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

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

10 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    This article requires repeated reading because it is so densely packed with important information, any of which could lead to myriad digressions. I’ll try to come up with a few observations and questions which may or may not prove useful.

    So it was Plethon, the Medici, etc., who started the movement as such, and thereby laid the foundation for Voltaire, who might never have had an audience or a following otherwise. I wonder if there is not more to the background of Plethon, in the way of predecessors and antecedents, who may have undermined the Empire in much the same way as his disciples and their successors undermined western Europe.

    It does seem that it was with Voltaire and his bunch that the revolution took on a more self-conciously conspiratorial character, although the conspiratorial nature of what Plethon and the Medici were doing is quite apparent.

    The independent character of the French church was an Achillese heel.

    There appears to be a great deal of fraud in the movement right from the start. These people seem to have been wide open to fraudsters of all kinds, when they weren’t defrauding each other: the quite mythical Hermes Trismegistus; the Hermetic adepti who met with the Masons, etc. These people seem to believe their own lies quite often, and if not, then their disciples often will. Magic and Science, magical delusion, scientific delusion. Yet we also see hard science as well, but then, hard science is also possible without all this delusion.

    With the Masons, we see a quite legitimate order that went degenerate, fell in with these occultist nuts, and became decadent. I wonder if something similar didn’t happen to the original Gnostics centuries before, during the first battle between Christianity and what was then a legitimate paganism. Paganaism may well have had degenerate cults which influenced the Gnostics as they became degenerate themselves.

    Now I understand why the rosicrucians hold ancient Egypt in such high esteem. They seem to think that the Egyptians were a civilisation based on, and highly accomplished in, what they themselves wish to be and create. As a former amateur Egyptologist, I can say that as a matter of fact, that is not the case, and here we see more delusion among the neopagans. Sure the Egyptians had their superstitions, just like everyone else, but Egyptian religion was nothing like what they seem to think it was. Sure, the Book of the Dead contains spells, but that book is easy to take out of context and misunderstand entirely.

    There must be an intersection here, somewhere, with atheistic ideology. Yes, we see it with the Jacobin revolutionaries, so now we have the ancient lineage of Marx and Hitler and the rest. I always found it hard to believe in any connection between Communism and Masonry, and stories of Masonic ritual involved in the murder of the Czar and his family seemed fantastical, but not so much anymore. Perhaps there is something to this business about a “killing of the king” ritual? In any event, there seems to be more than just practical, law-and-order and social-foundational considerations in the injuction that you must not kill a king. There seems to be a spiritual element to it, as if the destructive forces unleashed are partly spiritual, not just earthly. My father seemed to be implying this when he gave me a very stern lecture on it when I was fourteen.

    Despite all the delusion among these people, if there is any truth to my last paragraph above, then could it be that they stumbled on to something with some real power to it? The fact that kings used to be divinely sanctioned, and crowned by means of religious ritual and consecration, would lead credence to it, if there is a God and these people are in rebellion against Him, which they must be if they seek to destroy Christianity and the moral order.

    Could it be, that there is something to the connection that some people have made between ritual human sacrifice and modern abortion? The occult background to modern ideology might lead anyone to suspect that there is, though it would be easy to go too far with it. Perhaps there is no connection at all, but who knows?

    It is easy to conclude that there is some supernatural power behind all of this, and we know who that would be.

    When one tries to learn anything about the Trivium and Quadrivium on line, one will stumble upon all kinds of neopagan ideas connected to them. It’s almost as if there are two Triviums and two Quadriviums, the real, ancient Greek ones, turned Christian, and then the neopagan ones, in which mathematics is tied up with numerology and number symbolism, astrology and astronomy are the same thing, etc. You’ll even come across peyote tripping. These neopagan versions of the Trivium and Quadrivium seem to have a long history, and can be difficult to distinguish from the true ones. There even seems to be some practical, useful ancient knowledge tied up with them, but that knowledge may well be bogus (such as stories about how the ancients navigated the oceans using notches on their masts for sighting the positions of the stars).

    I could go on but this is clearly enough.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The text, in several parts, was originally a lecture given in Paris at a program I organized. It was attended by such diverse people as Claud Polin, Alain de Benoit, and the editor of Catholic. I was just beginning to formulate this thesis on which I have labored, in many odd hours, for 20 years.

    I’ll try to answer one little cluster of queries. Of the full-blown Gnostics movements I have looked into, there is not much evidence of sanity. The object is never knowledge, per se, but power in this world and the next. Iamblichus, a well-trained Neo-Platonist who should have known better, turned away from the main road of Plotinus and Porphyry and pursued theurgy, a method of harnessing divine power to the purposes of humans who possess the secret knowledge. Both Iamblichus and Hermetic writers like the author of the Aesclepius sought to become gods. Iamblichus, to give him his due, integrated his theory of theurgy into a comprehensive Platonic system, and the same is true of Proclus later on, but the zany antics of the Emperor Julian, which derive from Aedesius and his model Iamblichus, show us how far from both philosophy and normal Greek paganism this movement was.

