In a former lecture in this Institution, I said that the human race owed more to the eighteenth century than to any century since the Christian era. It may seem a bold assertion to those who value duly the century which followed the revival of Greek literature, and consider that the eighteenth century was but the child, or rather grandchild, thereof. But I must persist in my opinion, even though it seem to be inconsistent with my description of the very same era as one of decay and death. For side by side with the death, there was manifold fresh birth; side by side with the decay there was active growth;--side by side with them, fostered by them, though generally in strong opposition to them, whether conscious or unconscious. We must beware, however, of trying to find between that decay and that growth a bond of cause and effect where there is really none. The general decay may have determined the course of many men's thoughts; but it no more set them thinking than (as I have heard said) the decay of the Ancien Regime produced the new Regime--a loose metaphor, which, like all metaphors, will not hold water, and must not be taken for a philosophic truth. That would be to confess man--what I shall never confess him to be--the creature of circumstances; it would be to fall into the same fallacy of spontaneous generation as did the ancients, when they believed that bees were bred from the carcass of a dead ox. In the first place, the bees were no bees, but flies--unless when some true swarm of honey bees may have taken up their abode within the empty ribs, as Samson's bees did in that of the lion. But bees or flies, each sprang from an egg, independent of the carcass, having a vitality of its own: it was fostered by the carcass it fed on during development; but bred from it it was not, any more than Marat was bred from the decay of the Ancien Regime. There are flies which, by feeding on putridity, become poisonous themselves, as did Marat: but even they owe their vitality and organisation to something higher than that on which they feed; and each of them, however, defaced and debased, was at first a "thought of God." All true manhood consists in the defiance of circumstances; and if any man be the creature of circumstances, it is because he has become so, like the drunkard; because he has ceased to be a man, and sunk downward toward the brute.
Accordingly we shall find, throughout the 18th century, a stirring of thought, an originality, a resistance to circumstances, an indignant defiance of circumstances, which would have been impossible, had circumstances been the true lords and shapers of mankind. Had that latter been the case, the downward progress of the Ancien Regime would have been irremediable. Each generation, conformed more and more to the element in which it lived, would have sunk deeper in dull acquiescence to evil, in ignorance of all cravings save those of the senses; and if at any time intolerable wrong or want had driven it to revolt, it would have issued, not in the proclamation of new and vast ideas, but in an anarchic struggle for revenge and bread.
There are races, alas! which seem, for the present at least, mastered by circumstances. Some, like the Chinese, have sunk back into that state; some, like the negro in Africa, seem not yet to have emerged from it; but in Europe, during the eighteenth century, were working not merely new forces and vitalities (abstractions which mislead rather than explain), but living persons in plenty, men and women, with independent and original hearts and brains, instinct, in spite of all circumstances, with power which we shall most wisely ascribe directly to Him who is the Lord and Giver of Life.
Such persons seemed--I only say seemed--most numerous in England and in Germany. But there were enough of them in France to change the destiny of that great nation for awhile--perhaps for ever.
M. de Tocqueville has a whole chapter, and a very remarkable one, which appears at first sight to militate against my belief--a chapter "showing that France was the country in which men had become most alike."
"The men," he says, "of that time, especially those belonging to the upper and middle ranks of society, who alone were at all conspicuous, were all exactly alike."
And it must be allowed, that if this were true of the upper and middle classes, it must have been still more true of the mass of the lowest population, who, being most animal, are always most moulded--or rather crushed--by their own circumstances, by public opinion, and by the wants of five senses, common to all alike.
But when M. de Tocqueville attributes this curious fact to the circumstances of their political state--to that "government of one man which in the end has the inevitable effect of rendering all men alike, and all mutually indifferent to their common fate"--we must differ, even from him: for facts prove the impotence of that, or of any other circumstance, in altering the hearts and souls of men, in producing in them anything but a mere superficial and temporary resemblance.
For all the while there was, among these very French, here and there a variety of character and purpose, sufficient to burst through that very despotism, and to develop the nation into manifold, new, and quite original shapes. Thus it was proved that the uniformity had been only in their outside crust and shell. What tore the nation to pieces during the Reign of Terror, but the boundless variety and originality of the characters which found themselves suddenly in free rivalry? What else gave to the undisciplined levies, the bankrupt governments, the parvenu heroes of the Republic, a manifold force, a self-dependent audacity, which made them the conquerors, and the teachers (for good and evil) of the civilised world? If there was one doctrine which the French Revolution specially proclaimed--which it caricatured till it brought it into temporary disrepute--it was this: that no man is like another; that in each is a God-given "individuality," an independent soul, which no government or man has a right to crush, or can crush in the long run: but which ought to have, and must have, a "carriere ouverte aux talents," freely to do the best for itself in the battle of life. The French Revolution, more than any event since twelve poor men set forth to convert the world some eighteen hundred years ago, proves that man ought not to be, and need not be, the creature of circumstances, the puppet of institutions; but, if he will, their conqueror and their lord.
Of these original spirits who helped to bring life out of death, and the modern world out of the decay of the mediaeval world, the French philosophes and encyclopaedists are, of course, the most notorious. They confessed, for the most part, that their original inspiration had come from England. They were, or considered themselves, the disciples of Locke; whose philosophy, it seems to me, their own acts disproved.
