At a very early age commenced my own interest in the mystery that surrounds secret societies; the mystery being often double—1. What they do; and 2. What they do it for. Except as to the premature growth of this interest, there was nothing surprising in that. For everybody that is by nature meditative must regard, with a feeling higher than any vulgar curiosity, small fraternities of men forming themselves as separate and inner vortices within the great vortex of society, communicating silently in broad daylight by signals not even seen, but if seen, not understood except among themselves, and connected by the link either of purposes not safe to be avowed, or by the grander link of awful truths which, merely to shelter themselves from the hostility of an age unprepared for their reception, must retire, perhaps for generations, behind thick curtains of secrecy. To be hidden amidst crowds is sublime—to come down hidden amongst crowds from distant generations, is doubly sublime.
The first incident in my own childish experience that threw my attention upon the possibility of such dark associations, was the Abbé Baruel’s book, soon followed by a similar book of Professor Robison’s, in demonstration of a regular conspiracy throughout Europe for exterminating Christianity. This I did not read, but I heard it read and frequently discussed. I had already Latin enough to know that cancer meant a crab, and that the disease so appalling to a child’s imagination, which in English we call a cancer, as soon as it has passed beyond the state of an indolent schirrous tumour, drew its name from the horrid claws, or spurs, or roots, by which it connected itself with distant points, running underground, as it were, baffling detection, and defying radical extirpation. What I heard read aloud from the Abbé gave that dreadful cancerous character to the plot against Christianity. This plot, by the Abbé’s account, stretched its horrid fangs, and threw out its forerunning feelers and tentacles into many nations, and more than one century. That perplexed me, though also fascinating me by its grandeur. How men, living in distant periods and distant places—men that did not know each other, nay often had not even heard of each other, nor spoke the same languages—could yet be parties to the same treason against a mighty religion towering to the highest heavens, puzzled my comprehension. Then, also, when wickedness was so easy, why did they take all this trouble to be wicked? The how and the why were alike mysterious to me. Yet the Abbé, everybody said, was a good man; incapable of telling falsehoods, or of countenancing falsehoods; and, indeed, to say that was superflous as regarded myself; for every man that wrote a book was in my eyes an essentially good man, being a revealer of a hidden truth. Things in MS. might be doubtful, but things printed were unavoidably and profoundly true. So that if I questioned and demurred as hotly as an infidel would have done, it never was that by the slightest shade I had become tainted with the infirmity of scepticism. On the contrary, I believed everybody as well as everything. And, indeed, the very starting-point of my too importunate questions was exactly that incapacity of scepticism—not any lurking jealousy that even part might be false, but confidence too absolute that the whole must be true; since the more undeniably a thing was certain, the more clamorously I called upon people to make it intelligible. Other people, [513/514] when they could not comprehend a thing, had often a resource in saying, "But, after all, perhaps it’s a lie." I had no such resource. A lie was impossible in a man that descended upon earth in that awful shape of four volumes octavo. Such a great man as that was an oracle for me, far beyond Dodona or Delphi. The same thing occurs in another form to everybody. Often (you know)—alas! too often—one’s dear friend talks something, which one scruples to call "rigmarole," but which, for the life of one (it becomes necessary to whisper), cannot be comprehended. Well, after puzzling over it for two hours, you say, "Come, that’s enough; two hours is as much time as I can spare in one life for one unintelligibility." And then you proceed, in the most tranquil frame of mind, to take coffee as if nothing had happened. The thing does not haunt your sleep; for you say, "My dear friend, after all, was perhaps unintentionally talking nonsense." But how if the thing that puzzles you happens to be a phenomenon in the sky or the clouds—something said by nature? Nature never talks nonsense. There’s no getting rid of the thing in that way. You can’t call that "rigamarole." As to your dear friend, you were sceptical; and the consequence was, that you were able to be tranquil. There was a valve in reserve, by which your perplexity could escape. But as to Nature, you have no scepticism at all; you believe in her to a most bigoted extent; you believe every word she says. And that very belief is the cause that you are disturbed daily by something which you cannot understand. Being true, the thing ought to be intelligible. And exactly because it is not—exactly because this horrid unintellibility is denied the comfort of doubt—therefore it is that you are so unhappy. If you could once make up your mind to doubt and to think, "Oh, as to Nature, I don’t believe one word in ten that she says," then and there you would become as tranquil as when your dearest friend talks nonsense. My purpose, as regarded by Baruel, was not tentative, as if presumptuously trying whether I should like to swallow a thing, which an arriére pensée that, if not palatable, I might reject it, but simply the preparatory process of a boa-constrictor lubricating the substance offered, whatever it might be, towards its readier deglutition; that result, whether easy or not easy, being one that followed at any rate.
