The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).
A pan-European secret society dating back to the fifteenth century. Rooted in mysticism, claiming secret knowledge; its members selected from powerful walks of life, their loyalties divided by sworn oaths to the fraternity: Freemasons were accused of manipulating state and religion with an unknown agenda; of promoting rebellion, of heresy, even of Satanic worship.

On the surface, Freemasonry provided a closet fraternity in which selected men from the upper class of commoners, the clergy and aristocracy could – to a degree – cross class boundaries, mixing with people they would otherwise be unable to meet. Rules of secrecy prohibited its members from discussing what went on in Masonic meetings.

Still in existence, Freemasons are not necessarily working (“operative”) stone masons. Rather, the fraternity is modeled after ancient masonic guild societies, and uses analogies to building and architecture in its program of spiritual and moral and ethical development. Members work toward advancement in the ranks by learning and performing ceremonial rites. While masonry may seem an odd choice, professional masonry was rooted in the ancient mysteries of mathematics and geometry. Masons designed and built the world’s greatest ancient structures.

There are different Masonic organisations in the world, with none over all. Lodges belong to one or another umbrella organisations, but there is no global command. While Goethe and Cagliostro were contemporaries, they belonged to different associations.

The secrecy and exclusivity of lodges have long roused the paranoia and resentment of non-members who fear an international shadow organisation, infiltrating positions of power. The idea of a secret society of powerful men with secret obligations and hidden intentions has inspired conspiracy theorists for centuries, and not without reason: in the twentieth century Freemasonry was used to manipulate society (see Propaganda Due ), and Mafia used Masonry to mix with judges and lawyers and businessmen.

Secrecy breeds paranoia – especially in those who are excluded. The reality of Freemasonry seems to be that it’s a benign association of men (largely) who get together for networking and friendship, and to develop business relations and common interests. The rites and ceremonies provide a framework for spiritual teachings directed toward personal development.

Heresy and rebellion was just incidental.

History of Freemasonry

From the fourteenth century Renaissance, Europe underwent a transition from a feudal, agrarian society of peasantry dominated by, and in service to, Church and nobility, to one in which the commoners were gaining power, status and wealth as merchants and professionals. Europe was emerging from a feudal society of peasants and nobility to the modern, humanist era, and it was necessary for the two to meet on equal ground. Freemasonry fulfilled a need created by a change that traditional society resisted.

For the first time, books were being printed in large quantities – and in in the common languages (as opposed to strictly Latin). Literacy was necessary to advancement in commerce and people leapt at the opportunity to learn. But this growing class of educated and skilled commoners remained without access to power or investment capital. For their part, the land-rich nobility needed to diversify away from farming into new ventures like mining and shipping. Each needed the other – but how could they meet?

Beginning in England in the sixteenth century, Masonry spread to France in the early seventeenth, and then to the rest of Continental Europe through the eighteenth century. Thus, while Germanic Faust would not have been a Mason in the fifteenth century, Goethe was in the eighteenth.

The social structure of the Lodge supplanted the true outside social hierarchy of the members, even if it emulated it. The social relations of the members were internal, acting as model of a different form of society – an egalitarian, humanistic one.

As lodges were opened across Europe, members of brother lodges were welcomed, facilitating the movement of men and communications.1

Masonry was banned by the Roman Catholic Church in 1738 for being a secret society and for accepting religious beliefs contrary to the Church. Protestant denominations were more accepting, though often with reservations.

Goethe’s contemporary, the famous Sicilian sorcerer and accused swindler Cagliostro, was a prominent Mason2 in the eighteenth century. His adventures through Europe, roused the suspicions of just about everyone. He was suspected of having played a Masonic hand in the French Revolution.

Cagliostro lost his freedom and his life to Freemasonry. Unwelcome in every realm he sought refuge in, finally driven back to Rome, he was arrested by the Roman Inquisition for practicing Masonic rites in Rome, and died raging in prison.

Non-members were always suspicious of Freemasonry, and this poor reputation was taken advantage of in the 1890s by an anti-clerical prankster named Leo Taxil who used Catholic gullibility and suspicion of Freemasonry to convince them that Freemasonry was a Satanic cult. While he eventually revealed his prank, a lot of damage to the reputations of Freemasonry, Satan and the Church was done, confirming negative impressions in the popular imagination that has affected our own attitudes.3

Freemasonry has come to be a global association of persons who meet for social networking and support, while often dedicating their efforts to charitable causes. It is still a secret society, though without many secrets left, and still suspected of working toward a new world order.

  1. Some fringe Masons traced their origin back to the Knights Templar who controlled Jerusalem during the Crusades. The Knights were among the first Christians to have free run of Jerusalem, and they set up their headquarters at the Temple Mount, and took the opportunity to help themselves to whatever secrets and treasures they could find.

    The Templars were suspected of straying from Christianity. Although the Templars were nominally a Christian Catholic order, they were soldiers in a strange land, and we wonder if they didn’t pick up a little Islamic knowledge and perspective while in the Levant.

    Their power and wealth grew enormously, and partly looking for a way to evade his debts to them, the King of France had dozens of high-ranking Templars in France simultaneously arrested. According to legends, he didn’t get them all, and the ships of the Templar fleet slipped out of Marseille that same night, never to be seen again.

    The (fringe) Masons picked up the story hundreds of years later by suggesting that they were descended from those escaped Templars, and would carry on the mission that was passed on to them.

    There’s no reason to think this is true, regular masons strongly reject that, considering such fanciful stories to be demeaning. But it is reasonable that Masons would attach themselves to the Templar history. Masons are not necessarily Catholic or Christian. All that is required to be a Mason is that one declares a faith in a higher power. []

  2. While some Masonic organizations keep a lid on the mystical mumbo jumbo, others get excited by it, and so the occult gets invariably mixed in with it. This is considered somewhat less savory, and is perhaps embarrassing to the other Masons. Cagliostro’s Egyptian rite was an early example of an occult Masonic organization. []
  3. Wikipedia: The Taxil Hoax []