The Masters of Wisdom


J.G. Bennett was a student of George Gurdjieff, who could be called a spiritual teacher (though that might not be entirely accurate). Gurdjieff was notable for bringing to Europe, shortly after World War I, startling ideas, many of which were entirely new to Western culture. A number of people have written about Gurdjieff and his teachings, but none as much as Bennett. This has been valuable for those interested, as his ideas are far-ranging, deep, and subtle.

In The Masters of Wisdom, Bennett presents some startling ideas of his own, though some may have been derived from Gurdjieff. The book is an attempt to give an overview of “the spiritual unfolding of life on this planet”, according to the subtitle.

Bennett begins with the formation of the planet, its cooling from a molten state, the change of the atmosphere to oxygen through the photosynthesis of plants, and the slow establishment and progression of life from slime molds to individual cells to multi-cellular organisms to fish to amphibians, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, and finally humans. This process took a very long time, and may have included some evolutionary blind alleys, from which the guiding intelligence seems to have learned.

Bennett calls this guiding intelligence the Demiurge. He sees the supreme God of the Universe as being concerned with life on all worlds, which are uncountable. We know there are billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and billions of galaxies much like ours, so many and so distant that there is no end to the universe we can detect. He quotes David Hume as saying, “God is either omnipotent and not loving, or loving and not omnipotent. He cannot be both” approvingly. It is possible to conceive of a God immensely more intelligent and potent than we are, who is yet limited. To imagine that he is aware of each individual in the world is difficult enough; to imagine he knows each individual in the universe (even assuming that only planets like ours contain life) seems preposterous. Much easier to believe that a Demiurge concerned only with life on this planet (or perhaps in this solar system) has slowly and painstakingly created life on this world and guided it. It took a long process for life to develop as far as the human race, and we are clearly less than perfect.

But Bennett points out that “Four characteristics of nature cannot be understood without reference to intelligence.”

  1. Progress. Life has progressed from simple primitive forms towards conscious creative beings. The first forms of life were simple in the extreme. The extreme multiplicity of life is nothing short of amazing.
  2.  Interdependence. Although we often don’t care to recognize it, our lives are interwoven with the rest of life on this world in a variety of ways, some of which even scientists who study ecology have yet to notice. The world is an extremely complex work of art in that respect.
  3.  Beauty. Bennett points our that beauty isn’t strictly necessary for living organisms to function, but it is a frequent part of our world, which strongly implies that the Demiurge loves beauty just as we do. The world wasn’t made only to serve a purpose, but to be enjoyed too. While beauty may serve an evolutionary function, in many cases it seems here merely to be enjoyed.
  4.  Play. We rarely associate play with God or his purposes, but we and other organisms play, and are amusing and absurd. Apparently, God is not always serious.

A recent NPR program said that each human contains the equivalent of enough 1600 page books to fill the Titanic, all contained in DNA, the most efficient means of storing information known. It’s unfortunate that the idea of Intelligent Design became identified with taking the book of Genesis literally. Anyone willing to look can see a LOT of intelligence in the design of the natural world. And a lot of less than perfect design too, like the female reproductive system, which works adequately, but is still dangerous to both mother and child.

The human species is about 4 million years old, and it took a long time for our own breed of humans to come along. The age of Homo Sapiens seems to be in excess of 200,000 years, but humans weren’t greatly different from other animals until between thirty-five and fifty thousand years ago. Bennett sees “Adam”, the beginning of man beginning to be conscious of himself starting about 37,000 years ago. The reason, he says, is that it took time for the substance of mind, as opposed to brain, to become established. He sees this as being based on the energies generated by mammals in particular. These energies, according to Gurdjieff, are the reason for life in general, including human life. They contribute not only to the welfare of all the different species in the world, but also to the development (which is too slow for humans to observe) of the planets. Of course this is not obvious, but is at least an interesting hypothetical answer to a question that hasn’t otherwise been answered satisfactorily, as far as I know.

There were shamans among most groups of humans at this time, since most (if not all) humans were nomadic, following the animals they hunted during each season. The shamans were in touch with the Demiurge partly through techniques for changing  consciousness that were further developed later, including not only meditation and dance, but also hallucinogenic drugs. This is when Bennett believes mankind was imbued with creativity, and was also when religion began. Graham Hancock joins Bennett in believing that religion began the journey of humankind toward becoming the dominant species in the world, something almost impossible to foresee then.

