Initiating the Enlightenment?: Recent Scholarship on European Freemasonry
Historians of Masonry, complained New York governor De Witt Clinton in 1825, too often engage in “gratuitous assumptions and fanciful speculations.” “The absurd accounts of its origin and history, in most of the books that treat of it, have proceeded from enthusiasm operating on credulity and the love of the marvelous.” Rather than “giving the rein to erratic imagination,” he recommended an attempt “to sober down our minds to well-established fact.” 1
Although Clinton, founder of the New York Historical Society and the state’s Masonic Grand Master, was also sure that such a clear-eyed investigation would prove Masonry “the most ancient society in the world,” his complaints about the state of the fraternity’s history still have relevance. Up until about ten years ago, the study of Masonry remained a backwater. Indeed, the long-since-refuted eighteenth-century charges of the Abbé de Barruel and John Robison that Free- masonry, after being corrupted by the atheistic Illuminati, had masterminded the French Revolution (accusations that Clinton believed in 1825 had “been consigned to everlasting contempt”) remain current in some circles. The French writer Bernard Faÿ, author of what is still perhaps the most widely available study of the eighteenth- century fraternity, argued that it “fostered the revolutionary spirit” and even “prepared and achieved” the late eighteenth-century revolutions—arguments that later turned malignant when he collaborated with the Nazis to suppress the fraternity. 2 More recently, television evangelist and political power Pat Robertson has revived tales of the Illuminati pursuing a now two-century-old subversion of Christianity and economic liberty in order to create a “new world order,” a phrase that George Bush reportedly stopped using because of Robertson’s influence. 3 Such conspiracy theories ironically have led many scholars to the opposite view, that Masonry was merely [End Page 80] another social club, an intellectually vacuous Rotarian organization purveying busi- ness networking and bland sociability. Outside of France (and, to a lesser extent, Germany) where the Masonic origins of the French Revolution remain a continuing, if minor, issue, the study of the fraternity has largely remained the province of antiquarians. As James Stevens Curl notes in his preface (echoing Clinton), “much tedious, barmy, entirely fanciful, and usually nonsensical material” on Freemasonry has appeared in the last half century (p. 10).
Yet, as Curl also notes, “it would be irresponsible to ignore” the fraternity (p.10). Virtually any short list of eighteenth-century notables would include such Freemasons as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Pope, Horace Walpole, Sir Robert Walpole, Mozart, Goethe, Frederick the Great, Franklin, and Washington. In addition, Masonic brothers play a number of intriguing supporting roles, from James Thompson (author of “Rule Britannia”) and the Abbé Siéyès (author of Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? and the Tennis Court Oath) to Benedict Arnold and Dr. Guillotin.
The works considered here herald a new era in Masonic history, one in which accomplished historians take the fraternity (and its ability to attract such a mem- bership) seriously. For these authors, Freemasonry is neither a mystic key to all history nor an irrelevancy. Instead, these books believe that the fraternity was intimately intertwined with the major issues of the eighteenth century, with her- meticism, the Enlightenment, and the rise of democracy. If, as will be suggested later, their connections are often too mechanical and rigid, they nevertheless make the history of the fraternity a topic that does not, as Clinton complained, “mortify our intellectual discrimination” (McClenachan, 2:432).
The confusion about Masonry partly arises from a paucity of the “well-established” facts that Clinton recommended. This difficulty has been particularly great for the earliest years of the fraternity, between the sixteenth century, when Masonry was clearly a craft organized around guilds, and the 1730s, when it was clearly a fraternal order built around lodges—between, in the fraternity’s own terms, “operative” and “speculative” Masonry. Historians of the fraternity have long known that, even though seventeenth-century Masonic organizations were still connected to the craft, a number of nonoperatives belonged to these groups. This apparent prefiguring of the later speculative fraternity was particularly widespread in Scotland.
David Stevenson’s two interlocking books on the seventeenth-century Scottish experience provide solid information about a subject previously known only in vague terms. The First Freemasons examines the evidence about all identifiable Scottish lodges; The Origins of Freemasonry (besides recapitulating the most significant findings of the other book) considers the broader nature of Freemasonry. Stevenson, however, does more than amass an impressive pile of evidence. He audaciously attempts to revise the accepted view of Masonry’s beginnings. If previous historians have disagreed about the precise nature of the shift from operative to speculative Masonry, they have overwhelmingly cited the creation of a Grand Lodge in London during 1717 as a key turning point. Stevenson challenges this view, arguing that the event was “almost an irrelevance in the long process of development of the movement” (Origins, p. 4). What he prefers to call “modern freemasonry,” for reasons that will become clear later, actually began during the previous century in Scotland. Stevenson’s books represent a major advance in knowledge, making Scottish issues more significant in the broader history of the fraternity. But they do not convincingly overturn the more accepted view. [End Page 81]
For Stevenson, modern Masonry emerged around the turn of the seventeenth century—during the Renaissance, not the Enlightenment. William Schaw, the king’s “Master of Works” (essentially the government’s chief architect and construction officer), declared himself “generall Wardene” of Scottish Masons in two proclama- tions that attempted to reorder the craft (Origins, p. 34). According to Stevenson, these “Schaw Statutes” of 1598 and 1599 went beyond mere guild regulation (for example, attempting to limit the number of apprentices and to require testing of craftsmen before admitting them as masters). They formed part of a larger process in which Schaw actually “created freemasonry,” establishing lodges that divided their membership into “entered apprentices” and “fellow crafts,” the terms later used by the speculative fraternity (Origins, p. 32). Furthermore, Schaw provided Scottish Masonry with rituals based upon hermetic thought, ceremonies that would shape later speculative practices.
