers to French publisher Claude Garamond), to research illustrations for a history of metals the company is preparing. Casaubon learns that as well as the respectable Garamond publishing house, Mr. Garamond also owns Manuzio, a vanity publisher that charges incompetent authors large sums of money to print their work (rendered "Manutius" in the English translation, a reference to the 15th century printer Aldus Manutius).

Mr. Garamond soon has the idea to begin two lines of occult books: one intended for serious publication by Garamond; the other, Isis Unveiled (a reference to the theosophical text by Blavatsky), to be published by Manutius in order to attract more vanity authors.

Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon quickly become submerged in occult manuscripts that draw all sorts of flimsy connections between historical events. They nickname the authors the "Diabolicals", and engage Agliè as a specialist reader.

The three editors start to develop their own conspiracy theory, "The Plan", as part satire and part intellectual game. Starting from Ardenti's "secret manuscript", they develop an intricate web of mystical connections. They also make use of Belbo's small personal computer, which he has nicknamed Abulafia. Belbo mainly uses Abulafia for his personal writings (the novel contains many excerpts of these, discovered by Casaubon as he goes through Abulafia's files), but it came equipped with a small program that can rearrange text in random. (Compare with the game of Dissociated Press and Ramon Llull's Ars Magna.) They use this program to create the "connections" which inspire their Plan. They enter randomly selected words from the Diabolicals' manuscripts, logical operators ("What follows is not true", "If", "Then", etc.), truisms (such as "The Templars have something to do with everything") and "neutral data" (such as "Minnie Mouse is Mickey Mouse's fiancée") and use Abulafia to create new text.

Their first attempt ends up recreating (after a liberal interpretation of the results) the Mary Magdalene conspiracy theory central to The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Casaubon jokingly suggests that to create something truly new Belbo must look for occult connections in non-obvious contexts, such as by linking the Kabbalah to a car's spark plugs. (Belbo actually does this, and after some research concludes that the powertrain is a metaphor for the Tree of life.) Pleased with the results of the random text program, the three continue resorting to Abulafia whenever they reach a dead-end with their game.

"The Plan" evolves slowly, but the final version involves the Knights Templar's coming into possession of an ancient secret knowledge of energy flows called telluric currents during the Crusades. The original Knights Templar organization is destroyed after the execution of Jacques de Molay, but the members split into independent cells located in several corners of Europe and the Middle East. As in Ardenti's original theory, each cell is given part of the Templar "Plan" and information about the secret discovery. They are to meet periodically at different locations to share sections of the Plan, gradually reconstructing the original. Then they will reunite and take over the world using the power of the telluric currents. The crucial instruments involved in their plan are a special map and the Foucault pendulum.

While the Plan is far-fetched, the editors become increasingly involved in their game. They even begin to think that there might really be a secret conspiracy after all. Ardenti's disappearance, and his original "coded manuscript", seem to have no other explanation.

However, when Casaubon's girlfriend Lia asks to see the coded manuscript, she comes up with a mundane interpretation. She suggests that the document is simply a delivery list, and encourages Casaubon to abandon the game as she fears it is having a negative effect on him.

When Diotallevi is diagnosed with cancer, he attributes this to his participation in The Plan. He feels that the disease is a divine punishment for involving himself in mysteries he should have left alone and creating a game that mocked something larger than them all. Belbo meanwhile retreats even farther into the Plan to avoid confronting problems in his personal life.

The three had sent Agliè their chronology of secret societies in the Plan, pretending it was not their own work but rather a manuscript they had been presented with. Their list includes historic organizations such as the Templars, Rosicrucians, Paulicians and Synarchists, but they also invent a fictional secret society called the Tres (Templi Resurgentes Equites Synarchici, Latin for the nonsensical "Synarchic Knights of Templar Rebirth"). The Tres is introduced to trick Agliè. Upon reading the list, he claims not to have heard of the Tres before. (The word was first mentioned to Casaubon by the policeman De Angelis. De Angelis had asked Casaubon if he has ever heard of the Tres.)

Belbo goes to Agliè privately and describes The Plan to him as though it were the result of serious research. He also claims to be in possession of the secret Templar map. Agliè becomes frustrated with Belbo's refusal to let him see this (non-existent) map. He frames Belbo as a terrorist suspect in order to force him to come to Paris. Agliè has cast himself as the head of a secret spiritual brotherhood, which includes Mr. Garamond, Colonel Ardenti and many of the Diabolical authors. Belbo tries to get help from De Angelis, but he has just transferred to Sardinia after an attempted car bombing, and refuses to get involved.

