Occult at Fin-de-Siecle:
Freemasonry’s Answer to Modernity and Modernity’s Response to Freemasonry
In 1717, four Freemason lodges in London decided to meet for dinner at an ale house and chose to elect a Grand Master. This meeting established the Grand Lodge of England and by the mid-eighteenth century the organization of freemasonry was blooming all throughout the Western world. The new organization was composed of affluent members with interests in science, politics, the arts, and philosophy living in the period we now call the Enlightenment. Throughout the century Freemason lodges would espouse ideas of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Freemasons would increasingly refer to themselves as “enlightened” in their pursuits of truth though understanding God’s laws. In the nineteenth century however, the tradition of the Enlightenment was both increasingly extrapolated and called into question. While positivism came to dominate and promote scientific thinking, people came to revolt against its utopian prospects as an Industrial age created new problems.
So how did this established Enlightenment society of Freemasonry respond to modernity? Furthermore, how did those living in the late nineteenth respond to the societies that had been founded on ideologies now coming under question. In other words, how did the organization of Freemasonry, with its own traditions rooted in Enlightenment ideology, react to modernity and how did modernity itself respond to Freemasonry? The Occult movement, emerging in late nineteenth century Europe and America, provides an answer to both these questions through its character and belief. Furthermore, the Occult movement provided a specific response to the debate around scientific positivism and its relationship to Freemasonry. This is by no means the whole story for the history of freemasonry or the intellectual and emotional challenges present in modernity but rather the overlap.
To begin we should look at some of the historical context in which these Occult societies arose. The late nineteenth century brought modernity to most of the Western world. The Industrial Revolution oversaw a large population explosion and rapid urbanization as people left the countryside and flocked to the cities in search of opportunity. Western imperialism, most notably that of Victorian England, had spread to every corner of the world and ushered in what might be called the first age of globalization. These economic conditions provide a material framework for the emerging “modern” society in which nearly all facets of life were thrown into chaos. As economic conditions changed so too did social, intellectual, political and religious attitudes. In the late nineteenth century intellectual thought began to reject notions of scientific unity yet moreover rejected the world metaphors that had been so difficult to break free from because of the prevalence in rhetoric.
Burrow quite succinctly sums up the problems encountered with modernity in transitioning from a feudal to industrial society,
It was widely perceived that criteria of modernity…included free labour and alienable private property, but also the impersonality or impartiality of the modern State, and the concept of equal citizenship (though not necessarily equality of political rights); the conscious, rational, controlled pursuit of given ends by appropriate means, whether as individual economic rationality or in the making of legal contracts, and legislation by the sovereign state contrasted with the binding force of custom and a multitude of overlapping jurisdictions.
This transition was not merely reflected in energy or technology, but in rapid demographic change, thereby undermining the very composition of social structures. Intellectual and scientific thought also responded to the rapidly changing world landscape. While one can trace the intellectual climate of this time to ideas emanating from the Enlightenment, the prominent thinkers of the age were not merely responding to the ideas of their forerunners but rather responding to changes they were seeing within their own lifetime; their own worlds were in flux more than their earlier positivist counterparts could even imagine. This alienation helped to create images of the self that contrasted sharply with those of the previous centuries seeing that, “image of man as a self-consciously rational being freely selecting among properly weighed alternatives…as an antiquated illusion.” The limitless and optimistic world of positivism was rejected in favor of a bounded and more overtly subjective one. The growth of positivistic science further contributed to alienation as human experience was more and more relegated to numbers in pursuit of objectivity. Porter also remarks on the positivist faith in objectivity as a moral means to achieve, “rule of law,” rather than of men. Ideas such as these present perhaps the most foundational ideologies of the time, those supporting political movements.
Similarly, a spiritualist movement had gradually emerged throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that sought ways to communicate with the world of the afterlife. This movement would also come to respond to the challenges posed by modernity in the form of what one author calls its own Theosophical Enlightenment. The origins of the spiritualist movement date to 1848 in Rochester, New York where three sisters claimed they were mediums and could speak to the dead. While gaining national fame and an undoubting following there was a particular peak in spiritualist interest immediately after the Civil War in the United States as people who had lost relatives sought ways to contact them. The mass interest in mediumship, trances, and séances soon spread to Britain and the rest of Europe ultimately culminating in the foundation of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society in 1875. Another spike in interest would again occur following World War I.