And first, a few words on these same philosophes. One may be thoroughly aware of their deficiencies, of their sins, moral as well as intellectual; and yet one may demand that everyone should judge them fairly--which can only be done by putting himself in their place; and any fair judgment of them will, I think, lead to the conclusion that they were not mere destroyers, inflamed with hate of everything which mankind had as yet held sacred. Whatever sacred things they despised, one sacred thing they reverenced, which men had forgotten more and more since the seventeenth century--common justice and common humanity. It was this, I believe, which gave them their moral force. It was this which drew towards them the hearts, not merely of educated bourgeois and nobles (on the menu peuple they had no influence, and did not care to have any), but of every continental sovereign who felt in himself higher aspirations than those of a mere selfish tyrant--Frederick the Great, Christina of Sweden, Joseph of Austria, and even that fallen Juno, Catharine of Russia, with all her sins. To take the most extreme instance--Voltaire. We may question his being a philosopher at all. We may deny that he had even a tincture of formal philosophy. We may doubt much whether he had any of that human and humorous common sense, which is often a good substitute for the philosophy of the schools. We may feel against him a just and honest indignation when we remember that he dared to travestie into a foul satire the tale of his country's purest and noblest heroine; but we must recollect, at the same time, that he did a public service to the morality of his own country, and of all Europe, by his indignation--quite as just and honest as any which we may feel--at the legal murder of Calas. We must recollect that, if he exposes baseness and foulness with too cynical a license of speech (in which, indeed, he sinned no more than had the average of French writers since the days of Montaigne), he at least never advocates them, as did Le Sage. We must recollect that, scattered throughout his writings, are words in favour of that which is just, merciful, magnanimous, and even, at times, in favour of that which is pure; which proves that in Voltaire, as in most men, there was a double self--the one sickened to cynicism by the iniquity and folly which he saw around him--the other, hungering after a nobler life, and possibly exciting that hunger in one and another, here and there, who admired him for other reasons than the educated mob, which cried after him "Vive la Pucelle."
Rousseau, too. Easy it is to feel disgust, contempt, for the "Confessions" and the "Nouvelle Heloise"--for much, too much, in the man's own life and character. One would think the worse of the young Englishman who did not so feel, and express his feelings roundly and roughly. But all young Englishmen should recollect, that to Rousseau's "Emile" they owe their deliverance from the useless pedantries, the degrading brutalities, of the medieval system of school education; that "Emile" awakened throughout civilised Europe a conception of education just, humane, rational, truly scientific, because founded upon facts; that if it had not been written by one writhing under the bitter consequences of mis-education, and feeling their sting and their brand day by day on his own spirit, Miss Edgeworth might never have reformed our nurseries, or Dr. Arnold our public schools.
And so with the rest of the philosophes. That there were charlatans among them, vain men, pretentious men, profligate men, selfish, self-seeking, and hypocritical men, who doubts? Among what class of men were there not such in those evil days? In what class of men are there not such now, in spite of all social and moral improvement? But nothing but the conviction, among the average, that they were in the right--that they were fighting a battle for which it was worth while to dare, and if need be to suffer, could have enabled them to defy what was then public opinion, backed by overwhelming physical force.
Their intellectual defects are patent. No one can deny that their inductions were hasty and partial: but then they were inductions as opposed to the dull pedantry of the schools, which rested on tradition only half believed, or pretended to be believed. No one can deny that their theories were too general and abstract; but then they were theories as opposed to the no-theory of the Ancien Regime, which was, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die."
Theories--principles--by them if men do not live, by them men are, at least, stirred into life, at the sight of something more noble than themselves. Only by great ideas, right or wrong, could such a world as that which Le Sage painted, be roused out of its slough of foul self-satisfaction, and equally foul self-discontent.
For mankind is ruled and guided, in the long run, not by practical considerations, not by self-interest, not by compromises; but by theories and principles, and those of the most abstruse, delicate, supernatural, and literally unspeakable kind; which, whether they be according to reason or not, are so little according to logic--that is, to speakable reason--that they cannot be put into speech. Men act, whether singly or in masses, by impulses and instincts for which they give reasons quite incompetent, often quite irrelevant; but which they have caught from each other, as they catch fever or small-pox; as unconsciously, and yet as practically and potently; just as the nineteenth century has caught from the philosophers of the eighteenth most practical rules of conduct, without even (in most cases) having read a word of their works.
And what has this century caught from these philosophers? One rule it has learnt, and that a most practical one--to appeal in all cases, as much as possible, to "Reason and the Laws of Nature." That, at least, the philosophers tried to do. Often they failed. Their conceptions of reason and of the laws of nature being often incorrect, they appealed to unreason and to laws which were not those of nature. "The fixed idea of them all was," says M. de Tocqueville, "to substitute simple and elementary rules, deduced from reason and natural law, for the complicated traditional customs which governed the society of their time." They were often rash, hasty, in the application of their method. They ignored whole classes of facts, which, though spiritual and not physical, are just as much facts, and facts for science, as those which concern a stone or a fungus. They mistook for merely complicated traditional customs, many most sacred institutions which were just as much founded on reason and natural law, as any theories of their own. But who shall say that their method was not correct? That it was not the only method? They appealed to reason. Would you have had them appeal to unreason? They appealed to natural law. Would you have had them appeal to unnatural law?--law according to which God did not make this world? Alas! that had been done too often already. Solomon saw it done in his time, and called it folly, to which he prophesied no good end. Rabelais saw it done in his time; and wrote his chapters on the "Children of Physis and the Children of Antiphysis." But, born in an evil generation, which was already, even in 1500, ripening for the revolution of 1789, he was sensual and, I fear, cowardly enough to hide his light, not under a bushel, but under a dunghill; till men took him for a jester of jests; and his great wisdom was lost to the worse and more foolish generations which followed him, and thought they understood him.