Although the lodges remained relatively secret, Stevenson convincingly shows that at least seven lodges were founded or first became known around the time of the Schaw statutes. In all, some twenty-five similar lodges met, or had met, in Scotland by 1710. These organizations sometimes admitted non-Masons, both gentlemen and other craftsmen, into their fellowship. Stevenson cites Sir Robert Moray, initiated into a lodge in 1641 and a leader in the early English Royal Society, as a central example of this new Masonic experience. Moray’s letters boast about his membership in explanations of the pentangle he had chosen as his personal symbol before his initiation and then later selected as his mason’s mark. Stevenson also suggests that the ideals of “modern freemasonry” (a term he uses because Scottish Masonry was clearly not speculative), such as morality, sociability, and friendship, are visible in Scottish lodges. After surveying the far less substantial evidence for English Free- masonry during the same period, he argues that the more developed Scottish groups formed the basis of the speculative fraternity.
Stevenson provides the fullest picture of Masonic craft organizations yet available —indeed, the books offer perhaps the richest description of any early modern artisanal institution anywhere. Stevenson is particularly good on the details of Scottish trade organizations, lucidly explaining the differences and the interrelationships between incorporations (Scottish guilds that usually oversaw a number of crafts) and lodges (made up solely of Masons and having a secondary role in governing their business activities). He also traces the arrival and departure of nonoperatives with precision. For the first time, the nature of these outsiders is described with clarity.
But Stevenson is not primarily interested in the economic and social lives of Scottish Masons; his preferred context is the larger framework of the Renaissance and the outlines of later speculative Masonry. To me, however, the seventeenth-cen- tury craft organizations glimpsed in the evidence seem very different than the precocious fraternity that Stevenson posits. The lodges were instead relatively infrequent meetings of craftsmen (generally held only once or twice a year) that sometimes sought (or had imposed upon them) more powerful patrons. Stevenson’s examination of existing lodge records finds “few consistent and clear trends” in the introduction of non-operatives (First, p. 158). Furthermore, many only attended once; those that stayed dropped out after a year or so at the most. Moray, a key figure in Stevenson’s argument, actually attended lodge meetings only twice.
Moray’s example also suggests that patronage by the better-connected may better explain the presence of nonoperatives. Moray, quartermaster-general of the Scottish covenanters’ army, was initiated in 1641 along with the general of the artillery by Masons serving in the artillery corps. If the craftsmen seem to have acted first in that instance to gain the support of their superiors, the actions of Schaw may represent an aggressive attempt at control. Schaw claimed authority over the craft in 1598 [End Page 82] while heading royal building activities that made him the country’s largest employer of Masons. More tellingly, although Schaw often met with the Incorporation of Mary’s Chapel, he seems to have attended the associated lodge only once—when he called a meeting at the palace in 1600 to fine its chief officer. Less than two years later, Schaw bowed to the claims of his social superiors and agreed to accept the hereditary role of the Lairds of Roslin as “patrones and p[ro]tectors” of the craft (Origins, p. 52). Like the initiation of Moray, this so-called St. Clair Charter suggests that Masons themselves could feel the need for protection—perhaps even, although Stevenson does not note the possibility, from Schaw himself. The Charter noted that a patron would not only encourage clients to continue their projects but also rule upon disagreements within the craft, avoiding a court system that poor masons could not afford. Such a picture provides a more plausible explanation of the relationship between court officials or lairds and relatively obscure and weak craftsmen than Stevenson’s rather anachronistic picture of social superiors coveting the fellowship and rituals of artisans.
The idea, however, clearly arouses Stevenson’s national pride. He accuses the benighted who deny Scottish precedence of being either class snobs (for suggesting that Freemasonry needs to be based upon noncraftsmen) or prejudiced against Scots (seeking “to pander to the patriotic prejudices of English masons” [Origins, p. 4]). But charges of pandering, even delivered with alliterative flair, cannot erase the substantial differences between the Scottish lodges and the later speculative fraternity that was quite clearly exported from England, even, as Margaret C. Jacob points out, into Scotland itself. The earlier groups still exhibited the parochial narrowness attacked by both the Enlightenment and later Masonry. Stevenson finds no visiting at all between lodges and, after the Schaw documents, virtually no recognition on the part of members that other lodges existed—except when their territorial jurisdiction was threatened. Despite the intermittent involvement of non- Masons, these groups ultimately sought to serve craftsmen.
