But it is not a matter of mere probability that the Mason Lodges were the seminaries of these libertine instructions. We have distinct proof of it, even in some of the French degrees. In the degree called the Chevalier de Soleil, the whole instruction is aimed against the established religion of the kingdom. The professed object is the emancipation from error, and the discovery of truth. The inscription in the east is Sagesse, that in the north is Liberal, that in the south is Fermete, and in the west it is Caution; terms which are very significant. The Tres Venerable is Adam; the Senior Warden is Truth, and all the Brethren are Children of Truth. The process of reception is very well contrived: the whole ritual is decent and circumspect, and nothing occurs which can alarm the most timid. Brother Truth is asked, What is the hour? He informs Father Adam, that among men it is the hour of darkness, but that it is mid-day in the Lodge. The candidate is asked, Why he has knocked at the door, and what is become of the eight companions (he is one of the Elus)? He says, that the world is in darkness, and his companions and he have lost each other; that Hesperus, the star of Europe, is obscured by clouds of incense, offered up by superstition to despots, who have made themselves gods, and have retired into the inmost recesses of their palaces, that they may not be recognised to be men, while their priests are deceiving the people, and causing them to worship these divinities. This and many similar sentiments are evident allusions to the pernicious doctrine of the book called Origine du Despotisme Oriental, where the religion of all countries is considered as a mere engine of state; where it is declared that reason is the only light which nature has given to man; and that our anxiety about futurity has made us imagine endless torments in a future world; and that princes, taking advantage of our weakness, have taken the management of our hopes and fears, and directed them so as to suit their own purposes; emancipation from the fear of death is declared the greatest of all deliverances; questions are put to the candidate, tending to discover whether and how far he may be trusted, and what sacrifices he is willing to make in search after truth.
This shape given to the plastic mysteries of Masonry was much relished, and in a very short time this new path was completely explored, and a new series of degrees was added to the list, viz. the Novice, and the Elu de la Verite, and the Sublime Philosophe. In the progress through these degrees, the Brethren must forget that they have formerly been Chevaliers de l’Orient, Chevaliers de l’Aigle, when the symbols were all explained as typical of the life and immortality brought to light by the gospel. Indeed they are taught to class this among the other clouds which have been dispelled by the sun of reason. Even in the Chevalerie de l’Aigle there is a two-fold explanation given of the symbols, by which a lively imagination may conceive the whole history and peculiar doctrines of the New Testament, as being typical of the final triumph of reason and philosophy over error. And perhaps this degree is the very first step in the plan of ILLUMINATION.
We are not to suppose that this was carried to extremity at once. But it is certain, that before 1743 it had become universal, and that the Lodges of Free Masons had become the places for making proselytes to every strange and obnoxious doctrine. Theurgy, Cosmogony, Cabala, and many whimsical and mythical doctrines which have been grafted on the distinguishing tenets and the pure morality of the Jews and Christians, were subjects of frequent discussion in the Lodges. The celebrated Chevalier Ramsay was a zealous apostle in this mission. Affectionately attached to the family of Stuart, and to his native country, he had co-operated heartily with those who endeavoured to employ Masonry in the service of the Pretender, and, availing himself of the pre-eminence given (at first perhaps as a courtly compliment) to Scotch Masonry, he laboured to shew that it existed, and indeed arose, during the Crusades, and that there really was either an order of chivalry whose business it was to rebuild the Christian churches destroyed by the Saracens; or that a fraternity of Scotch Masons were thus employed in the east, under the protection of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. He found some facts which were thought sufficient grounds for such an opinion, such as the building of the college of these Knights in London, called the Temple, which was actually done by the public Fraternity of Masons who had been in the holy wars. It is chiefly to him that we are indebted for that rage for Masonic chivalry which distinguishes the French Free Masonry. Ramsay’s singular religious opinions are well known, and his no less singular enthusiasm. His eminent learning, his elegant talents, his amiable character, and particularly his estimation at court, gave great influence to every thing he said on a subject which was merely a matter of fashion and amusement. Whoever has attended much to human affairs, knows the eagerness with which men propagate all singular opinions, and the delight which attends their favorable reception. None are more zealous than the apostles of infidelity and atheism. It is in human nature to catch with greediness any opportunity of doing what lies under general restraint. And if our apprehensions are not completely quieted, in a case where our wishes lead us strongly to some favorite but hazardous object, we are conscious of a kind of self-bullying. This naturally gets into our discourse, and in our eagerness to get the encouragement of joint adventurers, we enforce our tenets with an energy, and even a violence, that is very inconsistent with the subject in hand. If I am an Atheist, and my neighbour a Theist, there is surely nothing that should make me violent in my endeavors to rid him of his error. Yet how violent were the people of this party in France.