But as for appealing to natural law for that which is good for men, and to reason for the power of discerning that same good--if man cannot find truth by that method, by what method shall he find it?
And thus it happened that, though these philosophers and encyclopaedists were not men of science, they were at least the heralds and the coadjutors of science.
We may call them, and justly, dreamers, theorists, fanatics. But we must recollect that one thing they meant to do, and did. They recalled men to facts; they bid them ask of everything they saw--What are the facts of the case? Till we know the facts, argument is worse than useless.
Now the habit of asking for the facts of the case must deliver men more or less from that evil spirit which the old Romans called "Fama;" from her whom Virgil described in the AEneid as the ugliest, the falsest, and the cruellest of monsters.
From "Fama;" from rumours, hearsays, exaggerations, scandals, superstitions, public opinions--whether from the ancient public opinion that the sun went round the earth, or the equally public opinion, that those who dared to differ from public opinion were hateful to the deity, and therefore worthy of death--from all these blasts of Fame's lying trumpet they helped to deliver men; and they therefore helped to insure something like peace and personal security for those quiet, modest, and generally virtuous men, who, as students of physical science, devoted their lives, during the eighteenth century, to asking of nature--What are the facts of the case?
It was no coincidence, but a connection of cause and effect, that during the century of philosopher sound physical science throve, as she had never thriven before; that in zoology and botany, chemistry and medicine, geology and astronomy, man after man, both of the middle and the noble classes, laid down on more and more sound, because more and more extended foundations, that physical science which will endure as an everlasting heritage to mankind; endure, even though a second Byzantine period should reduce it to a timid and traditional pedantry, or a second irruption of barbarians sweep it away for awhile, to revive again (as classic philosophy revived in the fifteenth century) among new and more energetic races; when the kingdom of God shall have been taken away from us, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.
An eternal heritage, I say, for the human race; which once gained, can never be lost; which stands, and will stand; marches, and will march, proving its growth, its health, its progressive force, its certainty of final victory, by those very changes, disputes, mistakes, which the ignorant and the bigoted hold up to scorn, as proofs of its uncertainty and its rottenness; because they never have dared or cared to ask boldly--What are the facts of the case?--and have never discovered either the acuteness, the patience, the calm justice, necessary for ascertaining the facts, or their awful and divine certainty when once ascertained.
[But these philosophers (it will be said) hated all religion.
Before that question can be fairly discussed, it is surely right to consider what form of religion that was which they found working round them in France, and on the greater part of the Continent. The quality thereof may have surely had something to do (as they themselves asserted) with that "sort of rage" with which (to use M. de Tocqueville's words) "the Christian religion was attacked in France."
M. de Tocqueville is of opinion (and his opinion is likely to be just) that "the Church was not more open to attack in France than elsewhere; that the corruptions and abuses which had been allowed to creep into it were less, on the contrary, there than in most Catholic countries. The Church of France was infinitely more tolerant than it ever had been previously, and than it still was among other nations. Consequently, the peculiar causes of this phenomenon" (the hatred which it aroused) "must be looked for less in the condition of religion than in that of society."
"We no longer," he says, shortly after, "ask in what the Church of that day erred as a religious institution, but how far it stood opposed to the political revolution which was at hand." And he goes on to show how the principles of her ecclesiastical government, and her political position, were such that the philosophes must needs have been her enemies. But he mentions another fact which seems to me to belong neither to the category of religion nor to that of politics; a fact which, if he had done us the honour to enlarge upon it, might have led him and his readers to a more true understanding of the disrepute into which Christianity had fallen in France.
"The ecclesiastical authority had been specially employed in keeping watch over the progress of thought; and the censorship of books was a daily annoyance to the philosophes. By defending the common liberties of the human mind against the Church, they were combating in their own cause: and they began by breaking the shackles which pressed most closely on themselves."
Just so. And they are not to be blamed if they pressed first and most earnestly reforms which they knew by painful experience to be necessary. All reformers are wont thus to begin at home. It is to their honour if, not content with shaking off their own fetters, they begin to see that others are fettered likewise; and, reasoning from the particular to the universal, to learn that their own cause is the cause of mankind.