The person, who chiefly introduced me to Baruel, was a lady, a stern lady, and austere, not only in her manners, which made most people dislike her, but also in the character of her understanding and morals—an advantage which made most people afraid of her. Me, however, she treated with unusual indulgence, chiefly, I believe, because I kept her intellectuals in a state of exercise, nearly amounting to persecution. She was just five times my age when our warfare of disputation commenced, I being seven, she thirty-five; and she was not quite four times my age when our warfare terminated by sudden separation, I being then ten, and she thirty-eight.—This change, by the way, in the multiple that expressed here chronological relations to myself, used greatly to puzzle me; because, as the interval between us had diminished, within the memory of man, so rapidly, that, from being five times younger, the natural inference seemed to be, that, in a few years, I should not be younger at all, but might come to be the older of the two; in which case, I should certainly have "taken my change" out of the airs she continually gave herself on the score "experience." That decisive word "experience" was, indeed, always a sure sign to me that I had the better of the argument, and that it had become necessary, therefore, suddenly to pull me up in the career of victory by a violent exertion of authority; as a knight of old, at the very moment when he would else have unhorsed his opponent, was often frozen into unjust inactivity by the king’s arbitrary signal for parting the tilters. It was, however, only when very hard pressed that my fair antagonist took this not fair advantage in our daily tournaments. Generally, and if I showed any moderation in the assault, she was rather pleased with the sharp rattle of my rolling musketry. Objections she rather liked, and questions, as many as one pleased upon the pourquoi, if one did not go on to le pourquoi du pourquoi. That, she said, was carrying things too far: excess in anything she disapproved. Now, there I differed from her: excess was the thing I doated on. The fun seemed to me only beginning, when she asserted that it had already "over-stepped the limits of propriety." Ha! those limits, I thought, were soon reached.
But, however much or often I might vault over the limits of propriety, or might seem to challenge both her and the Abbé—all this was but anxiety to reconcile my own secret belief in the Abbé, with the arguments for not believing; it was but the form assumed by my earnest desire to see how the learned gentlemen could be right, whom my intense faith certified beyond all doubt to be so, and whom, equally, my perverse logical recusancy whispered to be continually in the wrong. I wished to see my own rebellious arguments, which I really sorrowed over and bemoaned, knocked down like ninepins; shown to be softer than cotton, frailer than glass, and utterly worthless in the eye of reason. All this, indeed, the stern lady assured me that she had shown over and over again. Well, it might be so; and to this, at any rate, as a decree of court, I saw a worldly prudence in submitting. But, probably, I must have looked rather grim, and have wished devoutly for one fair turn-up, on Salisbury plain, with herself and the Abbé, in which case my heart told me how earnestly I should pray that they might for ever floor me, but how melancholy a conviction oppressed my spirits that my destiny was to floor them. Victorious, I should find my belief and my understanding in painful schism: beaten and demolished, I should find my whole nature in harmony with itself.
The mysteriousness to me of men becoming partners (and by no means sleeping partners) in [514/515] a society of which they had never heard; or, again, of one fellow standing at the beginning of a century, and stretching out his hand as an accomplice towards another fellow standing at the end of it, without either having known of the other's existence—all that did but sharpen the interest of wonder that gathered about the general economy of secret societies. Tertullian's profession of believing things, not in spite of being impossible, but because they were impossible, is not the extravagance that most people suppose it. There is a deep truth in it. Many are the things which, in proportion as they attract the highest modes of belief, discover a tendency to repel belief on that part of the scale which is governed by the lower understanding. And here, as so often elsewhere, the axiom, with respect to extremes meeting, manifests its subtle presence. The highest form of the incredible, is sometimes the initial form of the credible. But the point on which our irreconcilability was greatest, respected the cui bono of this alleged conspiracy. What were the conspirators to gain by success? and nobody pretended that they could gain anything by failure. The lady replied—that, by obliterating the light of Christianity, they prepared the readiest opening for the unlimited gratification of their odious appetites and passions. But to this the retort was too obvious to escape anybody, and for me it threw itself into the form of that pleasant story, reported from the life of Pyrrhus the Epirot—viz., that one day, upon a friend requesting to know what ulterior purpose the king might mask under his expedition to Sicily, "why, after that is finished," replied the king, "I mean to administer a little correction (very much wanted) to certain parts of Italy, and particularly to that nest of rascals in Latium." "And then—" said the friend: "and then," said Pyrrhus, "next we go for Macedon; and, after that job’s jobbed, next, of course, for Greece." "Which done," said the friend: "which done," interrupted the king, "as done it shall be, then we’re off to tickle the Egyptians." "Whom having tickled," pursued the friend, "then we"—"tickle the Persians," said the king. "But after that is done," urged the obstinate friend, "whither next?" "Why, really man, it’s hard to say; you give one no time to breathe; but we’ll consider the case in Persia, and, until we’ve settled it, we can crown ourselves with roses, and pass the time pleasantly enough over the best wine found in Ecbatana." "That’s a very just idea," replied the friend; "but, with submission, it strikes me that we might do that just now, and, at the beginning of all these tedious wars, instead of waiting for their end." "Bless me!" said Pyrrhus, "if ever I thought of that before. Why, man, you’re a conjurer; you’ve discovered a mine of happiness. So, here boy, bring us roses and plenty of Cretan wine." Surely, on the same principle, these French Encyclopédistes, and Bavarian Illuminati, did not need to postpone any jubilees of licentiousness which they promised themselves, to so very indefinite a period as their ovation over the ruins of Christianity. True, the impulse of hatred, even though irrational, may be a stronger force for action than any motive of hatred, however rational, or grounded in self-interest. But the particular motive relied upon by the stern lady, as the central spring of the anti-Christian movement, being obviously insufficient for the weight which it had to sustain, naturally the lady, growing sensible of this herself, became still sterner; very angry with me; and not quite satisfied, in this instance, with the Abbé. Yet, after all, it was not any embittered remembrance of our eternal feuds, in dusting the jacket of the Abbé Baruel, that lost me, ultimately, the favour of this austere lady. All that she forgave; and especially because she came to think the Abbé as bad as myself, for leaving such openings to my inroads. It was on a question of politics that our deadliest difference arose, and that my deadliest sarcasm was launched; not against herself, but against the opinion and party which she adopted. I was right, as usually I am; but, on this occasion, must have been, because I stood up (as a patriot, intolerant, to frenzy, of all insult directed against dear England); and she, though otherwise patriotic enough, in this instance ranged herself in alliance with a false anti-national sentiment. My sarcasm was not too strong for the case. But certainly I ought to have thought it too strong for the presence of a lady; whom, or any of her sex, on a matter of politics in these days, so much am I changed, I would allow to chace me, like a foot-ball, all round the tropics, rather than offer the least show of resistance. But my excuse was childhood; and, though it may be true, as the reader will be sure to remind me, that she was rapidly growing down to my level in that respect, still she had not quite reached it; so that there was more excuse for me, after all, than for her. She was no longer five times as old, or even four; but when she would come down to be two times as old, and one time as old, it was hard to say.
