It deserves particularly to be remarked, that this system of opinions (if such an inconsistent mass of assertions can be called a system) bears a great resemblance to a performance of Toland's, published in 1720, called Pantheisticon, seu Celebratio Sodalitii Socratici. It is an account of the principles of a Fraternity which he calls Socratica, and the Brothers Pantheistae. They are supposed to hold a Lodge, and the author gives a ritual of the procedure in this Lodge; the ceremonies of opening and shutting of the Lodge, the admission of Members into its different degrees, &c. Reason is the Sun that illuminates the whole, and Liberty and Equality are the objects of their occupations.
We shall see afterwards that this book was fondly pushed into Germany, translated, commented, and misrepresented, so as to take off the attention from the real spirit of the book, which is intentionally wrapped up in cabala and enigma. Mirabeau was at much pains to procure it notice; and it must therefore be considered as a treasure of the cosmo-political opinions of the Association of Chevaliers Bienfaisants, Philalethes, and Amis Reunis, who were called the improved Lodges, working under the D. de Chartres--of these there were 266 in 1784. This will be found a very important remark. Let it also be recollected afterwards, that this Lodge of Lyons sent a deputy to a grand Convention in Germany in 1772, viz. Mr. Willermooz, and that the business was thought of such importance, that he remained there two years.
The book Des Erreurs et de la Verite, must therefore be considered as a classical book of these opinions. We know that it originated in the Loge des Chev. Bienfaisants at Lyons. We know that this Lodge stood as it were at the head of French Free Masonry, and that the fictitious Order of Masonic Knights Templars was formed in this Lodge, and was considered as the model of all the rest of this mimic chivalry. They proceeded so far in this mummery, as even to have the clerical tonsure. The Duke of Orleans, his son, the Elector of Bavaria, and some other German Princes, did not scruple at this mummery in their own persons. In all the Lodges of reception, the Brother Orator never failed to declaim on the topics of superstition, blind to the exhibition he was then making, or indifferent as to the vile hypocrisy of it. We have, in the lists of Orators and Office-bearers, many names of persons, who have had an opportunity at last of proclaiming their sentiments in public. The Abbe Sieyes was of the Lodge of Philalethes at Paris, and also at Lyons. Lequinio, author of the most profligate book that ever disgraced a press, the Prejuges vaincus par la Raison, was warden in the Lodge Compacte Sociale. Despremenil, Bailly, Fauchet, Maury, Mounier, were of the same system, though in different Lodges. They were called Martinists, from a St. Martin, who formed a schism in the system of the Chevaliers Bienfaisants, of which we have not any very precise account. Mercier, gives some account of it in his Tableau de Paris, and in his Annee 1888.
The breach alarmed the Brethren, and occasioned great heats. But it was healed, and the Fraternity took the name of Misa du Renis, which is an anagram of des Amis Reunis. The Bishop of Autun, the man so bepraised as the benevolent Citizen of the World, the friend of mankind and of good order, was Senior Warden of another Lodge at Paris, established in 1786 (I think chiefly by Orleans and himself) which afterwards became the Jacobin Club. In short, we may assert with confidence, that the Mason Lodges in France were the hot-beds, where the seeds were soon, and tenderly reared, of all the pernicious doctrines which soon after choaked every moral or religious cultivation, and have made the Society worse than a waste, have made it a noisome marsh of human corruption, filled with every rank and poisonous weed.
These Lodges were frequented by persons of all ranks, and of every profession. The idle and the frivolous found amusement, and glittering things to tickle their satiated fancies. There they became the dupes of the declamations of the crafty and licentious Abbes, and writers of every denomination. Mutual encouragement in the indulgence of hazardous thoughts and opinions which flatter our wishes or propensities is a lure which few minds can resist. I believe that most men have felt this in some period of their lives. I can find no other way of accounting for the company that I have sometimes seen in a Mason Lodge. The Lodge de la Parfaite Intelligence at Liege, contained, in December 1770, the Prince Bishop, and the greatest part of his Chapter, and all the Office-bearers were dignitaries of the church; yet a discourse given by the Brother Orator was as poignant a satire on superstition and credulity, as if it had been written by Voltaire. It was under the auspices of this Lodge that this collection of discourses, which I mentioned above, was published, and there is no fault found with Brother Robinet; nor Brother Condorcet. Indeed the Trefonciers of Liege were proverbial even in Brabant, for their Epicurism in the most extensive sense of the word.
