Vol. XLIV No. 2 — February 1966

“As You Increase in Knowledge”

Conrad Hahn

An interesting opinion about “what’s wrong with Freemasonry” was expressed by Brother Walter L. Wilmshurst of England:

Its energies have been diverted from its true instructional purpose into social and philanthropic channels, excellent in their way, but foreign to the primal main intention.

Our great need is to improve our members’ understanding of the Craft, to educate them in the deeper meaning and true purpose of its rites and its philosophy.

Relatively few Masons have very much knowledge of the historical forces that helped to develop Speculative Freemasonry in the eighteenth century. This may account for some lack of understanding about the Fraternity’s “true instructional purpose.”

Yet it would be unrealistic to assume that every member can or wants to acquire such understanding. Fortunately for Masonry’s “instructional purpose,” there are always quite a few members who like to read, to study, and then to help others grow in understanding by speaking and writing about the “deeper meaning and true purposes of Freemasonry’s rites and philosophy.” For such “teaching brethren” these comments on a recent book of history may be helpful.

In 1965, Will and Ariel Durant’s The Age of Voltaire, volume 9 of their Story of Civilization was published by Simon and Schuster, New York. The subtitle suggests its potential interest for Speculative Masons: “A History of Civilization in Western Europe from 1715 to 1756, with Special Emphasis on the Conflict between Religion and Philosophy.”

The tenth volume, Rousseau and Revolution (1756-1789), carries forward the story of “the explosion of ideas” in the eighteenth century that produced the modern era.

The Age of Voltaire is a “big book,” as are most of the volumes of The Story, which begins with Western man’s Oriental heritage and the life of Greece in the first two volumes. When author Durant brought out his popular Story of Philosophy in 1926, it was such an unexpected financial success that he was able to retire from active teaching and devote his life, with his wife’s invaluable assistance, to studying and writing. The volumes of this Civilization series are the fruits of those forty years’ labor.

The Age of Voltaire contains 898 pages, of which 100 make up the bibliography, reference notes, and an index. Happily, the notes are banished to the back pages and are so lightly numbered in the text that the reader is rarely distracted. He can move quickly with the flow of the narrative.

The bibliography lists approximately 400 volumes that Dr. Durant and his wife consulted in their studies. The reference notes, which identify facts or ideas that the authors used from those books, fill twenty-five and a half pages. There are 2,268 such references.

While statistically impressive, those figures indicate the extensive scholarship that created this book. That literary labor is remarkable. Yet the authors have avoided “the pedant’s curse.” Their story of eighteenth century civilization is at times very lively, and almost always interesting and readable.

Having studied so many of the literary productions of an age that has never been equaled for elegance of style and cleverness of wit, the authors have acquired some of the gifts of their subjects for the delight of their readers. Nevertheless, unless one has passed one of those contemporary speed-reading courses, one shouldn’t consider this volume “a week-end pastime.”

So large a literary canvas requires a myriad of details to fill it with reality. Realizing that such accumulation may at times slow up the historical narrative, the authors thoughtfully suggest in an introduction: “Passages in reduced type are especially dull and recondite, and are not essential to the general picture of the age.”

There are many short passages that could be selected to show the vividness of the writing: pictures of life among the masses in London and Paris, the beginnings of industrialization, the dissolute life of idle courtiers, the biographical sketches of famous and infamous men and women, the politics and economic activities of the age, the forces impelling nations to warfare. The Age of Voltaire truly brings the era to life.

However, for Masonic readers in search of the origins of Freemasonry’s philosophy and purpose, the most useful parts of this book are the sections dealing with the growth and development of ideas. Book IV, which deals with the “Advancement of Learning” (the longest division of the volume), is probably the most valuable for this purpose.

Throughout the other sections, however, the authors are constantly mindful of their purpose, “a special emphasis on the conflict between religion and philosophy.” They also take pains to show how this conflict differed from nation to nation.

For example, in describing the French theatre of the early eighteenth century, the Durants comment on the status of actors:

Socially their condition had improved; they were received in aristocratic homes, and in many cases they played at royal command. But the Church still condemned the theater as a school for scandal, held all actors to be ipso facto excommunicated, and forbade their burial in consecrated ground — which included every cemetery in Paris. . . .

On March 20, 1730, the famous actress, Mlle. Lecouvreur,

died in Voltaire’s arms. Since she had refused the last rites of the Church, canon law forbade her burial in consecrated ground. A friend engaged two torchbearers to take her body in a hackney coach and bury her clandestinely on the banks of the Seine. . . . (In the same year 1730 Anne Oldfield, an English actress, was buried with public honors in Westminster Abbey.) Voltaire wrote a poem, passionately denouncing the indignity of this burial.

