The Dark Side of Enlightenment, Part 1

The Age of Reason

(Published in GralsWelt 67/2011)

 "Nowadays you will meet few people in all classes who, guided by curiosity, drive for activity, sociability or cheek, would not have been members of such a secret fraternization for at least a while."
           Adolph Freiherr v. Knigge, 1788 (5)

The Enlightenment - from the 17th to the 19th centuries - was perhaps the most important epoch in modern European intellectual history. Enlightened philosophers did not allow any prohibitions to think and did not shrink from breaking taboos. The new thinking fought against superstition, brought about the overthrow of autocratic systems of rule, questioned religious dogmas and burst the spiritual oppression by the churches. The accompanying spiritual and earthly revolutions helped the natural sciences to break through. Isaac Newton (1642-1726) "mathematical principles of natural philosophy" and his theory of gravity are at the beginning of the "age of reason". The so far last major confrontation of enlightened thinking with outdated dogmas marks the deeply emotionally charged, great dispute over Charles Darwins (1809-1882) Theory of Evolution.

What is education?
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the leading philosopher of the Enlightenment, answered this question in 1784 in the "Berlinische Monatsschrift":
“Enlightenment is the way people come out of their self-inflicted immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's mind without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-inflicted if the cause of it is not a lack of understanding, but a lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from someone else: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding! So is the motto of the Enlightenment. "

The ideas of the Enlightenment changed Europe first and then the world. From Europe, the basic values of the Enlightenment were spread in the colonies and then carried to Japan and China. Today the same natural sciences are taught with the same content in universities on all continents - a globalization of critical thinking that would be inconceivable without the Enlightenment.

For centuries, Christian churches fought bitterly against enlightenment demands for human rights, freedom of thought, democracy, legal security, etc., until they were forced to incorporate these ideas as “basic Christian values” into their religion. Some religious groups - especially Islam - still struggle with enlightened thinking. They will not be able to evade an "Oriental Enlightenment" that is still outstanding and appropriate to their culture.

The downsides of a turning point

This glorious picture of the Enlightenment is not without its tarnishing. Because the old superstition - zealously nurtured by religions for many centuries - cannot be abolished so easily.

The time of the mysteries
The historian committed to the ideas of the Enlightenment Johannes Scherr, who had to flee from Württemberg to Switzerland after the revolution of 1849, calls the baroque period the "time of mysteries":
“On the one hand, the vicious character of politics had destroyed the sense of free movement in public, on the other hand, the over-saturated addiction to enjoyment sought and found a new stimulus in the game of mystery. Then Jesuitism knew how to interweave the impact of its obscurantism (obscurantism = hostility to enlightenment and science) in the secret alliance notes, cunning adventurers fished in the pockets of Gimpeln using the web of mysticism and sensuality, and finally the Enlightenment made the attempt to use the secret society apparatus to their advantage, but this had to fail because the idea of freedom simply needs light, air and publicity in order to thrive. The foundation of the secret alliance was the Freemason Order ... It was in such high esteem in Germany that a number of men distinguished by spirit, disposition or position in life were connected by the brotherhood of the same. We only remember Wieland, Herder, Goethe and Friedrich the Great, who had become a bricklayer as Crown Prince and also favored the order as king until he "covered" shortly before the Seven Years' War because of the mystical spectacle for which the lodges were abused began to be highly displeased. " (3, p. 377).

Many who turned away from the churches did not immediately adopt the new, enlightened thinking. They preferred to deal with secret doctrines, mysteries and magical cults, or they joined societies shrouded in mystery, whose nimbus has held up to this day. We'll look at this lesser-known, dark side of the Enlightenment below. Because much of what was practiced at that time can also be discovered in the present in esoteric teachings, occult circles or even in recognized religions that have not yet been able to completely break away from the old superstitions.

Looking back, one thinks above all of the spiritual awakening; of the liberation from unreasonable dogmas of faith, of the breakthrough in the natural sciences, or of the revolutions caused by the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 are expressions of this modern, enlightened thinking that still shapes our understanding of the state today. Unfortunately, as with almost all revolutions, there were terrible excesses and cruel wars that tarnished the friendly image of the Age of Enlightenment.

But this age of state and natural philosophy was also an epoch of superstition, mysticism, occultism and secret societies. At a time when the free exchange of opinions and open discussion between scientists was beginning to establish itself as a prerequisite for progress, secret societies emerged that cultivated archaic rituals and occult traditions.  