Thus was corruption spread over the kingdom under the mask of moral instruction. For these discourses were full of the most refined and strained morality, and florid paintings of Utopian felicity, in a state where all are Brothers and citizens of the world. But alas! these wire-drawn principles seem to have had little influence on the hearts, even of those who could best display their beauties. Read the tragedies of Voltaire, and some of his grave performances in prose--What man is there who seems better to know his Master's will? No man expresses with more propriety, with more exactness, the feelings of a good mind. No man seems more sensible of the immutable obligation of justice and of truth. Yet this man, in his transactions with his book-sellers, with the very men to whom he was immediately indebted for his affluence and his fame, was repeatedly, nay, incessantly, guilty of the meanest, the vilest tricks. When he sold a work for an enormous price to one bookseller (even to Cramer, whom he really respected) he took care that a surreptitious edition should appear in Holland, almost at the same moment. Proof-sheets have been traced from Ferney to Amsterdam. When a friend of Cramer's expostulated with Voltaire on the injustice of this conduct, he said, grinning, Oh le bon Cramer--eh bien--il n'a que d'etre du parti--he may take a share--he will not give me a livre the less for the first piece I offer him. Where shall we see more tenderness, more honor, more love of every thing that is good and fair, than in Diderot's Pere de Famille.--Yet this man did not scruple to sell to the Empress of Russia an immense library, which he did not possess, for an enormous price, having got her promise that it should remain in his possession in Paris during his life. When her ambassador wanted to see it, after a year or two's payments, and the visitation could be no longer staved off, Diderot was obliged to set off in a hurry, and run through all the book-sellers shops in Germany, to help him to fill his empty shelves. He had the good fortune to save appearances--but the trick took air, because he had been niggardly in his attention to the ambassador's secretary. This, however, did not hinder him from honoring his Imperial pupil with a visit. He expected adoration, as the light of the world, and was indeed received by the Russian courtiers with all the childish fondness that they feel for every Parisian mode. But they did not understand him, and as he did not like to lose money at play they did not long court his company. He found his pupil too clearsighted. Ces philosophes, said she, sont beaux, vus de loin; mais de plus pres, le diamant pardit crystal. He had contrived a poor story, by which he hoped to get his daughter married in parade, and portioned by her Majesty--but it was seen through, and he was disappointed.
When we see the inefficacy of this refined humanity on these two apostles of philosophical virtue, we see ground for doubting of the propriety and expediency of trusting entirely to it for the peace and happiness of a state, and we should be on our guard when we listen to the florid speeches of the Brother Orator, and his congratulations on the emancipation from superstition and oppression, which will in a short time be effectuated by the Chevaliers Bienfaisants, the Philalethes, or any other sect of cosmo-political Brethren.
I do not mean by all this to maintain, that the Mason Lodges were the sole corrupters of the public mind in France.--No.--In all nations that have made much progress in cultivation, there is a great tendency to corruption, and it requires all the vigilance and exertions of magistrates, and of moral instructors, to prevent the spreading of licentious principles and maxims of conduct. They arise naturally of themselves, as weeds in a rich soil; and, like weeds, they are pernicious, only because they are, where they should not be, in a cultivated field. Virtue is the cultivation of the human soul, and not the mere possession of good dispositions; all men have these, and occasionly exhibit them. But virtue supposes exertion; and, as the husbandman must be incited to his laborious task by some cogent motive, so must man be prompted to that exertion which is necessary on the part of every individual for the very existence of a great society: For man is indolent, and he is luxurious; he wishes for enjoyment, and this with little trouble. The less fortunate envy the enjoyments of others, and repine at their own inability to obtain the like. They see the idle in affluence. Few, even of good men, have the candour, nay, I may call it the wisdom, to think on the activity and the labour which had procured these comforts to the rich, or to their ancestors; and to believe that they are idle only because they are wealthy, but would be active if they were needy. Such spontaneous reflections cannot be expected in persons who are engaged in unceasing labour, to procure a very moderate share (in their estimation at least) of the comforts of life. Yet such reflections would, in the main, be just, and surely they would greatly tend to quiet the minds of the unsuccessful.