Casaubon receives a call for help; he goes to Belbo's apartment, and reads all the documents that Belbo stored in his computer, then decides to follow Belbo to Paris himself. He decides that Agliè and his associates must intend to meet at the museum where Foucault's Pendulum is housed, as Belbo had claimed that the Templar map had to be used in conjunction with the pendulum. Casaubon hides in the museum, where he was when the novel opened.

At the appointed hour, a group of people gather around the pendulum for an arcane ritual. Casaubon sees several ectoplasmic forms appear, one of which claims to be the real Comte de Saint-Germain and discredits Agliè in front of his followers. Belbo is then brought out to be questioned.

Agliè's group are, or have deluded themselves to be, the Tres society in the Plan. Angry that Belbo knows more about The Plan than they do, they try to force him to reveal the secrets he knows, even going so far as to try to coerce him using Lorenza. Refusing to satisfy them or reveal that the Plan was a nonsensical concoction, his refusal incites a riot during which Lorenza is stabbed and Belbo is hanged by wire connected to Foucault's Pendulum. (The act of his hanging actually changes the arc of the pendulum, causing it to oscillate from his neck instead of the fixed point above him, ruining any chance of displaying any correct location the Tres meant to find.)

Casaubon escapes the museum through the Paris sewers, eventually fleeing to the countryside villa where Belbo had grown up. It is unclear by this point how reliable a narrator Casaubon has been, and to what extent he has been inventing, or deceived by, conspiracy theories. Casaubon soon learns that Diotallevi succumbed to his cancer at midnight on St. John’s Eve, coincidentally the same time Belbo died. The novel ends with Casaubon meditating on the events of the book, apparently resigned to the (possibly delusional) idea that the Tres will capture him soon. And when they do, he will follow Belbo's lead, refusing to give them any clues, refusing to create a lie. While waiting, holed up in a farmhouse where Belbo lived years before, he finds an old manuscript by Belbo, a sort of diary. He discovers that Belbo had a mystical experience at the age of twelve, in which he perceived ultimate meaning beyond signs and semiotics. He realizes that much of Belbo's behavior and possibly his creation of the Plan and even his death was inspired by Belbo's desire to recapture that lost meaning.

Major themes

Most books written in this genre seem to focus on the mysterious, and aim to provide their own version of the conspiracy theory. Eco avoids this pitfall without holding back on the historical mystery surrounding the Knights Templar. In fact, the novel may be viewed as a critique, spoof, or deconstruction of the grand overarching conspiracies often found in postmodern literature. Although the main plot does detail a conspiratorial "Plan", the book focuses on the development of the characters, and their slow transition from skeptical editors, mocking the Manutius manuscripts to credulous Diabolicals themselves. In this way the conspiracy theory provided is a plot device, rather than an earnest proposition.

Belbo's writings are a recurrent theme throughout the book. The entire book is narrated in first person by Casaubon, with brief interludes from the files on Abulafia. These passages are often eccentrically written, and deal in most part with Belbo's childhood, his constant sense of failure, and his obsession with Lorenza. The interludes from his childhood serve as stark contrast to the mythical world of cults and conspiracies. Belbo is extremely careful to not try to create (literature), because he deems himself unworthy, although it becomes somewhat obvious that writing is his passion. This attitude of constant subconscious self-abasement fits in with the overall irony focused on in the book, considering that Belbo is eventually consumed by (re)creation of the Plan.

Casaubon is a scholar. While Belbo seeks inner peace, Casaubon's quest is of knowledge. The uncertainty of scientific knowledge and human experience is explored in his character, as he participates in various extra-natural events. His narratives abandon his strict realism and become increasingly inclined towards the supernatural as the novel progresses.

Mr. Garamond, whose primary business is selling dreams (through his vanity press outlet), comes to believe the fantasy world his authors weave. It is possible though, that he had always been a "Diabolical", and founded his publishing business to fish for information.

Societies in the novel

The following are some of the secret and not-so-secret groups that appear in Foucault's Pendulum:

The following are actually not involved with the Plan:

Comparison with other writings

Foucault's Pendulum has been called "the thinking man's Da Vinci Code". The parchment that sparks the Plan and its multiple possible interpretations, plays a similar role to the parchments in the Rennes-le-Château story propelled to global prominence by Brown's novel and, earlier, in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, from which Brown drew inspiration. Eco's novel, which predated the Brown phenomenon by more than a decade, similarly concerns itself with the Knights Templar, complex conspiracies, secret codes, the Holy Blood conundrum (if mentioned only in passing) and even includes a chase around the monuments of Paris. It does so, however, from a much more critical perspective: it is more a satire on the futility of conspiracy theories and those who believe them, rather than an attempt to proliferate such beliefs.

