Éliphas Lévi and the ‘Profanation’ of Tradition: Part One
by Dr. Kerry Bolton
Dr. Kerry Bolton examines the profound intricacies of the Perennial Tradition, juxtaposing it with Anti-Tradition, while shedding light on the historical roles and mysteries of Freemasonry and the Templars.
Read part two here.
The Perennial Tradition as a terrestrial manifestation of the connexion with the divine order1 has its antithesis in the currents of Anti-Tradition and Counter-Tradition.
On the terrestrial level, Tradition, Anti-Tradition and Counter-Tradition manifest politically, socially, spiritually, and economically; indeed, in every facet of life, the latter emerging as reflections of a civilisation’s cycle of decline when materialism or money values become the zeitgeist. Devolution or ‘The Fall’ is a common belief of the Perennial Tradition, contra the belief in lineal evolution or ‘progress’ held by rationalistic theories that arise during the epoch of cultural decay. The Western civilisation, which has assumed global forms that consume most of the rest of the world, is in its epoch of decline, or what Oswald Spengler referred to as the ‘Winter’ epoch.2
‘Anti-Tradition’ was defined by the traditionalist sage René Guénon (1886-1951) to be ‘pure negation and nothing more’. However, Anti-Tradition is the prelude of Counter-Tradition.3
Within Counter-Tradition, there is a ‘counter-initiation’,4 representing a ‘satanic’ current of those who seek the severing of the nexus between the terrestrial and the divine. Guénon wrote of this:
… after having worked always in the shadows, to inspire and to direct invisibly all modern movements, it will in the end contrive to ‘exteriorise,’ if that is the right word, something that will be as it were, the counterpart of a true tradition, at least as completely and as exactly as it can be so within the limitations necessarily inherent in all possible counterfeits as such.5
During the 1920s, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, interest among educated and influential circles, including the British secret service, in the forces ‘working always in the shadows’ (to paraphrase Guénon) became widespread, and British historian Nesta Webster traced the lineage of these ‘counter-initiation’ movements over centuries.6
To Guénon the Counter-Traditional movements are void of spiritual content. This can be seen in the many movements and ‘orders’ professing a ‘tradition’ and having a mystical or spiritual façade, yet who expound a materialistic universal republic that seeks to bound man to matter.7 This is why various esoteric orders can be seen to be promoting materialistic doctrines such as Marxism, as well as such anti-traditional dogmas as those expressed in slogans like ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’, to usher in the ‘reign of quantity’.8 Anti-Traditional movements and ideologies are only a means, and not the end. Guénon aptly uses the term ‘satanic’9 to describe these currents.
Of these Counter-Traditions, Guénon states that they can never be anything other than a ‘parody’, an ‘inverted spirituality’ involving organisations of ‘counter-initiation’.10 Guénon regarded these movements as being of supernatural origin and satanic, and believed that a figure analogous to the ‘The Anti-Christ’ would manifest at the head of a world order.11
Guénon described the order which Counter-Tradition tries to impose by at first using the doctrine of ‘egalitarianism’ as a means of overthrowing the remnants of tradition and spirituality, after which will be erected in place of the divine hierarchies a ‘counter-hierarchy’, atop which sits an individual who again seems analogous to the ‘Anti-Christ’. Guénon described him as nearest to the ‘very bottom of the “pit of hell”’.12
Of the numerous orders that were emerging, especially in France, during the nineteenth century, Guénon referred to them as ‘Anti-Tradition’ regardless of their pretensions, and as reflecting the zeitgeist of the present epoch of Western decline. He here specifically refers to the numerous orders that claimed to be ‘Rosicrucian’.13
Éliphas Lévi and the Profanation of Tradition
In this milieu of the nineteenth-century French occult revival prominently figured Éliphas Lévi, the pseudonym of Alphonse Louis Constant (1810-1875), a tutor on occultism in Paris. Among Lévi’s books, The History of Magic provides enlightening insights into the history, nature and influence of Anti-Traditional, Counter-Traditional and counter-initiatory currents.
Lévi was well-placed to offer informed insights. He had been a socialist propagandist, and seems to have been a Freemason initiated into a relatively high degree.
In the 1840s, as Alphonse-Louis Constant, he ‘was prominent in socialist and feminist circles in France, suffering imprisonment three times for his activities’. However, even his socialist writings had an occult orientation, and he regarded socialism as the means of achieving certain occultic ends.14 It was while teaching at a Catholic school in 1841 that he wrote a radical book, the Bible of Liberty, for which he was jailed for ‘impiety and subversion’. A biographer states regarding this:
He soon gained notoriety for controversial, socialist treatises, and, when the courts found him guilty of provoking scorn and hatred between the social classes and against the government, he spent another six months in prison.15
Having rejected his prior socialism and adopting a conservative, monarchist position, Lévi came to regard the Church’s position on Masonry as a legitimate response to a serious threat. His Masonic initiation can be construed from a comment he makes in The History of Magic (1860), indicating that he was an initiate of the Eighteenth Degree of Knight of the Pelican and Eagle and Sovereign Prince Rose Croix of Heredom. Lévi wrote:
Having attained by our efforts to a grade of knowledge which imposes silence, we regard ourselves as pledged by our convictions even more than by an oath … and we shall in no wise fail to deserve the princely crown of the Rosy Cross….16
For Lévi, Masonry was originallya genuine, noble tradition that had been ‘profaned’ by Anti-Tradition, which is what he sought to expose. Having defended what he regarded as the genuine traditional and spiritual legacy of Masonry, Lévi then posed and answered the question:
Now if Masonry is thus holy and thus sublime, we may be asked how it came to be proscribed and condemned so often by the Church… Masonry is the Gnosis and the false Gnostics caused the condemnation of the true.17
Lévi then contends that what we might here regard as Perennial Traditionalism was driven underground for fear of being associated with the ‘sacrilege’ of the ‘false interpreters … the enemies of all belief and all morality’.