By contrast, speculative lodges might include working masons, but members’ occupations were irrelevant. What had been a trade organization became a fraternity open to all occupations and even to all national, religious, and political groups. This broadened perspective extended to jurisdiction. Although the new Grand Lodges formed in each country after the 1717 English body claimed to control the Masons in their area, the lodges themselves were formed by elective affinities; other groups could be formed in the same locality. These lodges consciously saw themselves as part of a larger movement, one that extended even beyond national boundaries. Later brothers (a term used by seventeenth-century Scottish occupational groups, although seemingly never associated primarily with Masons) saw themselves as knit together by benevolent actions and sentiments that exemplified society’s highest goals and should encompass the entire world. The absence, or at best the relative insignificance, of these enlightened values in the earlier Scottish lodges makes it difficult to imagine them attracting Voltaire, Mozart, and Franklin, let alone, as Jacob points out occurred after mid-century, aristocratic French women.
A fuller recognition of speculative Masonry’s Enlightenment ethos, however, does not prove the irrelevance of Scottish practices. The terminology of the first two speculative degrees (entered apprentice and fellow craft), indicates some influence. But Stevenson can identify no link, no means of transmission, that would account for the learned gentlemen of London, who shaped the enlightened fraternity, picking up the practices of minor craftsmen from an area that (as Stevenson rightly points out) bore the burden of being labeled crude and uncivilized. These qualities, however, fit into a previously ignored element of early speculative Masonry, the expectation of these brothers that they were recovering ancient traditions and experiences of [End Page 83] great value. Scottish Masonry, seemingly closer to the primitive world and thus less corrupted by modern innovations, might have been seen as a resource to help restore Masonry to its pristine state. As Stevenson notes, Jean T. Desaguliers, a key figure in the early speculative fraternity, visited Edinburgh in 1721 and became a lodge member there. The view of Scotland as a resource rather than a controlling model also conforms better to the official histories of speculative Masonry presented in its Book of Constitutions. Although written by the son of an Aberdeen lodge member, these elaborate genealogies never mention Scottish influence. 4
The desire to recover ancient wisdom also plays a role in what will be to many the most intriguing element of Stevenson’s work: the positing of a direct link between Freemasonry and the tradition of learned magic usually identified as hermetic. Such a claim, however, rests primarily upon parallels. As Stevenson admits, “the only direct evidence” lies in a single phrase in the Second Schaw Statutes. In them, the warden of Kilwinning Lodge (in western Scotland) was directed to test members in “the art of memorie and science thairof” (Origins, p. 49). For scholars acquainted with Frances A. Yates, the pioneering student of early modern occultism, this is a startling phrase, a crucial link in her attempt to connect the learned magic of hermeticism to the heterodox religion of Giordano Bruno, to Rosicrucianism, and to the origins of modern science. 5 Stevenson attempts to extend these connections to Scotland and Masonry as well, noting that one of Bruno’s defenders in England was a Scot who had connections with the Scottish court, and that another member of the court discussed the art of memory with the king. Stevenson even suggests a kind of chronological determinism: “If, as the evidence suggests, the essentials of freemasonry did emerge around 1600, then chronological considerations alone would make it truly extraordinary for Hermetic influences not to be present” (Origins, p. 85).
But, as a footnote of Stevenson’s admits, the art of memory was not solely occult. Memory schemes were widely diffused, even among orthodox ministers like the poet John Donne and the Authorized Version Bible translator Lancelot Andrewes. 6 Beyond the parallels Stevenson makes between Masonry and learned magic, no compelling reason exists to make the more unorthodox connection. In any case, his definition of Renaissance magic as primarily involving new faith in human ability to change the world suggests a broader intellectual tradition than the occult forces and spiritual powers of learned magic. Ultimately, Stevenson’s hermetic craftsmen sound less like magis than modern scientists, even proto-philosophes. 7
James Stevens Curl’s handsome book on the connections between Masonry and eighteenth-century art and architecture accepts Stevenson’s arguments on Hermeti- cism, even going further to argue for Masonry’s connection with the Egyptian mystery cult of Isis and Osiris. But ultimately Stevenson’s attempt to remove the Enlighten- ment from the fraternity’s genealogy (even as he reads key elements back in through occultism) does not influence Curl’s basic view of the fraternity as virtually the Enlight- enment incarnate. “Among the many intellectual forces at work during the eighteenth century,” Curl argues, “none was of such fundamental significance as Freemasonry” (p. 136). This importance rests upon deep connections between units of ideas. Unfortunately this catholic vision of a world of interrelated symbols also blurs the boundaries of connection and causality. The result is a book whose beautiful photo- graphs of buildings (real and imaginary), gardens, and stage sets often have little to do with Freemasonry directly. [End Page 84]
Although the sweeping title, The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry: An Introductory Study, seems to suggest otherwise, the book’s chronological focus is actually the eigh- teenth century and its background. It provides a basic survey of the fraternity’s history, looks at some key symbolic themes and motifs, and presents a variety of objects that have what Curl calls “Masonic elements.” His discussion of the early fraternity before and directly after 1717 summarizes recent work on the subject, incorporating not only Stevenson’s but Yates’ and Margaret Jacob’s earlier arguments. Curl’s discussion of symbolism stresses Masonry’s connections to the ancient mysteries. For Curl, this link includes not only hermeticism, but a broad range of ideas and cults from this early period. Masonry thus becomes tied to the Labyrinth as well as the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris. Curl even incorporates the Templars, suggesting that some may have gone to Scotland after the order’s dissolution and had an impact on later Masonry. This section also includes an interesting look at Renaissance interest in Solomon’s Temple, a fascination Curl links particularly to Vienna’s early eighteenth-century Karlskirche, a building he suggests “has overt... Masonic themes” (p. 94).
