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The Mystery of Truth: Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin's Enlightened Mysticism

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 61, Number 4, October 2000
pp. 635-655 | 10.1353/jhi.2000.0034

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Journal of the History of Ideas 61.4 (2000) 635-655

"... what truth! and what error!"

--Goethe on Saint-Martin

It is hardly surprising that Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803), the philosophe inconnu of late Enlightenment Europe, remains almost completely unknown outside of the marginalized and exotic disciplines of esoterism, theosophy, and mysticism. Although influential in certain circles, Saint-Martin failed to penetrate the mainstream of Enlightenment thought, and what influence he did have in philosophy was largely felt outside of this period altogether, revealing itself in figures such as Maistre, Lamartine, and German Romantics like Franz von Baader. In his own lifetime Saint-Martin was met with incredulity by the forces of rationalism. Voltaire was given a copy of Saint-Martin's 1775 text Des erreurs et de la vérité by a friend of d'Alembert. Voltaire later commented to the mathematician, "I don't believe anyone has ever printed anything more absurd, more obscure, more crazy, and more stupid." In the Tableau de Paris, Mercier described Saint-Martin and his martinist followers as a sect which turned its back on the paths opened up by sound physics, chemistry, and all natural history in order "to run headlong into an invisible world only they perceived." Saint-Martin taught that the objects we see around us are only "fantastic and deceptive images" and that the truth lies precisely where we cannot see it, Mercier explained. "Physical experiences," the cornerstone of the dominant sensationalist doctrine, were for the martinists only "errors," an "eternal source of folly and deception," wrote Mercier. One review of Saint-Martin's works described their effect as analogous to that of a "pyramid covered in hieroglyphs, erected by an unknown man in a public square," in other words, completely mystifying. The revolutionary Barnave would link martinism with all the other "metaphysical follies," which were, he believed, the result of an overly speculative tendency in eighteenth-century thought.

For his part Saint-Martin rejected what he considered to be the anti-spiritual tendency of Enlightenment thought. Responding (as a mature student) to the professor Garat, one of the idéologue followers of Condillac, at the École normale in 1795, Saint-Martin wrote:

I always admire how you protect youself from materialism by endorsing ... the teachings of Condillac. Although I read little, I have just gone through (very quickly, it is true) his Essai sur les origines des connaissances humaines and his Traité des sensations. Whether I have poorly grasped it, or I haven't your secret, I have come across almost no passages which do not repel me; and, I can say, have not encountered one which attracts me. His statue, for example ... seems to be a mockery of nature... For me, each of the author's ideas appears to be an attack against man, a veritable homicide.

Mystic thought, it seems, must oppose Enlightenment. At best, mysticism during the period of Enlightenment will be seen as its "underside" or as the preparation for coming anti-Enlightenment Romantic doctrines. Indeed, the end of the Enlightenment in France saw a marked interest in esoteric thought and a mystic sensibility. However, the attempt to link mysticism and Enlightenment has almost always been a critical attempt to discover the "superstitious" core of eighteenth-century rationalist thought. In this perspective the study of mystic thought in its own terms can only have antiquarian value, for the mystic approach to truth is, it is claimed, always in the form of a secret, revealed knowledge that can never withstand disciplined analysis. Saint-Martin finds his way into history as either a footnote in large books on Romantic thinking, or as the protaganist in largely incomprehensible ones examining esoteric thought.

Here, I do not want to claim that Saint-Martin should be "included" in the Enlightenment, but a sympathetic reading of this complex and commonly misunderstood thinker can, I think, help broaden our understanding of late eighteenth-century European philosophy, particularly its important (though often neglected) transcendental and theological dimensions. It is of course only within the "rationalist" readings of Enlightenment thought that the idea of an irrational or speculative dark side can be elaborated. It may be possible here to redefine...



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