Noble society in the baroque era

A shameless spendthrift
For a nobleman to deal with the wealth of his subjects Friedrich Christian Laukhard (1757-1822) an extreme example from his home in the Nahe valley:
“The Rhine Count Carl Magnus von Grehweiler had an income of around 40,000 Thaler and still ran a princely court, even holding Heiducken[iii] and hussars, a band of court musicians, a stable master, horsemen and many other unnecessary servants. That took money, and his income wasn't enough. As a result, debts were incurred, which initially went quite well. But soon no one wanted to lend the Count any more on his noble word. What was there to do? Money was raised from the villages and the farmers had to sign as guarantors. In this way the amount gradually increased to 900,000 guilders[iv] borrowed ...
The signatures were so heavily falsified that people who knew nothing about the matter should have vouched for large sums of money. It does the justice of the enlightened Emperor Josef II von Habsburg (1765-1790) honor that, when the shameful story became known, he formally released the poor peasants from their forced or falsified obligations, but the traditional forgers, despite the foot-down intercession by his daughter, who appalled the government and referred to the Königstein Fortress near Frankfurt for 10 years " (3, p. 387).
In such conditions, it is hardly surprising that the French Revolution was welcomed by the common people, and that the invading French troops were enthusiastically received by many Germans.

At the time of the baroque[i] the high society must have been terribly bored. Her pastime consisted of duels, gallantry, games of chance, intrigue, hunting, gossip, concerts, carriage rides, masked balls, fashion, operas, horse riding, dining, theater, betting. The men of nobility could occasionally escape this dreary monotony when they took part in military campaigns as officers. Hopefully they would come back safe, perhaps hung with medals.

The typical aristocrat was proud of his noble ancestors and was distinguished by his mastery of the refined courtly customs, the complicated rules of which are best learned as a page from an early age. Many found it their natural privilege to be rich and to waste huge sums on luxury or at the gaming table. Their servant farmers or the administrators of their estates then had to earn the wasted money again. Otherwise the typical nobleman - by today's standards - was uneducated and had hardly any higher interests. The saying of an English country nobleman is typical: "I'd rather be hanged than taught."

Life was most desolate for the noble ladies. They were denied access to higher education. Even the enlightened, worldly wise Baron von Knigge (1752-1796) did not have much confidence in women in the scientific field:
“I do not blame a woman for trying to refine her writing and oral conversation through some study and chaste reading, that she tries not to be entirely without scientific knowledge; but it is not supposed to make a craft out of literature; it should not wander about in all parts of learning. It truly arouses, if not disgust, but pity when one hears how such poor creatures venture out on the most important objects, which for centuries have been the accusation of the most arduous inquiries of great men, and in which these nevertheless have humbly asserted, they would not see it very clearly; when one hears how a vain woman dares to claim power in the most decisive terms at the tea or bedside table, while she hardly has a clear idea of the matter that is being talked about " (2, p. 220).

For women of class, in addition to marriage, children, church, household chores, receptions, balls, embroidery, fashion, opera, jewelry, theater, gambling, just gossip and the spinning of intrigues could make everyday life bearable; as long as they did not renounce - often involuntarily - in a monastery of the world. Of course there were exceptions like the highly gifted, eccentric one Marquise de Chatelet (1706-1749), a friend of Voltaire, who translated Newton's "Principles"; Madame de Stael (1766-1817), the most widely read female writer of her time; or Karoline Herschel (1750-1848), a first class astronomer.

The conceited, overly refined, aristocratic circles of the Baroque era, who thought themselves to be elevated above all non-aristocrats, offered an ideal audience for adventurers, alchemists, clairvoyants, impostors, magicians, spiritualists who, so to speak, brought variety to the stupid social life.

Revolt against reason

The established religions had lost a lot of their prestige due to the split in the Churches forced by the Reformation. Decades before the French Revolution, there were state-mandated reforms that limited the influence of the priesthood. (See. "Why does God allow all of this?", here under "History of religion"). The common folk were often still believers. In the so-called higher classes, especially among the scholars, there was an increase in agnostics and enlightened skeptics.