The heart of the book, however, lies in an argument that Masonry inspired and came to embody (Curl blurs the distinction) the period’s neoclassicism. Besides suggesting that the fraternity played an important role in music and literature (citing Mozart and Goethe as well as English and French Encyclopedists), Curl considers two developments particularly Masonic, the rise of Egyptian themes in design and attempts to shape the landscape to point an explicit moral lesson.
Curl, the author of an earlier book on Egyptian themes in art and architecture, 8 builds his discussion here around Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (1791). After looking at Mozart’s Masonic career and the libretto’s literary predecessors in Egyptian romances, he then notes some Masonic connections in The Magic Flute itself. 9 A look at some of the stage sets built for the opera over the next generation reveals stunning Egyptian scenes, including Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s extraordinary 1815 Berlin production. Curl connects this Egyptian theme not only with Isis and Osiris but with Hermes Trismegistus, according to legend a learned Egyptian. For him as well as for Stevenson, however, the key meaning of this hermetic connection is not occult magic. Instead, Curl stresses the idea of the initiation, passage from one state to another.
Gardens and cemeteries designed as moral lessons thus are closely related to the Egyptian theme. Suggesting that the Masonic idea of the journey of initiation combined with the Egyptian practice of passing through an open court helped inspire Masonic architecture out of doors as well as inside, Curl notes a number of gardens of allusions, including Castle Howard at Yorkshire, Pope’s Twickenham, Rousseau’s tomb at Ermenonville, and the gardens at Wörlitz near Dessau in Saxony. Particularly through Rousseau’s example and Masonic inspiration, the idea of the funerary garden would become increasingly popular in the late eighteenth century, culminating in the influential cemetery at Pére-Lachaise outside Paris, designed by the Masonic brother Alexandre-Thèodore Brongniart. The theme of the cemetery pushes Curl into the nineteenth century—except for some brief discussion of British Masonic buildings and monuments, the only consideration of the period beyond the 1810s.
Curl concludes by positing a Masonic style, a way of seeing and expressing built upon the fraternity. Its “stylistic aspects,” he asserts, “depend on nuance, on hints, on feeling, and on mood as much as anything” (p. 226), and can be seen in Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 39–41, the late eighteenth-century utopian neoclassical architects who stressed geometric purity, and the United States Constitution. “A Masonic style is an amalgam of many things, but it has a distinctive flavor that is instantly recognizable once the subject has been studied and understood” (p. 229).
This argument is difficult to evaluate. When Curl suggests that the guillotine [End Page 85] (designed by a brother) “certainly suggest[s] Masonic allegories” with its square, circle, and triangle (p. 140), it seems easy to reject the entire idea. Sometimes assertions of ineffable connoisseurship (implying that an inability to see subtleties merely suggests inadequate insight) can best be answered by citing the Emperor’s New Clothes. Most obviously, many of the book’s key figures are not even Masons. Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, the designer of Vienna’s Karlskirche, died about a decade before Masonic lodges began to meet in Eastern Europe, and Masons did not even make up a majority in the United States Constitutional Convention, so the Masonic status of their productions seems at the very least questionable. The key problem lies in the idea that Masonry was the cause of, or the force behind, these larger cultural developments. The existence beyond the fraternity of the styles and ideals that Curl labels Masonic suggests that something larger is going on. Fascination with, and attempted imitation of, Solomon’s Temple predated even Stevenson’s Scottish lodges. More important, a number of writers fed interest in Egypt before Continental brothers began incorporating it into Masonic design. And Egyptian themes never strongly affected eighteenth-century British or American Masonry. These examples thus may suggest that Masonry reacted to and incorporated other ideas and cultural forms, making the fraternity a part of a larger cultural web rather than its spinner.