There is, therefore, no reason to doubt that these men were honest, when they said that they were combating, not in their own cause merely, but in that of humanity; and that the Church was combating in her own cause, and that of her power and privilege. The Church replied that she, too, was combating for humanity; for its moral and eternal well-being. But that is just what the philosophes denied. They said (and it is but fair to take a statement which appears on the face of all their writings; which is the one key-note on which they ring perpetual changes), that the cause of the Church in France was not that of humanity, but of inhumanity; not that of nature, but of unnature; not even that of grace, but of disgrace. Truely or falsely, they complained that the French clergy had not only identified themselves with the repression of free thought, and of physical science, especially that of the Newtonian astronomy, but that they had proved themselves utterly unfit, for centuries past, to exercise any censorship whatsoever over the thoughts of men: that they had identified themselves with the cause of darkness, not of light; with persecution and torture, with the dragonnades of Louis XIV., with the murder of Calas and of Urban Grandier; with celibacy, hysteria, demonology, witchcraft, and the shameful public scandals, like those of Gauffredi, Grandier, and Pere Giraud, which had arisen out of mental disease; with forms of worship which seemed to them (rightly or wrongly) idolatry, and miracles which seemed to them (rightly or wrongly) impostures; that the clergy interfered perpetually with the sanctity of family life, as well as with the welfare of the state; that their evil counsels, and specially those of the Jesuits, had been patent and potent causes of much of the misrule and misery of Louis XIV.'s and XV.'s reigns; and that with all these heavy counts against them, their morality was not such as to make other men more moral; and was not--at least among the hierarchy--improving, or likely to improve. To a Mazarin, a De Retz, a Richelieu (questionable men enough) had succeeded a Dubois, a Rohan, a Lomenie de Brienne, a Maury, a Talleyrand; and at the revolution of 1789 thoughtful Frenchmen asked, once and for all, what was to be done with a Church of which these were the hierophants?
Whether these complaints affected the French Church as a "religious" institution, must depend entirely on the meaning which is attached to the word "religion": that they affected her on scientific, rational, and moral grounds, independent of any merely political one, is as patent as that the attack based on them was one-sided, virulent, and often somewhat hypocritical, considering the private morals of many of the assailants. We know--or ought to know--that within that religion which seemed to the philosophes (so distorted and defaced had it become) a nightmare dream, crushing the life out of mankind, there lie elements divine, eternal; necessary for man in this life and the life to come. But we are bound to ask--Had they a fair chance of knowing what we know? Have we proof that their hatred was against all religion, or only against that which they saw around them? Have we proof that they would have equally hated, had they been in permanent contact with them, creeds more free from certain faults which seemed to them, in the case of the French Church, ineradicable and inexpiable? Till then we must have charity--which is justice--even for the philosophes of the eighteenth century.
This view of the case had been surely overlooked by M. de Tocqueville, when he tried to explain by the fear of revolutions, the fact that both in America and in England, "while the boldest political doctrines of the eighteenth-century philosophers have been adopted, their anti-religious doctrines have made no way."
He confesses that, "Among the English, French irreligious philosophy had been preached, even before the greater part of the French philosophers were born. It was Bolingbroke who set up Voltaire. Throughout the eighteenth century infidelity had celebrated champions in England. Able writers and profound thinkers espoused that cause, but they were never able to render it triumphant as in France." Of these facts there can be no doubt: but the cause which he gives for the failure of infidelity will surely sound new and strange to those who know the English literature and history of that century. It was, he says, "inasmuch as all those who had anything to fear from revolutions, eagerly came to the rescue of the established faith." Surely there was no talk of revolutions; no wish, expressed or concealed, to overthrow either government or society, in the aristocratic clique to whom English infidelity was confined. Such was, at least, the opinion of Voltaire, who boasted that "All the works of the modern philosophers together would never make as much noise in the world as was made in former days by the disputes of the Cordeliers about the shape of their sleeves and hoods." If (as M. de Tocqueville says) Bolingbroke set up Voltaire, neither master nor pupil had any more leaning than Hobbes had toward a democracy which was not dreaded in those days because it had never been heard of. And if (as M. de Tocqueville heartily allows) the English apologists of Christianity triumphed, at least for the time being, the cause of their triumph must be sought in the plain fact that such men as Berkeley, Butler, and Paley, each according to his light, fought the battle fairly, on the common ground of reason and philosophy, instead of on that of tradition and authority; and that the forms of Christianity current in England--whether Quaker, Puritan, or Anglican--offended, less than that current in France, the common-sense and the human instincts of the many, or of the sceptics themselves.]
But the eighteenth century saw another movement, all the more powerful, perhaps, because it was continually changing its shape, even its purpose; and gaining fresh life and fresh adherents with every change. Propagated at first by men of the school of Locke, it became at last a protest against the materialism of that school, on behalf of all that is, or calls itself, supernatural and mysterious. Abjuring, and honestly, all politics, it found itself sucked into the political whirlpool in spite of itself, as all human interests which have any life in them must be at last. It became an active promoter of the Revolution; then it helped to destroy the Revolution, when that had, under Napoleon, become a levelling despotism; then it helped, as actively, to keep revolutionary principles alive, after the reaction of 1815:--a Protean institution, whose power we in England are as apt to undervalue as the governments of the Continent were apt, during the eighteenth century, to exaggerate it. I mean, of course, Freemasonry, and the secret societies which, honestly and honourably disowned by Freemasonry, yet have either copied it, or actually sprung out of it. In England, Freemasonry never was, it seems, more than a liberal and respectable benefit-club; for secret societies are needless for any further purposes, amid free institutions and a free press. But on the Continent during the eighteenth century, Freemasonry excited profound suspicion and fear on the part of statesmen who knew perfectly well their friends from their foes; and whose precautions were, from their point of view, justified by the results.
