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A Search for Causes
The spiritual life of nations, if it could be fully revealed, would alter many of the judgments of posterity. New interpretations of ancient tragedies and crimes, new motives for speech and action, new inspirations for revolution and war might then present themselves for the consideration of the historian. If it needs divination to discern the aspiration and desire enclosed within the ordinary human soul, how much more does it need divination to read aright the principles and incentives that lay behind historic actions? Diviners have not written history, and professional historians have generally chosen to deal with facts rather than with their psychological significance. Because of this preference, certain conventions have grown up amongst the writers of history, and certain obvious economic and social conflicts and conditions have been accepted as the cause of events, at the cost of repudiating that mystical and vague, but ever constant idealism, which spurs man on towards his unknown destiny.
Especially has this been the case in dealing with the origin of the French Revolution. Nearly all secular historians have ignored the secret utopian societies which flourished before its outbreak; or have agreed that they had no bearing, direct or indirect, upon the actual subversion of affairs. Since the world has always been at the mercy of the idealists, and since human society has ever been the object of their unending empiricism, it is hard to believe that the greatest experiment of modern history was engineered without their cooperation. More than any other age does the eighteenth century need its psychologist, for more than any other age, if interpreted, could it illumine the horizons of generations to come.
Amongst the historians who have attempted to explain the forces which brought about the great upheaval of the eighteenth century there have been priests of the Catholic Church. To the elucidation of the great problems involved they have brought to bear knowledge and diligent research, but we must recognise that the black cassock is the uniform of an army drilled and maintained for a specific purpose, and that purpose is war against much that the Revolution stood for.
Two priests, Barruel and Deschamps, who feared the cryptic confederacies, wrote books to prove that the purpose of the secret societies before and after the great Revolution was not the betterment of the condition of the people, but the overthrow of the Church, the destruction of Christian society, and the reestablishment of Paganism. However much preparation may have been required to enfranchise thought, no great measure of organization or mystery was or is needful to enable men to live as Pagans if they so desire; and little meaning is to be extracted from this theory, unless it be realised that in some of these works, freedom of thought and Paganism are interchangeable terms.
Secular amateurs of the curious and unexplained have written desultory books on the same secret societies, and in the early nineteenth century the works of Mounier, de Luchet, and Robison attracted a good deal of attention; but save for these special pleaders, it has been accepted that there is little of practical moment to be noted of the connection between secret societies and the Revolution. In the books which have appeared since that date there has been a conspicuous absence of any new material or of any fresh treatment of old theories. Many general histories of masonry have been published exalting Masonic influences; but, speaking solely with reference to France, no effort has been made by any scientific or unprejudiced person outside masonry to explain the increasing membership of secret societies, the greater activity of lodges of all rites during the years that preceded the Revolution, and the sudden disappearance of those lodges in the early months of 1789. Nor has it been attempted to place these important factors in progress in right relation with the other inducements and tendencies which drove eighteenth century France to accomplish her own liberation.
Le Couteulx de Canteleu, who wrote on the general question of the secret societies of the eighteenth century professed to have access to documents that gave his words importance and weight, and his book, though slight in character, is one of the most interesting studies on the subject. Papus (Gérard Encausse) has written on individual founders of rites and on some mystical teachers of the day, and Amiable, an eminent mason, has published a pleasant record of a particular lodge up till the year 1789, as well as a short summary of the influence of masonry on the great Revolution.
The published information is fragmentary, as is to be expected in view of the nature of the subject. And the difficulty of grasping the work of the confederates as a whole is insurmountable until further light is cast upon their methods and instruments. The general drift of underground social currents has frequently been discussed, and occasionally a microscopic inquiry has been made into the ceremonial aspects of secret societies and the lives of their members. However, owing either to a lack of material or a lack of sincerity, books dealing with these matters are incomplete and partial accounts of what, properly investigated, might prove to be a vast coordinated attempt at the reconstruction of society.
It has been the convention for most historians to ignore such activities, just as it has been the practice of priest to recognize in them the destroyers of all morality. Luis Blanc and Henri Martin, in their respective histories, each devote a chapter to the discussion of secret societies. The former speaks of masonry as "a denunciation indirect but real and continuous of the miseries of the social order," as "a propaganda in action," "a living exhortation." With the exception of these and a few other authors who from time to time allude to the secret societies, historians have elucidated the crisis of the eighteenth century with no estimate of their influence. Taine, of whom it may be said that his thesis occasionally determined the choice of his facts, does not number them among the origins of the new conditions in France.