The churches with their entrenched dogmas and frozen rituals could not satisfy the urge for research, new discoveries and deeper knowledge. The sciences with their advanced insights offered an alternative to the religions. But anyone who wanted to be valid in anatomy, astronomy, botany, chemistry, geography, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, physics, etc., had a hard way to go that was too difficult for most of them. Occult circles offered a mysterious “initiation path” to occult secrets that supposedly went far beyond the materialistic approaches of the natural sciences. An idea that can still be found in today's esoteric scene.

Impostors and secret societies

In the baroque period, not a few believed in the promises of occult circles. They claimed to have "old, secret knowledge" that came from Gnostics, Cathars and Templars, or even from Old Testament times, passed on in secret and cultivated underground. Members of secret societies who committed themselves to strict confidentiality could familiarize themselves with this ancient knowledge step by step.

Then impostors appeared who wanted to be familiar with the secret sciences. Some presented themselves as "enlightened ones", as "great masters" who could rule the world with their spiritual powers. They shone in front of a gullible, mostly inexperienced audience with sleight of hand, spiritualistic seances, alchemical operations such as gold making, or other amazing experiments.

Groups that keep their collaboration secret have existed on every continent since biblical times. References to a secret warrior clan can already be found in the Bible[ii]. Today there is organized crime; B. the mafia. Terrorist groups. Groups hostile to the state planning an overthrow. Criminal meetings disguised as lodge work. More or less harmless groups who practice forbidden religions, perform special rituals, hold spiritualistic meetings, trace occult phenomena, spread conspiracy theories. Or shady circles that practice drug cults and possibly drift into sexual magic or Satanism. They are all traded under the heading of "secret societies".

Secret knowledge

Knowledge was and is - in the past as well as today - often kept secret. For example, production secrets that had to be guarded at a time when there was no patent protection, and which are not infrequently confidential even today. (Cf. “Briefly, succinctly, curiously” on page 310 “Stop the espionage”).

In the course of human history - especially during the Great Migration as an example - existing knowledge has repeatedly been lost. In the Middle Ages, ruins of Roman buildings were still to be found in many places. Anyone who looked at them in amazement could easily be convinced that the ancients must have had lost knowledge. As an engineer, I myself stood in front of the pyramids, the Pantheon, Roman aqueducts and thermal baths, the tomb of Theodoric in Ravenna, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Florence Cathedral, and asked myself how these impressive buildings could be built with the funds available at the time .

From today's perspective, the secret societies of the Baroque era can hardly have kept really valuable secrets. Your goals seem harmless. For their contemporaries, however, represented z. B. the Freemasons or the Illuminati explosive, state-endangering goals: The abolition of the (absolute) monarchy and the churches, separation of powers, human rights, etc. Princes who feared for their privileges and even for their lives, and the Catholic Church, which endangers their status saw, rejected such efforts with bitter enmity and did not shrink from slander.

Initiators of the revolution?

Members of secret societies then also took part in the revolutions of the 18th century and introduced enlightenment ideas. So were z. B. the majority of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence Freemasons. Much (including nonsense) has been said about the role of Freemasons in the French Revolution that is difficult to prove or refute. Fantastic adventure stories without any serious historical background, such as B. (1).

In the following articles we will look at the most important exponents of the occult spectrum of the Enlightenment.

Continued "The Dark Side of Enlightenment" Part 2.

(1) Dumas Alexandre, Joseph Balsamo, Structure of Taschenbuch Verlag, Berlin, 2000.
(2) Knigge Adolph Freiherr von, On dealing with people, Weltbild, Augsburg, 2003.
(3) Scherr Johannes, German cultural and moral history, Agrippina, Wiesbaden, undated
(4) Seligmann Kurt, Das Weltreich der Magic, Bechtermünz, Eltville, 1988.

[i] In the history of art, the Baroque era is mainly dated to the 17th and early 18th centuries. In the 20th century, this concept of style was expanded to include an epoch; roughly parallel to absolutism, as the defining European form of government in the 17th and 18th centuries.
[ii] In Judges 7: 4-7 there are some lines that are not easy to understand. The matter becomes more plausible if one suspects among those "who lick the water with their tongues" members of a warriors' association who attract attention through their ritual. Apparently, the use of 300 well-trained professionals was more promising than that of 10,000 inexperienced people.
[iii] Heiducken originally referred to outlaws in the Balkans. Later (as in this case) there were armed guards.
[iv] Around 1754 a master had to work two days, a journeyman two and a half days and a day laborer three days of 13.5 hours each for one guilder.