The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe

By James Van Horn Melton | Go to book overview

8
Freemasonry: toward civil society

Coffeehouses and masonic lodges were similar in important respects. Both flourished first in Great Britain and later spread to the continent. Both were at times associated with sedition, although freemasons repeatedly insisted on the nonpolitical aims of their lodges. And as places where individuals from diverse social and occupational backgrounds intermingled, both tended to dissolve distinctions of rank and foster the more egalitarian style of sociability characteristic of the Enlightenment public sphere. In the process, each contributed to the formation of newsocial identities distinct from traditional corporate and hierarchical norms of Old Regime society.

Membership in a lodge was voluntary, not ascribed, and was defined by criteria that were independent of the individual's formal legal status. Lodges cut across boundaries of occupation, confession, and class. They created or expanded networks of communication and sociability, and encouraged contacts between individuals from varying social backgrounds and regions. For these and other reasons, scholars like Margaret Jacob have emphasized the ways in which freemasonry anticipated the forms of associational life characteristic of modern civil society. Freemasonry was the first secular, voluntary association ever to have existed on a panEuropean scale. It was also the largest, at least in the eighteenth century. In France, for example, freemasons may have comprised as much as 5 percent of the urban, adult male population on the eve of the Revolution.1 Adolph Freiherr von Knigge, a Hanoverian aristocrat and for a time an important figure in the Illuminati movement (see below), noted in 1788 the spread of masonic lodges and other secret societies in the Holy Roman Empire: “Nowadays one meets few men, regardless of their estate, who have not for at least a time been a member of a secret brotherhood, whether out of a search for knowledge, a need to socialize with others, or sheer curiosity. ”2

____________________
1
Daniel Roche, La France des lumières (Paris, 1993), 392.
2
Knigge, Über den Umgang mit Menschen (Hanover, 1788), 382 (in Knigge, Ausgewählte Werke, ed. Wolfgang Fenner, Vol. VI).

-252-

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