THE GREAT SCHOOLS
The Egyptians, Essenes, Gnostics, Manicheans, Cabbalists, Neo-Platonists, Primitive Christians and Christian Mystics, Hermetics, Alchemists, Paracelsians and others, and lastly the Rosicrucians, all secret organizations with methods of teaching and training. A few of these continue to exist, observing all the "Ancient Landmarks," remaining true to their original intent and purpose. Many members of thse authentic organizations have advanced far in the attainment of higher powers and spiritual insight, leading toward the goal which is Initiation, an attainment recognized by many as Soul Illumination.
The Secret Schools had their beginning long before there was a written history of the activities of men. In all ages the leaders and members of these Schools were ready to serve the best interests of the people by teaching, leading, and guiding them so that they might receive the greatest possible benefits from life with the least possible sorrow and suffering. History records that only a limited few have been willing to accept the "truth which makes men free." The majority, natively selfish, saw fit to live their lives in ignorance, sometimes in great luxury for a few years; then sorrow, suffering, and the final departure into the "limbo of forgotten things."
The fundamental teachings of the Secret Schools, beginning with the early Egyptian Coptics and pre-Christian Gnostics, have never changed. Each age, however, has demanded a new interpretation and a fresh application of the Law to the needs of individuals and nations, and, at times, sudden changes of method.
- R. Swinburne Clymer, The Rosicrucians and their Teachings (1941)
My (sadly metaphorical) travels with Robert Dodsley's Oeconomy of Human Life--the book I alluded to in my last post—-introduced me to another unexpected group of people: the American Rosicrucians. Now, like many people, I have read Illuminatus! and was not entirely unprepared for the alphabet soup and bizarre genealogies that awaited me as I dug into this little world. What I didn't expect just how accurate Illuminatus! was about them.
The story, of course, starts with Freemasonry. Marxists like to argue that Freemasons represented the rising bourgeoisie's attempt to manufacture a legitimizing narrative for itself that would be analogous to a noble's genealogy, and they may well have been right (though noble genealogies were generally fabrications anyway). But the problem with Masonry is that it was fundamentally the product of a simple faith in the ability of an egalitarian circle of the elect to solve society's problems in an Enlightened manner. The degrees and rituals were just window-dressing to ensure that the elect were the right people, and of course to add the spice of the forbidden to the gatherings. (The eighteenth century was legendary for its pseudo-occult drinking clubs.) But, it turned out, solving society's problems was far less interesting than working one's way up through the degrees, a kind of early-modern version of WoW. Freemasonry, with its puny three degrees leading to the unassuming title of "Master Mason," just wasn't occult or mystical enough.
The result was a series of superstructures built on top of traditional Masonry, each of which claimed to be both older and purer than the last. (Eventually, some lodges claimed to recognize upwards of thirty different degrees.) Rosicrucianism, in its contemporary incarnation, was one of these. Unlike most Freemasons, Rosicrucians emphasized mysticism and spirituality and attacked rationalism. The degrees of normal Masonry, Rosicrucians claimed, were just an initiation; only the truly elect could transcend them and become Rosicrucians, which meant getting into alchemy and the Philosopher's Stone and astrology and Paracelsus.
Many lodges and other societies that participated in this esoteric explosion, including Rosicrucianism, made their way to the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In many cases, they retained the organizational structure and nomenclature but lost the mythology almost completely—hence the weird titles used by people in the Ku Klux Klan, a typical nineteenth-century secret society. Lodges with elaborate mystical hierarchies became popular even among marginal groups like free blacks, who wove their "reconstructed" tradition together with mythologies of pan-Egyptian and "Asiatic" commonality.
It was in this context that the first indigenous American Rosicrucian organization was founded: Paschal Beverly Randolph's 1860s "Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, American Section." Randolph was a mixed-race freeman abolitionist whose primary interest was in sex magic (he was an important influence on Aleister Crowley). Although the air of decadence in the term is unmistakable, Randolph presented sex magic as usable only by properly married couples. He confessed that the Rosicrucian background of the Fraternitas was mostly a product of his imagination, but that has not stopped the group—which still exists and operates in Quakertown, PA—from devoting much of its time to proving its authenticity. (Sex magic, alas, has fallen by the wayside.)
