Sphinx without a secret
“Whether it’s the shadow government or the global elite, if it’s not one sinister cabal intent on taking over the world, then it’s another”
We live in a golden age of conspiracies. In the United States, President Trump tweets about “deep state” plots against him. In the United Kingdom, cell phone towers are attacked in the belief that mobile networks spread Covid-19. On social media, anti-vaxxers spout needle-phobic screeds about mind control. Whether it’s the shadow government or the global elite, if it’s not one sinister cabal intent on taking over the world, then it’s another.
Into this maelstrom of diseased logic comes John Dickie’s exhaustive book on Freemasons, the original and, to the discerning conspiratorial mind, still the most alluring secret society. But rather than adding to the world’s current clandestine fever, Dickie’s book acts as a soothing balm for these irritated, irritating and irritable times. A professor of Italian Studies at University College London, Dickie has previously written about the Mafia and Cosa Nostra, so he knows a hermetic criminal organisation when he sees one. However his judgment here is contrary to both tradition and the times: Freemasons have nothing to hide.
Originally formed in the late 16th century as a guild substitute for itinerant Scottish stonemasons, Freemasonry went from being a loose trade organisation to a brotherhood of men spreading a progressive message of egalitarianism and philanthropy. Masonic lodges acted as safe spaces for conversation and networking between men of differing social strata, religions and backgrounds. They offered a social safety net for hard-up or sick members, and their all-male admission policy made them a wonderful place to avoid the wife.
Yet if Freemasonry is so benign why is it wrapped in secrecy? The answer Dickie gives is as startling as it is simple: “The purpose of Masonic secrecy is secrecy. The elaborate cult of secrecy within Freemasonry is a ritual fiction.” The secrecy is simply a lure and a glue, attracting and bonding the members together. “For all the layers and folds of mystery,” Dickie writes, “Freemasonry’s promise to reveal hidden verities turns out to be the wrapping for a few home truths.” His summation of the secret teaching one attains upon reaching Freemason’s highest degree is, “that death is a serious business, and it puts a perspective on things. That really is all there is to it.”
But a secret, like darkness, breeds monsters. No matter how banal the mystery, its hidden nature encourages unfavourable conjecture. From early on, the Catholic Church claimed Masonic lodges to be hotbeds of sexual perversity and secular liberalism. In 1797, the immensely popular Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, blamed Freemasons for causing the French Revolution. In the process Freemasons became part of what Dickie calls the first “modern conspiracy theory”.
They weren’t exactly blameless in all this. As the movement spread to France, Italy and beyond, it schismed and split. Each new lodge put out its own rituals, titles, degrees and symbols and vacuumed up any old myth, mysticism or magic that would add a bit of colour to proceedings. With the Craft rapidly becoming incomprehensible to all but its most fervent scholars it was little wonder that it garnered hostility. If you go about in an apron calling yourself a Knight of the Black Eagle you shouldn’t be too surprised when people start thinking the worst of you.
This was unfortunate since, aside from internal bickering about who should wear what ribbon, it seems there was very little actual plotting going on inside the lodges. Indeed the book can get a little wearying when dealing with the minutiae of Masonic in-fighting. However Dickie laces his text with enough bizarre characters to pull the reader through, and his no-nonsense tone is a tonic. It is distinctly refreshing to hear him call the Illuminati—an 18th-century German Masonic spin-off much beloved of conspiracy theorists—a “glorified book club”. At the other end of the spectrum, his charting of the rise of African-American Masonic lodges in the United States could be a book in itself, and shows how useful Freemasonry was in nurturing and spurring on the civil rights movement.
Freemasonry’s template for male fellowship, forged by myth, ritual and secrecy, was “adopted and adapted and abused” by every secret society from the Ku Klux Klan to the mafia. On the flipside, it’s astonishing to see how closely some of the accusations against Freemasonry mirror some of today’s conspiracy theories. For instance QAnon, a bizarrely popular online muddle spawned out of the belief that Hilary Clinton ran a paedophile ring from the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC, shares many similarities with the anti-Masonic rants of the 19th century. By the end you can’t help but agree with Dickie that the Freemasons are far more sinned against than sinning. Of course, that’s exactly what they’d want you to believe.
The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World
By John Dickie
Hodder & Stoughton, 496pp, £25