As religion developed, four primary conceptions of God arose in different parts of the world. One was of the Mother Goddess in the Middle East and Europe, which celebrated and tried to ensure fertility in both agriculture and humans.

Another was the Creator God, which Bennett says began in Africa. He associates it with the climate change after the end of the last ice age, when African lands became drier and new animal and plant species appeared. Bennett says the leaders of the time were real magicians who lived much differently from the ordinary people, beginning the idea of aristocracy.

Then there were the Great Spirit cultures who emerged from northern Asia and traveled to the Americas. Shamans there, according to Bennett, were possessed by the Demiurge. Those cultures had few established religions, unlike the Mother religions based on agriculture and a settled population which could build temples. This form of religion may have lasted longest in North America (with the exception of Mexico, where there was established religion). Bennett sees Taoism in particular as being influenced by the  Great Spirit conception.

The most surprising of the four conceptions is that of the Savior God. Bennett cites the work of Indian historian B.G. Tilak, who analyzed the ancient Vedic hymns, and believes them to be describing phenomena within the Arctic Circle, where the destructive potential of Nature is particularly impressive. The Aryans who once lived there believed they couldn’t survive without the help of God. One example of evidence is extensive descriptions of sunrise in the Upanishads. Bennett says that sunrise in the tropics is unremarkable, but in the Arctic, where winter is entirely dark, sunrise is a gradual phenomenon over many days in which the sun approaches the horizon and retreats again. The actual sunrise is spectacular.

The theory of Aryan invasion of India is debatable, as some Indians resent the idea that the Aryans (a theory especially popular with Europeans) brought a superior culture to the subcontinent. While this attitude is understandable, there’s at least anecdotal evidence it is true (whether or not the culture brought was superior). An Indian friend told me that Indian gods and demons have the same names as the Persian equivalents, but that the Persian gods are Indian demons, and vice versa. And an Iranian friend told me that Iranians believe their distant ancestors once lived in Siberia. By itself, that proves little, but does mean the Aryan invasion isn’t unthinkable.

Gurdjieff taught that there is an “inner circle” of mankind based on higher consciousness which tries to influence humans to evolve, One method of doing so is by means of ideas, which have often been spread by religions. Between the seventh and sixth centuries BCE several either began or became prominent across Asia. These include Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism. In addition this was the time of several of the important Hebrew prophets, as well as that of Pythagoras. According to Gurdjieff, there was a conference in Babylon near the end of the sixth century, which was instigated by the Persian king Cambyses’s conquest of Egypt and his removal of many of the priests and other wise men. It’s possible that the Buddha and Zoroaster attended this (or sent representatives), and it’s known that Pythagoras was removed from Egypt with the priests and others, and stayed in Babylon for some time. The common idea of these religions was that ordinary individuals had as much right to work for their salvation as did the kings, warriors, and priests who dominated early societies. The new ideas didn’t prevent ordinary people from being mistreated, but did change prevailing attitudes.

Bennett also believed Jews became the Chosen People because Judaism united the four conceptions of God. Although early Judaism probably included the fertility religion rituals of their neighbors, by the fifth century they had pretty much put that behind them–except that they saw Jerusalem as being their mother, and were passionately attached to her.

They had also been a Great Spirit culture in the time of Abraham, being nomads and and worshiping a god who belonged strictly to them. In the Egyptian captivity they were exposed to the Creator God. Much later, after the kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon, and many Jews were taken there, Judaism was also exposed to the Savior God culture, in the form of Zoroastrianism, a dualistic religion, in which Ahura Mazda, god of Truth, opposed Ahriman, god of the Lie. From Zoroastrianism Judaism borrowed apocalyptic ideas of a war between good and evil, including the Saoshyants, who became in Judaism, the Messiah. By the time of Jesus, there was a powerful desire for the Messiah to come, especially because the Romans dominated Palestine and were greatly resented by the Jews.