Spiritualism further emerged alongside the studies of phrenology and mesmerism, drawing on and revamping techniques of hypnosis, and finding appeal in their rationalization and explanation for altered consciousness. While the idea of other forces like animal “gravity” or “magnetism” appealed to early spiritualists, Mesmerism would suffer a loss of credibility in front of scientific authority. A report published by a panel of The Royal Academy of Sciences, which included Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier, drew the conclusion that mesmerism was not scientifically grounded. Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), Franklin, a prominent American Freemason, was also a favorite contact of the Rochester sisters and other mediums in the mid-nineteenth century. Even while not accepted within the scientific community, spiritualism and its supporters did not reject science. Instead, they rejected the materialism of the age and actively sought explanations, albeit with their own assumptions non-negotiable. The French philosopher Ravaiisson even referred to their approach as “spiritualistic positivism.” This approach would later take a more rigid scientific approach by the Theosophical Society and the emergence of psychological research. Even today when someone describes themselves as “spiritual” as opposed to “religious” there is a certain connotation of secularism creating a clear distinction of the political “religious” and the personal “spiritual.”
Even before any emergence of spiritualism, Freemasonry had formulated its own theological and ethical principles, among these being reason, equality and belief in a Supreme Being. Their references to God as “The Grand Architect” or “God of Newtonian science” reflects Enlightenment views about the purpose of science, namely to discover God’s laws. However, Freemasonry was first and foremost a social society rather than scientific one, yet from these social influences, scientific ideology also spread. Masonic values of equality and merit quickly translated into civic virtues and a general liberal ideology of the time. These values are also often seen as democratic and Masonic practices included elections, majority rule, and constitutions. In the second half of the eighteenth century Freemasons became more actively involved in pushing for liberal policies with Freemasons heavily active in both the French and American Revolutions. The organization also later played a significant role in Brazil’s independence whose flag would later come to bear a motto inspired by Auguste Comte. Offshoot and imitation groups such as the Illuminati in Bavaria also appeared for the express purpose of social and political reform.
Freemasonic scientific ideology took on several forms in the eighteenth century but maintained some common characteristics. British masons focused on Newtonian science and attempted to export their science to their French counterparts, stressing scientific lectures at the lodges. Moreover, Freemasonry considered science a universality stemming from God, a view easily compatible with positivism later. This view also coincided with the fraternal values espoused by Freemasons and they saw universalism through science as a uniting force between all theists, thereby advocating a religion of humanity.
While Freemasons adhered to a Baconian notion of science as a tool to reform society, their organization appeared a century too early for August Comte’s doctrine of positivism. However, it is difficult to separate Freemasonry and positivism since the start of the latter. While Comte himself was not a Freemason, he certainly was an admirer. Comte looked to Benjamin Franklin as inspiration for his own notion of a “religion of humanity” and referred to him as a “modern Socrates.” Aside from springing from a similar ideology as Freemasonry, positivism played a particularly strong role in French Freemasonry in the nineteenth century. Part of the reason for this partnership was positivism’s own political undertones of resistance against authoritarian means of knowledge, most notably from the Church. One author has suggested that Comte’s positivism first arose in France’s Grand Orient lodge as a means of education and through its acceptance in the lodges it was then used in the universities. This positivism was further borne out in the Grand Orient during the dawn of France’s Third Republic in the 1860s and 1870s as Republicanism attempted to assert control over the lodges. As Freemasonry turned from deism to positivism they were able to justify a morality without any theological considerations. They created a type of moral positivism and saw education as a means of imparting a social morality. At this time, the Grand Orient also removed the requirement of belief in a Supreme Being, alienating their counterparts throughout Europe. Part of this adoption of positivism came as a reaction to both Catholic theology and spiritualism. Freemasonry’s positivism contrasted with the spiritualist movement as they saw the latter lacking in a proper epistemology. Furthermore, in keeping with their tradition, Freemasons viewed positivism as a means of bettering humanity. The Grand Orient’s inability to disentangle itself from the political climate in France eventually fractured many of the lodges and led to a situation ripe for Freemasonry to take a new direction. France’s allowance of atheists in their lodges further caused a schism in international masonry with lodges in Britain cutting off all contact from their French counterparts. These disruptions within Freemasonry provided some impetus for Freemasons to seek out other institutions or found their own to serve their own needs. The Theosophical Society emerged from a Masonic fringe and was able to respond to Freemasonry’s identity crisis.