Thus I had good reason for remembering my first introduction to the knowledge of Secret Societies, since this knowledge introduced me to the more gloomy knowledge of the strife which gathers in clouds over the fields of human life; and to the knowledge of this strife in two shapes, one of which none of us fail to learn—the personal strife which is awakened so eternally by difference of opinion, or difference of interest; the other, which is felt, perhaps, obscurely by all, but distinctly noticed only by the profoundly reflective, viz., the schism—so mysterious to those even who have examined it most—between the human intellect and many undeniable realities of human experience. As to the first mode of strife, I could not possibly forget it; for the stern lady died before we had an opportunity to exchange forgiveness, and that left a sting behind. She, I am sure, was a good forgiving creature at heart; and, especially, she would have forgiven me, because it was my place (if one only got one’s right place on earth) to forgive her. Had she even hauled me out of bed with a tackling of ropes in the dead of night, for the mere purpose of reconciliation, I should have said—"Why, you see, I [515/516] can’t forgive you entirely to-night, because I’m angry when people waken me without notice, but to-morrow morning I certainly will; of, if that won’t do, you shall forgive me. No great matter which, as the conclusion must be the same in either case, viz., to kiss and be friends."
But the other strife, which perhaps sounds metaphysical in the reader’s ears, then first wakened up to my perceptions, and never again went to sleep amongst my perplexities. Oh Cicero! my poor, thoughtless Cicero! in all your shallow metaphysics not once did you give utterance to such a bounce as when you asserted, that never yet did human reason say one thing and Nature say another. On the contrary, every part of Nature—mechanics, dynamics, morals, metaphysics, and even pure mathematics—are continually giving the lie flatly by their facts and conclusions to the very necessities and laws of the human understanding. Did the reader ever study the Antimonies of Kant? If not, he has read nothing. Now, there he will have the pleasure of seeing a set of quadrilles or reels, in which old Mother Reason amuses herself by dancing to the right and left two variations of blank contradiction to old Mother Truth, both variations being irrefragable, each variation contradicting the other, each contradicting the equatorial reality, and each alike (though past all denial) being a lie. But he need not go to Kant for this. Let him look as one having eyes for looking, and everywhere the same perplexing phenomenon occurs. And this first dawned upon myself in the Baruel case. As Nature is to the human intellect, so was Baruel to mine. We all believe in Nature without limit, yet hardly understand a page amongst her innumerable pages. I believed in Baruel by necessity, and yet everywhere my understanding mutinied against his.
But in Baruel I had heard only of Secret Societies that were consciously formed for mischievous ends; or if not always for a distinct purpose of evil, yet always in a spirit of malignant contradiction and hatred. Soon I read of other Societies even more secret, that watched over truth dangerous to publish or even to whisper, like the sleepless dragons that Oriental fable associated with the subterraneous guardianship of regal treasures. The secrecy, and the reasons for secrecy, were alike sublime. The very image, unveiling itself by unsteady glimpses, of men linked by brotherly love and perfect confidence, meeting in secret chambers, at the noontide of night, to shelter, by muffling, with their own persons interposed, and at their own risk, some solitary lamp of truth—sheltering it from the carelessness of the world, and its stormy ignorance—this would soon have blown it out—sheltering it from the hatred of the world, that would soon have found out its nature, and made war upon its life—that was superhumanly sublime. The fear of those men was sublime—the courage was sublime—the stealthy thief like means were sublime—the audacious end, viz., to change the kingdoms of earth, was sublime. If they acted and moved like cowards, those men were sublime: if they planned with the audacity of martyrs, those men were sublime—not long, as cowards, not more as martyrs; for the cowardice that appeared above, and the courage that lurked below, were parts of the same machinery.