When I first read The Masters of Wisdom I agreed with Bennett that the conventional explanation of Jesus’s mission had never seemed satisfying. For one thing, he stated in the gospels that he had the power to forgive sins already. Bennett points out that modern psychology (in which we might include Gurdjieff’s teachings) have made it clear that most humans aren’t conscious enough to be held responsible for the horrible things many of us do. Bennett sees Jesus’s mission as being a decisive step in human evolution.

The Demiurge had, much earlier, managed to give mankind intelligence and creativity. Bennett believes a shadowy memory of the method this was passed on is recorded in the book of Genesis, which speaks of the Sons of God having intercourse with the daughters of men and having outstanding offspring.

But Jesus’s mission was to transmit Divine Love to the human race, and it couldn’t be transmitted in that way. It must be explained that Divine Love differs from ordinary human love in not being polar. In other words, in human love the positive pole is attracted to the negative pole, but repulsed by another positive pole. It is a quality of will rather than a physical attribute.  “Divine Love does not derive its power from separation, but from union. It is not fullness, but emptiness, not Being, but the Void.”  Bennett takes one of the most mysterious stories in the New Testament and tries to explain what was happening.

This was the Transfiguration, when Jesus took several disciples up a mountain where he appeared to be shining, and two other figures appeared with him, identified by the disciples as Moses and Elias. There was also a voice which spoke out of a cloud. Moses is symbolic of the Law, while Elias symbolizes the miraculous.

Why was this incident recorded in three of the Gospels (and not the fourth)? It’s difficult, from what is recorded in the Gospels, to say what was happening. But what is recorded may give clues.

Immediately after the Transfiguration the sons of Zebedee disputed who would sit at Jesus’s right hand when he came into his kingdom. This aroused the jealousy of the other disciples, and they were rebuked.

More famously, Peter boasted that he would never betray Jesus, then did so three times in one night, just as Jesus had predicted. No doubt Peter didn’t mean to betray, but he was certainly humiliated at being unable to stop himself.

Bennett points out that at the Last Supper the disciples began speculating as to who would betray Jesus, which means they knew someone had to, though they didn’t understand why. As everyone knows, it turned out to be Judas, and his name still represents the archetype of the traitor.

But Gurdjieff told Bennett that Judas was the disciple closest to Jesus, who knew all his secrets. For this reason, Bennett believed that Judas also accompanied Jesus to the top of the mountain.

Why was the betrayal of Jesus necessary? Because Divine Love couldn’t be accepted without being changed to ordinary human love unless each person receiving it had completely given up egoism. This could best be done through humiliation. Not only had the disciples to be humiliated, but Jesus himself, by the crucifixion and the repudiation by most of what he had taught.

So at the Last Supper Jesus indicated that Judas was to betray him, and told him to do what he needed to quickly. After Judas accepted the sop Jesus handed him, Satan entered him. This, says Bennett, was to expel Satan from the other disciples, so that Divine Love could deeply enter them, which was impossible if they had fear, egotism, and hatred, all of which Satan represents. Why did Jesus appoint this task to Judas? Bennett believes it was because Judas had reached a higher level of being than the other disciples, and could allow Satan to enter him without being destroyed. He was also the one who understood the necessity, but this didn’t make him comfortable with the task. Bennett suggests that if anyone could be said to have died for the sins of mankind, it must have been Judas, who did what Jesus asked, rather than Jesus, who supposedly never sinned. As Bennett points out, we feel our own sins most acutely. Compassion for the sins of others is different. Judas, on the other hand, must have tortured himself in questioning if he had done right, which is why (at least by one account) he committed suicide. To argue that Judas had always been a traitor is to disparage Jesus’s judgment of people.

What happened at the Last Supper has been celebrated ever since by Christians in the form of the communion, but it’s unclear just what this was, except that it prompted Jesus to declare a new commandment: to love each other as he had loved them, which strongly implies this was more than ordinary love.

Had Jesus been an ordinary leader, he could have started a revolution against the Romans. It was Passover, a time when there were many in Jerusalem who could have been roused to fight. Such a revolution might even have succeeded for a time, but Jesus had a much greater mission. And he succeeded in being crucified, a death reserved for traitors and criminals (and he was, according to the Gospels, descended from King David), so that his teaching was discredited and rejected.