Furthermore, Freemasonry had its own occult connections from its inception and maintained limited connections to a mystical tradition through some of its interested members. Other societies at the time of Freemasonry’s blossoming included Rosicrucianism and several Hermetic orders and masons often found common ground with these societies. These mystic traditions began appearing during the Renaissance when Europeans uncovered Greek texts and believed that a set of perfect ancient knowledge had been lost. While Rosicrucianism was not Freemasonry’s predecessor, it played an influential role in its early Scottish formation with several texts claiming Hermes Trismegistus as a great teacher. In the nineteenth century, the spiritualist movement also closely associated themselves with Hermetic traditions. When freemasons established a Rosicrucian Society of England in 1866 it attracted a good number of spiritualists interested in Masonic symbolism. While each of these currents of Hermeticism, spiritualism, and Freemasonry had separate origins in different eras, they maintained close connections through members’ interests and once again found unity with the emergence of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society.
Much like the unification of London lodges in 1717, Madame Blavatsky was able to organize spiritualists and other theosophical groups under the organization of her Theosophical Society in 1875. We have already seen the close relationship between Freemasonry and other movements yet the Theosophical Society did not merely seek to incorporate masons and Freemasonry, it sought to provide an alternative. Similarly, the society also provided an alternative to the religiously-laden spiritualist movement. Blavatsky was of Ukrainian origins yet prided herself as a world traveler, visiting nearly every continent in her quest for knowledge. One of her goals in founding her society was to provide a new direction for American spiritualism yet she soon came to reject spiritualism altogether. However, Theosophy’s primary rejection of spiritualism came from anti-Christian sentiment and her group drew on many spiritualists disenchanted with the religion. Instead she turned to science for answers, ultimately hoping to preach the unity of religion and science. Speaking to a newspaper in 1884, she outlined her aspirations to create, “an exact science, based, like any other science, upon the recorded result of centuries of experience.” Statements like these reflect a modernist attitude while at the same time stressing the Hermetic tradition of ancient knowledge. Another one of her followers similarly explained the purpose of Theosophy as finding that, “Higher science, which is also Religion in its truest sense.”
The observant reader may have realized certain similarities in the theological and philosophical outlooks of both Theosophy and Freemasonry. The societies maintained a casual deism drawing on Enlightenment inspiration and espoused a global viewpoint. Therefore it should come as no surprise then that Madame Blavatsky had studied and immersed herself in Freemasonry and applied many of the teachings to Theosophy. Freemasonry had prohibited women from joining so Blavatsky instead learned its teachings in Egypt, most likely from Albert Rawson. Rawson, a mason himself, was heavily involved with secret societies throughout the Arab world and later attempted to orientalize American freemasonry. As an illustration of the Blavatsky’s Enlightenment, Masonic, and anti-religious influences Rawson would deliver a speech in 1878 “contrasting the evils of Christianity with the promises held out by Liberalism, Positivism, science, and altruism.” However, as the new century began approaching the more spiritualist Theosophists began to represent a sect disenchanted from the unfulfilled promises of science. Furthermore, the Theosophical Society adopted some of Freemasonry’s social and cultural structure composed of sets of passwords, symbols, and rituals. Within six months of the society’s founding, it became a secret society with orders of degrees after a mason gave a lecture on Egyptian symbolism which made new members uncomfortable. This withdrawal from public inclusion further allied Theosophy with Freemasonry. While the Theosophical Society still does not bring us to the issue of the Occult, it serves as a stepping stone to illustrate how Freemasonry began to respond to a changing modern landscape. The final culmination of the forces of modernity would occur in the 1890s with what Hughes calls an “intellectual revolution,” manifesting within the Theosophical Society as a fracturing and subsequent rise of myriad Occult societies in its place.