These facts and observations fully account for the zeal with which all this patch-work addition to the simple Free Masonry of England was prosecuted in France. It surprises us, Britons, who are accustomed to consider the whole as a matter of amusement for young men, who are glad of any pretext for indulging in conviviality. We generally consider a man advanced in life with less respect, if he shows any serious attachment to such things. But in France, the civil and religious restraints on conversation made these secret assemblies very precious; and they were much frequented by men of letters, who there found an opportunity of expressing in safety their dissatisfaction with those restraints, and with that inferiority of rank and condition to which they were subjected, and which appeared to themselves so inadequate to their own talents and merits. The Avocats de Parlement, the unbeneficed Abbes, the young men of no fortune, and the soi-disant philosophers, formed a numerous band, frequented the Lodges, and there discussed every topic of religion and politics. Specimens of this occupation appeared from time to time in Collections of Discourses delivered by the Frere Orateur. I once had in my possession two volumes of these discourses, which I now regret that I left in a Lodge on the continent, when my relish for Free Masonry had forsaken me. One of these is a discourse by Brother Robinet, delivered in the Loge des Chevaliers Bienfaisants de la Sainte Cite at Lyons, at a visitation by the Grand Master the Duc de Chartres, afterwards Orleans and Egalite. In this discourse we have the germ and substance of his noted work, the Systeme de la Nature, ou l’Homme moral et physique. In another discourse, delivered by Brother Condorcet in the Loge des Philalethes at Strasbourg, we have the outlines of his posthumous work, Le Progres de l’Esprit humain; and in another, delivered by Mirabeau in the Loge des Chevaliers Bienfaisants at Paris, we have a great deal of the levelling principles, and cosmopolitism, [**] which he thundered from the tribunes of the National Assembly. But the most remarkable performances of this kind are, the Archives Mystico-Hermetiques, and the Des Erreurs, et de la Verite. The first is considered as an account historical and dogmatical, of the procedure and system of the Loge des Chevaliers Bienfaisants at Lyons. This was the most zealous and systematical of all the cosmopolitical Lodges in France. It worked long under the patronage of its Grand Master the Duc de Chartres, afterwards Orleans, and at last Ph. Egalite. It sent out many affiliated Lodges, which were erected in various parts of the French dominions. The daughter Lodges at Paris, Strasbourg, Lille, Thoulouse, took the additional title of Philalethes. There arose some schisms, as may be expected, in an Association where every man is encouraged to broach and to propagate any the most singular opinion. These schisms were continued with some heat, but were in a great measure repaired in Lodges which took the name of Amis reunis de la Verite. One of this denomination at Paris became very eminent. The mother Lodge at Lyons extended its correspondence into Germany, and other foreign countries, and sent constitutions or systems, by which the Lodges conducted their operations.
I have not been able to trace the steps by which this Lodge acquired such an ascendency; but I see, that in 1769 and 1770, all the refined or philosophical Lodges in Alsace and Lorraine united, and in a convention at Lyons, formally put themselves under the patronage of this Lodge, cultivated a continual correspondence, and considered themselves as professing one Masonic Faith, sufficiently distinguishable from that of other Lodges. What this was we do not very distinctly know. We can only infer it from some historical circumstances. One of its favorite daughters, the Lodge Theodor von der guten Rath, at Munich, became so remarkable for discourses dangerous to church and state, that the Elector of Bavaria, after repeated admonitions during a course of five or six years, was obliged to suppress it in 1786. Another of its suffragan Lodges at Regensburgh became exceedingly obnoxious to the state, and occasioned several commotions and insurrections. Another, at Paris, gradually refined into the Jacobin club–And in the year 1791, the Lodges in Alsace and Lorraine, with those of Spire and Worms, invited Custine into Germany, and delivered Mentz into his hands.