The central theme of the book is “that pervasive and continuing conflict between religion and science-plus-philosophy that became a living drama in the eighteenth century, and that has resulted in the secret secularism of our times,” as the authors express it in an introductory “Apology.”

The bull against Freemasonry by Pope Clement XII in 1738 leaves no doubt that the Fraternity, especially on the Continent, was involved in this conflict. “In England the revolt, as expressed by the deists, had met with a relatively tolerant hearing, even from the Established Church; and perhaps for that reason the fire of revolt had died down.”

Freemasonry appears in the Durants’ book — as it should (but frequently does not) in any thorough survey of Western civilization in the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, the Durants failed to examine the most reliable sources of information and interpretation of Freemasonry. For example, there appears to be only one distinctively Masonic book in the bibliography of 400 titles — and that is a book written by an anti-Mason, a man who was tried in Paris after World War II for collaboration with the Nazis, Bernard Fay, author of Freemasonry and the Intellectual Revolution of the Eighteenth Century.

Professor Durant seems to think that the grand lodge organized in London in 1717 was just one of hundreds of clubs, fashionable in the eighteenth century, devoted to drinking, gambhng, political intrigue, and sometimes “the art of conversation.” Although most of those clubs have long since disappeared, the authors never seem to wonder why the “grand lodge” was the spearhead of an organization that spread itself all over the world during the next two centuries and now counts its membership in the millions.

The introduction of Freemasonry into France is described as “a refuge for deists,” founded by Jacobite refugees from England, and “a center of political intrigue.” The influence of Masonic ideas is acknowledged, although it is sweepingly (and somewhat inaccurately) credited with “preparing the way for the philosophes." (In 18th-century France, these were anti-clerical, anti-Christian thinkers and writers.)

In addition to short items about the Masonic initiations of Montesquieu and Frederick the Great, the only other references to Freemasonry in The Age of Voltaire are comments that echo the Church’s condemnation of the Craft. “Freemasons were . . . privately enjoying their deistic heresies. . . . Perhaps the Masonic lodges, generally dedicated to deism, shared in the sapping operation.” (The attacks against the Jesuits in France, which resulted in the Society’s suppression in 1762.)

It is not surprising that author Durant shows as little understanding of the greater if less spectacular influence of Freemasonry as his book reveals. He was educated in Catholic schools; he has not read widely in the literature of Freemasonry. He even seems unaware that Voltaire, the “hero” of his book, became a member of the Fraternity.

To his credit must be noted the ability to sum up feelingly the reasons why the Church was attacked so bitterly by nobles and philosophers in the eighteenth century:

In France the Church was a powerful organization owning a large share of the national wealth and soil, yet bound by supreme allegiance to a foreign power. It seemed to be draining more wealth from secular into ecclesiastical hands through its role in the making of wills and the guidance of bequests; it refused to pay taxes beyond its occasional “gratuitous gift”; it held thousands of peasants in practical serfdom on its lands. It had repeatedly profited from false documents and bogus miracles. It controlled nearly all schools and universities. . . . It denounced as heresy any teaching contrary to its own, and used the state to enforce its censorship over speech and press. . . . It had urged Louis XIV into the inhuman persecution of the Huguenots and the heartless destruction of Port-Royal. It had been guilty of barbarous campaigns against the Albigenses, and of sanctioning massacres like that of St. Bartholomew’s Day; it had fomented religious wars that had almost ruined France. And amid all these crimes against the human spirit it had pretended, and had made millions of simple people believe, that it was above and beyond reason and questioning, that it had inherited a divine revelation. . . and that its crimes were as much the will of God as were its charities.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that the Durants write as partisans. They are historians; they are in search of truth. That objective enables them to be delightfully ironic at times, as for example, when they mention some of the events that alarmed the Church and the King during the growth of toleration: “Some prelates — e.g., Bishop Fitzjames of Soissons in 1757 — issued a pastoral letter calling upon all Christians to regard all men as brothers.”

After listing the forces that led to the increase of toleration, the authors comment: “. . . whereas in the first half of the eighteenth century Huguenot preachers were still being hanged in France, in 1776 and 1778 a Swiss Protestant was summoned by a Catholic king to save the state.”

To the Mason who seeks to increase his knowledge of the century that brought forth the organization he enjoys today, this book contains much that will instruct and inform him.

So we end as we began, by perceiving that it was the philosophers and the theologians, not the warriors and diplomats, who were fighting the crucial battle of the eighteenth century, and that we were justified in calling that period the Age of Voltaire. . . . When we cease to honor Voltaire we shall be unworthy of freedom.

The Masonic Service Association of North America