But another feature of sublimity, which it surprises one to see so many coarse minded men unaware of, lies in the self-perpetuation and phoenix-like defiance to mortality of such Societies. This feature it is that throws a grandeur even on a humbug, of which there have been many examples, and two in particular, which I am soon going to memorialise. Often and often have men of finer minds felt this secret spell of grandeur, and laboured to embody it in external forms. There was a phoenix-club once in Oxford (up and down Europe there have been several) that by its constitution grasped not only at the sort of immortality aspired after by Phoenix Insurance offices, viz., a legal or notional perpetuation, liable merely to no practical interruptions as regarded paying, and à fortiori as regarded receiving money, but otherwise fast asleep every night like other dull people—far more faithful, literal, intense, was the realisation in this case of undying life. Such a condition as a "sede vacante," which is a condition expressed in the constitutions of all other societies, was impossible in this, for any office whatever. That great case was realised which has since been described by Chateaubriand as governing the throne of France and its successions. "His Majesty is dead!" shouts a voice, and this seems to argue, at least, a moment’s interregnum: not at all; not a moment’s: the thing is impossible: simultaneous (and not successive) is the breath that ejaculates "may the King live forever." The birth and the death, the rising and the setting, synchronise by a metaphysical nicety of neck-and-neck, inconceivable to the book keepers of earth. These wretched men imagine that the second rider’s foot cannot possibly be in the stirrup until the first rider’s foot is out. If the one even occurs in moment M, the other they think must occur in moment N. That may be as regards stirrups, but not as regards metaphysics. I admit that the guard of a mail-coach cannot possibly leave the post-office before the coachman, but upon the whole a little after him. Such base rules, however, find themselves compelled to give way in presence of great metaphysicians—in whose science, as I stoop to inform book-keepers, the effect, if anything goes rather a-head of the cause. Now that Oxford club arose on these sublime principles: no disease like intermitting pulse was known there. No fire, but Vestal fire, was used for boiling the tea kettle. The rule was—that, if once entered upon the matricula of this amaranthine club, thence forwards, come from what zone of the earth you would—come without a minute’s notice—send up your card—Mr. O. P., from the Anthropophagi—Mr. P. O., from the men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders—instantly you were shown in to the sublime presence. You were not limited to any particular century. Nay, by the rigour of the theory, you had your own choice of millennium. [516/517] Whatever might be convenient to you, was convenient to the club. The constitution of the club assumed, that, in every successive generation, as a matter of course, a President duly elected, (or his authorised delegate) would be found in the chair; scornfully throwing the onus of proof to the contrary upon the presumptuous reptile that doubted it. Public or private calamity signified not. The President reverberated himself through a long sinking fund of Surrogates and Vice-Presidents. There, night and day, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, sat the august man, looking as grim as the Princeps Senatûs amongst the Conscript Fathers of Rome, when the Gauls entered on the errand of cutting their throats. If you entered this club on the very same errand, the President was backed to a large amount to keep his seat until his successor had been summoned. Suppose the greatest of revolutions to have passed over the island during your absence abroad; England, let us say, has even been conquered by a polished race of Hottentots. Very good: an accomplished Hottentot will then be found seated in the chair; you will be allowed to kiss Mr. President’s black paw; and will understand that, although farewells might be common enough, as regarded individual members, yet by the eternal laws of this eternal club, the word adjournment for the whole concern was a word so treasonable, as not to be uttered without risk of massacre.
The same principle in man’s nature, the everlasting instinct for glorifying the everlasting, the impulse for petrifying the fugitive, and arresting the transitory, which shows itself in ten thousand forms, has also, in this field of secret confederations, assumed many grander forms. To strive after a conquest over Time the conquerer, is already great, in whatsoever, direction. But it is still greater when it applies itself to objects that are per se immortal, and mortal only as respects their alliance with man. Glorification of heaven—litanies, chaunted day and night by adoring hearts—these will doubtless ascend for ever from this planet. That result is placed out of hazard, and needs not the guarantee of princes. Somewhere, from some climate, from some lips, such a worship will not cease to rise. But, let a man’s local attachments be what they may, he must sigh to think that no assignable spot of ground on earth, that no nation, that no family, enjoys any absolute privilege in that respect. No land, whether continent or island—nor race, whether free men or slaves, can claim any fixed inheritance, or indefeasible heirlooms of truth. Yet, for that very reason, men of deep piety have but the more earnestly striven to bind down, and chain their own conceptions of truth within the models of some unchanging establishments, even as the Greek Pagans of old chained down their gods1 from deserting them; have striven to train the vagrant water brooks of Wisdom, lest she might desert the region altogether, into the channels of some local homestead; to connect, with a fixed succession of descendants, the conservation of religion; to root, as one would root a forest that is to flourish through ages, a heritage of ancient truth in the territorial heritage of an ancient household. That sounds to some ears like the policy that founded monastic institutions. Whether so or not, it is not necessarily Roman Catholic. The same policy—the same principle—the sighing after peace and the image of perpetuity—have many times moulded the plans of Protestant families. Such families, with monastic imaginations linked to Protestant hearts, existed numerously in England through the reigns of the First James and Charles—families amongst the gentry, or what on the Continent would be called the lower nobility, that remembered with love the solemn ritual and services of the