Proofs of a Conspiracy, by John Robison 1798

At last he got a professorship at Erlangen, then at Erfurth, and in 1771, at Giessen. But in all these places, he was no sooner settled than he got into disputes with his colleagues and with the established church, being a strenuous partizan of the innovations which were attempted to be made in the doctrines of Christianity. In his anonymous publications, he did not trust to rational discussion alone, but had recourse to ridicule and personal anecdotes, and indulged in the most cutting sarcasms and gross scurrility.–Being fond of convivial company, his income was insufficient for the craving demand, and as soon as he found that anecdote and slander always procured readers, he never ceased writing. He had wonderful readiness and activity, and spared neither friends nor foes in his anonymous performances. But this could not last, and his avowed theological writings were such as could not be suffered in a Professor of Divinity. The very students at Giessen were shocked with some of his liberties. After much wrangling in the church-judicatories he was just going to be dismissed, when he got an invitation to Marschlins in Switzerland to superintend an academy. He went thither about the year 1776, and formed the seminary after the model of Basedow’s Philanthropine, or academy, at Dessau, of which I have already given some account. It had acquired some celebrity, and the plan was peculiarly suited to Bahrdt’s taste, because it left him at liberty to introduce any system of religious or irreligious opinions that he pleased. He resolved to avail himself of this liberty, and though a clergyman and Doctor of Theology, he would outstrip even Basedow, who had no ecclesiastical orders to restrain him. But he wanted the moderation, the prudence, and the principle of Basedow. He had, by this time, formed his opinion of mankind, by meditating on the feelings of his own mind. His theory of human nature was simple–“The leading propensities, says he, of the human mind are three–Instinctive liberty (Freyheitstriebe)–instinctive activity (Triebe fur Thatigkeit)–and instinctive love (Liebes triebe.”) I do not wish to misunderstand him, but I can give no other translation.–“If a man is obstructed in the exercise of any of these propensities, he suffers an injury–The business of a good education therefore is to teach us how they are to be enjoyed in the highest degree.”

We need not be surprised although the Doctor should find it difficult to manage the Cyclopedia in his Philanthropine in such a manner as to give satisfaction to the neighbourhood, which was habituated to very different sentiments.–Accordingly he found his situation as uncomfortable as at Giessen. He says, in one of his latest performances, “that the Grisons were a strong instance of the immense importance of education. They knew nothing but their handicrafts, and their minds were as coarse as their persons.” He quarrelled with them all, and was obliged to abscond after lying some time in arrest.

He came to Durkheim or Turkheim, where his father was or had been minister. His literary talents were well known.–After some little time he got an association formed for erecting and supporting a Philanthropine or house of education. A large fund was collected, and he was enabled to travel into Holland and England, to engage pupils, and was furnished with proper recommendations.–On his return the plan was carried into execution. The castle or residence of Count Leining Hartzburgh at Heidesheim, having gardens, park, and every handsome accommodation, had been fitted up for it, and it was consecrated by a solemn religious festival in 1778.

But his old misfortunes pursued him. He had indeed no colleagues to quarrel with, but his avowed publications became every day more obnoxious–and when any of his anonymous pieces had a great run, he could not stifle his vanity and conceal the author’s name.–Of these pieces, some were even shocking to decency.–It was indifferent to him whether it was friend or foe that he abused; and some of them were so horribly injurious to the characters of the most respectable men in the state, that he was continually under the correction of the courts of justice. There was hardly a man of letters that had ever been in his company who did not suffer by it. For his constant practice was to father every new step that he took towards Atheism on some other person; and, whenever the reader sees, in the beginning of a book, any person celebrated by the author for sound sense, profound judgment, accurate reasoning, or praised for acts of friendship and kindness to himself, he may be assured that, before the close of the book, this man will convince Dr. Bahrdt in some private conversation, that some doctrine, cherished and venerated by all Christians, is a practice of knavish superstition. So lost was Dr. Bahrdt to all sense of shame. He said that he held his own opinions independent of all mankind, and was indifferent about their praise or their reproach.

