« PreviousContinue »
projected or begun, than in all the ten centuries which had elapsed between Charlemagne and the last of his successors;-in a word, where the ancient edifice, founded in the ages of barbarism with such apparent solidity, strengthened and adorned in the progress of civilization with so much skill and labour, was in one moment levelled with the dust. A general state of alarm and distrust was the effect of the convulsions which men saw every where around them; where the institutions held as sacred from their origin, or venerable from their antiquity, and essential to the order of society, were seen, not falling to pieces from natural decay, but blown up by the force of a sudden and unforeseen explosion. From such a condition of the world, jealousy and credulity could not fail to arise. When danger is all around, every thing is of course suspected; and when the ordinary connection between causes and effects cannot be traced, men have no means of distinguishing between the probable and the improbable; so that their opinions are dictated by their prejudices, their impressions, and their fears. Such, accordingly, was the state into which men's minds were brought at this extraordinary crisis; and even in this country, removed, as we were, from the danger, by so strong a barrier of causes, both moral and physical, the alarm was general and indiscriminate. The progress of knowledge was supposed by many to be
the cause of the disorder; panegyrics on ignorance and prejudice were openly pronounced; the serious and the gay joined in declaiming against reason and philosophy; and all seemed to forget, that when reason and philosophy have erred, it is by themselves alone that their errors can be corrected.
The fears that had thus taken possession of men's minds were often artificially increased. It was supposed that the general safety depended on the general alarm; that the more the terror was extended, the more would the object of it be resisted; and hence, doubtless, many felt it their interest, and some considered it their duty, to magnify the danger to which the public was exposed.
It is evident, that an inquiry into the causes of the French Revolution, undertaken at a moment of such agitation, was not likely to bear the review of times of calm and sober reflection. It was at this moment, however, and under the influence of such impressions, that Mr Robison undertook to explain the causes of that revolution. He was deeply affected by the scenes that were passing before him. He possessed great sensibility, and his mind, peculiarly alive to immediate impressions, felt strongly the danger to which the social order of every nation seemed now to be exposed. The crimes which the name of Liberty had been employed to sanction, filled him with indignation, and the contempt of religion, affected by many of the lead
ers of the Revolution, wounded those sentiments of piety which he had uniformly cherished from his early youth.
In such circumstances, a mind accustomed to inquire into causes, as his had long been, could not abstain from the attempt to trace the sources of so extraordinary a succession of events. As to the circumstances which first led him, and led him, I think, so unhappily, to look for those sources in the institutions of Free Masonry, or in the combination of some German mystics, I have nothing satisfactory to offer. He was accustomed to refined and subtle speculations, and naturally entertained a partiality for theories that called into action the powers by which he was peculiarly distinguished.
In 1797, he published a book, entitled "Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe." He supposes that this conspiracy originated in the lodges of the Free Masons, but that it first assumed a regular form in the hands of certain philosophic fanatics, distinguished in Germany by the name of Illuminati; that after the suppression of this society by the authority of government, the spirit was kept alive by what was called the German Union; that its principles gradually infected most of the philosophers of France and Germany, and lastly broke forth with full force in the French Revolution.
The history of Illuminatism, as it is called, forms the principal part of the work; and on a subject involved in great mystery, where all the evidence came through the hands of friends or of enemies, it was exceedingly difficult for one liv.. ing in a foreign country, and a stranger to the public opinion, to obtain accurate information. Accordingly, the events related, and the characters described, as proofs of the conspiracy, are of so extraordinary a nature, that it is difficult to persuade one's self that the original documents from which Mr Robison drew up his narrative were entitled to all the confidence which he reposed in them.
I do not mean to question the general fact, that there did exist in Germany a society having the vanity to assume the name just mentioned, and the presumption or the simplicity to believe that it could reform the world. In a land where the tendency to the romantic and the mysterious seems so general, that even philosophy and science have not escaped the infection, and in states where there is much that requires amendment, it is not wonderful -if associations have been formed for redressing grievances, and reforming both religion and government. Some men, truly philanthropic, and others, merely profligate, may have joined in this combination; the former, very erroneously supposing, that the interests of truth and of mankind may be advanced by cabal and intrigue; and the latter, more wisely
concluding, that these are engines well adapted to promote the dissemination of error, and the schemes. of private aggrandisement, An ex-Jesuit may have been the author of this plan, and whether he belonged to the former or the latter class, may have chosen for the model of the new arrangement, those institutions which he knew from experience to be well adapted for exercising a strong but secret influence in the direction of human affairs.
In all this there is nothing incredible; but the same, I think, cannot be asserted, when the particulars are examined in detail. It is extremely difficult, as has already been remarked, for a foreigner, in such circumstances as Mr Robison's, to avoid delusion, or to determine between the different kinds of testimony of which he must make use. With me, who have no access to the original documents, and if I had, who have neither leisure nor inclination to examine them, an opinion can only be formed from the internal evidence, that is, from the nature of the facts, and the style in which they are recorded. The style of the works from which Mr Robison composed his narrative, is not such as to inspire confidence; for, wherever it is quoted, it is that of an angry and inflated invective. The facts themselves are altogether singular, arguing a depravity quite unexampled in all the votaries of illumination. From the perusal of the whole, it is impossible not to conclude,