Masonry has not merely been profaned but has served as the veil and pretext of anarchic conspiracies descending from the secret influence of the vindicators of Jacques de Molay, and of those who continued the schismatic work of the Temple. In place of avenging the death of Hiram18 they have that of his assassins. The anarchists have resumed the rule, square and mallet, writing upon them the words Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – Liberty, that is to say, for all the lusts, Equality in degradation and Fraternity in the work of destruction. Such are the men whom the Church has condemned justly and will condemn forever.19
Lévi errs in believing that the last of the ‘adepts of true initiation’ were included in ‘the school of unknown philosophers founded by Martines de Pasqually’, which was called Martinism, a form of Masonry that was later incorporated into Memphis-Misraim. He believed that the Martinists were the ‘last Christians in the cohort of the illuminés’, before the profanation under L. C. de Saint-Martin.20 However, A. E. Waite, the translator of the English edition of The History of Magic, and himself a primary figure in the English occult revival, states in a footnote that L. C. Saint-Martin ‘did not continue the school of theurgic Masonry founded by Martines de Pasqually. He abandoned the school and all active connection with Rites and Lodges’.21 The implication is that Saint-Martin abandoned Masonry because he recognised the profanity of Martinism.
Martines de Pasqually, a Cabalist, was an initiate of Adam Weishaupt’s Order of the Illuminati, founded in Bavaria in 1776, the doctrine of which was communistic and which aimed at establishing a Universal Republic, following a proto-Marxian ideology for the abolition of Church, monarchy, property and family.22 In discussing Jewish involvement in the Illuminati, the prominent nineteenth-century French Jewish historian Bernard Lazare states concerning Martines de Pasqually: ‘There were Jews in the circle around Weishaupt, and a Jew of Portuguese origin, Martinez de Pasquales, established numerous groups of Illuminati in France and gathered a large number of disciples…’23
Lévi states that during the eighteenth century,
a schism took place in illuminsim:24 on the one hand, the wardens of the traditions concerning Nature and science wished to restore the hierarchy; there were others, on the contrary, who desired to level all things by disclosing the Great Arcanum, thus rendering the royalty and priesthood alike impossible in the world. Among the latter, some were ambitious and unscrupulous, seeking to erect a throne for themselves over the ruins of the world. Others were dupes and zanies. The true initiates held with dismay the launching of society toward the abyss, and they foresaw all the terrors of anarchy.25
Lévi seems here to be referring to the rise of the Illuminati and similar orders, described by Guénon as ‘counter-initiatory’ and Anti-Traditional, incorporating a fundamentally communistic ideology. L. C. Saint-Martin would seem, considering this context, to have been one of those who eschewed the profane doctrines.
Lévi refers to the ‘prophetic dreams of Cazotte’, a Martinist, who foretold a revolution ‘under the sombre figure of Saturn devouring his children’:
On a certain evening, when he was surrounded by the blind instruments of Jacobinism to come, he predicted the doom of all – for the strongest and weakest the scaffold, for the enthusiast, suicide – and his prophecy, which at the moment was rather like a sombre jest, was destined to be realised amply….’26
However, Lévi thought that Cazotte was successfully discerning the trends and currents of his time through observation rather than psychic ability:
The gift of absolute liberty to men who are unequal by Nature is an organization of social war; when those who should restrain the headlong instincts of the crowd are so mad as to unloose them, it does not need a great magician to foresee that they will be the first to be devoured, since animal lusts are bound to prey upon one another until the appearance of a bold and skilful huntsman who will end them by shot or snare. Cazotte foresaw Marat, as Marat in his turn foresaw reaction and a dictator.27
The Templar Heresy and the French Revolution
When Lévi decried Masonry as having been profaned and serving as ‘the veil and pretext of anarchic conspiracies descending from the secret influence of the vindicators of Jacques de Molay’, he was referring to the legend of the curse of the last Grand Master of the Order of Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, upon the King of France, Philip IV, and Pope Clement V as de Molay was about to be burned at the stake for heresy.
This curse, whether real or imagined, was adopted as the cause of subsequent secret societies claiming the Templar legacy. The curse broadened into the aim of destroying the Catholic Church and all monarchies. It persisted through the revolutionary societies of the nineteenth century and has come down to us in the present.