Ravaiisson’s characterization of “spiritualistic positivism” seemed to materialize with the formation of psychological and psychical societies in the 1880’s. In 1882, a group which included some Theosophical Society members, established the British branch of the Society for Psychical Research and two years later the society came to America. Similarly, a German Psychological Society was founded in 1886 and published their manifesto in the Occult journal Sphinx. These organizations were set up to investigate paranormal phenomenon that the Theosophical Society and others were reporting. Some of these phenomena included hallucinations, trance states, and lucid dreams. These societies also represent the emergence of a type of clinical psychology and the terms psychical and psychological were used interchangeably, sometimes with psychological referring specifically to paranormal research. However, instead of explaining these phenomena through a universal irrational reality comprised of unknown outside forces, the field of inquiry turned inward, to explore the human mind, the consciousness, and the self. Whereas spiritualists might associate a medium with having supernatural powers, a psychical researcher might explain it as a “subliminal consciousness.” The Society for Psychical Research’s reports and findings often contradicted claims by spiritualists and eventually caused a split from the Theosophical Society in 1885. In America, the Society took a much more positivistic tone with its leader, William James, specifically addressing the issue in his Principles of Psychology, arguing that psychology should be concerned with metaphysical matters. Instead, James specifically elected scientists to leadership positions in order to establish psychology as anti-spiritualist. This type of psychology represented an overextension of positivism that would bring about the reactionary decade of the 1890’s. One author explains the consequences of these research plans as spiritualist phenomena, “if real, seemed to fall within the realm of psychological science and the refusal to address them made science look inadequate.” While these societies found an enemy in spiritualism, they ultimately found a friend in the Occult. Instead, the main competition of the psychical researchers came from Freud and Jung, who were both themselves somewhat taken with the Occult. When the Theosophical Society fractured, the Occult societies embraced notions of the psyche and the “mutuality between self and consciousness.”
While there existed numerous Occult societies in the decade of the 1890s with a variety of beliefs and platforms, one of the most powerful and prominent groups was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The group was established in 1888 by three freemason members of the Theosophical Society, two of whom also attended group meetings of a London Hermetic society. The Golden Dawn sold itself as practical occultism and dabbled in astrology, alchemy, and the tarot. In response to the formation of the Golden Dawn, Blavatsky created a highly secret inner circle of her Theosophical Society which taught occult magic. This shift to a more psychological inward experience mirrored the anti-positivist wave emerging in the 1890’s. Alex Owen, arguing that the Occult was emblematic of modern culture, explains “the Order frowned upon spiritualist mediumship, mesmerism, and any practice that encouraged a passive will, and thus learned indirectly that occultism stressed the control of consciousness through the operation of the active will.” The Occult’s rejection of the certainties of Victorian science found common ground with its generation and thrived in this period riddled by anxiety and anticipation.
Unlike the Theosophical Society which only drew heavily from the freemasons, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn nearly mirrored their structure. The society had been founded by freemasons and drew heavily from a Rosicrucian freemason tradition and the close relationship between the groups still haunts them in conspiracy literature. One of the early “Chiefs” of the Golden Dawn remarked that “The secrets of Occultism are like Freemasonry; in truth they are to some extent the secrets Freemasonry has lost.” This viewpoint implies an anti-positivistic turn in Freemasonry itself as some of its members sought an occult supplement to the traditional teachings. The objective individualism present in mainstream Freemason ideology was overturned in the form of a subjective collectivism in the Occult where people could meet to travel to planets or perform magic through will. It further provided an appeal as it democratized knowledge as it no longer had to come from traditional learning. Blavatsky’s basis for empirical knowledge received both a boost and a twist as knowledge could be found within.