When we reflect on these historical facts, we get some key to the better understanding of the two performances which I mentioned as descriptive of the opinions and occupations of this sect of Free Masons. The Archives Mystico-Hermetiques exhibit a very strange mixture of Mysticism, Theosophy, Cabalistic whim, real Science, Fanaticism, and Freethinking, both in religion and politics. They must not be considered as an account of any settled system, but rather as annals of the proceedings of the Lodge, and abstracts of the strange doctrines which made their successive appearance in the Lodge. But if an intelligent and cautious reader examine them attentively, he will see, that the book is the work of one hand, and that all the wonders and oddities are caricatured, so as to engross the general attention, while they also are twisted a little, so that in one way or another they accord with a general spirit of licentiousness in morals, religion, and politics. Although every thing is expressed decently, and with some caution and moderation, atheism, materialism, and discontent with civil subordination, pervade the whole. It is a work of great art. By keeping the ridicule and the danger of superstition and ignorance continually in view, the mind is captivated by the relief which free enquiry and communication of sentiment seems to secure, and we are put off our guard against the risk of delusion, to which we are exposed when our judgment is warped by our passions.
The other book, “Des Erreurs et de la Verite,” came from the same school, and is a sort of holy scripture, or at least a Talmud among the Free Masons of France. It is intended only for the initiated, and is indeed a mystery to any other reader. But as it was intended for spreading the favorite opinions of some enthusiastic Brethren, every thing is said that does not directly betray the secrets of the Order. It contains a system of Theosophy that has often appeared in the writings of philosophers, both in ancient and modern times. “All the intelligence and moral sentiment that appears in the universe, either directly, as in the minds of men, or indirectly, as an inference from the marks of design that we see around us, some of which show us that men have acted, and many more that some other intelligence has acted, are considered as parts or portions of a general mass of intelligence which exists in the universe, in the same manner as matter exists in it. This intelligence has an inscrutable connection with the material part of the universe, perhaps resembling the connexion, equally unsearchable, that subsists between the mind and body of man; and it may be considered as the Soul of the World. It is this substance, the natural object of wonder and respect, that men have called God, and have made the object of religious worship. In doing so they have fallen into gross mistakes, and have created for themselves numberless unfounded hopes and fears, which have been the source of superstition and fanaticism, the most destructive plagues that have ever afflicted the human race. The Soul of Man is separated from the general mass of intelligence by some of the operations of nature, which we shall never understand, just as water is raised from the ground by evaporation, or taken up by the root of a plant. And as the water, after an unsearchable train of changes, in which it sometimes makes part of a flower, sometimes part of an animal, &c. is at last reunited, in its original form, to the great mass of waters, ready to run over the same circle again; so the Soul of Man, after performing its office, and exhibiting all that train of intellectual phenomena that we call human life, is at last swallowed up in the great ocean of intelligence.” The author then breaks out
“Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
Atque metus omnes et inexorabile fatum
Subjecit pedibus, strepitumque Acherontis avari.”
For he has now got to his asylum. This deity of his may be the object of wonder, like every thing great and incomprehensible, but not of worship, as the moral Governor of the universe. The hopes are at an end, which rest on our notions of the immortality and individuality of the human soul, and on the encouragement which religion holds forth to believe, that improvement of the mind in the course of this life, by the exercise of wisdom and of virtuous dispositions, is but the beginning of an endless progress in all that can give delight to the rational and well-disposed mind. No relation now subsists between man and Deity that can warm the heart. But, as this is contrary to some natural propensity in the human mind, which in all ages and nations has panted after some connection with Deity, the author strives to avail himself of some cold principles of symmetry in the works of nature, some ill-supported notions of propriety, and other such considerations, to make this anima mundi an object of love and respect. This is done in greater detail in another work, Tableau des rapports entre l’Homme, Dieu, et l’Univers, which is undoubtedly by the same hand. But the intelligent reader will readily see, that such incongruous things cannot be reconciled, and that we can expect nothing here but sophistry. The author proceeds, in the next place, to consider man as related to man, and to trace out the path to happiness in this life. Here we have the same overstrained morality as in the other work, the same universal benevolence, the same lamentations over the miserable state of mankind, resulting from the oppression of the powerful, the great ones of the earth, who have combined against the happiness of mankind, and have succeeded, by debasing their minds, so that they have become willing slaves. This could not have been brought about without the assistance of superstition. But the princes of this world enlisted into their service the priests, who exerted themselves in darkening the understandings of men, and filled their minds with religious terrors. The altar became the chief pillar of the throne, and men were held in complete subjection. Nothing can recover them from this abject state but knowledge. While this dispels their fears, it will also show them their rights, and the way to attain them.