Romish Church; but with this love combined the love of Protestant doctrines. Amongst these families, and distinguished amongst them, was that of the Farrers.2 The name of their patrimonial estate was Little Gidding, and, I think, in the county of Hertford. They were, by native turn of mind, and by varied accomplishments, a most interesting family. In some royal houses of Europe it was once a custom, that every son, if not every daughter, should learn a trade. This custom subsisted down to the days of the unhappy Louis XVI., who was a locksmith; and I was once assured by a Frenchman, who knew him well, not so bad a one, considering (you know) that one cannot be as rough as might be wished in scolding a locksmith that one is obliged to address as "your majesty." A majestic locksmith has a sort of right to be a bad one. The Farrers adopted this custom, and most of them chose the trade of a bookbinder. Why this was a good trade to choose, I will explain in a brief digression. It is a reason which applies only to three other trades, viz. to coining, to printing books, and to making gold or silver plate. And the reason is this—all the four arts stand on an isthmus, connecting them, on one side, with merely mechanic crafts, on the other side, with the Fine Arts. This was the marking distinction between the coinages of ancient classical days and our own. Our European and East Indian coins are the basest of all base products from rude barbaresque handicraft. They are imagined by the man, some horrid Cyclops, who conceived the great idea of a horse-shoe, a [517/518] poker, and a tenpenny nail. Now, the ancient coins were modelled by the same immortal artists that conceived their exquisite gems, the cameos and intaglios, which you may buy, in Tassie’s Sulphurs, at a few shillings each, of for much less in the engraved Glyptothecæ. But, as to coining, our dear lady the Queen (God bless her!) is so avaricious, that she will have it all to herself. She taboos it. She won’t let you or me into the smallest share of the business; and she lags us if we poach. That is what I call monopoly. And I do wish her Majesty would be persuaded to read a ship-load of political economists that I could point out, on the ruinous consequences of that vice, which, otherwise, it may be feared nobody ever will read. After coining, the next best trade is Printing. This, also, might approach to a Fine Art. When entering the twilight of dotage, reader, I mean to have a printing-press in my own study. I shall print some immaculate editions, as farewell keepsakes, for distribution amongst people that I love; but rich and rare must be the gems on which I shall condescend to bestow this manual labour. I mean, also, to print a spelling-book for the reader’s use. As it seems that he reads, he surely ought to spell. I hope he will not be offended. If he is, and dreadfully, viewing it as the most awful insult that man could offer to his brother man, in that case he might bequeath it by will to his possible grandson. Two generations might wash out the affront. Or if he accepts, and furnishes me with his name, I will also print on a blank leaf the good old ancestral legend—"A.B., his book, Heaven grant him grace therein to look," As to Plate-making, it seems to rank with mechanic baseness; you think not of the sculptor, the chaser, and their exquisite tools, but of Sheffield, Birmingham, Glasgow, sledge-hammers, and pincers. It seems to require no art. I think I could make a dessert spoon myself. Yet the openings which it offers are vast, wherever wealth exists, for the lovelier conceptions of higher art. Benvenuto Cellini—what an artist was he! There are some few of his most exquisite works in this country, which may be seen by applying in the right quarters. Judge of him by these, and not by his autobiography. There he appears as a vain, ostentatious man.3 One would suppose, to hear him talk, that nobody ever executed a murder but himself. His own are tolerable, that’s all you can say; but not one of them is first-rate, or to be named on the same day with the Pope’s attempt at murdering Cellini himself, which must command the unqualified approbation of the connoisseur. True, the Papal attempt did not succeed, and most of Cellini’s did. What of that? Who but idiots to judge by the event? Much, therefore, as I condemn the man’s vanity, and the more so because he claims some murders that too probably were none of his (not content with exaggerating his own, he absolutely pirated other men’s murders!) yet, when you turn from this walk of art, in which he practised only as an amateur, to his orféverie—then you feel the interval that divides the charlatan from the man of exquisite genius. As a murderer, he was a poor ceature; as an artist in gold, he was inimitable. Finally, there remains book-binding, of which also one may affirm, that, being usually the vilest of handicrafts, it is susceptible of much higher effects in the enrichments, tooling, architecture, heraldic emblazonries, &c. This art Mr. Farrer selected for his trade. He had travelled on foot through Spain; and I should think it not impossible that he had there seen some magnificent specimens of book-binding. For I was once told, though I have not seen it mentioned in any book, that a century before the date of Farrer’s travels, Cardinal Ximenes, when printing his great Complutensian Bible, gave a special encouragement to a new style of binding—fitted for harmonising with the grandeur of royal furniture, and the carved enrichments of gothic libraries.4 This, and the other accomplishments which the Farrers had, they had in perfection. But the most remarkable trait in the family character, was the exaltation of their devotional feelings. Had it not been for their benignity and humility, they might have been thought gloomy and ascetic. Something there was, as in thoughtful minds left to a deep rural solitude there is likely to be, of La Trappism and Madame Guyon Quietism. A nun-like aspiration there was in the females after purity and oblivion of earth: in Mr. Farrer, the head of the family, a devotional energy, put forth in continual combat with the earthly energies that tempted him away to the world, and with all that offered itself under the specious name of public usefulness. In this combination of qualities arose the plan which the family organised for a system of perpetual worship. They had a family chapel regularly consecrated, as so many families of their rank still had in England. They had an organ: they had means of forming a choir. Gradually, the establishment was mounted: the appointments were completed: the machinery was got into motion. How far the plan was ever effectually perfected, would be hard to say. The increasing