French Revolution, Masonic Symbolism and regeneration
by Terry Melanson - April 27, 2012
Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, by James H. Billington, is arguably the most valuable reference on revolutionaries ever written. (The softcover that I purchased in 2004 is in tatters from overuse and nearly impossible to handle; the situation is the same, I suspect, for many students and historians of the subject.) The body of the text is remarkable enough, however his extensive notes also feature a narrative full of minutia, and multiple citations ranging from a paragraph to a full page. I continually mine it for new leads, and constantly discover that many of the obscure older sources – once only housed in prestigious University and libraries – are now accessible on the internet.
An example that I’ve found lately is a 1910 article by Otto Karmin. Here’s the passage from Billington followed by citations (pp. 93, 537-8):
In the early days of the revolution, Masonry provided much of the key symbolism and ritual—beginning with the Masonic welcome under a “vault of swords” of the king at the Hotel de Ville three days after the fall of the Bastille. To be sure, most French Masons prior to the revolution had been “not revolutionaries, not even reformers, nor even discontent”; and, even during the revolution, Masonry as such remained politically polymorphous: “Each social element and each political tendency could ‘go masonic’ as it wished.” But Masonry provided a rich and relatively nontraditional foraging ground for new national symbols (coins, songs, banners, seals), new forms of address (tu, frère, vivat!), and new models for civic organizations, particularly outside Paris.
36. On the use of the voûte d’acier on Jul 17, see J. Palou, La Franc-maçonnerie, 1972, 187.
37. D. Mornet, Les Origines intellectuelles de la révolution française (1715–1787), 1954, 375; discussion 357–87; bibliography, 523–5; and outside of France, Billington, Icon, 712–4. A. Mellor, Les Mythes maçonniques, (1974) also minimizes Masonic influence, though vaguely acknowledging the influence of the occultist revival on the revolutionary movement.
38. Ligou, “Source,” 46, also 49.
39. This subject has never been comprehensively studied. For the best discussions in general terms, see O. Karmin, “L’Influence du symbolisme maçonnique sur le symbolisme révolutionnaire,” Revue Historique de la Révolution Française, 1910, I, 183–8 (particularly on numismatics); J. Brengues, “La Franc-maçonnerie et la fête révolutionnaire,” Humanisme, 1974, Jul–Aug, 31– 7; Palou, 181–215; R. Cotte, “De la Musique des loges maçonniques à celles des fêtes révolutionnaires,” Les Fêtes de la révolution, 1977, 565–74; and the more qualified assessment of Ligou, “Structures et symbolisme maçonniques sous la révolution,” Annales Historiques, 1969, Jul Sep, 511–23.
For the heavy reliance on Masonic structures in provincial civic rituals, see, for instance, F. Vermale, “La Franc maçonnerie savoisienne au début de la révolution et les dames de Bellegarde,” Annales Révolutionnaires, III, 1910, 375–94; and especially the monumental work for la Sarthe which lifts the level of research far above anything done for Paris: A. Bouton, Les Franc-maçons manceaux et la révolution française, 1741–1815, Le Mans, 1958. See also his successor volume Les Luttes ordentes des francs-maçons manceaux pour l’établissement de la république 1815–1914, Le Mans, 1966.
In the New World, where the links between Masonic and revolutionary organizations were particularly strong, rival revolutionary parties sometimes assumed the names of rival rites. In Mexico, for instance, escoceses (pro-English “centralists” from Scottish rite lodges) battled yorquinos (federalists from the rite of York introduced by the first U.S. ambassador, Joel Poinsett). See A. Bonner, “Mexican Pamphlets in the Bodleian Library,” The Bodleian Library Record, 1970, Apr, 207–8.
Leads a plenty.
It was the Karmin article, after finding it online, which compelled me to compile “Masonic Emblems on Coins and Medallions during the French Revolution.”
Basically, what he did was mine the data in a standard numismatic reference work and highlight the examples of Masonic influence – minus illustrations, hence the need for my own treatment. The evidence is clear and seems deliberate, although one isn’t quite sure whether the artists involved were actually Masons themselves.
Before Karmin lists his numismatic findings, there’s a ten page introduction about Masonic influences in general. Rallying cries, songs, and distinct phrases suddenly appear in popular revolutionary discourse that can be traced back to Masonic lore. L’École de Mars is mentioned as well, whose uniforms were designed by the famous artist Jacques-Louis David, responsible for some of the most iconic images of the French Revolution. Karmin matter-of-factly calls him “le franc-maçon David,” but disagreement among historians persists (Professor Albert Boime, however, apparently provided evidence in the affirmative, during a 1989 conference titled “David contre David.”)
David had many students. The engraver Augustin Dupré was one of them. He was friends with Benjamin Franklin who commissioned him to engrave the famous Libertas Americana medal in 1782/3. Dupré is prominent in Karmin’s list, having been the engraver for numbers’ 39, 423, 608, 613, 748 and duplicates thereof.
Number 608 (1793) is quite interesting. It’s a coin depicting the August 10th, 1793 Fête de l’Unité et de l’Indivisibilité, featuring the “Fountain of Regeneration” (the Egyptian goddess Isis) on the ruins of the Bastille. David was responsible for the details of the festival, while his student Dupré commemorated it.