“Once the full tragedy of despair and humiliation was complete, the resurrection became possible. The ‘resurrection body’ (comparable to the astral body occultists speak of) is perceptible only to those able to love.” The New Testament says Jesus visited the disciples after the crucifixion, but doesn’t record anyone else seeing him. It does record that the disciples had new powers, though, including being able to speak to foreigners who understood in their own languages.

Bennett emphasizes that love is the consequence of humiliation, and that humiliation is the only thing that cancels sin. Groups like the Essenes, he says, accepted humiliation within the community, but not outside it. They and the Pharisees chose the path of gnosis and power, as most human groups do, and as Christianity did in the 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine made the religion legal, intervened to try to resolve the controversy of whether Jesus was of the same substance of the Father, or was inferior to him. This set the stage for Christianity to become the state religion of Rome so they could persecute fellow Christians as well as the pagan majority. Thus did the religion most based on love become its opposite.

Part of the problem was that the ideas on which Christianity and the other religions which had become important in the previous thousand years were based on esoteric ideas that were inevitably misunderstood by masses of people. From that misunderstanding came religious dictatorship and war.

Islam rose in the 6th century, and we may suspect it was intended to correct the mistakes of Christianity, but as a whole it didn’t do so for very long since the religion was closely allied to the Muslim conquest and administration of the Middle East, northern Africa, and Spain. Power is inhospitable to love.

However, a thousand years after Jesus, people corresponding to what we might expect of an inner circle of humanity began gathering students and training them in Turkestan, north of Iran and Afghanistan, centered around the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent. These teachers were greatly respected by the whole population in the area because they were absolutely impartial. Even though they sometimes advised rulers, they refused to accept any funding or gifts. They made their own livings, often as artisans, working with their hands. All were extremely modest, and all said they made spiritual progress through humiliation.

Ever since the advent of Islam (and possibly before) Sufis have practiced in the Middle East, but Bennett draws a distinction between northern and southern Sufis. Southern Sufis, from Iraq, Arabia, Egypt, and Spain, aimed at union in love with God. But the northern Sufis of Turkestan and Iran aimed higher, at complete liberation, which meant giving up the limitations of existence. What is meant exactly by that phrase isn’t entirely clear, but it may mean the ego. Leaving behind the ego means transformation, and Bennett connects this with the early Christian understanding of dying with Christ and being reborn. Gurdjieff taught that one couldn’t be a real Christian without being transformed because, as we usually are, we’re unable to follow Christ’s commands. The Masters of Wisdom, as the teachers in Turkestan were known, were teaching transformation, and it was common for students to be taught for thirty or forty years before being allowed to teach themselves.

The first of the Masters to become publically prominent, Yusuf Hamadani said, “All men know that love is the Supreme Power that unites Man and God, but no one who is not free of self is capable of love.” As Jesus had said much earlier, Strait is the gate. What Bennett doesn’t portray is just how the Masters pursued humiliation. It may be a powerful tool, but it can destroy people instead of helping them grow, if taken the wrong way. Probably the approach had to do with teaching students to recognize their deficiencies and correct them.

Turkestan was a wealthy area, since it was on the Silk Road trading route, but there were frequent civil wars as, when each ruler died, one of his sons would seize power and try to kill all his brothers to keep them from trying to seize power themselves.

After about two hundred years of the Masters’ activity, the ruler of Turkestan came in contact with the Mongols and Genghis Khan. When he and one of his friends stole wares sent by the Khan to be traded, and executed the Khan’s representatives, invasion became inevitable. When it came it was devastating.

The Mongols were ruthless toward any cities that resisted them, though they spared any that surrendered. The influence of the Masters saved many lives and helped speed up the necessary reconstruction after the invasion (which nevertheless took some two hundred years).

Throughout the three hundred years after the Mongol invasion the Masters were greatly respected by all levels of society, but ceased to play a public role in the 16th century. They were succeeded by a number of Sufi brotherhoods, but these seem not to have reached the same level as the Masters.