I shall not enter into the deep question of the origin of Freemasonry. One uninitiate, as I am, has no right to give an opinion on the great questions of the mediaeval lodge of Kilwinning and its Scotch degrees; on the seven Templars, who, after poor Jacques Molay was burnt at Paris, took refuge on the Isle of Mull, in Scotland, found there another Templar and brother Mason, ominously named Harris; took to the trowel in earnest, and revived the Order;--on the Masons who built Magdeburg Cathedral in 876; on the English Masons assembled in Pagan times by "St. Albone, that worthy knight;" on the revival of English Masonry by Edwin, son of Athelstan; on Magnus Grecus, who had been at the building of Solomon's Temple, and taught Masonry to Charles Martel; on the pillars Jachin and Boaz; on the masonry of Hiram of Tyre, and indeed of Adam himself, of whose first fig-leaf the masonic apron may be a type--on all these matters I dare no more decide than on the making of the Trojan Horse, the birth of Romulus and Remus, or the incarnation of Vishnoo.
All I dare say is, that Freemasonry emerges in its present form into history and fact, seemingly about the beginning of George I.'s reign, among Englishmen and noblemen, notably in four lodges in the city of London: (1) at The Goose and Gridiron alehouse in St. Paul's Churchyard; (2) at The Crown alehouse near Drury Lane; (3) at The Apple Tree tavern near Covent Garden; (4) at The Rummer and Grapes tavern, in Charnel Row, Westminster. That its principles were brotherly love and good fellowship, which included in those days port, sherry, claret, and punch; that it was founded on the ground of mere humanity, in every sense of the word; being (as was to be expected from the temper of the times) both aristocratic and liberal, admitting to its ranks virtuous gentlemen "obliged," says an old charge, "only to that religion wherein all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves: that is, to be good men and true, or men of honour and honesty, by whatever denominations or persuasions they may be distinguished; whereby Masonry becomes the centre of union and means of conciliating true friendship among persons that otherwise must have remained at a distance."
Little did the honest gentlemen who established or re-established their society on these grounds, and fenced it with quaint ceremonies, old or new, conceive the importance of their own act; we, looking at it from a distance, may see all that such a society involved, which was quite new to the world just then; and see, that it was the very child of the Ancien Regime--of a time when men were growing weary of the violent factions, political and spiritual, which had torn Europe in pieces for more than a century, and longed to say: "After all, we are all alike in one thing--for we are at least men."
Its spread through England and Scotland, and the seceding bodies which arose from it, as well as the supposed Jacobite tendency of certain Scotch lodges, do not concern us here. The point interesting to us just now is, that Freemasonry was imported to the Continent exclusively by English and Scotch gentlemen and noblemen. Lord Derwentwater is said by some to have founded the "Loge Anglaise" in Paris in 1725; the Duke of Richmond one in his own castle of Aubigny shortly after. It was through Hanoverian influence that the movement seems to have spread into Germany. In 1733, for instance, the English Grand Master, Lord Strathmore, permitted eleven German gentlemen and good brethren to form a lodge in Hamburg. Into this English Society was Frederick the Great, when Crown Prince, initiated, in spite of strict old Frederick William's objections, who had heard of it as an English invention of irreligious tendency. Francis I. of Austria was made a Freemason at the Hague, Lord Chesterfield being in the chair, and then became a Master in London under the name of "Brother Lothringen," to the discontent of Maria Theresa, whose woman's wit saw farther than her husband. Englishmen and Scotchmen introduced the new society into Russia and into Geneva. Sweden and Poland seem to have received it from France; while, in the South, it seems to have been exclusively an English plant. Sackville, Duke of Middlesex, is said to have founded the first lodge at Florence in 1733, Lord Coleraine at Gibraltar and Madrid, one Gordon in Portugal; and everywhere, at the commencement of the movement, we find either London or Scotland the mother-lodges, introducing on the Continent those liberal and humane ideas of which England was then considered, to her glory, as the only home left on earth.
But, alas! the seed sown grew up into strange shapes, according to the soil in which it rooted. False doctrine, heresy, and schism, according to Herr Findel, the learned and rational historian whom I have chiefly followed, defiled the new Church from its infancy. "In France," so he bemoans himself, "first of all there shot up that baneful seed of lies and frauds, of vanity and presumption, of hatred and discord, the mischievous high degrees; the misstatement that our order was allied to the Templars, and existed at the time of the Crusades; the removal of old charges, the bringing in surreptitiously of a multitude of symbols and forms which awoke the love of secrecy; knighthood; and, in fact, all which tended to poison Freemasonry." Herr Findel seems to attribute these evils principally to the "high degrees." It would have been more simple to have attributed them to the morals of the French noblesse in the days of Louis Quinze. What could a corrupt tree bring forth, but corrupt fruit? If some of the early lodges, like those of "La Felicite" and "L'Ancre," to which women were admitted, resembled not a little the Bacchic mysteries of old Rome, and like them called for the interference of the police, still no great reform was to be expected, when those Sovereign Masonic Princes, the "Emperors of the East and West," quarrelled--knights of the East against knights of the West--till they were absorbed or crushed by the Lodge "Grand Orient," with Philippe Egalite, Duc de Chartres, as their grand master, and as his representative, the hero of the diamond necklace, and disciple of Count Cagliostro--Louis, Prince de Rohan.
But if Freemasonry, among the frivolous and sensual French noblesse, became utterly frivolous and sensual itself, it took a deeper, though a questionably fantastic form, among the more serious and earnest German nobility. Forgetful as they too often were of their duty to their peoples--tyrannical, extravagant, debauched by French opinions, French fashions, French luxuries, till they had begun to despise their native speech, their native literature, almost their native land, and to hide their native homeliness under a clumsy varnish of French outside civilisation, which the years 1807-13 rubbed off them again with a brush of iron--they were yet Germans at heart; and that German instinct for the unseen--call it enthusiasm, mysticism, what you will, you cannot make it anything but a human fact, and a most powerful, and (as I hold) most blessed fact--that instinct for the unseen, I say, which gives peculiar value to German philosophy, poetry, art, religion, and above all to German family life, and which is just the complement needed to prevent our English common-sense, matter-of-fact Lockism from degenerating into materialism--that was only lying hidden, but not dead, in the German spirit.