Asked whether he had read the Brown novel, Eco replied:

I was obliged to read it because everybody was asking me about it. My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.
- But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel.
No. In Foucault’s Pendulum I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.

Eco was himself inspired by the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, in particular his renowned short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". Eco's earlier best-seller The Name of the Rose was similarly indebted to Borges - this time "The Library of Babel" - as Eco tacitly acknowledges by assigning a key role to a blind monk called Jorge de Burgos, named in homage to the blind Argentine.

Foucault's Pendulum also bears a number of similarities to Eco's own experiences and writing. The character of Belbo was brought up in, and refers to many times, the region of Piedmont in Northern Italy. In an article compiled in Faith In Fakes, Eco refers to his own visit to a Candomblé ceremony in Brazil, reminiscent of the episode in the novel, and also describes a French ethnologist, Roger Bastide who bears resemblance to the character of Agliè.

The American newspaper The Boston Globe claimed that "one can trace a lineage from Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminati trilogy to Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum". The Illuminatus! Trilogy was written thirteen years before Foucault's Pendulum. George Johnson wrote on the similarity of the two books, that "both works were written tongue in cheek, with a high sense of irony."


The book begins with a long quotation in Hebrew, which comes from page seven of Philip Berg's book The Kabbalah: A Study of the Ten Luminous Emanations from Rabbi Isaac Luria with the Commentaries Sufficient for the Beginner Vol. II, published in Jerusalem by the Kabbalah Centre in 1973. The quotation translates into English as follows:

When the Light of the Endless was drawn in the form of a straight line in the Void... it was not drawn and extended immediately downwards, indeed it extended slowly — that is to say, at first the Line of Light began to extend and at the very start of its extension in the secret of the Line it was drawn and shaped into a wheel, perfectly circular all around.

Each of the following 119 chapters also begin with one or two quotes, mostly from esoteric books (including one quote from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which is mentioned in passing in the same chapter). One unusual quote (from Eco's private correspondence with renowned architect and engineer Mario Salvadori) describes the physics of a hanging victim as an approximation of a single and a double pendulum.