One of the Masters said that religion would fail if the chance the Masters were offering was refused. That seems to be the case now. On one hand there are more secular people than there have ever been. On the other, many of the most publicized religious people are now fanatics. Those who are not (probably the majority) know little or nothing of transformation. After nearly two millenia of religion (especially Christianity and Islam) dictating what people were allowed to believe and prohibited from believing, the real crux of the matter, and much more difficult, had gotten lost for most. Though both religions have produced good people, what they have been able to do has been woefully inadequate to the world situation.

Bennett believed we are on the brink of a make-or-break moment in evolution, when humans must begin learning how to cooperate with higher intelligences. We now have godlike powers, but our behavior is rarely godlike. The powers we have are often monopolized for the benefit of few, and are thus destructive. Gaining the whole world and refusing to share causes us to lose our souls.

Bennett died before he could complete this book. One of his ideas for it was to write about Masters who lived in Europe, though it’s uncertain he would have included this. A long list of the names he might have written about includes the anonymous builders of the Gothic cathedrals, Saint Francis, Dante, Torquato Tasso, Meister Eckhart, Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, Jacob Boehme, Massacio, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, the Rosicrucians, and others.

There have always been people who were enlightened, and no doubt still are, though few are in the public eye. Perhaps these are the hope of humanity, though. What is most needed are leaders who are neither fanatical nor corruptible. People who are like the Masters of Wisdom, as Bennett describes them.


Tipping Point?


Has a tipping point arrived with the shootings in Parkland, Florida last week? I don’t know. One thing that makes it possible is that the victims weren’t elementary school children too young to articulate what they felt. They were high school students, and many of the survivors are already 18, or soon will be, so will be able to vote in the elections this year. A number of them have vowed to work for gun control, and have flatly contradicted the same old sentiments about it not being time to talk about the problem and people kill people, not guns.

But there will be plenty of resistance. The NRA has plenty of money to spend fighting anyone who would restrict gun manufacturers and sellers in any way, and no doubt they’ll be calling these kids “liberals” or “communists” before long. I wonder if being trapped in a school with someone trying to kill you for a couple of hours isn’t a good way to be converted to liberalism–unless conservatives take these students seriously and enact some serious reforms. That may not happen unless a lot of Republicans get voted out of office in November over the issue.

But the shooting reminded some young people, on the eve of their being able to vote, that their elected representatives haven’t been serving them. If their representatives prefer not to, it would be nice to see them pay a political price.

But they will try hard to prevent that, and by not changing more than they can help. They’ve already proposed armed guards at schools in Florida, even though that probably wouldn’t be especially effective–it wouldn’t be hard to take armed guards by surprise–and probably wouldn’t be possible to guarantee that the guards wouldn’t do shootings themselves. Veterans aren’t always trustworthy, and how much will school districts be willing to pay armed guards to make sure they get good ones? The idea of putting a lot of guns in schools means there would be more chance for accidents or for people having nervous breakdowns (or other unfortunate circumstances) would have access to guns at times when they shouldn’t. I’m not so sure teachers should have to think about whether or not they could kill a student, either. That’s a question that would have to be asked if teachers were armed.

A post found on Facebook by a veteran says that getting rid of automatic weapons (except for the military and police), including automatic hand guns, would be effective. Those are weapons specifically designed to kill people, and aren’t needed in a civil society. To the people who say they need weapons to resist a tyrannous government, he replies that the government has much more potent weapons. That kind of resistance being successful is extremely unlikely.

Part of the reason for so many shootings in recent years seems to be that a number of men (shootings are almost exclusively a male crime) feel insecure about their masculine privileges being taken away in a time of great income inequality and instability. Insecurity breeds resentment, and if resentment gets extreme, it leads to violence.

Gun enthusiasts say that someone who wants to kill will find a way, whether with a gun or a knife. True, but killing is much easier with a gun, especially one with a large magazine that can get off many shots in a short time. Last year a shooter in Las Vegas was able to kill 58 and injure some 500 in a relatively short time. That’s what automatic rifles can do. Automatic pistols don’t have magazines as big, but they’re easier to conceal. And a large percentage of shooting deaths come from handguns.