With the Germans, therefore, Freemasonry assumed a nobler and more earnest shape. Dropping, very soon, that Lockite and Philosophe tone which had perhaps recommended it to Frederick the Great in his youth, it became mediaevalist and mystic. It craved after a resuscitation of old chivalrous spirit, and the virtues of the knightly ideal, and the old German biederkeit und tapferkeit, which were all defiled and overlaid by French fopperies. And not in vain; as no struggle after a noble aim, however confused or fantastic, is ever in vain. Freemasonry was the direct parent of the Tugenbund, and of those secret societies which freed Germany from Napoleon. Whatever follies young members of them may have committed; whatever Jahn and his Turnerei; whatever the iron youths, with their iron decorations and iron boot-heels; whatever, in a word, may have been said or done amiss, in that childishness which (as their own wisest writers often lament) so often defaces the noble childlikeness of the German spirit, let it be always remembered that under the impulse first given by Freemasonry, as much as that given by such heroes as Stein and Scharnhorst, Germany shook off the chains which had fallen on her in her sleep; and stood once more at Leipsic, were it but for a moment, a free people alike in body and in soul.
Remembering this, and the solid benefits which Germany owed to Masonic influences, one shrinks from saying much of the extravagances in which its Masonry indulged before the French Revolution. Yet they are so characteristic of the age, so significant to the student of human nature, that they must be hinted at, though not detailed.
It is clear that Masonry was at first a movement confined to the aristocracy, or at least to the most educated classes; and clear, too, that it fell in with a temper of mind unsatisfied with the dry dogmatism into which the popular creeds had then been frozen--unsatisfied with their own Frenchified foppery and pseudo-philosophy--unsatisfied with want of all duty, purpose, noble thought, or noble work. With such a temper of mind it fell in: but that very temper was open (as it always is) to those dreams of a royal road to wisdom and to virtue, which have haunted, in all ages, the luxurious and the idle.
Those who will, may read enough, and too much, of the wonderful secrets in nature and science and theosophy, which men expected to find and did not find in the higher degrees of Masonry, till old Voss--the translator of Homer--had to confess, that after "trying for eleven years to attain a perfect knowledge of the inmost penetralia, where the secret is said to be, and of its invisible guardians," all he knew was that "the documents which he had to make known to the initiated were nothing more than a well got-up farce."
But the mania was general. The high-born and the virtuous expected to discover some panacea for their own consciences in what Voss calls, "A multitude of symbols, which are ever increasing the farther you penetrate, and are made to have a moral application through some arbitrary twisting of their meaning, as if I were to attempt expounding the chaos on my writing-desk."
A rich harvest-field was an aristocracy in such a humour, for quacks of every kind; richer even than that of France, in that the Germans were at once more honest and more earnest, and therefore to be robbed more easily. The carcass was there: and the birds of prey were gathered together.
Of Rosa, with his lodge of the Three Hammers, and his Potsdam gold-making;--of Johnson, alias Leuchte, who passed himself off as a Grand Prior sent from Scotland to resuscitate the order of Knights Templars; who informed his disciples that the Grand Master Von Hund commanded 26,000 men; that round the convent (what convent, does not appear) a high wall was erected, which was guarded day and night; that the English navy was in the hands of the Order; that they had MSS. written by Hugo de Paganis (a mythic hero who often figures in these fables); that their treasure was in only three places in the world, in Ballenstadt, in the icy mountains of Savoy, and in China; that whosoever drew on himself the displeasure of the Order, perished both body and soul; who degraded his rival Rosa to the sound of military music, and after having had, like every dog, his day, died in prison in the Wartburg;--of the Rosicrucians, who were accused of wanting to support and advance the Catholic religion--one would think the accusation was very unnecessary, seeing that their actual dealings were with the philosopher's stone, and the exorcism of spirits: and that the first apostle of the new golden Rosicrucian order, one Schropfer, getting into debt, and fearing exposure, finished his life in an altogether un-catholic manner at Leipsic in 1774, by shooting himself;--of Keller and his Urim and Thummim;--of Wollner (who caught the Crown Prince Frederick William) with his three names of Chrysophiron, Heliconus, and Ophiron, and his fourth name of Ormesus Magnus, under which all the brethren were to offer up for him solemn prayers and intercessions;--of Baron Heinrich von Ekker and Eckenhofen, gentleman of the bed-chamber and counsellor of the Duke of Coburg Saalfeld, and his Jewish colleague Hirschmann, with their Asiatic brethren and order named Ben Bicca, Cabalistic and Talmudic; of the Illuminati, and poor Adam Weisshaupt, Professor of Canon and National Law at Ingoldstadt in Bavaria, who set up what he considered an Anti-Jesuitical order on a Jesuit model, with some vague hope, according to his own showing, of "perfecting the reasoning powers interesting to mankind, spreading the knowledge of sentiments both humane and social, checking wicked inclinations, standing up for oppressed and suffering virtue against all wrong, promoting the advancement of men of merit, and in every way facilitating the acquirement of knowledge and science;"--of this honest silly man, and his attempts to carry out all his fine projects by calling himself Spartacus, Bavaria Achaia, Austria Egypt, Vienna Rome, and so forth;--of Knigge, who picked his honest brains, quarrelled with him, and then made money and fame out of his plans, for as long as they lasted;--of Bode, the knight of the lilies of the valley, who, having caught Duke Ernest of Saxe Gotha, was himself caught by Knigge, and his eight, nine, or more ascending orders of unwisdom;--and finally of the Jesuits who, really with considerable excuses for their severity, fell upon these poor foolish Illuminati in 1784 throughout Bavaria, and had them exiled or imprisoned;--of all this you may read in the pages of Dr. Findel, and in many another book. For, forgotten as they are now, they made noise enough in their time.