Despite its excesses, however, Curl’s book makes some important points. Even the skeptical reader should be convinced of Masonry’s connection to important parts of eighteenth-century artistic expression. On a broader level, the work illustrates and illuminates the eighteenth-century roots of Romantic interest in death and the Orient and underlines the danger of seeing the Enlightenment as solely concerned with reason to the exclusion of sentiment. Finally, the book’s enthusiastic celebration of the Enlightenment’s hopes for a more civil and humane world and its opposition to ignorance, suffering, and arbitrary power provides a reminder of some of the period’s enduring ideals.
Margaret C. Jacob is also a partisan of the Enlightenment, a self-proclaimed “heir of the late eighteenth-century democratic revolutions.” Rejecting the argument of conservatives and revisionists that the Enlightenment legitimated overbearing state power and the extinction of individualism in the name of the people, Jacob argues instead that it forms “the roots of democratic culture and a rational foundation for the articulation of universal and humane principles.” In this vision of the Enlightenment, the “grand philosophes” take a back seat to “unruly” freethinkers (both in the general and the specific religious senses) and other subversives. 10 I suspect that Jacob would have liked Living the Enlightenment to offer a ringing endorsement of these values and Masonry’s part in spreading them. But, partly because she looks at specific lodges and places rather than the multifaceted cultural artifacts treated by Curl, Jacob is forced to narrow her claims about the fraternity’s role in creating modern ideas and political culture.
Even so, Living the Enlightenment is an important work, representing a significant advance in scholarly knowledge. Besides offering one of the first examinations of women’s role in eighteenth-century Masonry, the book provides the only substantial English-language work on the continental fraternity. 11 Furthermore, it is perhaps the first scholarly work in any language to consider both Masonry’s local and international dimensions. Even more important, Living the Enlightenment posits an exciting larger argument that seeks out the roots of some of the Enlightenment’s [End Page 86] most powerful legacies: democracy and the freedom to criticize power. Jacob thinks in big terms and grand conceptions. The problem comes in relating the two levels of the book. The evidence and arguments presented do not always provide adequate support for her grand schemes.
Jacob builds her larger argument around the development of civil society and the public sphere, places where issues of broader significance could be discussed without government interference and which in turn provided the basis for republican and democratic governments. Masonry, she suggests, was particularly important in the creation of this “modern civil society” because it “was the most avowedly constitutional and aggressively civic” of all “the new enclaves of sociability” (p. 15). As a group organized around a constitution and majority rule and which provoked discussion about the proper organization of society, Freemasonry helped Continental Europeans experience and experiment with civil society, thereby helping spread the new political culture that had first emerged in post-Revolutionary Britain. Because the fraternity allowed the coexistence of these ideas with older ways of thinking, it allows historians to examine the Enlightenment in actual experience, particularly its political meanings.
Jacob attempts to establish these themes by studying a series of Masonic groups and issues. After looking at British lodges and their ideas, she moves across the Channel to examine Dutch lodges, particularly La Bien Aimée, an Amsterdam lodge with exceptionally full records. The Dutch and French experiments with adoptive lodges that admitted women provide the focus of another discussion. After looking at the ideas found in French-language Masonic publications, the book concludes with studies of La Bien Aimée, Strasbourg lodges, and the French Grand Orient (the national Masonic authority) in the decades after 1770.
But difficulties arise in connecting these specifics with Jacob’s larger vision. The problem is partly that the larger analytical terms remain imprecise. The term “civic” seldom appears without the added phrase “and therefore political,” but the meanings of the two terms and the reasons for their seeming equivalence are not addressed systematically. The ideas of Jürgen Habermas provide the most coherent theoretical background to the book, but they are cited rather than fully engaged. For example, Jacob never notes Habermas’ suggestion that the public sphere requires temporarily “bracketing” (putting aside) inequities of status and power, even though it is directly relevant to her discussion.
The case studies themselves leave too many loose ends to be entirely convincing. For example, the book discusses a pamphlet published by an Amsterdam Freemason in 1752 that denies that his brothers “seek to undermine the Christian religion.” They do not, he contends, hold to the ideas of Matthew Tindal. The mention of a British freethinker who associated with John Toland (one of Jacob’s favorite figures) clearly piques her interest—the paragraphs include one “extraordinary” and two “remarkables.” The reference, she notes excitedly, “take[s] us directly back to the most radical elements in eighteenth-century political and religious culture” (p. 83). But, in her enthusiasm, Jacob never addresses the most salient fact: not that the brothers knew of Tindal but that they explicitly repudiated his ideas.
The broader line of argument traced by the case studies also presents problems. The earlier chapters dwell upon Masonry’s connection to specific ideas, most notably the British public sphere and the heritage of the English Revolution in both republi- canism and freethinking (hence the highlighting of Tindal and Toland). Embodying this post-Revolutionary political order, she suggests, Freemasonry also possessed its “politically [and religiously] radical underside” (p. 69). This vision works relatively well for some Amsterdam brothers. But the fact that later parts of the book seldom uncover these ideas is particularly troubling because they come closer to the French [End Page 87] Revolution, Jacob’s touchstone for the creation of “modern politics” (p. 224). Instead she argues that the cases suggest that lodges served as a neutral place for discussing and experiencing visions of society. Thus they could support a variety of ideas, even positions opposed to her earlier connections. In the end, the lodges’ civic character, their political structure of majority rule and constitutionalism, rather than their specific ideas and symbols, provides Masonry’s primary contribution to a new political order.