ferment of the times, until the meeting of the Long Parliament in Nov. 1640, and in less than two years after that, the opening of the great civil war must have made it absolutely impossible to adhere systematically to any scheme of that nature, which required perfect seclusion from worldly cares within the mansion, and public [518/519] tranquillity outside. Not to mention that the Farrers had an extra source of molestation at that period, when Puritanism was advancing rapidly to a domineering station of power, in the public suspicions which unjustly (but not altogether unplausibly) taxed them with Popish leanings. A hundred years later, Bishop Butler drew upon himself at Durham, the very same suspicion, and in some degree by the very same act, viz., by an adoption of some pious symbols, open undeniably to the whole catholic family of Christian Churches, and yet equivocal in their meaning, because popularly appropriated from old associations of habit to the use of Popish communities. Abstracting, however, from the violent disturbances of those stormy times in the way of all religious schemes, we may collect that the scheme of the Farrers was—that the chapel services should be going on, by means of successive "reliefs" as in camps, or of "watches" as at sea, through every hour of the day and the night, from year to year, from childhood to old age. Come when you might, come in the dawning, come in the twilight, come at noonday, come through silent roads in the dead of night, always you were to be sure of hearing, through the woods of Little Gidding, the blair of the organ, or the penitential wail of the solitary choristers, or the glad triumphant burst of the full choir in jubilation. There was some affinity in Mr. Farrer’s mind to the Spanish peculiarities, and the Spanish modes of grandeur; awful prostration, like Pascal’s, before the divine idea; gloom that sought to strengthen itself by tenfold involution in the night of solitary woods; exaggerated impressions (if such impressions could be exaggerated) of human wretchedness, and a brooding sense of some unknown illimitable grandeur—a sense that could sustain itself at its natural level, only by external contemplation of objects that had no end.
Mr. Farrer’s plan for realising a vestal fire, or something beyond it, viz., a secrecy of truth, burning brightly in darkness—and, secondly, a perpetuity of truth—did not succeed; as many a noble scheme, that men never heard of, has been swept away in its infancy by the ruins of flood, fire, earthquake, which also are forgotten not less completely than what they ruined. Thank Heaven for that! If the noble is often crushed suddenly by the ignoble, one forgetfulness travels after both. The wicked earthquake is forgotten not less than the glorious temples which it ruined. Yet the Farrer plan has repeatedly succeeded and prospered through a course of centuries, and for purposes of the same nature. But the strange thing is (which already I have noticed), that the general principle of such a plan has succeeded most memorably when applied to purposes of humbug. The two best-known of all Secret Societies, that ever have been, are the two most extensive monuments of humbug on the one side and credulity on the other. They divide themselves between the ancient world and the modern. The great and illustrious humbug of ancient history was, THE ELEUSINIAN MYSTERIES. The great and illustrious humbug of modern history, of the history which boasts a present and a future, as well as a past, is FREEMASONRY. Let me take a few liberties with both.
The Eleusinian humbug was for centuries the opprobrium of scholars. Even in contemporary times it was such. The greatest philosopher, or polyhistor, of Athens, or of Rome, could no more tell you the secret—the to aporeton (unless he had been initiated, in which case he durst not tell it)—than I can. In fact, if you come to that, perhaps I myself can tell it. The ancient philosopher would retort that we of those days are in the same predicament as to our own humbug—the Freemasons. No, no, my friend, you’re wrong there. We know all about that humbug, as I mean to show you. But for what we know of Eleusis and its mummeries, which is quite enough for all practical purposes, we are indebted to none of you ancients, but entirely to modern sagacity. Is not that shocking, that a hoax should first be unmasqued when it has been defunct for 1,500 years? The interest which attaches to the Eleusian shows, is not properly an interest in them, but an alien interest in accidents indirectly connected with them. Secret there was virtually none; but a mystery at length begins to arise—how it was that this distressing secret, viz., of there being no secret at all, could, through so many generations, pass down in religious conservation of itself from all profane curiosity of outside barbarians. There was an endless file of heroes, philosophers, statesmen, all hoaxed, all of course incensed at being hoaxed, and yet not one of them is known to have blabbed. A great modern poet, musing philosophically on the results amongst the mob "in Leicester’s busy square," from looking through a showman’s telescope at the moon, is surprised at the crowd of spectators going off with an air of disappointment:
"One after one they turn aside; nor have I one espied,
That doth not slackly go away, as if dissatisfied."
Yes, but I can tell him the reason of that. The fact is, a more pitiful sight for sight-seers, than our own moon, does not exist. The first man that showed me the moon through a glass of any power, was a distinguished professor of astronomy. I was so incensed with the hoax (as it seemed) put upon me—such a weak, watery, wicked old harridian, substituted for the pretty creature I had been used to see—that I marched up to him with the angry design of demanding my half-crown back again, until a disgusting remembrance came over me, that, being a learned professor the showman could not possibly have taken any half-crown, which fact also destroyed all ground of action against him as obtaining money under false pretences. I contented myself, therefore, with saying, that until he showed me the man in the moon, with his dog, lanthorn, and bundle of thorns, I must decline corroborating his fancy of being able to exhibit the real old original moon and no mistake. Endymion never could have had such a sweetheart as that. Let the reader take my advice, not to seek familiarity with the moon. Familiarity breeds contempt. [519/520]
It is certain that, like the travellers through "Leicester’s busy square," all the visiters of Eleusis must have abominated the hoax put upon them—
________________"nor have I one espied,
That did not slackly walk away, as if dissatisfied."