  • They remind me of Tom and Jerry.
    • Jacopo Belbo describing the Templars at the siege of Ascalon
    • Chapter 13
  • Not that the incredulous person doesn't believe in anything. It's just that he doesn't believe in everything.
    • Casaubon, Binah, Chapter 7
  • Incredulity doesn't kill curiosity; it encourages it. Though distrustful of logical chains of ideas, I loved the polyphony of ideas. As long as you don't believe in them, the collision of two ideas — both false — can create a pleasing interval, a kind of diabolus in musica. I had no respect for some ideas people were willing to stake their lives on, but two or three ideas that I did not respect might still make a nice melody. Or have a good beat, and if it was jazz, all the better.
    • Casaubon, Binah, Chapter 7
  • There are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.
    • Jacopo Belbo in his first philosophizing with Casaubon, Binah, Chapter 10
  • The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.
  • "I've seen your files, Pow," Lia said to me, "because I have to keep them in order. Whatever your Diabolicals have discovered is already here: take a look." And she patted her belly, her thighs, her forehead; with her spread legs drawing her skirt tight, she sat like a wet nurse, solid and healthy — she so slim and supple — with a serene wisdom that illuminated her and gave her a matriarchal authority. "Pow, archetypes don't exist; the body exists. The belly inside is beautiful, because the baby grows there, because your sweet cock, all bright and jolly, thrusts there, and good, tasty food descends there, and for this reason, the cavern, the grotto, the tunnel are beautiful and important, and the labyrinth , too, which is made in the image of our wonderful intestines. When somebody wants to invent something beautiful and important, it has to come from there, because you also came from there the day you were born, because fertility always comes from inside a cavity, where first something rots and then, lo and behold, there's a little man, a date, a baobab."
    • Lia's explanation to Casaubon, Gevurah, Chapter 63
  • "It’s all clear. Now follow me, because we must go back to the fourth century, to Byzantium, when various movements of Manichean inspiration have already spread throughout the Mediterranean. We begin with the Archontics, founded in Armenia by Peter of Capharbarucha — and you have to admit that’s a pretty grand name. Anti-Semitic, the Archontics identify the Devil with Sabaoth, the god of the Jews, who lives in the seventh heaven. To reach the Great Mother of Light in the eighth heaven, it is necessary to reject both Sabaoth and baptism. All right?”
    “Consider them rejected,” Belbo said.
    • Chapter 68
  • "The Massalians are not dualists but monarchians, and they have dealings with the infernal powers, and in fact some texts call them Borborites, from borbors, filth, because of the unspeakable things they do."
    "What do they do?"
    "The usual unspeakable things. Men and women hold in the palm of their hand, and raise to heaven, their own ignominy, namely, sperm or menstruum, then eat it, calling it the Body of Christ. And if by chance a woman is made pregnant, at the opportune moment they stick a hand into her womb, pull out the embryo, throw it in a mortar, mix in some honey and pepper, and gobble it up."
    "How revolting, honey and pepper!" Diotallevi said.
    • Chapter 68
  • "Not bad, not bad at all," Diotallevi said. "To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text."
  • Whatever the rhythm was, luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded in a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…
    • Casaubon,in Ch.85
  • People believe those who sell lotions that make lost hair grow back. They sense instinctively that the salesman is putting together truths that don't go together, that he's not being logical, that he's not speaking in good faith. But they've been told that God is mysterious, unfathomable, so to them incoherence is the closest thing to God. The farfetched is the closest thing to a miracle.
    • Lia in conversation with Casaubon.
    • Chapter 106
  • And Belbo, now invincible, said, "Ma gavte la nata."
    • A captive Belbo, responding to Aglie's command to speak about the Plan, Hod, Chapter 113
    • Translation: "Unplug yourself."
  • We invented a nonexistent Plan, and They not only believed it was real but convinced themselves that They had been part of it for ages, or rather They identified the fragments of their muddled mythology as moments of our Plan, moments joined in a logical, irrefutable web of analogy, semblance, suspicion. But if you invent a plan and others carry it out, it's as if the Plan exists. At that point it does exist. Hereafter, hordes of Diabolicals will swarm through the world in search of the map. We offered a map to people who were trying to overcome a deep private frustration. What frustration? Belbo's first file suggested it to me: There can be no failure if there really is a Plan. Defeated you may be, but never through any fault of your own. To bow to a cosmic will is no shame. You are not a coward; you are a martyr.
  • The true initiate is he who knows that the most powerful secret is a secret without content, because no enemy will be able to make him confess it, no rival devotee will be able to take it from him.
  • There are no "bigger secrets," because the moment a secret is revealed, it seems little.
  • The universe is peeled like an onion, and an onion is all peel.
  • You spend a life seeking the Opportunity, without realizing that the decisive moment, the moment that justified birth and death, has already passed. It will not return, but it was — full, dazzling, generous as every revelation.
    • Chapter 119
  • Where have I read that at the end, when life, surface upon surface, has become completely encrusted with experience, you know everything, the secret, the power, and the glory, why you were born, why you are dying, and how it all could have been different? You are wise. But the greatest wisdom, at that moment, is knowing that your wisdom is too late. You understand everything when there is no longer anything to understand.
  • I have understood. And the certainty that there is nothing to understand should be my peace, my triumph. But I am here, and They are looking for me, thinking I possess the revelation They sordidly desire. It isn't enough to have understood, if others refuse and continue to interrogate.
    • Casaubon in hiding from Them, Malkhut, Chapter 120
  • It hurts me to think I won't see Lia again, and the baby, the Thing, Giulio, my philosopher's stone. But stones survive on their own. Maybe even now he is experiencing his Opportunity. He's found a ball, an ant, a blade of grass, and in it he sees paradise and the abyss. He, too, will know it too late.
  • Only for you, children of doctrine and learning, have we written this work. Examine this book, ponder the meaning we have dispersed in various places and gathered again; what we have concealed in one place we have disclosed in another, that it may be understood by your wisdom. - Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim
    • Dedication
  • When the Light of the Endless was drawn in the form of a straight line in the Void... it was not drawn and extended immediately downwards, indeed it extended slowly — that is to say, at first the Line of Light began to extend and at the very start of its extension in the secret of the Line it was drawn and shaped into a wheel, perfectly circular all around. (original in Hebrew)
  • He who attempts to penetrate into the Rose Garden of the Philosophers without the key resembles a man who would walk without feet. -Michael Maier
  • If our eye could penetrate the earth and see its interior from pole to pole, from where we stand to the antipodes, we would glimpse with horror a mass terrifyingly riddled with fissures and caverns. - Thomas Burnet
  • Alchemy, however, is a chaste prostitute, who has many lovers but disappoints all and grants her favors to none. She transforms the haughty into fools, the rich into paupers, the philosophers into dolts, and the deceived into loquacious deceivers ... . - Johannes Trithemius
  • The conspiracy theory of society . . . comes from abandoning God and then asking: "Who is in his place? - Karl Popper

See also

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