The Great Revolution has been assumed to be a spontaneous national uprising against oppression, privilege, immorality in high places, and conditions of life making existence a burden for the proletariat. Such a theory would cover the rebellion that razed the Bastille and caused the clamor at Versailles, that destroyed the country houses and killed the nobles; but it does not cover the intellectual and social reforms which were the kernel of the Revolution, and its true objective. These, on the other hand, have been too easily attributed to the publication of the Encyclopedia, and of certain other volumes by Beccaria, Rousseau, or Voltaire.
Books were undoubtedly partially responsible for the awakening of the educated classes. The rationalist presses in Dublin, the Hague, and London, poured pamphlets into France to be sold by itinerant booksellers, who hawked them in country districts concealed beneath a thin layer of prayer-books and catechisms. But the pamphlets and books more often found their way to the public pyre than to the domestic hearth, and it can hardly be argued that these irregularly distributed volumes were directly responsible for the Revolution, though they too formed one of the contributory agencies of that cataclysm.
Men have said that liberal ideas were in the air, and that no on could so much as breathe without inhaling them; but this suggestion is meaningless, for to say ideas are "in the air" is to say many people hold them, which is hardly a way of accounting for their being held by many people. A suggestion so unsatisfying constrains us to seek the causes of contagion in a theory of more direct contact. If a book would not set a midland village on fire today, how much less would it have done so in the olden days when the poorest classes were completely unlettered? The Encyclopedia and the works of economists and philosophers made their appeal in intellectual circles, and those words of reasonableness and light scarcely could have illumined the mental twilight of the lower bourgeoisie, much less have penetrated the darkness in which the peasant classes lived. Yet the Revolution, as its results testify, was a national movement towards a new order of affairs, and not a general declension towards anarchy.
Therefore, since a spontaneous upheaval is unthinkable, and the history of smaller revolutions leads us to infer that revolution is always the result of associative agitation, it probably originated in a certain coordination of ideas and doctrines. These ideas and doctrines must have been widely diffused and widely apprehended, yet they could not have been spread by ordinary demagogic means; for not only was freedom of speech prohibited, but it was illegal to publish unorthodox books.
The publication of the Encyclopedia was forbidden in 1759, and both Frederick the Great and Catherine of Russia offered asylum to its authors. Till a few years before the Revolution it had been the custom to silence murmuring minorities by sword or fire. In 1762, the pastor Rochette died for his opinions, and the three Protestant brothers Grenier were decapitated, ostensibly for street brawling, but in reality for their faith. Monsieur de Lauraguais was presented with a lettre de cachet for the citadel at Metz, for reading a paper in favour of inoculation before an assembly of the Academy in Paris. His defence was that by his advocacy he hoped to preserve to France the lives of the fifty thousand persons who died annually of small-pox.
So associated had imprisonment and execution become with the holding of liberal ideas that when Boulanger died almost coincidently with the publication of his book Les Recherches sur l'origine du despotisme orientall [Studies on the Origin of Oriental Despotism], men speculated whether his death could be attributed to natural causes. Bélisaire, a moral and political romance by M. de Marmontel, provoked a tumult. Bachaumont relates that the Sorbonne saw fit to protest against Chapter XV, "which treats of Tolerance." In consequence the book was suppressed. La Confession de foi d'un Vicaire Savoyard [The Creed of a Savoyard Priest] exerted an extraordinary influence in unseating existing authorities. It was what the publication of the Bible had been to Germany, an obligation to private judgment. The author of this book after this effort fell back on making laces since he could not take up his pen without making every power in Europe tremble.
How is it possible that, when such penalties threatened the efforts of writers and speakers, ideas of progress could be cherished in thousands of minds, and the passion for social regeneration flame in countless souls? Though there was no enunciation of liberal hopes in the market-places, yet an invisible hand, as in the day of Daniel, had written in flaming letters the word "brotherhood" across the tablets of French hearts. Was the dissemination of ideas, and the diffusion of enthusiasm, to be accounted for by the spirit of the age; or did the theory of the modern State generate spontaneously in the minds of Frenchmen? Was the great Revolution a mere accident, or was it the inevitable result of coordinated ideas in action?
