Reflections on the Endarkenment in France
The key to all of Voltaire’s thought--and the key to the entire Enlightenment--is hatred of Christianity. He concedes the necessity of some kind of god as a protector of the social order--though not the moral order--but throughout his letters he displays an obsessive hatred for Christ “le consubstantiel” as he typically refers to him. Overthrowing Christianity, he understands, cannot be undertaken in a single generation and he has to warn overenthusiastic colleagues like Diderot and the other authors of the Encyclopedia not to tip their hand. Always pretend to praise the true spirit of Christianity, while condemning its superstition and abuses. The ultimate objective is always clear, as he shows in letter after letter signed with his signature plea: Ecrasez l’infame--wipe out the infamous, that is, the consubstantial Christ.
This work could only be undertaken by a conspiracy. Voltaire writes to his friend D’Alembert, “Let the real philosophers unite in a brotherhood like the Freemasons; let them assemble and support each other, and let them be faithful to the association. Such an academy will be far superior to that of Athens and to those of Paris.”
This dream of a secret association of anti-Christian philosophers had been a recurring theme since the Renaissance, when the pagan Greek Gemistus Plethon inspired Cosimo de' Medici with the idea of starting his Academy in Florence. The work of that Academy, under Masilio Ficino was to revive anti-Christian magic--particularly the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The goals of this movement--which spread all over Europe--were clear: 1) re-institute ancient paganism, either by replacing Christianity or by infiltrating it with pagan ideas; 2) replace Christian moral teachings--especially on marriage and sex--with what they wrongly believed to be the amoral habits of the ancient world; 3) gain practical power over nature by learning the magic of numbers especially though also through the black arts, and 4) ultimately, though this was rarely said publicly, to gain the divine power over life that would enable them to create life. Then it was the homunculus in the alchemist’s flask, today it is in vitro fertilization and cloning.
To trace these currents from 15th century Florence to the French Revolution would take a great deal of time and try your patience. Let me indicate just one or two of the vectors by which the disease traveled. The first and most infamous is the neoplatonist/pagan Giordano Bruno. Before returning to Italy, where he was quite properly burned at the stake in Rome, Bruno had traveled extensively in Europe. In England, he gave lectures and had private discussions with prominent Elizabethan writers like Sir Phillip Sidney, and his influence can be seen on such diverse figures as the magician John Dee and the philosopher Francis Bacon, whose posthumously published New Atlantis is practically a Rosicrucian Manifesto.
Both Bruno and Dee made visits to Prague, and it is in the area of Bohemia and the German Palatinate that the Rosicrucian fantasy was created in the early 17th c. The Rosicrucians were supposed to be a secret order of mystical adepts known only to each other, and although there were no real Rosicrucians, probably, rumors and legends spread like wildfire throughout Europe. It is in France, where Rosicrucian pamphlets--along with the usual books on magic and alchemy--were being printed and circulated, that the greatest mischief was done. Partly, I guess, because of the peculiar position of the Catholic Church in France, under too much influence by the king and not subject to inquisition. The way for this bogus Renaissance science in France may have been paved in the 16th century, when Catherine de Medici arrived to become a powerful influence over both her husband the king and her son Henri III. It was said that Catherine’s court was filled with soothsayers, astrologers, and other mystical charlatans.
When we think of the French intellectual tradition--its clarity, rationality--we think immediately of the founding father René Descartes, who subjected all human tradition and belief to the test of his own reason. Everything in the universe--including God--comes down to Descartes ultimate principle “cogito ergo sum,” that is, his own mentality is the proof of his existence and the basis for any knowledge of reality. But Descartes as a young man in his 20’s had actually believed the Rosicrucian fantasy and while a soldier in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau, he set out to find the secret order and join it. There is not contradiction here any more than there is a real contradiction between Francis Bacon’s insistence on scientific method and his faith in the Rosicrucian project. The same two goals are always being pursued: overturning of Christianity and the acquisition of power over nature. Modern science, though it does in fact discover true things about nature, is actually the invention of alchemists looking for the philosopher’s stone. The master of the black arts in the 20th century was Aleister Crowley, who had a masters degree in math from Cambridge, and combined an unbounded faith in science with the pursuit of magic, all wrapped up in a lifestyle of sex and drugs designed to break down inhibitions.
Mathematics was always the key--they had learned that much from reading the Platonists--and whether numbers were used in some elaborate fortune telling scam or in the discovery of the calculus, the object was the same. The British Academy was founded to advance the cause of science but many of its founders were alchemists and Rosicrucians; Sir Isaac Newton was both a brilliant scientist and a disciple of the Rosicrucians. Applying mathematics to astronomy and physics is one thing, but the reduction of political, social, and moral questions to “moral algebra” was the Enlightenment’s most evil project, which lives on today in the form of the pseudo-sciences of sociology, political science, and economics.
The Rosicrucian myth flourished in the first half of the 17th century; its legacy was Freemasonry, which absorbed the legends of the alchemists and hermeticists: the secret wisdom of the Pyramids, a faith in magic numbers, opposition to Christianity. Masonic lodges were originally craft guilds to promote the interests of stone-masons, builders, and architects, but they gradually came to accept non-professional members who wanted to enjoy the good fellowship of the brotherhood. Masonry went in a number of directions. The Stuart pretenders to the English throne, for example, used the lodges to recruit followers and plot their counter-revolution. By the middle of the 17th century, many lodges had accepted the Egyptian mythology and hermetic ideology, along with a rationalist insistence upon the universality of religious principles--always a sign of de-Christianization.
By 1676 in London, Masons were announcing joint-meetings with people calling themselves Rosicrucians and Hermetic adepti , and Rosicrucian ceremonies and symbolism were soon incorporated into masonry. In the late 1770’s Masonry was further infected with the ideology of Adam Weishaupt and his so-called Bavarian Illuminati, though it is difficult to trace what happened--as is the case of all secret societies.
From Weishaupt’s own statements and those of his chief disciples, the Illuminati were following a grand plan of providing human happiness to the entire human race. To accomplish this modest goal, they would have to indoctrinate an elite group of freemasons with their ideology, teaching them to despise all superstition (namely religion) and to transcend the narrow boundaries of nationality that kept men apart. To use Weishaupt’s term, borrowed directly from the ancient Stoics, the illuminati had to become cosmopolitan. The first step was the penetration of the Masonic lodges.
The genius of masonry lies in the gradation of degrees. Exoteric masons of low degrees believed that the movement was Christian, moral, and loyal to the king and nation, but advancing up the ladder, where they came under Weishaupt’s influence, they learned that the true watchwords were liberty and equality and, eventually, in the higher occult rituals they repeated “Hatred to all worship, hatred to all kings.” On the eve of the revolution, there were perhaps as many as a million French Freemasons, knowingly or not, in a conspiracy to overthrow the social, political, economic, moral and spiritual order. In fact, the history of Revolution can be told as a kind of relay relace run by Masonic leaders passing on the torch: Mirabeau and Lafayette in the first phase, most of the Jacobins (Danton, Marat, Robespierre, Desmoulins to name only the most famous)--entire club was run by prominent freemasons; and, finally, the Bonparte brothers