And so it befell, that this eighteenth century, which is usually held to be the most "materialistic" of epochs, was, in fact, a most "spiritualistic" one; in which ghosts, demons, quacks, philosophers' stones, enchanters' wands, mysteries and mummeries, were as fashionable--as they will probably be again some day.
You have all heard of Cagliostro--"pupil of the sage Althotas, foster- child of the Scheriff of Mecca, probable son of the last king of Trebizond; named also Acharat, and 'Unfortunate child of Nature;' by profession healer of diseases, abolisher of wrinkles, friend of the poor and impotent; grand-master of the Egyptian Mason-lodge of High Science, spirit-summoner, gold-cook, Grand-Cophta, prophet, priest, Thaumaturgic moralist, and swindler"--born Giuseppe Balsamo of Palermo;--of him, and of his lovely Countess Seraphina--nee Lorenza Feliciani? You have read what Goethe--and still more important, what Mr. Carlyle has written on him, as on one of the most significant personages of the age? Remember, then, that Cagliostro was no isolated phenomenon; that his success--nay, his having even conceived the possibility of success in the brain that lay within that "brass-faced, bull-necked, thick-lipped" head--was made possible by public opinion. Had Cagliostro lived in our time, public opinion would have pointed out to him other roads to honour--on which he would doubtless have fared as well. For when the silly dace try to be caught and hope to be caught, he is a foolish pike who cannot gorge them. But the method most easy for a pike-nature like Cagliostro's, was in the eighteenth century, as it may be in the latter half of the nineteenth, to trade, in a materialist age, on the unsatisfied spiritual cravings of mankind. For what do all these phantasms betoken, but a generation ashamed of its own materialism, sensuality, insincerity, ignorance, and striving to escape therefrom by any and every mad superstition which seemed likely to give an answer to the awful questions--What are we, and where? and to lay to rest those instincts of the unseen and infinite around it, which tormented it like ghosts by day and night: a sight ludicrous or pathetic, according as it is looked on by a cynical or a human spirit.
It is easy to call such a phenomenon absurd, improbable. It is rather rational, probable, say certain to happen. Rational, I say; for the reason of man tells him, and has always told him, that he is a supernatural being, if by nature is meant that which is cognisable by his five senses: that his coming into this world, his relation to it, his exit from it--which are the three most important facts about him--are supernatural, not to be explained by any deductions from the impressions of his senses. And I make bold to say, that the recent discoveries of physical science--notably those of embryology--go only to justify that old and general belief of man. If man be told that the microscope and scalpel show no difference, in the first stage of visible existence, between him and the lower mammals, then he has a right to answer--as he will answer--So much the worse for the microscope and scalpel: so much the better for my old belief, that there is beneath my birth, life, death, a substratum of supernatural causes, imponderable, invisible, unknowable by any physical science whatsoever. If you cannot render me a reason how I came hither, and what I am, I must go to those who will render me one. And if that craving be not satisfied by a rational theory of life, it will demand satisfaction from some magical theory; as did the mind of the eighteenth century when, revolting from materialism, it fled to magic, to explain the ever-astounding miracle of life.
The old Regime. Will our age, in its turn, ever be spoken of as an old Regime? Will it ever be spoken of as a Regime at all; as an organised, orderly system of society and polity; and not merely as a chaos, an anarchy, a transitory struggle, of which the money-lender has been the real guide and lord?
But at least it will be spoken of as an age of progress, of rapid developments, of astonishing discoveries.
Are you so sure of that? There was an age of progress once. But what is our age--what is all which has befallen since 1815--save after-swells of that great storm, which are weakening and lulling into heavy calm? Are we on the eve of stagnation? Of a long check to the human intellect? Of a new Byzantine era, in which little men will discuss, and ape, the deeds which great men did in their forefathers' days?
What progress--it is a question which some will receive with almost angry surprise--what progress has the human mind made since 1815?
If the thought be startling, do me the great honour of taking it home, and verifying for yourselves its truth or its falsehood. I do not say that it is altogether true. No proposition concerning human things, stated so broadly, can be. But see for yourselves, whether it is not at least more true than false; whether the ideas, the discoveries, of which we boast most in the nineteenth century, are not really due to the end of the eighteenth. Whether other men did not labour, and we have only entered into their labours. Whether our positivist spirit, our content with the collecting of facts, our dread of vast theories, is not a symptom--wholesome, prudent, modest, but still a symptom--of our consciousness that we are not as our grandfathers were; that we can no longer conceive great ideas, which illumine, for good or evil, the whole mind and heart of man, and drive him on to dare and suffer desperately.