Other suggestions (from the other side of the aisle) include getting licensed just like everyone must to drive a car, and to get insurance. That would go with tests to make sure gun owners were psychologically stable and knew how to store, care for, and handle their weapons. Making people liable for weapons they left where irresponsible people could take them would motivate people to be more careful. With the right to bear arms should come responsibility, just as with driving cars. Such laws wouldn’t be perfectly enforced, especially immediately, but neither are laws regarding cars. The author of the post on Facebook suggested that driving race cars on public streets at 140 miles an hour is probably not a great idea. Neither is allowing just anyone to play with guns.

It will be interesting to see how successful the students of the high school in Florida will be in trying to combat the influence of the NRA. If they eventually are successful, will they decide to take on other examples of behavior by large corporations that most people dislike? Polls have discovered that ordinary (non-wealthy) Americans have very little influence over governmental policies, and it’s pretty certain that wealthy people generally prefer it that way. One of the things about these students is that they come from a fairly well-off community. They probably won’t be as intimidated by great wealth as many people.

If they manage to get substantive reform in Florida, and possibly even nationally, what might they take on next? Big pharmacy, which price-gouges on medications needed by many ordinary people (insulin, for instance)? Or pollution?

If this is a tipping point, maybe we’ll find our society beginning to become more democratic. That doesn’t mean democratic as in the Democratic party necessarily, but democratic as in listening to everyone, and not just the people with a lot of money.

This Year’s Superbowl


Well, you can’t say it was boring. The defenses weren’t exactly leakproof, and there was plenty of scoring. Plus, the game lasted right to the end. Nothing was entirely certain until then.

It was unusual in that Bill Belichick got outcoached by the Philadelphia Eagles coach, Doug Pedersen, who was very aggressive. I didn’t start watching until the Eagles were up 9-3, and New England spent almost the whole game trying to catch them. Philadelphia’s defense was good enough in the first half to hold them to two field goals until almost the end of the half. When they finally scored a touchdown (and missed the extra point) Philadelphia took the ball, had a fourth down at about mid-field, took the chance, converted it, and scored another touchdown to lead by 10 points instead of only three at the half. That made a difference.

New England’s offense got busy in the second half, scoring three touchdowns, but their defense couldn’t shut down Philadelphia. Nick Foles, the quarterback, who had played only about five previous games this season, continued where he left off in the NFC championship game, playing spectacularly well, making big play after big play. New England never got a chance to rest.

They DID  finally go ahead late in the game, 33-32, but Philadelphia scored again, this time with a play New England had tried against them in an earlier game. A different player took the snap, the quarterback went out wide, slipped into the end zone unnoticed, and caught an easy touchdown pass. The two point conversion didn’t work, but Philadelphia then got a field goal, and hung on. The Patriots tried, but weren’t able to score again.

It was an unusual game for New England. They don’t usually seem overconfident, but they may have been this time. One unexplained decision was to bench a defensive player who usually starts, and for no clear reason. This may have contributed to the defense’s lack of effectiveness. The defense also seemed off-balance most of the game. Usually they’ve been thoroughly prepared and are able to diagnose what the other team is doing. Maybe Belichick’s magic has begun to wane, and other coaches to begin to see how to counter what he does. New England’s defense wasn’t as good as usual this year, but they’re usually able to make adjustments to be good enough. Not this time. Philadelphia was thoroughly prepared, and played extremely well. New England was always trying to catch up, always at least a little off-balance. That’s unusual.

There have been indications that the franchise is in turmoil. Maybe that’s so. Maybe it’s simply that they’ve been so good for so long that it’s time for them to fade. Every dynasty eventually does.

All that said, it was an extremely exciting game, even if the result wasn’t quite what I’d hoped.

This Year’s Super Bowl


I’m a New England Patriots fan, which isn’t a very popular thing to be, but I think I’m justified. I became one about forty years ago, before they ever won anything. That’s because I liked the play of quarterback Steve Grogan and the rest of the team. I had moved from Ohio to New Hampshire before they ever made it to a Super Bowl, from New Hampshire to Vermont before they made a second one, and from Vermont to Virginia before they ever won one. I do like to root for underdogs, and the Patriots aren’t anymore, but they WERE, and for quite a long time. Now I enjoy rooting for a winner.