Historian Dan Edelstein provides some important perspective:
Instead of a new Augustus, this golden age was placed under the aegis of Astraea, goddess of justice, referred to hear through her zodiacal scales (“sous ta balance”). But it wasn’t only in poetry that this return to the golden age was suggested. The festival itself comprised numerous attempts to materialize, or perform, this restoration of a natural state. First among these was the statue of Nature herself. Here was no ordinary allegory, not one of those Cybele’s or Ceres’s that parade through revolutionary iconography, but the original nature goddess herself, Isis. “The ancients … called Nature … Is-is,” Nicolas de Bonneville reminded his readers in his 1792 treatise on religion and myth. One did not need an antiquarian’s erudition to note this identity: Kant, for instance, refers to Isis as “Mother Nature” in a famous footnote in the Critique of Judgment.
If Isis was different from other allegories, it was because Egypt was different, or more specifically, because Egypt came first. “Greek myths [are only] an imitation of Egyptian ones,” Pernety asserted, echoing Plutarch’s claims in Isis and Osiris. And in the beginning, humanity worshipped nature: “Our fathers rendered a cult to nature whom they called … Isis.” A slew of antiquarian research favored this Egyptian primacy, associating Egypt with the “historical” land of the golden age. By choosing Isis over a Roman or Greek goddess, [Jacques-Louis] David, who planned the festival, was thus signaling that the Revolution took its mystical vocation seriously. Enigmatically seated where the process of French regeneration had begun four years before, Isis symbolized less the Enlightenment idea of nature qua observable “system” than an antiquarian idea of nature qua original order of the world, since lost. As E. H. Gombrich noted in his discussion of the fountain, “the novus ordo was somehow a return to the wisdom of the ancients.” (The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 184-185)
“Egyptomania” during the Enlightenment is well documented – literature, Freemasonry, secret societies of all sorts, antiquarianism and philosophy. It didn’t escape the imagination of the Bavarian Illuminati, either. In combination with venerating Minerva and her owl, Adam Weishaupt admonished his initiates to study the doctrines of the Egyptian Priests of Isis; a pyramid was painted on the Lodge floor during Minerval assemblies; above the head of the Minerval Superior hung a “man-headed [Ba-]bird with a headdress and helmet surmounted by a feather, standing upright on a sphere of the sun and holding in one paw a sword and shield and an olive branch in the other”; and excerpts from Sethos and Crata Repoa were read after reciting the Ode to Wisdom (Perfectibilists, pp. 174, 214-20, 226 n.27).
The President of the convention, Hérault de Séchelle addressed the 1793 gathering:
“Sovereign of the savage and of the enlightened nations, O Nature, this great people, gathered at the first beam of day before thee, is free! It is in thy bosom, it is in thy sacred sources, that it has recovered its rights, That it has regenerated itself after traversing so many ages of error and servitude: It must return to the simplicity of thy ways to rediscover liberty and equality. O Nature! receive the expression of the eternal attachment of the French people for thy laws; And may the teeming waters gushing from thy breasts, may this pure beverage which refreshed the first human beings, consecrate is this Cup of Fraternity and Equality the vows that France makes thee this day, — the most beautiful that the sun has illumined since it was suspended in the immensity of space.” (cf. Edelstein, op. cit., p.182)
This “regeneration” of France was marked by longing for a golden age utopian-primitivism; in the palingenesis ideology of Charles Bonnet, Court de Gebelin, Saint-Martin, Joseph de Maistre and a sociopolitical (perfectibilist) philosophy of history later popularized in the works of Saint-Simon and Hegel (who was in turn influenced by Herder and other philosophers associated with the Illuminati).
As I wrote in 2008:
Palingenesis is derived from the Greek palin- (again) and genesis (birth, becoming), meaning “continuous rebirth,” and is closely related (if not identical) to the doctrine of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the souls (hence, for obvious reasons, Bonnet might have been a key source in constructing the philosophy found in the Docetist degree). Throughout Weishaupt’s “metaphysical disquisitions,” one can recognize “echoes of Charles Bonnet’s extrapolations to possible future worlds,” writes Di Giovanni.77 Akin to a sort of materialistic pantheism, and infused with the quest for pansophia (universal knowledge) and pre-established harmony, “Bonnet’s philosophical palingenesis is a naturalistic explanation of resurrection”; representing a sequence “by which the chain rises toward biological complexity and spiritual perfection as ‘évolution.’”78
76. Di Giovanni op. cit.; on Locke: pp. 45, 47; on Bonnet: pp. 46, 308-9 n. 39. In Einige
Originalschriften des Illuminatenordens, p. 321, while in a letter to Zwack on the possibility
of renaming the Illuminati as the Society of the Bees, Weishaupt specifically recommends
Bonnet and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788); both of whom had
written natural studies and observations on the behavior of bees.
77. Ibid., p. 46.
78. Arthur McCalla, A Romantic Historiosophy: The Philosophy of History of Pierre-Simon Ballanche, BRILL, 1998, pp. 155, 156. Bonnet had also put forth a sort of evolutionary
Catastrophism, speculating that the world had gone through “a series of ‘revolutions of the
globe’, or physical catastrophes, that so massively reshape the earth that each revolution is
like a new creation” (Perfectibilists., pp. 192, 202).
Nationalist fascist fervour sprung from the same fount, as has been pointed out by Roger Griffin:
From the very beginning the Revolutionaries understood they were ‘participating in what seemed to them to be the regeneration of the world’. … “[requiring] nothing less than a new man and new habits’, and that these could somehow be created by new symbols. The events in the East bloq in the bicentenary of the French Revolution provide eloquent testimony to the fact that liberalism in its extra-systemic, utopian aspect is still capable of acting as a populist form of palingenetic myth as fascism was in its day. (The Nature of Fascism, Routledge, 1993, pp. 193-4)