See now the different luck of hoaxers in this world. Joseph Ady is smoked pretty nearly by the whole race of man. The Continent is, by this time, wide awake; Belgium has refused to take in his letters; and the cruel Lord Mayer of London has threatened to indict Joe for a fraud, value two-pence, by reason of the said Joe having seduced his lordship into opening an unpaid letter, which was found to contain nothing but an invitation from "yours respectfully"—not to a dinner party—but to an early remittance of one pound, for reasons subsequently to be disclosed. I should think, but there’s no knowing, that there might be a chance still for Joe (whom, really one begins to pity, as a persecuted man—cruising, like the Flying Dutchman, through seas that have all closed their ports), in Astrachan, and, perhaps, in Mecca. Some business might be done, for a few years, in Timbuctoo; and an opening there would undoubtedly be found for a connexion with Abdel-Kader, if only any opening could be found to Abdel-Kader through the French lines. Now, on the other hand, the goddess, and her establishment of hoaxers at Eleusis, did a vast "stroke of business" for more than six centuries, without any "unpleasantries"5 occurring; no cudgels shaken in the streets, little incidents that custom (by making too familiar,) has made contemptible to the philosophy of Joe; no round robins, signed by the whole maindeck of the academy or the porch; no praetors or lord mayors threatening actions repetundarum, and mourning over two-pences that had gone astray. "Misfortune acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows;" and the common misfortune of having been hoaxed, lowers the proudest and the humblest into a strange unanimity, for once, of pocketing there wrongs in silence. Eleusis, with her fine bronzed face, might say proudly and laughingly—"expose me, indeed!—why, I hoaxed this man’s great-grandfather, and I trust to hoax his great-grandson; all generations of his house have been, or shall be hoaxed, and afterwards, grateful to me for not exposing that fact of the hoax at their private expense."
There is a singularity in this case, of the same kind as that stratagem, (but how prodigiously exceeded in its scale,) imperfectly executed on the Greek leaders by the Persian Satrap Tissaphernes, but perfectly, in one or two cases, amongst the savage islands of the South Seas, upon European crews, when one victim, having first been caught, has been used as the means of trepanning all his comrades in succession. Each successive novice has been tamed, by terror, into an instrument for decoying other novices, from A to Z. Next, after this feature of interest about the Eleusinian Teletai, is another which modern times have quickened and developed, viz., the gift of enormous nonsense, the inspiration of nonsense, which the enigma of these mysteries has been the fortunate means of blowing into the brains of various able men. It requires such men, in fact, to succeed as speculators in nonsense. None but a man of extraordinary talents can write first-rate nonsense. Perhaps the prince of all men, ever formed by nature and educations, for writing superior nonsense was Warburton. The natural vegetation of his intellect tended to that kind of fungus which is called "crotchet;" so much so, that, if he had a just and powerful thought (as sometimes he had), or even a wise and beautiful thought, or even a grand one, by the mere perversity of his tortuous brain, it was soon digested into a crochet. This native tendency of his was cultured and watered, for years, by his practice as an attorney. Making him a bishop was, perhaps, a mistake; it certainly stunted the growth of special pleading, perhaps ruined the science; on the other hand, it saved the twelve judges of that day from being driven mad, as they would have been by this Hermes Trismegistus, this born Titan, in the realms of La Chicane. Some fractions of the virus descended through the Warburtonian commentaries upon Pope, &c., corroding the flesh to the very bones, wherever it alighted. But the Centaur's shirt of W.’s malignity was destined for the Hebrew lawgiver, and all that could be made to fall within that field. Did my reader ever read the "Divine Legation of Moses"? Is he aware of the mighty syllogism, that single block of granite, such as you can see nowhere but at St. Petersburg, on which that elaborate work reposes? There is a Welsh bridge, near Llanroost, the birth-place of Inigo Jones, built by that architect with such exquisite skill, that the people astonished me (but the people were two milk-maids), by protesting that invariably a little breeze-footed Camilla, of three years old, in running across, caused the bridge to tremble like a guilty thing. So admirable was the equilibrium, that an infant’s foot disturbed it. Unhappily, Camilla had sprained her ancle at that time, so that the experiment could not be tried; and the bridge, to me, seemed not guilty at all (to judge by its trembling), but as innocent as Camilla herself. Now, Warburton must have sought to rival the Welsh pontifex in this particular test of architectural skill; for his syllogism is so divinely poised, that if you shake this key-stone of his great arch (as you certainly may), then you will become aware of a vibration—of a nervous tremor—running through the entire dome of his divine legation; you are absolutely afraid of the dome coming down with yourself in the centre; just as the Llanroost bridge used to be near going into hysterics when the light-footed Camilla bounded across it. This syllogism, on account of its connexion with the Eleusinian hoax, I will rehearse: it is the very perfection of a crotchet. Suppose the major proposition to be this—That no reli[520/521]gion unless through the advantage of divine inspiration, could dispense with the doctrine of future rewards and punishments. Suppose the minor proposition this—That the Mosaic religion did dispense with that doctrine. Then the conclusion will be—ergo, the Mosaic religion was divinely inspired. The monstrous tenor of this argument made it necessary to argue most elaborately that all the false systems of false and cruel religions were affectionately anxious for maintaining the doctrine of a future state; but 2dly, that only true faith and the only pure worship were systematically careless of that doctrine. Of course it became necessary to show, inter alia, that the Grecian States and law-givers maintained officially, as consecrated parts of the public religion, the doctrine of immortality as valid for man’s expectations and fears; whilst at Jerusalem, at Hebron, on Mount Sinai, this doctrine was slighted. Generally speaking, a lie is a hard thing to establish. The Bishop of Gloucester was forced to tax his resources as an artist, in building palaces of air, nor less than ever Inigo Jones before him in building Whitehall or St. Vitus’s bridge at Llanroost. Unless he could prove that Paganism fought hard for this true doctrine, then by his own argument Paganism would be found true. Just as, inversely, if he failed to prove that Judaism countenanced the false doctrine, Judaism would itself be found false. Which ever favoured the false, was true; which ever favoured the true, was false. There’s a crotchet for you, reader, round and full as any prize turnip ever yet crowned with laurels by great agricultural Societies! I suspect that in Homeric language, twice nine of such degenerate men as the reader and myself could not grow such a crochet as that!