But such a view seems to make the fraternity’s link to the Enlightenment merely accidental. Brothers may have been living the Enlightenment, but perhaps they did not mean to. Alternatively, brothers may have been attracted more by the idea of having constitutions and elections than the particular content of the fraternity. In any case, Jacob never shows that Masons acted differently because of their involvement. Non-Masons also made the political transformation to democracy— while some brothers held back or fought it. Indeed, Jacob in another article suggests that the Amsterdam lodge experience shows “the capacity for the new sociability...to express vastly different political ideals and aspirations.” 12 Even the structure of the lodges was not as modern as Jacob suggests. Their legitimacy rested largely on their connection to antiquity and their (at least seeming) faithfulness to this legacy—not the will of the people. When Masons had their way, the national grand lodges were headed by nobles and royals appointed for life. During the latter part of the century, English lodges were headed by the Prince of Wales, Prussian lodges by Frederick the Great, and French lodges by two successive princes of the blood. Napoleon later appointed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples and then of Spain, as France’s grand master.
Although the impact of the fraternity’s organization on political culture raises an important issue, other aspects of the fraternity and the Enlightenment seem more important for an understanding of Masonry’s link to the structures of power. What distinguishes Masonry is not its constitutions but its religious character and its link to public honor. The fraternity placed its values and its practices in an emotionally charged and heightened ritual setting that claimed a direct link to ultimate values. This partly included religion in the narrower sense. Masons met in lodges of St. John that often celebrated his feast day with religious observances in churches and constitutionally excluded atheists. Their rituals acted out scenes from the building of Solomon’s Temple. Jacob, however, insistently labels the fraternity “secular” (Living, p. 7), “secular...as distinct from religious” (p. 22), and “at the heart of a new secular culture” (p. 51).
But these claims come in a book that excludes discussion of rituals and ignores the equally insistent assertions of Masonic orators and apologists that their fraternity actually encouraged true religion. Admittedly outsiders sometimes suspected Masonry’s emphasis on Christian essentials rather than strict doctrinal stances, but such latitudinarian ideals can hardly be called secular. Indeed, although the author has written insightfully (sometimes brilliantly) on early eighteenth-century religion elsewhere, 13 Living the Enlightenment sometimes displays confusion about religious ideas and language. Jacob argues that most “European freemasons [would n]ever deal with the full implications of their secularism, or probably even realize that [their fraternity] could take its followers to the point of believing, as did Rousset [early master of Amsterdam’s La Bien Aimée], that death was merely a ‘falling asleep,’” failing to recognize the phrase as coming from the confirmed secularist St. Paul (p. 94). As this quotation (and the earlier Amsterdam example) suggests, Jacob tends to take the extreme deistic and materialist exceptions—what she calls “the specter of freethinking, of atheism and pantheism” (p. 87)—as the central tendency, dismissing the majority (I would suggest the large majority) as deluded. [End Page 88]
Besides its religious ties, the fraternity’s assertions of honor and of high social standing also provided an important part of its appeal and its relationship to its broader context. Other than noting that some outsiders distrusted Masonry, Jacob never discusses its public face. As a historian of Anglo-American Freemasonry, I am not familiar enough with the Continental sources to be able to speak with authority about Masonic public appearances there. But these activities were extremely important to the British and American fraternity; Jacob mentions the theatre nights sponsored by the British fraternity, failing to note that the brothers attended together wearing their regalia. Jacob indeed seems to rule out such activities: “In every case...the distance between the safety and sanctity of the lodge and ‘the world’ was palpable and its bridging unacceptable” (p. 124). But this comment comes just before discussing a Swedish celebration where the brothers not only sponsored a church service (where the brothers paraded in front of the onlookers) and visited an orphanage (where the residents paraded in front of the brothers), but publicly “promenaded” in the gardens of a royal palace after dining there. Such activities may have been as unusual outside Sweden as Jacob suggests, but regulations for French lodges in 1755 similarly required them to attend Mass on their feast day. 14 And Jacob never explains where the processions noted in the bylaws of the Amsterdam lodge La Bien Aimée were held (Living, pp. 165 & 276, n. 15). Yet public appearances were not necessary for public attention. Published orations, apologetic works, plays, and even exposés publicized the fraternity.