The Knights of the Temple of Solomon, otherwise known as the Knights Templar, was an order founded in 1119 to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. The Templars also played a prominent part in the Crusades. Their supposed primary goal was the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon, which also happens to be the primary aim of Freemasonry.
Charges of heresy centred on the worship of an idol called Baphomet, which according to Templar confessions was generally described as a head.
While such charges of heresy have generally been dismissed as having been based on confessions under torture by the Inquisition, which was carried out because of the Church’s desire to break the power and expropriate the wealth of the Order, the description of the alleged idol as a head is quite specific and could relate to the cult of John the Baptist, the Johannites. This is a heresy that the Templars could plausibly have adopted from their long stay in the Holy Land. The Bible relates that since the time of Jesus, there were those among the followers of John the Baptist who regarded Jesus as a usurper, and were rebuked by John. The biblical account states that disciples of John came to him complaining, ‘He that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.’28 John, according to the biblical accounts, had been emphatic that he was not the Messiah, nor even a reborn prophet, but was preparing the way for the Messiah, replying to his disciples: ‘Ye yourselves hear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before Him…. This my joy is therefore fulfilled, He must increase, but I must decrease.’29 John was imprisoned by Herod and beheaded.30
The worshipping of a head as an idol becomes plausible if the Templars were influenced by the cult of John. According to Lévi, the Johannites claimed that John had identified Jesus as a fraud. Lévi states that the first Templar Grand Master, Hugh de Payens, was initiated into the Johannites by the sect’s ‘grand pontiff’, Theoclet. ‘Thus was the order of the Knights of the Temple tainted from the beginning with schism and conspiracy against kings.’31
It is therefore again plausible that Templars may have confessed to the Inquisition that at their initiation they were obliged to declare Jesus to be a ‘thief’ (sic). This is in accordance with the teachings of the Johannites.
Regardless of the veracity of this myth, what is important is that certain societies seeking the destruction of the traditional order of Europe, which hinged upon the Church and monarchy, adopted the myth of de Molay as part of their initiatic legacy. Masonry certainly claims the Templar legacy, whether as part of a direct, lineal inheritance, or as a sign of kinship contra the Catholic Church. Of this association, Albert Pike wrote:
Therefore, it was that the Sword and the Trowel were the insignia of the Templars, who subsequently, as will be seen, concealed themselves under the name of Brethren Masons. This name, Freres Macons in the French, adopted by way of secret reference to the Builders of the Second Temple, was corrupted in English into Free-Masons ...32
1 Cogently expressed in the often quoted Hermetic expression: ‘As above, so below.’
2 The Decline of The West (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971).
3 René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (New York: Sophia Perrenis, 2001), p. 260.
4 René Guénon, ibid., p. 261.
5 René Guénon, ibid., p. 261.
6 Nesta H. Webster, Secret Societies and Subversive Movements (London: Britons, 1965).
7 One might recall here the meaning of the ‘Devil’ in the Major Arcana of the Tarot.
8 René Guénon, op. cit., p. 271.
9 René Guénon, ibid., p. 261.
10 René Guénon, ibid., p. 267.
11 René Guénon, ibid., pp. 271-273. Guénon draws on both Islamic and Christian traditions here.
12 René Guénon, ibid., p. 271.
13 René Guénon, ibid., p.251. Rosicrucianism would seem to be the direct forerunner of Masonry.
14 B J Gibbons, Spirituality and the Occult: From the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 123.
15 J. W. Revak, ‘Eliphas Levi: Clergyman, Radical, Magus’, at www.villarevak.org/bio/levi_1.html.
16 Eliphas Levi, The History of Magic (London: Rider, 1982), p. 286.
17 Eliphas Levi, ibid., p. 286.
18 Hiram Abif, one of the mythical architects of the Temple of Solomon whose murder Masons are sworn to avenge; a central motif of Masonic ritual.
19 Eliphas Levi, ibid., p. 286.
20 Eliphas Levi, ibid., p. 305.
21 Eliphas Levi, ibid., p. 305; A. E. Waite, footnote 1.
22 John Robison, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against all the Religions and Governments of Europe (London, 1798), reprinted (Boston: Western Islands, 1967)..
23 Bernard Lazare (Paris, 1894), Antisemitism: Its history and causes (London: Britons, 1967), p. 153.
24 By which Levi here means adepts of Gnosis; not the Order of Illuminati, the ‘schism’ among the adepts resulting in the formation of the Illuimati by ‘the ambitious and unscrupulous.’
25 Eliphas Levi, op. cit., p. 305.
26 Eliphas Levi, ibid., p. 305.
27 Eliphas Levi, ibid., pp. 305-306.
28 John 3: 26.
29 John 3:30.
30 Mark 6: 17-28.
31 Eliphas Levi, op. cit., p. 210.
32 Albert Pike, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, ‘prepared for the Supreme Council of the Thirty Third Degree for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States: Charleston, 1871’. Text online at www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/apikefr.html816.