The Bishop had, therefore, to prove—it was an obligation self-created by his own syllogism—that the Pagan religion of Greece, in some great authorised institution of the land, taught and insisted on the doctrine of a future state as the basis on which all legal ethics rested. This great doctrine he had to suspend as a chandelier in his halls of Pagan mythology. A pretty chandelier for a Christian Bishop to be chaining to the roof and lightening up for the glory of heathenism! Involuntarily one thinks of Aladdin’s impious order for a roe’s egg, the egg of the very deity whom the slave of the lamp served, to hang up in his principal saloon. The Bishop found his chandelier, or fancied he had found it, in the old lumber garrets of Eleusis. He knew, he could prove, what was taught in the Eleusinian shows. Was the Bishop ever there? No: but what of that? He could read through a milestone. And Virgil, in his 6th Ænied, had given the world a poetic account of the Teletai, which the Bishop kindly translated and expanded into the truth of absolute prose. The doctrine of immortality, he insisted, was the chief secret revealed in the mysteries. And thus he proved decisively that, because it taught a capital truth, Paganism must be a capital falsehood. It is impossible to go within a few pages into the innumerable details. Sufficient it would be for any casual reader to ask, if this were the very hinge of all legislative ethics in Greece, how it happened that it was a matter of pure fancy of accident whether any Greek, or even any Athenian, were initiated or not; 2dly, how the Bishop would escape the following dilemma—if the supposed doctrine were advanced merely as an opinion, one amongst others, then what authority did it draw from Eleusis? If, on the other hand, Eleusis pretended to some special argument for immortality, how came it that many Greek and some Roman philosophers, who had been introduced at Eleusis, or had even ascended to the highest degree of μυησις, did not, in discussing this question, refer to that secret proof which, though not privileged to develop, they might safely have built upon as a postulate amongst initiated brothers? An opinion ungrounded was entitled to no weight even in the mobs of Eleusis—an argument upon good grounds must have been often alluded to in philosophic schools. Neither could a nation of holy cowards, trembling like the bridge at Llanroost, have had it in their power to intercept the propagation of such a truth. The 47th of Euclid I. might have been kept a secret by fear of assassination, because no man could communicate that in a moment of intoxication; if his wife, for instance, should insist on his betraying the secret of that proposition, he might safely tell her—not a word would she understand or remember; and the worst result would be, that she would box his ears for imposing on her. I once heard a poor fellow complain, that, being a Freemason, he had been led the life of a dog by his wife, as if he were Samson and she were Dalilah, with the purpose of forcing him to betray the Masonic secret and sign: and these, he solemnly protested to us all, that he had betrayed most regularly and faithfully whenever he happened to be drunk. But what did he get for his goodness? All the return he ever had for the kindness of this invariable treachery was a word, too common, I regret to say, in female lips, viz. fiddle-de-dee: and he declared, with tears in his eyes, that peace for him was out of the question, until he could find out some plausible falsehood that might prove more satisfactory to his wife’s mind than the truth. Now the Eleusinian secret, if it related to the immortality of the soul, could not have the protection of obscurity and complex involution. If it had, then it could not have been intelligible to mobs: if it had not, then it could not have been guarded against the fervor of confidential conversation. A very subtle argument could not have been communicated to the multitudes that visited the shows—a very popular argument would have passed a man’s lips, in the ardour of argument, before he would himself be aware of it.
But all this is superfluous. Let the reader study the short essay of Lobeck on this subject, forming one section in three of his Aglaophamus, and he will treat, with derision, all the irrelevant skirmishing, and the vast roars of artillery pointed at shadows, which amuse the learned, but disgust the philosophic in the "Divine Legation." Much remains to be done that Lobeck’s rustic seclusion [521/522] denied him the opportunities for doing;6 much that can be done effectually only in great libraries, But I return to my assertion, that the most memorable of all Secret Societies was the meanest. That the Society which made more people hold their tongues than ever the Inquisition did, or the mediæval Vehm-gericht, was a hoax; nay, except Freemasonry, the hoax of hoaxes.
Last modified 7 August 2013