Speaking the Language of Enlightenment
We will never know precisely what it was like to live a life attentive to enlightened ideals. Some European men and a few women sought to express those ideals sociably, within the perimeters set by private fraternizing. Within those limits the masonic lodges were by far the most cosmopolitan, and internationally connected, enclaves of the century. To know them and how their idealism related to the Enlightenment, we must go by what masonic orators said lodges and brothers should be, as well as by what letters, meeting records, and diaries may have to tell us. Vast reconstructions have been attempted for the much more public thought of the famous philosophes, the supposed originators of the Enlightenment: Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and, in the American colonies, Franklin.
But they were the grand men of the Enlightenment, not the little men who so often admired them. Much has been made of the official academies, particularly in France, as the loci of the Enlightenment's followers. But as I make clear in the conclusion, the few thousand academicians familiar with the "the light" were also officially sponsored. In most European countries the lodges occupied a middle ground: a place where the occasional government official might be found, but one which was nevertheless officially suspect. In this chapter we will listen to the less famous, less official voices of the masonic brothers who addressed one another monthly, in various European countries and languages. I seek here to recapitulate and to generalize about masonic ideals as found throughout western Europe. In the process I do not want to render the Enlightenment into the property of the freemasons, but rather to show the brothers (and sisters) as its consumers, interpreters, and appliers.
In the next three chapters masonic idealism will be reconstructed in specific contexts, first within one Amsterdam lodge, and then within various French lodges. The records of the Amsterdam lodge (unlike almost any French lodge) are so