Taine was of the opinion that the doctrines propagated themselves, carried like thistle-down upon the winds of chance. The obvious inference to be drawn from his opinion is that the social idealists of the eighteenth century lacked either the courage or the zeal to further their beliefs; and that they, unlike their forerunners or their successors, were ready to entrust their hopes to the written word, and leave the rest to the gods.
It is making too great a demand on human credulity to ask man to believe this, and many significant facts witness to the hitherto unestimated work of the secret societies in furthering the cause of popular emancipation. Ideas are not suddenly converted into swords. Men must have hammered patiently and hard upon the anvil of the national soul to produce the keenedged, swift-striking blade of revolution.
"The aim of all social institutions should be the amelioration of the physical, mental and moral condition of the poorest classes," said one whom Barruel alluded to as "a demon hating Jesus Christ." The speaker was Condorcet, a man acquainted with the ideals of the secret societies. In announcing the eventual publication of The History of the Progress of the Human Mind, a work interrupted by his death, he spoke of the destruction of old authorities by invisible associations. "There are moments in history," said George Sand, "when Empires exist but in name, and when their only life lies in the societies that are hidden in their heart." Such a moment for France was the reign of Louis XVI.
Legends of secret societies survived in every part of Europe at the opening of the eighteenth century. They existed for the prosecution of Theurgia as well as Goetia, for masonry as well as mystical philosophy. Speaking generally, their interest did not lie in the region of politics or polemics, but in that of study, experiment, and speculation; and their chief care was the preservation and elucidation of ancient hermetic and traditional secrets. As a rule the Church had persecuted such societies, though her prelates had frequently condescended to the study of magic, and a few among them like Pope John XXII, had spent long nights in alchemical experiment.
It remained for the utopians of the eighteenth century so to interpret the symbolism of the secret societies, so to affiliate them, and so to organize the forces of masonry, mysticism and magic, as for a few years to unite them into a power capable not only of inspiring but of precipitating the greatest social upheaval of Christendom.
It is difficult to believe or understand, that bodies holding differing doctrines, adherents of many rites, disciples of divergent masters, ever commingled for a day in their enthusiasm for the common cause; yet this singular and Hegelian amalgamation seems in practice to have taken place. The principal force in the trinity of masonry, mysticism, and magic was masonry, and it, like many other innovations, was introduced into France from England.
Just as Voltaire and Rousseau derived their philosophy from English sources, and applied the theories they absorbed in a direct manner to the life of their own country, so did the French people derive their Masonic institutions from England, and apply them for purposes of social regeneration in a fashion never even contemplated in the land of their origin. The English Deists, Hume, Locke, and Toland, were responsible for the intellectual regeneration of France, just as the Legitimist lodges planted in that country after the Stuart downfall were responsible for the many lodges of tolerance, charity, truth, and candor which disseminated the seeds of the humanitarian movement on French soil. The Pantheisticon became the model of French societies.
Until the sixteenth century Masonic corporations in England and other countries consisted of three purely professional grades holding the secrets of the architectural craft, the mysteries of proportion, and the true canon of building. The epics in grey stone our cathedral towns enclose memorialize the tradition of the older masonry, and testify to the inviolability of its secret formulae. In every Catholic land, from Paris to Batalha, from Salisbury to Cologne, rise the superb conceptions of the Masonic mind: serene, unchallengeable symbols of doctrines, mysteries, and myths, the venerable shrines of uncounted memories.
Excerpted from Secret Societies by Una Birch, James Wasserman. Copyright © 2007 James Wasserman. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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A Brief History of the French Revolution
Who Was Una Birch?
A Note on the Text
Part I Secret Societies and the French Revolution
1 A Search for Causes
3 Non-Masonic Secret Societies and the Influence of Women
4 The Illuminati
Part II The Comte de Saint-Germain
5 The Man of Mystery
6 Saint-Germain as Secret Agent
7 Saint-Germain as Illuminati Agent
Part III Religious Liberty and the French Revolution
8 Oppression by Church and State
9 The Tables Begin to Turn
10 The Triumph of the Revolution
Part IV Madame De Staël And Napoleon: A Study in Ideals
11 The Defeat of the Revolution
12 Reducing Chaos to Order
13 The Campaign against Tyranny
14 The Fall of the Empire
A. Cast of Characters
B. The Diamond Necklace Affair
C. An Overview of Political Charters
A Brief Summary of the Cahiers
Declaration of the Rights of Man
The Bill of Rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights