The eighteenth century in Europe was an era in which fundamental changes were in the making. If for many decades monarch and clergy still held absolute sway, before the century was out it had seen the birth of the Age of Reason and the death throes of feudalism. As is not unusual in a period of transition, there was an upsurge of interest in the supernatural and transcendental, a network of numerous groups and individuals pursuing the study of what today we might sweepingly classify as the occult. Its ranks comprised noblemen, artists, and members of the intelligentsia — some seeking wisdom, others gold or miracles.
A fascinating review of the subject is given by Karl R. H. Frick in his work Die Erleuchteten ("The Enlightened Ones"), the first in a series of three volumes. The origins of this movement, the author believes, go as far back as the earliest religious experiences of humanity:
From time immemorial it has been a conscious or unconscious wish of many — a tacit wish, but at times also one that has led to self-sacrifice, even to schizophrenia and insanity — to become "as the gods," or to identify oneself with that which stands incomprehensibly above one, to become "at one" with the "divine.". . . Such wishful dreams of humanity are more or less clearly discernible in all cosmogonies and religious teachings. . . .
In all forms of religious expression there is ultimately and at last one supreme being, one highest divinity, or, from an atheistic viewpoint, a primal cause, an all redeeming Nothing, a nirvana. All concepts designating the great unknown are to a certain extent the final authority of human existence. At all times there have been people who have tried to break through the segment of life on earth of which they had become conscious, always having its end in physical death, more or less as if it were a sound barrier, in order to return to the origin of their being. In this, they tried to stimulate, to expand, and perfect the "divine spark" which they believed to be there or which they had inwardly experienced, in order finally on a higher level of knowledge to be able to unite with the divine itself. — p. 1
This search for knowledge of the highest is the practical gnosis, and those privileged to have found it have called themselves initiates, illuminati. All through the ages such knowledge has frequently been held by secret societies.
Frick devotes considerable space to tracing the history of the gnosis, first in pre-Christian gnosticism, later in Christian gnosticism (which reached France via the Bogomils of Bulgaria and can also be recognized in the beliefs of the Cathars), and finally in Neoplatonism. This last tradition, after it had run its course in the Middle East, was revived in 14th-century Florence where it sparked the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages these thought streams found expression in alchemy (actually as old as the gnosis itself), the so-called hermetic literature, kabbalistic scriptures, pansophism, pantheism, and theosophy. The term theosophy in this context differs from the more specific connotation it gained in the 19th century. It covers all endeavors to attain a higher knowledge and vision of the cosmos by means of mystical insight. It has been used to designate the systems of emanational unfolding from the Divine, in contrast with the revealed religions. By the end of the 16th century kabbalism, theosophy, and alchemy had spread everywhere in Europe.
The more immediate precursors of the secret societies of the 18th century are the older Rosicrucians and early Freemasons. The origins of both groups are surrounded with legends. The first solid data on Rosicrucianism appear in 1614 in an anonymous booklet Fama Fraternitatis mentioning the symbolic account of the founding of the Order of the Rosy Cross by Father Christian Rosencreutz, and probably written by a circle formed around a Professor Christopher Besold in Tubingen. Several scriptures on the Rosicrucians followed in short order, both pro and contra. Whether such an Order ever actually existed is doubtful, although there were informal groups of like-minded people in many cities in Germany, as well as in Basle, Prague, Silesia, and Holland. The literature, however, was to be profoundly influential in the following century. Masonry, on the other hand, was initially a society of stone workers, Scotland being the first place where those not involved in the trade could join as Accepted or Adopted Masons. In the 17th century well-known personalities as, for instance, Elias Ashmole, Dr. Robert Plot (both co-founders of the Royal Society in England), and Robert Fludd became Adopted Masons, in addition to being Rosicrucians. Possibly they brought their Rosicrucian knowledge with them into the established Masonic structure, within whose walls they found protection. From this fusion was born speculative and symbolic Freemasonry, and this traveled from Britain to the Continent early in the 18th century, first getting a foothold in France where already in I725 a Lodge was founded in Paris.
The history of the different esoteric groups of some two hundred or more years ago as presented by Frick evokes in the mind's eye the image of a colorful and intricately woven tapestry. Although we can follow only a single thread here and there in the space of an article, perhaps it will be possible to give an impression of the extent and nature of the activities of those days.
The ideal of a brotherhood of man, a daring concept for that era, was fundamental. This was eloquently expressed by Andrew Michael Ramsay in his address to newly initiated Freemasons given in Paris on March 21, 1737:
The whole world is nothing but a great republic, of which each nation forms a family and each individual a child . . . We strive for the reunion of all people of enlightened mind, agreeable conduct and friendly disposition, not only through the love of the fine arts, but even more through the elevated principles of virtue, science and religion, in which the interest of the brotherhood and that of the entire family of man meet each other, from which all nations can acquire thorough knowledge, and from which the subjects of all kingdoms can learn to love each other without having to give up their fatherland. — Die Erleuchteten, p. 182, from Allgemeines Handbuch der Freimaurere 3:13
One of the more remarkable features is how information was passed on from one focus to another, lighting new fires on its way. In Florence, for instance, under the tolerant rule of Grand Duke Gian Gastone de' Medici, a Masonic Lodge was opened in 1733. One of the founders was Philipp von Stosch, a Prussian baron and well-known collector of ancient art and manuscripts, whose home at the Via del Malcontendi became a center for spiritual inquiry of a rosicrucian, alchemical-pansophic nature. One scripture, the "Turba Magna," represented an imaginary discussion on cosmological speculations among legendary or historic figures of the classic Mediterranean. (To Paracelsus the turba magna was an 'assembly of the stars,' or, we might say, the great mass of undifferentiated starstuff out of which the cosmos comes into being.) Johann Lorenz Natter, a member of this circle, who was a maker of medallions, on his travels left copies of the various manuscripts at the court of William IV in The Hague, in London, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. In St. Petersburg Natter joined some Rosicrucians, and the documents he had brought became their basic study material. Later, in 1763 this same knowledge was imparted to Johann August Starck, when he went to St. Petersburg as a teacher of Oriental languages. He contacted the Freemasons there, who had incorporated much of Natter's legacy. Starck, in turn, shared this special "secret knowledge," once he had returned to Germany, with the existing Masonic Order of the Strict Observance with which he associated himself Since this Order had many affiliations, not least in France, the Florentine scriptures thus provided some of the most seminal sources in the hermetic-rosicrucian tradition of that day.
At times the impetus of the 18th century was a continuation of the efforts of the past, as was the case in the small German duchy of Sulzbach. Here the court of Duke Christian August von Sulzbach (1622-1702) became the residence of theologian, orientalist, and kabbalist Christian Knorr von Rosenroth and of Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, famous son of the equally famous Flemish physician and chemist Jean-Baptiste van Helmont. Since the duke in his search for knowledge wanted to obtain as many old manuscripts and reprints as possible, he encouraged several printers to establish themselves in Sulzbach. Though mainly publishers of Hebrew books, they printed, besides the Talmud and the Kabbala, also the first work by Van Helmont, the important Kabbala Denudata ("Kabbala Unveiled") by Knorr, and translations from other languages often produced through collaboration of Knorr and Van Helmont. In the next century, interest in the ancient teachings was revived in Sulzbach through Bernard Joseph Schleiss von Loweneld, a medical doctor who settled there on his return from the Seven Years' War in 1758. More importantly, however, the scriptures which had seen the light of day many decades earlier had a great impact on centers of rosicrucianism that sprang up all over the German-speaking area, as well as in the north of Italy and in Hungary.
In France, among the many prominent figures in that country, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin stands out for the pure spirituality of his thought. As a young army officer he met a mystic of Bordeaux and founder of the Order of the Elect Cohens, Martinez de Pasqually. Upon resignation from the military service in 1771 Saint-Martin became his co-worker and the driving force behind reforms of the Order. He eliminated its magic rituals, as he soon realized the fallacy of the theurgic practices his teacher employed in order to communicate with the "Active and Intelligent Cause" of the universe: Saint-Martin's was the inward path, without psychism; he believed he had an urgent mission:
to lead the mind of man by a natural path to the supernatural things which of right belong to him, but of which he has lost all conception, in part by his degradation, in part by the frequently false instruction of his teachers. This task is new but full of difficulty, and it is so slow that its best fruits must be borne after my death.