In 1915, finally, a competitor was founded: H. Spencer Lewis's Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis. Following the traditional principle of occult societies, Lewis one-upped Randolph by claiming descent, not from the sixteenth-century occultists, but from the notoriously monotheistic ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten. The FRC and the AMORC have spent the ensuing hundred years publishing enormous volumes of highly "well-documented" accusations that the other society is engaging in Satanism and has connections to Crowley (who is now the bad guy, as it turns out).
But Lewis could outdo Randolph in one thing: as an ad executive from suburban New Jersey, he knew how to run a business. As a result, unlike the rather feeble FRC, AMORC now controls a large Egyptoid museum and complex in San Jose and has spread out to dozens of countries, including post-independence Nigeria, where it has become a major social force. Lewis's society sold the familiar panoply of occultist manuals, but the anchor of it all was his magazine, the Rosicrucian Digest.
Reading the Rosicrucian Digest is delicious. It is as if the protagonists of Foucault's Pendulum were modern American self-help gurus instead of European pseudo-intellectuals. Although there are plenty of spooky insignia and allusions to occult knowledge, the magazine references historical Rosicrucianism quite rarely. Instead, readers are fed the same basic message that underlies all of American occultism, whether cult-driven or popular: that they are powerful, that in comparison to their potential the world is insubstantial, that right thinking and right knowledge can unlock their hidden powers. (In fact, random people on the Internet claim to have found lots of direct connections between American "Rosicrucian" ideas and The Secret.)
I'm always tempted to deal with this bunch in a demystifying kind of way, but that just feels like shooting fish in a barrel. Of course it's all a fraud; of course the supposed documentary evidence was manufactured; of course it's mostly about making money and always has been. What's interesting is the sheer amount of work the Rosicrucians had to put in to buttress their obviously ridiculous claims. Among the many books published by FRC Grand Master R. Swinburne Clymer is a two-volume set of folios, weighing in at a couple thousand pages, leather-bound and printed on thick paper with gorgeous hand-colored plates—and almost its entire text is a rambling and incoherent attempt to demonstrate the evilness of AMORC. (A page from the AMORC response is below.) If we believe the book, it required a substantial amount of European travel—and even if we assume it all to be a forgery, the amount of labor involved in inventing all these endless interconnecting societies and manifestos must have been wearying.
The best explanation I can come up with is that occultism in fact has little to do with history or religion or even sociability. In fact, it is an art form. The historical parameters within which post-Mason secret organizations are supposed to function, even if they are largely fictive or imperfectly understood, provide the imaginative occultist with a vocabulary of terms, forms, and ideas that can be recombined in endlessly satisfying ways, much like a fantasy writer designs a world. This is what has made Illuminatus! and Foucault's Pendulum and The Da Vinci Code so popular. The line separating Umberto Eco from his characters is probably narrower than he might like to think (although this is in fact a theme of the book).
The extension to political conspiracy theory is obvious. What distinguishes conspiracy theory as a genre of explanation from other such genres, after all, is that it not only resists Occamian parsimony but actively works to subvert it. Most conspiracy theorists make the leap from the Bilderberg Group to the Illuminati eventually, sealing the circle. (In eighteenth-century Russia, the Rosicrucians were apparently actually involved in a plot to make Paul I an initiate of their lodge, dethrone Catherine, and hand the country over to the Prussian puppetmasters who were pulling the "Rosicrucian" strings.)
Rosicrucianism and its allied figments rest on an appeal to two unimaginable sublimes: mystical power as achieved through occult self-transcendence and its double, control over others as manifested in the Illuminati world government. Perhaps less obvious is that they come into being together as superficially opposed entities. Nineteenth-century conservative anti-Masonry, which held the Masons to be a conspiracy which had organized the French Revolution and was even now plotting the subversion of republican institutions, was every bit as detailed and imaginative as the occult literature of the groups it had fingered as culprits.
What binds them together is a common artistic language, in which the names of texts and organizations repeat with remarkable consistency (though with utterly fluid meaning) from one composition to another. This is, of necessity, a deeply conservative vocabulary, since it can reproduce itself only by copying its antecedents—even if new terms can sometimes arise on the margins. Its continued existence and flourishing alongside and within modernity—despite its often explicit or implicit anti-modern tone—is monumentally impressive.