Bahrdt’s licentious, very licentious life, was the cause of most of these enormities. No income could suffice, and he wrote for bread. The abominable way in which the literary manufacture of Germany was conducted, made it impossible to hinder the rapid dispersion of his writings over all Germany; and the undelicate and coarse maw of the public was as ravenous as the sensuality of Dr. Bahrdt, who really battened in the Epicurean sty. The consequence of all this was that he was obliged to fly from Heidesheim, leaving his sureties in the Philanthropine to pay about 14,000 dahlers, besides debts without number to his friends. He was imprisoned at Dienheim, but was released I know not how, and settled at Halle. There he sunk to be a keeper of a tavern and billiard-table, and his house became the resort and the bane of the students in the University.–He was obliged therefore to leave the city. He had somehow got funds which enabled him to buy a little vineyard, prettily situated in the neighbourhood. This he fitted up with every accommodation that could invite the students, and called it Bahrdt’s Ruhe. We have already seen the occupations of Dr. B. in this Buen Retiro–Can we call it otium cum dignitate? Alas no! He had not lived two years here, bustling and toiling for the German Union, sometimes without a bit of bread–when he was sent to prison at Halle, and then to Magdeburgh, where he was more than a year in jail. He was set at liberty, and returned to Bahrdt’s Ruhe, not, alas, to live at ease, but to lie down on a sick bed, where, after more than a year’s suffering encreasing pain, he died on the 23d of April 1793, the most wretched and loathsome victim of unbridled sensuality.

The account of his case is written by a friend, a Dr. Jung, who professes to defend his memory and his principles. The medical description melted my heart, and I am certain would make his bitterest enemy weep. Jung repeatedly says that the case was not venereal–calls it the vineyard disease–the quicksilver disease (he was dying of an unconquerable salivation) and yet, through the whole of his narration, relates symptoms and sufferings, which, as a medical man, he could not possibly mean to be taken in any other sense than as effects of pox. He meant to please the enemies of poor Bahrdt, knowing that such a man could have no friends, and being himself ignorant of what friendship or goodness is. The fate of this poor creature affected me more than any thing I have read of a great while. All his open enemies put together have not said so much ill of him as his trusted friend Pott, and another confident, whose name I cannot recollect, who published in his lifetime an anonymous book called Bahrdt with the iron brow–and this fellow Jung, under the absurd mask of friendship, exhibited the loathsome carcase for a florin, like a malefactor’s at Surgeons Hall. Such were the fruits of the German Union, of that Illumination that was to refine the heart of man, and bring to maturity the seeds of native virtue, which are choaked in the hearts of other men by superstition and despotism. We see nothing but mutual treachery and base desertion.

I do not concern myself with the gradual perversion of Dr. Bahrdt’s moral and religious opinions. But he affected to be the enlightener and reformer of mankind; and affirmed, that all the mischiefs in life originated from despotism supported by superstition. “In vain,” says he, “do we complain of the inefficacy of religion. All positive religion is founded on injustice. No Prince has a right to prescribe or sanction any such system. Nor would he do it, were not the priests the firmest pillars of his tyranny, and superstition the strongest fetters for his subjects. He dares not show religion as she is, pure and undefiled–She would charm the eyes and the hearts of mankind, would immediately produce true morality, would open the eyes of freeborn man, would teach him what are his rights, and who are his oppressors, and Princes would vanish from the face of the earth.”

Therefore, without troubling ourselves with the truth or falsehood of his religion of Nature, and assuming it as an indisputable point, that Dr. Bahrdt has seen it in this natural and so effective purity, it is surely a very pertinent question, “Whether has the sight produced on his mind an effect so far superior to the acknowledged faintness of the impression of Christianity on the bulk of mankind, that it will be prudent to adopt the plan of the German Union, and at once put an end to the divisions which so unfortunately alienate the minds of professing Christians from each other? The account here given of Dr. Bahrdt’s life seems to decide the question.

But it will be said that I have only related so many instances of the quarrels of Priests and their slavish adherents with Dr. Bahrdt. Let us view him in his ordinary conduct, not as the Champion and Martyr of Illumination, but as an ordinary citizen, a husband, a father, a friend, a teacher of youth, a clergyman.