For such an enterprise . . . more than common resources are necessary. Without specifying those which I employ, it will be enough to say that they connect with the essential nature of man, that they have always been known to some among mankind from the prime beginning of things, and that they will never be withdrawn wholly from the earth while thinking beings exist thereon. — The Unknown Philosopher, A. E. Waite, pp. 52, 82
For a number of years Saint-Martin spent much energy and time meeting people in an effort to interest as many as possible in his mystic message. He frequented not only other members of secret societies, but also the prominent of that era, titled and untitled, to whom his birth gave access. When the Revolution finally put an end to this form of service, he must have recognized that henceforth the works he had written under the pseudonym "The Unknown Philosopher" would be a more effective avenue.
In the general climate of restriction the secret societies often depended on the protection of the more tolerant nations, but also cities might provide a safe haven where the different streams could meet and work undisturbed. Strasbourg provided such an enclave. Here Friedrich Rudolf Salzmann, a lawyer, was one of the theosophical Illuminati, who were mainly interested in the writings of Jacob Boehme, but also those of other authors such as Robert Fludd. He had personal contact with Saint-Martin (who lived in Strasbourg for a while around 1788), and also with the Swiss Baron Kirchberger von Liebisdorf, Saint-Martin's correspondent of many years. It seems Salzmann not only belonged to the Societe des Superieurs Inconnus, a small inner group studying the works of Swedenborg, Saint-Martin, and Pasqually, but was also a member of the Order of the Strict Observance, even working on its reform together with followers of Pasqually in Lyon. Such cross-fertilization and international exchange was typical in that era.
A unique event was sponsored by the Societe des Philaletes. Founded in Paris in 1773 for the purpose of tracing the origins of Freemasonry, the Philalethians: established the Academie occultiste (Occult Academy). With the help of contacts in every country, archives and a library were built up that soon contained valuable holdings. When sufficient information had been collected in 1784, a questionnaire was sent to I28 Freemasons of all Systems. The replies were to be subject matter for discussion at a convention scheduled in Paris for February 15, 1785. Some of the questions pertained to formalities of ritual etc., but the main object was to inquire of the participants what, in their opinion, was the most essential principle of masonic knowledge, and where and when it originated; what was its lineage, and what groups of individuals could be assumed to have possessed it.
The convention, which went on till May 26, was attended by representatives from Warsaw, St. Petersburg, and Stockholm, as well as Austria and England, and of course the French Lodges. Many were personalities well known in masonic circles. Also present were Saint-Germain and Cagliostro; Mesmer, though invited, declined, as did Saint-Martin. No unanimity was reached on the origin of Freemasonry, most believing it to be the "hermetic sciences," others "Christian theosophy." A second convention from March 8 to May 27, 1787 was equally inconclusive. However, it may not be fair to rate the gatherings as unsuccessful: the official transactions may have been far less important than the private exchange among so many luminaries of the age and the common quest for the roots of the esoteric knowledge of their century.
Not all members of these societies were interested merely in the philosophic and ethical aspects. From within the ranks of the Rosicrucians Friedrich J. Wilhelm Schroder of Marburg, Germany, deplored ". . . the terrible rubbish of so-called alchemical scriptures . . . , which as a veritable deluge has flooded our German nation." Occasionally laboratory experiments ended in disaster or excess, as happened when one of the Viennese societies of alchemists allegedly bled a woman to death in their efforts to produce a certain tincture. Personal scandal surrounded some of the prominent figures; others were not above trickery where occult phenomena were concerned. As in all times, there were individuals who chose the black arts over the white magic of the spirit; avid study was made of literature that had survived the ages and dealt in commerce with the matterside of nature and its dominance for selfish purposes. Generally speaking, however, the search for truth was genuine, and a number of people ended up deeply disappointed when, despite progressing from one degree to another, they never did attain those ultimate secrets their Orders had promised.