Even within the fraternity, Masonry’s separation from the world clearly staked a claim to higher status within it. “The Ancient and Honorable Society” provided its members with powerful symbols of high social position. It allowed lodge leaders to be called “most worshipful master” or “Vénérable” and higher degree brothers to become “Empereurs d’Orient et d’Occident” (a group that Jacob does not mention despite its great importance in French Masonic feuding during the 1760s and 1770s). As early as 1737, the Chevalier Ramsay warned French brothers that “The word Freemason must...not be taken in a literal, gross and material sense, as if our founders had been simple workers in stone.” Instead, his lengthy genealogy claimed that prominent people through history supported what the English brothers called “the royal art.” Ramsay particularly singled out the Crusaders as Masonic progenitors, arguing that they “were not only skillful architects...but also religious and warrior princes who designed to enlighten, edify and protect the living Temples of the Most High.” 15
Ramsay’s attempt to identify his listeners as men who shared both high status and a sacred vocation to leadership suggests a fuller Masonic context for the frater- nity’s relationship to society. Although Jacob intermittently notes these themes, she ignores the Enlightenment tradition that gave them particular significance. Far more important to the eighteenth-century fraternity than the civil was civility, the eighteenth-century discussions about benevolence, politeness, and civilization that inspired the name of La Bien Aimée. Jacob’s book mentions Shaftesbury only once; and, except for a tangential reference to Hume in a footnote, the entire Scottish Enlightenment tradition from Francis Hutcheson to Adam Smith is missing. In another article, Jacob reveals that the eighteenth-century “distrust of the inelegant and the ordinary make me uncomfortable” (“Mental Landscape,” p. 109). But, whether congenial or not, the celebration of refinement and a natural propensity to society provides the principal context for eighteenth-century thinking about Masonry. The fraternity was a brotherhood—a statement that had political implications because it proclaimed not simply a gathering of equals but also a society held together by love rather than by a commanding father. Brothers argued that only a group where religious, national, and political divisions were ignored (in the Habermasian term, [End Page 89] “bracketed”) could realize the cosmopolitan vision of a republic of letters and of virtue. By seeking “to reunite all men of enlightened minds, gentle manners, and agreeable wit, not only by a love for the fine arts but, much more, by the grand principles of virtue, science and religion,” Ramsay argued, “the interests of the Fraternity shall become those of the whole human race.” 16
Jacob thus rightly points out that brothers saw their fraternity as a model for society, but they did so in a fuller and richer context than the book suggests. The vision of an international brotherhood claiming high status because of its benevolent values and its religious connections makes the fraternity less subversive of the eighteenth-century ancien régimes. But, as Jacob also astutely notes, the fraternity’s ideals could at times provide alternative points of reference from which to criticize the status quo. This ambiguity may not be as exciting or inspiring as Jacob’s or Curl’s celebrations of the Enlightenment, but it provides a better understanding of why so many key eighteenth-century figures from royals to radicals found the fraternity appealing—and of how the Enlightenment became a living part of eighteenth-century society and culture.
Where do these books leave our understanding of European Masonry and its eighteenth-century context? Certainly not with a clear master narrative. Too many questions remain for that. But the authors have made substantial strides in making the fraternity exciting again—and in raising the level of discussion higher than ever before. For almost the first time, scholars have studies of Freemasonry that are worth arguing about.
The study of Masonry also invites sharper thinking about the history of culture. The books reviewed here oppose a tendency in cultural history to privilege the text, to focus on individual expression to the virtual exclusion of all but the most pervasive or the most specific context. 17 Stevenson, Curl, and Jacob attempt to map broader connections that link the specific to the general in new and interesting ways. But they also fall prey to the dangers of this approach, too often suggesting rigid connections that cannot withstand further investigation. Until recently, this was the normal method of citing Masonry, seeing it merely as a marker of something else, usually the Enlightenment or religious heterodoxy. These books point to the difficulties of these equations, but they also use the same scheme on a smaller scale. Each of these books attempts to lash together ideas, arguing that the expression of one naturally invokes the other. Stevenson argues that the art of memory must involve Bruno and hermeticism whether because of common chronology or connec- tion with the same individuals; Curl implies that symbols became so closely linked that virtually all uses of two pillars or Egyptian motifs must refer to the fraternity; Jacob suggests that the 1751 edition of Toland’s Pantheisticon “seems too contem- poraneous” with the rise of a new English Masonic group “to be unrelated to it” (p. 61) and even that “the word [pantheism] ‘belonged’ to Toland” (p. 93).
But such arguments do violence to the most remarkable characteristic of culture, the way ties between ideas form and come undone in unexpected ways, creating strange bedfellows, bizarre marriages, and sometimes almost inexplicable divorces. What might be called the fallacy of fused ideas also hinders the development of a flexible cultural history that can withstand the challenge of dealing with both individual cases and the larger picture without reducing either to the other. With its international reach yet local roots, its claims to antiquity and unity yet constant change and persistent diversity, Masonry provides a substantial challenge to modes [End Page 90] of explanation that privilege either structure or flux, either larger ideals or individual expressions. The fraternity’s most valuable contribution to understanding eighteenth- century culture may well be the way that it brings together ideas and practices that were in tension or even seeming contradiction, for example the way it preached equality (even sometime across gender lines) and yet reinforced lines of status. As Jacob suggests, the fraternity offers insight into the lived Enlightenment—not just its carefully thought-through ideal principles, but the ways that they interacted with (both affecting and being affected by) other ideals and practices.