    We know it went underground some time after Theodosius, though we still of of educated pagans for another 100 years or so. Much later we have hints in Michael Psellos and other Byzantine writers that the “perennial wisdom” was cherished in secret, and in the 1400’s Gemistos Plethon, during the difficult last days of the Empire, came out more or less in public. From him the torch passed to Cosimo de Medici, Ficino, the Society of the Lincei in Rome. It arrived in France with the marriage of Caterina de Medici to the royal heir…..It’s a long story and complicated because Neopagan hermeticism is only one source. There are others: The Chaldaean Oracles, Jewish Kabbala, Arab magic–and all these are found cropping up in Palermo at court of Friedrich II.

    The Masons got pretty dangerous early on, because their idea of fraternity superseded both Chrsistianity and national loyalty. It was infected with Hermetic nonsense in the 16th century and even earlier, in fact, we can smell something bad in their references to the builders of the pyramids.

    Of course Hermetic freemasonry has spawned many even sillier movements–from the Rotary to the Afro-centric mythology, which, as my late friend Mary Lefkowitz proved, is simply a matter of taking Masonic tales about the Egyptians and painting them with black face.

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    I should have been more specific when I mentioned possible antecedents to Plethon. What I had in mind was more immediate antecedents during, say, the Komnenid-Laskarid-Palaiologian periods. Even so, the question of late Roman paganism going underground during the reign of Theodosius is quite intriguing. From the edict of 380 till the council in 1438, is 1058 years. Depending on when exactly they went underground, and when Plethon went public, roughly a thousand years, that’s a long time to maintain an underground tradition, and quite an admirable accomplishment even if it was evil.

    Plethon seems like a man who, not actually evil, was brilliant and learned and in some ways admirable, but took Plato too seriously in some ways, came under bad influences, and started to go off his rocker. Perhaps he was grasping for straws as he saw his Greek world falling apart around him. If that’s true then perhaps we should have some sympathy for the poor man.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I have great sympathy for him and once wrote a poem, “Pletho on Prayer.” I have less sympathy for his friend Bessarion. The gap is wide but not so wide as you think. Proclus died in the 480’s. Psellos and his friend John Italos, condemned, lived in the 11th century, but Platonists of this stripe were wise to hide. As Scholarios warned his friend George Gemistos, the penalty for reverting to Hellenism was severe: your four limbs were tied to four horses who were whipped until they tore your body in four parts. I am a rank amateur as a Byzantinist and hope to call on the young Byzantinist who lectured at the Homer symposium. He might help me track down a few others. The fascination of Orthodox theologians with Plato and Plotinus would grease the skids. It attracted Tho

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thomas More and the Cambridge Platonists who refused to distinguish Iamblichus from Plato and misconstrued Augustine on Hermes. Some of the interest was a misplaced belief that the later NeoPlatonists were innocent or that the Egyptians really did teach Moses and Plato.. But when such tendencies can be manipulated by a cynical tyrant like Cosimo the Old, seeking for ways to evade the eternal punishment he had taken so much trouble to deserve, and his sly and duplicitous ward Ficino, well, as they say, the rest is history.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Here is a little parallel I don’t know much about except an anecdote. After Ieyasu Tokugawa slaughtered his former allies, the Christian daimyo, Christianity had to go underground. z Did anything survive? It is said that one of the sailors or diplomats who visited I believe Nagasaki after the Restoration, was approached by a man with home-made Rosary. All he knew was that the Lord Jesus had a mother he was taught to revere.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    And there are still followers of Zoroaster in Iran. There is a superb novel by Jean Raspail, L’anneau du Pecheur” (The ring of the fisherman) based on the premise that a sect of followers of an anti-Pope survived. Someone should translate and publish it. I’m going to suggest it again to the SSPX press in Kansas–I hope to be doing an interview with the director this week. No, I am not going schismatic, but most of the SSPX people I’ve met are very fine people. “By their fruits,” etc.

  8. David Wihowski says:

    “Always pretend to praise the true spirit of Christianity, while condemning its superstition and abuses.” Sounds like Lord knows how many current pastors and priests (wolves…) spouting things like “God is love,” while denying pretty much every line of the Apostles’ Creed in word or deed.

  9. Raymond Olson says:

    Tom–Yes, a presence remains of the Christians–Catholics–who went underground early in the 17th century. The general name for them is Kakure Kirishitan, and they rejoined the Church after the Meiji Restoration in 1873. Yet some didn’t rejoin and became known as the Hanare Kirishitan. The excellent Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo wrote several works of fiction based on Kakure Kirishitan history. I ran across some of Endo’s historical stories in a collection I reviewed in the ’80s. Endo’s most famous novel, Silence, is set during the time the Christians went into hiding. The novel is the basis of two films, one by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971, the other by Martin Scorsese in 2016. I’ve seen neither; though I usually don’t warm to Scorsese, I think very highly of the few Shinoda films I’ve seen.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks, Ray. I’ve read a bit of Endo on the recommendation of a priest friend. It seemed pretty good but not really my cup of tea. 40 years ago I read Robert Bellah’s ill-written dissertation in the published form, Deus Destroyed, about the destruction of Japanese Christianity. In those days I had a friend who was a sociologist who had lived in Japan doing research for his dissertation, and somewhere he had studied under Bellah, whose later attenmpts at pan-religiosity reminded me too much of my colleague Dick Neuhaus. Still, the diss. was pretty good work.