They went to the American Football League championship (before the AFL merged with the NFL), and lost badly to the Chargers. They barely ever even got into the playoffs between then and their first Super Bowl. It took almost ten years from the time I started to like them for them to go to the Super Bowl, and they had the misfortune of running into the Chicago Bears, who had one of the all-time great defenses. The result was a blowout.

About thirteen years later they went again, this time against the Green Bay Packers who had quarterback Brett Favre. The result was the same, except that they only lost by two touchdowns instead of 36 points. But things changed after that.

The first thing change was that Bill Belichick became head coach. He had previously been head coach in Cleveland, where he didn’t have very good players, but that too changed in New England. Not immediately, though. He lost eleven games in his first season. He hasn’t had a losing season since.

Then Drew Bledsoe, the starting quarterback got injured, and Tom Brady took over. Brady was an obscure figure, having been mostly a backup quarterback at the University of Michigan, and taken by only a sixth round draft pick, but Belichick must have seen something in him. In the 2001 season the Patriots won eleven games in the regular season, went to the Super Bowl and won it. They were only mediocre the next  year, but returned to the championship, and won, each of the following two seasons, the only time that has been done.

Then they entered a period of being competitive every season, but not quite good enough to win a title. In 2007 they won every game of the regular season, equaling the record of the Miami Dolphins about 45 years earlier, but couldn’t win the Super Bowl.

The following year Brady got hurt early and missed almost the entire season. His replacement won eleven games, but the Patriots finished out of the playoffs. In 2011 they went to the Super Bowl, but played the New York Giants (who had beaten them in 2007), and lost again. But in 2013 and 2017 they won, and are back in the game favored to win this year. They’re playing a good team, as usual, so nothing is guaranteed.

The Patriots have been a dominant team in the league for seventeen years now, almost always in the playoffs, usually in  the AFC title game, and eight times in the Super Bowl. The last team comparably dominant was the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, when they won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls. New England has now equaled the record of championships, and is pretty likely to exceed it on Sunday.

One of the main characteristics of the Patriots over the last seventeen years has been the ability to adjust. Brady has been arguably the greatest quarterback in history, and has done it often without either outstanding receivers or running backs. They did win one or two championships with Corey Dillon, who had had a distinguished career with the Cincinnati Bengals, an undistinguished team, but when they had a world class receiver in Randy Moss in 2007 they went undefeated in the regular season, went to the Super Bowl–and lost. When they lost a defensive back to injury Belichick  successfully replaced him with a wide receiver, something virtually unheard of since football players stopped playing both offense and defense. The team has the reputation of being able to play any style of game, and to adjust to anything an opponent tries. They have great players besides Brady, but have won with only average players in the past. Intelligence of approach and refusal to give up has characterized the team for 17 years.

Sports commentators speaking about the challenge of playing the Patriots say teams feel each other out as a game begins. Each has a potential game plan, but what they actually do on each side of the ball depends on what they see from each other. The Patriots have been masters of making adjustments to what they see, so the other team has to be able to adjust to their adjustments.

The archetypal example of this came a year ago when the Atlanta Falcons roared out to a 28-3 lead. No team, and especially not one as good a defense as Atlanta, should lose with that kind of lead.

But New England made adjustments. They began to prevent the Falcons from sacking or hurrying Brady, so he was able to complete passes, opening up the running game, and keeping the Atlanta defense on the field longer and giving their offense less time to operate. Slowly the Patriots caught up, tied at the end of the game, and won in overtime.

In their most recent game, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, they fell behind (though not as far) and had to come back again. As one of the commentators noted, when a team (and especially a quarterback) is playing badly perhaps the most difficult thing is to still believe they can make the plays to come back. Brady always believes he can, and has the history to prove it.

But that’s not to disrespect the Philadelphia Eagles, whom they will play Sunday. They have a deep team on both sides of the ball. When their young quarterback, Carson Wentz got injured people discounted their ability to win. Nick Foles, who had had one very good season as starting quarterback with the Eagles, but who had struggled since, took over and initially looked unimpressive.

That was before the NFC championship, though. Apparently he had taken several games to get warmed up, and maybe they had given him different plays to use, but he was brilliant against Minnesota, who also had a very good defense. Will he be able to do the same against the Patriots? Will the Eagles defense be able to stop Brady? I’m looking forward to finding out.