Divergent understandings of Masonry may be inevitable. Brothers adapted the fraternity to an extraordinary range of cultural and geographical settings. Stevenson points out that eighteenth-century Scottish lodges included operative Masons more often than their English counterparts; Jacob notes the intense battles over legitimacy and authority within the French fraternity. And, as Curl suggests indirectly, Masonry’s elements of mystery helped lead the Enlightenment into Romanticism. A broad and nuanced view of European Masonry as a whole (let alone its experiences in other areas) may not be possible in the foreseeable future. But these robust and exciting works should exclude at least one possibility that previously seemed at least plausible—that Masonry was irrelevant to the eighteenth-century’s most significant developments.
I would like to thank Bland Addison, Joel J. Brattin, David Samson, and Douglas M. Strong for their help.
1. “The Address of De Witt Clinton” [to the Grand Lodge of New York, 29 Sept. 1825], in Charles Thompson McClenachan, History of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity Free and Accepted Masons in New York, 4 vols. (N.Y.: Grand Lodge, 1888–94), 2:431–32.
2. McClenachan, 2:432–33; Faÿ, Revolution and Freemasonry, 1680–1800 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1935), pp. 305 & 314. On Faÿ, see Neil L. York, “Freemasons and the American Revolution,” The Historian 55 (1993): 314.
3. For discussions of these points, see Ephraim Radner, “New World Order, Old World Anti-Semitism,” Christian Century (20 Sept. 1995): 844–49; and Michael Lind, “Rev. Robertson’s Grand International Conspiracy Theory,” New York Review of Books (2 Feb. 1995): 21–25.
4. Chap. 1 of my forthcoming Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730–1840 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina for the Institute of Early American History & Culture, 1996), further discusses the relationship between these intimations of antiquity and the early speculative fraternity, as well as the issue of learned magic discussed below.
5. Yates’ relevant works are: Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964); The Art of Memory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966); The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972).
6. Origins, p. 90, n. 23. Coincidentally, both Donne and Andrewes were, like Schaw, also closely connected with King James VI of Scotland during his later reign as James I of England.
7. Recent scholarship rejects the idea that learned magic was completely at odds with other discourses that now seem more orthodox. See, e.g., Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1991). But, as Brian Vickers suggests, this does not prove that the distinctive elements of occultism always formed the primary reasons for its acceptance. Vickers, “Introduction,” in Brian Vickers, ed., Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1984), pp. 1–56. John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644– 1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1994) provocatively considers the continuing significance of hermetic thinking and its connection to Masonry.
8. The Egyptian Revival: An Introductory Study of a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982); reissued as Egyptomania: The Egyptian Revival: An Introductory Study of a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste (Manchester: Manchester Univ., 1994).
9. Curl relies primarily upon H. C. Robbins Landon, Mozart and the Masons: New Light on the Lodge “Crowned Hope” (London: Thames & Hudson, 1982), and Landon, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988). For a discussion of the literature on Mozart and Masonry, see Maynard Solomon, Mozart: A Life (N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1995), pp. 601–02. See also pp. 321–35; and Nicholas Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas (N.Y.: Norton, 1992), esp. pp. 115–29.
10. Jacob, “The Mental Landscape of the Public Sphere: A European Perspective,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 28 (1994): 95–113 (quotations on pp. 99, 97, 109).
11. J. M. Roberts, The Mythology of the Secret Societies (N.Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), also considers Continental Freemasonry, looking primarily at reactions to it.
12. Jacob, “Radicalism in the Dutch Enlightenment,” in The Dutch Republic in the Eighteenth Century: Decline, Enlightenment, and Revolution, ed. Margaret C. Jacob & Wijnand W. Mijnhardt (Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 1992), p. 234
13. See The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 1689–1720 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 1976).
14. Gérard Gayot, ed., La Franc-maçonnerie française: textes et pratiques (XVIIIe–XIXe siècles) (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1980), p. 91.
15. I use the English translation from Robert Freke Gould, Gould’s History of Freemasonry throughout the World, ed. Dudley Wright, 6 vols. (N.Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), 3:13. The original of this extremely popular oration is most easily accessible in Gayot, La Franc- maçonnerie française, pp. 67–75 (quotation, p. 72).
16. Gould, Gould’s History, 3:11 (Gayot, La Franc-maçonnerie française, p. 67). Ramsay’s statement is quoted with some changes (and without quotation marks or attribution) some 60 years later by an American Masonic brother in rural Massachusetts (Preserved Smith, A Masonick Discourse: delivered at Greenfield, Massachusetts...June, 26th, A.L. 5898 [Greenfield, Mass.: Francis Barker, 1798], p. 9).
17. Jacob makes this point explicitly (pp. 216–19).