While the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had explicit and foundational ties to Freemasonry, the Occult in general also shared basic commonalities. First, as a result of urbanization and industrializations, the Occult, like Freemasonry, was a cosmopolitan organization that for the most part and for a while transcended national identity. While there existed Occult groups scattered throughout the world, many established by parent societies in Europe, the Occult was a Western institution. Globalization and urbanization shrank the outside world while expanding the tangible one leading people to seek out artificial communities such as the Occult. An interesting comparison would be the rise of athletic clubs across Europe also occurring at this time and the reinvention of tribalism. Furthermore, many of the societies drew on the Renaissance traditions of Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism and maintained hierarchical levels of knowledge.
Of course, the beliefs and character of the Occult also contrasted sharply with those of Freemasonry. Beginning with Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, some prominent fissures had begun to emerge. First and foremost was the changing political landscape. While Freemasonry associated closely with liberal philosophy, those active in the Occult and spiritualist movements were often active in socialist causes. The Theosophical society, and later the Occult, also parted from Freemasonry in their inclusion of women and their attraction to all classes of society as opposed to Freemasonry’s mostly affluent members. Much like knowledge was democratized through self-experience, this type of secret knowledge was now accessible to everyone. The Theosophical Society also campaigned heavily for women’s rights, vegetarianism, anti-vaccination, and anti-vivisection. By appealing to the more progressive movements of modernity, some a direct reaction to modernity and positivism, the Occult provided an alternative to the Freemasonry organization or for those that could access it, a supplement.
Perhaps the greatest dichotomy between Freemasonry and the Occult comes from history. As Freemasonry is commonly associated with the liberal revolutions in France, the United States, and Brazil, the Occult is often associated with the rise of Fascism in Germany and Austria. Burrow makes the argument that the Occult in these countries took a racial turn brought on by Social Darwinism. They believed that if there was ancient Hindu and Buddhist knowledge then there is also ancient Aryan knowledge. This rationale was not particular to Germany either yet most likely took its most radical form there. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats, as a member of the Golden Dawn, took a keen interest in Celtic mythology and folklore. The political and philosophical split was further highlighted with the creation of Jewish-Masonic conspiracies and the subsequent persecution of both under the Third Reich.
So what was this part of both freemasonry and an interested society rejecting in the last decades of the nineteenth century? What did this explosion of secret occult societies mean? While the societies were modern in their cosmopolitan outlook and incorporation of Eastern mysticism, their emergence stemmed from a reaction to several modern currents. Occult teachings and organizations were able to provide answers to many of the problems brought up by these dynamic intellectual shifts. Similarly, these currents were well-founded within Freemasonry which provided an almost inevitable schism in the organization in they were to function within society. First, the trend towards secularization left many conflicted and unwilling to reject the authority of religious knowledge. While the Theosophical Society took an anti-Christian stance, they willingly embraced Eastern religions, seeing the Church as having corrupted or distracted from a more powerful ancient wisdom-religion. The secularization that had been seen as a unifying force for Freemason deism and Theosophy’s universal truth gave way to the dividing force of racial occultism as an alternative to religious brotherhood. Furthermore secularization neglected to provide answers for questions previously answered by religious knowledge. Secondly, the Occult revolted against positivism. The promises of certain science and its ability to answer the unanswerable were called into question. Attempted inquiries into the soul such as those conducted by the Society for Psychical Research found themselves caught between acceptance as a science and the practical concerns and assumptions of their queries. The Occult’s popular appeal also lay in its alternative to modern science’s need for measurement and quantification. Thirdly, there was a sincere concern over scientific materialism. By the late nineteenth century Christianity had succumbed to the pressures of scientific discovery and materialism became the orthodoxy of thought. However, people turning from old religion would not so easily part with anti-materialist views and found solace in spiritualist, and later Occult, teachings.