Railroads? Electric telegraphs? All honour to them in their place: but they are not progress; they are only the fruits of past progress. No outward and material thing is progress; no machinery causes progress; it merely spreads and makes popular the results of progress. Progress is inward, of the soul. And, therefore, improved constitutions, and improved book instruction--now miscalled education--are not progress: they are at best only fruits and signs thereof. For they are outward, material; and progress, I say, is inward. The self-help and self-determination of the independent soul--that is the root of progress; and the more human beings who have that, the more progress there is in the world. Give me a man who, though he can neither read nor write, yet dares think for himself, and do the thing he believes: that man will help forward the human race more than any thousand men who have read, or written either, a thousand books apiece, but have not dared to think for themselves. And better for his race, and better, I believe, in the sight of God, the confusions and mistakes of that one sincere brave man, than the second-hand and cowardly correctness of all the thousand.
As for the "triumphs of science," let us honour, with astonishment and awe, the genius of those who invented them; but let us remember that the things themselves are as a gun or a sword, with which we can kill our enemy, but with which also our enemy can kill us. Like all outward and material things, they are equally fit for good and for evil. In England here--they have been as yet, as far as I can see, nothing but blessings: but I have my very serious doubts whether they are likely to be blessings to the whole human race, for many an age to come. I can conceive them--may God avert the omen!--the instruments of a more crushing executive centralisation, of a more utter oppression of the bodies and souls of men, than the world has yet seen. I can conceive--may God avert the omen!--centuries hence, some future world-ruler sitting at the junction of all railroads, at the centre of all telegraph-wires--a world- spider in the omphalos of his world-wide web; and smiting from thence everything that dared to lift its head, or utter a cry of pain, with a swiftness and surety to which the craft of a Justinian or a Philip II. were but clumsy and impotent.
All, all outward things, be sure of it, are good or evil, exactly as far as they are in the hands of good men or of bad.
Moreover, paradoxical as it may seem, railroads and telegraphs, instead of inaugurating an era of progress, may possibly only retard it. "Rester sur un grand succes," which was Rossini's advice to a young singer who had achieved a triumph, is a maxim which the world often follows, not only from prudence, but from necessity. They have done so much that it seems neither prudent nor possible to do more. They will rest and be thankful.
Thus, gunpowder and printing made rapid changes enough; but those changes had no farther development. The new art of war, the new art of literature, remained stationary, or rather receded and degenerated, till the end of the eighteenth century.
And so it may be with our means of locomotion and intercommunion, and what depends on them. The vast and unprecedented amount of capital, of social interest, of actual human intellect invested--I may say locked up--in these railroads, and telegraphs, and other triumphs of industry and science, will not enter into competition against themselves. They will not set themselves free to seek new discoveries in directions which are often actually opposed to their own, always foreign to it. If the money of thousands are locked up in these great works, the brains of hundreds of thousands, and of the very shrewdest too, are equally locked up therein likewise; and are to be subtracted from the gross material of social development, and added (without personal fault of their owners, who may be very good men) to the dead weight of vested selfishness, ignorance, and dislike of change.
Yes. A Byzantine and stationary age is possible yet. Perhaps we are now entering upon it; an age in which mankind shall be satisfied with the "triumphs of science," and shall look merely to the greatest comfort (call it not happiness) of the greatest number; and like the debased Jews of old, "having found the life of their hand, be therewith content," no matter in what mud-hole of slavery and superstition.
But one hope there is, and more than a hope--one certainty, that however satisfied enlightened public opinion may become with the results of science, and the progress of the human race, there will be always a more enlightened private opinion or opinions, which will not be satisfied therewith at all; a few men of genius, a few children of light, it may be a few persecuted, and a few martyrs for new truths, who will wish the world not to rest and be thankful, but to be discontented with itself, ashamed of itself, striving and toiling upward, without present hope of gain, till it has reached that unknown goal which Bacon saw afar off, and like all other heroes, died in faith, not having received the promises, but seeking still a polity which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
These will be the men of science, whether physical or spiritual. Not merely the men who utilise and apply that which is known (useful as they plainly are), but the men who themselves discover that which was unknown, and are generally deemed useless, if not hurtful, to their race. They will keep the sacred lamp burning unobserved in quiet studies, while all the world is gazing only at the gaslights flaring in the street. They will pass that lamp on from hand to hand, modestly, almost stealthily, till the day comes round again, when the obscure student shall be discovered once more to be, as he has always been, the strongest man on earth. For they follow a mistress whose footsteps may often slip, yet never fall; for she walks forward on the eternal facts of Nature, which are the acted will of God. A giantess she is; young indeed, but humble as yet: cautious and modest beyond her years. She is accused of trying to scale Olympus, by some who fancy that they have already scaled it themselves, and will, of course, brook no rival in their fancied monopoly of wisdom.
The accusation, I believe, is unjust. And yet science may scale Olympus after all. Without intending it, almost without knowing it, she may find herself hereafter upon a summit of which she never dreamed; surveying the universe of God in the light of Him who made it and her, and remakes them both for ever and ever. On that summit she may stand hereafter, if only she goes on, as she goes now, in humility and in patience; doing the duty which lies nearest her; lured along the upward road, not by ambition, vanity, or greed, but by reverent curiosity for every new pebble, and flower, and child, and savage, around her feet.
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