When Dr. Bahrdt was a parish-minister, and president of some inferior ecclesiastical district, he was empowered to take off the censures of the church from a young woman who had born a bastard child. By violence he again reduced her to the same condition, and escaped censure, by the poor girl’s dying of a fever before her pregnancy was far advanced, or even legally documented. Also, on the night of the solemn farce of consecrating his Philanthropine, be debauched the maid-servant, who bore twins, and gave him up for the father. The thing, I presume, was not judiciously proved, otherwise he would have surely been disgraced; but it was afterwards made evident, by the letters which were found by Pott, when he undertook to write his life. A series of these letters had passed between him and one Graf a steward, who was employed by him to give the woman the small pittance by which she and the infants were maintained. Remonstrances were made when the money was not advanced; and there are particularly letters about the end of 1779, which show that Bahrdt had ceased giving any thing. On the ___ of February 1780, the infants (three years old) were taken away in the night, and were found exposed, the one at Ufstein, and the other at Worms, many miles distant from each other, and almost frozen to death. The first was found, by its moans, by a shoemaker in a field by the road-side, about six in the morning; the other was found by two girls between the hedges in a lane, set between two great stones, past all crying. The poor mother travelled up and down the country in quest of her infants, and hearing these accounts, found them both, and took one of them home; but not being able to maintain both, when Bahrdt’s commissioner refused contributing any more, it remained with the good woman who had taken it in.

Bahrdt was married in 1772 while at Giessen; but after wasting the greatest part of his wife’s little fortune left her by a former husband, he was provoked, by losing 1000 florins (about L. 110) in the hands of her brother, who would not pay it up. After this he used her very ill, and speaks very contemptuously of her in his own account of his life, calling her a dowdy, jealous, and every thing contemptible. In two infamous novels, he exhibits characters, in which she is represented in a most cruel manner; yet this woman (perhaps during the honey-moon) was enticed by him one day into the bath, in the pond of the garden of the Philanthropine at Heidesheim, and there, in the sight of all the pupils, did he (also undressed) toy with his naked wife in the water. When at Halle, he used the poor woman extremely ill, keeping a mistress in the house, and giving her the whole command of the family, while the wife and daughter were confined to a separate part of it. When in prison at Magdeburgh, the strumpet lived with him, and bore him two children. He brought them all to his house when he was set at liberty. Such barbarous usage made the poor woman at last leave him and live with her brother. The daughter died about a year before him, of an overdose of Laudanum given by her father, to procure sleep when ill of a fever. He ended his own wretched life in the same manner, unable, poor man, to bear his distress, without the smallest compunction or sorrow for his conduct: and the last thing he did was to send for a bookseller (Vipink of Halle, who had published some of his vile pieces) and recommend his strumpet and her children to his protection, without one thought of his injured wife.

I shall end my account of this profligate monster with a specimen of his way of using his friends.

“Of all the acquisitions which I made in England, Mr. ——- (the name appears at full length) was the most important. This person was accomplished in the highest degree. With sound judgment, great genius, and correct taste, he was perfectly a man of the world. He was my friend, and the only person who warmly interested himself for my institution. To his warm and repeated recommendations I owe all the pupils I got in England, and many most respectable connections; for he was universally esteemed as a man of learning and of the most unblemished worth. He was my friend, my conductor, and I may say my preserver; for when I had not bread for two days, he took me to his house, and supplied all my wants. This gentleman was a clergyman, and had a small but genteel and selected congregation, a flock which required strong food. My friend preached to them pure natural religion, and was beloved by them. His sermons were excellent, and delivered with native energy and grace, because they came from the heart. I had once the honor of preaching for him. But what a difference–I found myself afraid–I feared to speak too boldly, because I did not know where I was, and thought myself speaking to my crouching countrymen. But the liberty of England opens every heart, and makes it accessible to morality. I can give a very remarkable instance.

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Methinks I am a conspiracy theorist. Art thou? Thou block, thou stone, thou worse than senseless thing, for whilst thou slept didst this become a badge of honor. Informed dissent shall always prevail, wherefore art thou worthy, or art thou this unwholesome fool in the group conformity experiment herein?

1 Comment

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