Martinism in Eighteenth-Century France

Authored by: Christian Giudice

The Occult World

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415695961
eBook ISBN: 9781315745916
Adobe ISBN: 9781317596769


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Arthur Edward Waite, a fin de siècle author who wrote extensively on occult matters, argued that, during the second half of the eighteenth century, the intellectual and political centre of all things was the kingdom of France (Waite 1922: 7). As will be seen, while Waite’s assessment is not incorrect, it does tend to ignore the mystical inspiration engendered by the distinctive thinkers of the siècle des Lumières. The Age of Reason in France saw the rise, during the second half of the eighteenth century, of a cultural revolution which would bring radical social and intellectual changes in the country (Porter 2001; Brewer 2008). Representative of the essence of French Enlightenment was the publication of the Encyclopaedia (1751–72), edited by Denis Diderot (1713–84) and Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert (1717–83), which, according to the aims of its editors and contributors, proposed to incorporate all world-knowledge in one oeuvre, under the rigorous scrutiny of scientific thought and reason. According to nineteenth-century occultist Papus (1895: 146) – the pseudonym of Gérard Encausse (1865–1916) – the intellectual revolution was not the only upheaval to be witnessed during this period. There was also an occult revolution that took place inside Masonic lodges. If most felt this to be a time to create a new society with a rational set of commandments to guide it, some felt lost in an age devoid of spirituality. Indeed, the power of religious sentiment has been widely overlooked in assessments of the period, in that, at the margins of the mainstream intellectual turmoil, lay the remnants of a rooted appeal to a more magical approach to life and nature (Roberts 2008: 106). Thus, far from being simply a reassuring and positivist era, disillusionment and a retreat into the realms of what would have then been considered irrationalism were a hallmark of the times too. As argued by Waite, ‘it was a time of wonder-seeking, of portents, and prophets, and marvels: it was the time of Cagliostro and Mesmer, of mystic Masonry and wild Trancendentalism’ (1922: 9). Illuminism and its champions stood against Enlightenment values, with the aim of finding a connection to a superior, moral order, and most of the Illuminée were likely to belong to the new Masonic lodges which spread in numbers throughout France from 1750 onwards. Here, those unsatisfied with the materialistic outlook on life could discover occult ways of seeking reconciliation and reintegration with the moral, religious dimension. Here, the tenets of Freemasonry blended with theosophical ideas in order to create a new, esoteric approach to Christianity. Martinism, comprising the doctrines set forth by Martinès de Pasqually (1726/7–1774) and his two most eminent followers Jean Baptiste Willermoz (1730–1824) and Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743–1803), is an excellent example of a new current born as an attempt to provide a path for mankind to return to a more spiritual quality of existence. When Papus published his volume Martinésisme, Willermosisme, Martinism et Franc-Maçonnerie in 1899, the French occultist clearly described the wider concept of Martinism as the combination of the influences of the three aforementioned eighteenth-century characters.

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