This excellent purpose may be greatly forwarded by a national establishment for moral instruction and admonition; and if the public instructors should add all the motives to virtuous moderation which are suggested by the considerations of genuine religion, every advice would have a tenfold influence. Religious and moral instructions are therefore, in their own nature, unequivocal supports to that moderate exertion of the authority arising from civil subordination, which the most refined philanthropist or cosmopolite acknowledges to be necessary for the very existence of a great and cultivated society. I have never seen a scheme of Utopian happiness that did not contain some system of education, and I cannot conceive any system of education of which moral instruction is not a principal part. Such establishments are dictates of nature, and obtrude themselves on the mind of every person who begins to form plans of civil union. And in all existing societies they have indeed been formed, and are considered as the greatest corrector and soother of those discontents that are unavoidable in the minds of the unsuccessful and the unfortunate. The magistrate, therefore, whose professional habits lead him frequently to exert himself for the maintenance of public peace, cannot but see the advantages of such stated remembrancers of our duty. He will therefore support and cherish this public establishment, which so evidently assists him in his beneficent and important labours.
But all the evils of society do not spring from the discontents and the vices of the poor. The rich come in for a large and a conspicuous share. They frequently abuse their advantages. Pride and haughty behaviour on their part rankle in the breasts, and affect the tempers of their inferiors, already fretted by the hardships of their own condition. The rich also are luxurious; and are often needy. Grasping at every mean of gratification, they are inattentive to the rights of inferiors whom they despise, and, despising, oppress. Perhaps their own superiority has been acquired by injustice. Perhaps most sovereignties have been acquired by oppression. Princes and Rulers are but men; as such, they abuse many of their greatest blessings. Observing that religious hopes make the good resigned under the hardships of the present scene, and that its terrors frequently restrain the bad; they avail themselves of these observations, and support religion as an engine of state, and a mean of their own security. But they are not contented with its real advantages; and they are much more afraid of the resentment and the crimes of the offended profligate, than of the murmurs of the suffering worthy. Therefore they encourage superstition, and call to their aid the vices of the priesthood. The priests are men of like passions as other men, and it is no ground of peculiar blame that they also frequently yield to the temptations of their situation. They are encouraged to the indulgence of the love of influence natural to all men, and they heap terror upon terror, to subdue the minds of men, and darken their understandings. Thus, the most honorable of all employments, the moral instruction of the state, is degraded to a vile trade, and is practised with all the deceit and rapacity of any other trade; and religion, from being the honor and the safeguard of a nation, becomes its greatest disgrace and curse.
When a nation has fallen into this lamentable state, it is extremely difficult to reform. Although nothing would so immediately and so completely remove all ground of complaint, as the re-establishing private virtue, this is of all others the least likely to be adopted., The really worthy, who see the mischief where it really is, but who view this life as the school of improvement, and know that man is to be made perfect through suffering, are the last persons to complain. The worthless are the most discontented, the most noisy in their complaints, and the least scrupulous about the means of redress. Not to improve the nation, but to advance themselves, they turn the attention to the abuses of power and influence. And they begin their attack where they think the place most defenceless, and where perhaps they expect assistance from a discontented garrison. They attack superstition, and are not at all solicitous that true religion shall not suffer along with it. It is not, perhaps, with any direct intention to ruin the state, but merely to obtain indulgence for themselves, and the cooperation of the wealthy. They expect to be listened to by many who wish for the same indulgence; and thus it is that religious free-thinking is generally the first step of anarchy and revolution. For in a corrupted state, persons of all ranks have the same licentious wishes, and if superstitious, fear be really an ingredient of the human mind, it requires some struggle to shake it off. Nothing is so effectual as mutual encouragement, and therefore all join against priestcraft; even the rulers forget their interest, which should lead them to support it. In such a state, the pure morality of true religion vanishes from the sight. There is commonly no remains of it in the religion of the nation, and therefore all goes together.