In the context of the deceivers and charlatans of that period the names of Cagliostro and Saint-Germain are often brought to the fore. Frick invariably refers to them as impostors. Surrounded with intrigue and controversy, they are still as shrouded in mystery as they were two hundred years ago. Much of the information about Cagliostro comes out of the mouths of his enemies, and it is doubtful, therefore, whether history can be just to him. As for Saint-Germain, the "supernatural" accomplishments (many of which can be duplicated by Indian fakirs and yogis) that so dazzled his contemporaries were actually the least of the man, for even a superficial study of his life and work stresses his untiring though mostly vain labors to negotiate peace in a strife-torn Europe. For this he received little reward beyond being endlessly tossed about in the unyielding coaches of his day. Masonic historian A. E. Waite concludes that Saint-Germain
was not an adventurer in the ordinary sense of the term, that he was not living by his wits, that during the whole period of his known activities there is no evidence of dishonourable conduct . . . I accept and welcome the judgment when the Prince of Hesse affirms . . . (1) that Saint-Germain was "the friend of humanity," desiring money only that he might give to the poor; (2) that he was a friend to animals; and (3) that "his heart was concerned only with the happiness of others." — The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, pp. 495-6.
In retrospect we may wonder: did the secret societies, particularly in France, influence the political climate? It is well known that Robespierre, for example, belonged to the Lodge of the Nine Sisters in Paris, into which also Voltaire was received in 1778; during the initiation ceremony the 84-year-old author leaned on the arm of Benjamin Franklin who shortly thereafter joined the Lodge of the Nine Sisters and was elected its Worshipful Master on May 21, 1779. Other leaders of the Revolution had similar associations. In Waite's opinion it is unjust to make this link, as political action is totally out of keeping with the fundamental aims of Freemasonry. Yet he concedes that:
at and near the Days of Terror French Freemasonry may have been a finger-post pointing in the direction of Revolution. The French Masonic watchwords of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were like a passing bell ringing out the old order. — The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry, p. 525
In a society in which no one was personally free and Masonic Lodges were perhaps rare places where those of different backgrounds might meet as brothers, the slogan must indeed have sounded like a rallying call to demolish the superannuated molds. Therefore, whether there was a direct connection or not, it is safe to say that at all times altruistic ideals are so dynamic when fervently held and practiced, even by relatively few, that eventually they will become manifest. Unfortunately, what might have been a beneficial wind of renewal was taken over by fanatics and fanned into a storm of heedless devastation.
The past is never dead, for what is any culture except the outcome of the collective experience we call history? As in our individual lives we meet the same type of choices and circumstances time and again, history is not so much linear as cyclical. Reflection on the events of bygone eras can never be an exercise of mere academic interest, because it allows us to profit by the mistakes of previous generations. This is even more so when the parallels are obvious, as is the case between the 18th century and our own in regard to the revival of interest in the ancient truths.
Expansion and contraction, evolution and involution: two opposing forces are at work throughout the universe. Man, the microcosm, balancing between the promptings of the spirit and the lethargy of his lower nature, frequently follows the road of least resistance; yet the most advanced among us are ever inspired to renewed endeavors toward a more humane world. When today once more the impulse is felt to bring about the birth of a new order — built on the old ideals of freedom for each to strive for spiritual growth in his or her own way, a recognition of the rights and dignity of every human being, and of the oneness of all that lives — there is reason for joy but also for caution. To some extent we have moved ahead, for today most of us can pursue our inquiries in freedom, an advantage we may well owe to the struggles of previous centuries. Moreover, even if not yet a reality, brotherhood among the nations is no longer an outlandish notion. On the other hand, with the potential of technology for weal and for woe, with instant communication, and the active participation of a far greater percentage of the total population, this time it is even more crucial that the impetus remain in constructive channels; and the responsibility of remaining watchful and preserving the unselfish purity of motive is upon each of us individually. However, if we can muster enough strength and dedication, the scales will be weighted by that much, so that we may forge ahead where those who preceded us have already paved a way.
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press)