This transition to secularization, push for rationalization, and rejection of metaphysical explanations is what Weber called “disenchantment,” which comprised a key feature of Western culture. The Occult in fin-de-siècle Europe and America found itself caught somewhere in this process of “disenchantment,” yet grew confident in their maintenance of secret knowledge that positivistic science could not reach. Instead, one author has proposed that the Occult magic of this era became “disenchanted magic” in that a fusion of religion and science, endemic in the Occult, created a more rationalized and less romantic magic. This sentiment would later manifest within its own cultural context from Arthur C. Clarke in 1962 with “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Another author has referred to this transition as “the secularization of the soul” implying similar issues in “disenchantment.” However, a further author has argued that instead of disenchantment in the West, there has been a “re-enchantment” originating with nineteenth century occultism and the decade of the 1890s which wrested away authority from positivism and secularization. Furthermore, this re-enchantment may be viewed as partly originating in Enlightenment as rationalization of phenomena through empiricism at the personal level.
When the spirit of an age is materialistically captured and codified in organizations it creates a natural strain on that organization’s self-justification. Most organizations are able to cope with change in a flexible way as their individual members shape their platform overtime. Sometimes, revolutions from within solve debates, other times an organization will be peacefully “bought out” or appropriated by another offshoot organization. The Church has undergone many such shifts, restructuring its own philosophy around changing attitudes and knowledge. Similarly, the US Constitution and other laws have been reinterpreted over time to accommodate a changing climate while elsewhere boiling points are forming around nuances in previous generations’ philosophies. This becomes more problematic in the case of secretive societies and ritualistic groups. In many ways, these groups, while professing democratic knowledge are rather authoritarian and rigid in their hierarchical and apprentice-like transfer of knowledge. The vast array of the fin-de-siècle Occult societies attests to the chaotic restructuring demanded by modernity in the 1890s. The organization of Freemasonry, entrenched in its Enlightenment upbringing, was directly confronted by modernity and a culture different from that of its origins. In many ways, Freemasonry provided an easy and symbolic target for the false promises of modernity and scientific thought. However, its social function and claims of esoteric knowledge found refuge in Occult societies which provided society with an alternative.
 Margaret Jacob, Living the Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 145.
 For definitional purposes, a capitalized Occult will refer to the fin-de-siecle Occult societies rather than the broader definition of a much longer tradition of mystical practices referred to as occult.
 J.W. Burrows, Crisis of Reason (New Haven:YaleUniversity Press, 2000), 113.
 H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (Frogmore: Paladin, 1974), 4.
 Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 74.
 Wade E. Pickren and Donald A. Dewsbery, ed., Evolving Perspectives on the History of Psychology (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2001), 122.
 Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 18.
 Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 152.
 Id., 188.
 Owen, 20; Janet Oppenheimer, The Other World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 159.
 Sara Heinamaa and Martina Reuter, Psychology and Philosophy (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), 245.
 Margaret Jacob, The Origins of Freemasonry (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2006), 24.
 Id., 15
 Jacob 1991, 65.
 Id., 66.
 Charles Sumner Lobingier, Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 1992), 21.
 See Tom Steele, “The Role of Scientific Positivism in European Popular Education Movements: The Case of France,” International Journal of Lifelong Education 21 no. 5, (2002).
 Philip Nord, “Republicanism and Utopian Vision: French Freemasonry in the 1860s and 1870s,” The Journal of Modern History 63, no. 2 (1991), 213.
 Phyllis Stock-Morton, Moral Education for a Secular Society (Albany: State of New York Press, 1988), 94.
 Nord, 221.
 Jacob 1991, 36.
 Owen, 54.
 Oppenheimer, 166.
 Owen, 34.
 Oppenheimer, 195.
 Id., 196.
 Godwin, 280.
 Id., 281.
 Id., 286.
 Owen, 39.
 Godwin, 287-88.
 Corinna Treitel, Science for the Soul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 40.
 Pickren and Dewsbery, 126-7.
 Owen, 121.
 Pickren and Dewsbery, 130.
 Id., 124-5.
 Id., 131.
 Treitel, 20 and John Cerullo, The Secularization of the Soul (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982), xiii.
 Owen, 121.
 Id., 46.
 Id., 69.
 Id., 54.
 Id., 24-25, 40.
 Burrow, 239.
 See Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “How Magic Survived the Disenchantment of the World,” Religion 33, no. 4 (2003).
 See Cerullo.
 See Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West (London: T&T Clark International, 2004).