Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Rosicrucian Counter-Enlightenment

Christopher McIntosh is a scholar of specializing in the history of Western esotericism. This book is a study of the Gold- und Rosenkreuz (the Golden and Rose Cross), a secret society active in Germany during the 18th century (henceforth I will refer to it as the GRK).

The GRK was organized as a Masonic order, while claiming to represent the original Rosicrucian tradition. The original Rosicrucians were an early 17th century movement in several European countries. Their philosophy was similar to Renaissance esotericism, and they in effect represented a transitional phase between the Renaissance and the later Enlightenment. Frances Yates' classical study of this school of thought is hence titled “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment”. The original brothers of the Rose Cross probably didn't survive the 17th century. During the 18th century, a neo-Rosicrucian movement was launched, with the GRK as its foremost representative. Most neo-Rosicrucians were reactionary and are therefore usually lumped together with the Counter-Enlightenment!

McIntosh sees the neo-Rosicrucians as an independent and complex current, but after reading his study, I must nevertheless report that the GRK and similar groups really were anti-Aufklärung, albeit not always in the same way as the established churches. Their Masonic trappings, interest in alchemy and the occult, and their religious tolerance made them very different from both the Catholic Church and the officially established Protestant churches. What I found most striking, however, were the similarities between the GRK's philosophy and official Christianity, Catholicism in particular: man is a sinful and fallen creature, divine revelation is necessary, the path to salvation goes through asceticism, royalty and aristocracy are ordained by God, spiritual knowledge is mediated through a hierarchy, etc. While many members of the GRK were Protestants, the order was ecumenical and also welcomed Catholics. The Enlightenment forces regarded the GRK as a secret creation of the Jesuits! One important difference between main-line Christianity and neo-Rosicrucianism was the latter's “Gnostic” tendency, seeing the material world as wholly evil and somehow the result of Lucifer's fall (compare the Gnostic notion that the world is the creation of the Demiurge). This Gnostic tenet must have co-existed rather uneasily with a more “Hermetic” interest in alchemy, including hands-on attempts to actually create gold in laboratories, which sounds more this-worldly! More surprising are the connections between esotericism and Pietism, often depicted as a strict (and strictly) Protestant movement. Leading Pietists had esoteric leanings, and some members of the GRK were former Pietists.

The GRK did play a certain role in German politics during the 18th century. The Prussian king Frederick William II was an initiated member of the order, and so were his closest advisors Wöllner and Bischoffswerder. The king sometimes followed the advice of a clairvoyant girl, who channeled prophecies about political matters, perhaps at the prompting of the royal advisors. In another famous episode, the GRK seems to have turned in a competing secret society, the Illuminati, to the Bavarian authorities. After the Napoleonic Wars, neo-Rosicrucian echoes can be found in the nominal philosophy of the Holy Alliance, which had reactionary, Christian and yet ecumenical traits. The Russian Czar Alexander was an avid reader of Boehme, Swedenborg, Saint-Martin and Eckartshausen, whose works were being distributed in Russia by Rosicrucians. The czar's spiritual mentor, Juliane von Krüdener, often seen as a Pietist, was also a mystic and student of Eckartshausen's writings. (Karl von Eckartshausen was the author of the mystical classic “The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary” and may have been a member of the GRK.) Finally, one could mention Franz von Baader, the grey eminence of German Romanticism, whose esoteric ideas were based on Boehme and had certain similarities with neo-Rosicrucianism. Baader is credited with writing the actual manifesto of the Holy Alliance.

“The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason” also deals briefly with a split-off from the Gold- und Rosenkreuz, known as the Asiatic Brethren of St John the Evangelist in Europe, which developed a unique system combining Christian Rosicrucianism and the Jewish Kabbala. A prominent member of this group was an authentic Kabbalistic Jew, and the syncretic order freely admitted Jews as members. This tolerant trait made the Asiatic Brethren attractive to Jews who wanted to integrate with modern Gentile society (a goal of the Jewish Enlightenment) while still having an attachment to “superstitious” Jewish traditions. On all other points, the Asiatic Brethren were conservative, one of their leaders being guillotined in France during the Terror. The protector of the Brethren was Carl von Hessen, a prominent Danish-German aristocrat and Freemason, whose alchemical laboratory was supervised by none other than Saint Germain (the historical figure, not the ascended master).

Apparently, piecing together a meaningful history of the Order of the Golden and Rose Cross is easier said than done, since most German Masonic archives were either destroyed by the Nazis or perished during World War II, but it seems enough survived to make this little study (and a few others) possible.
Five stars!

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