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A mutating meme
on 3 September 2016
”The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology and Rituals of an Esoteric Order” is a scholarly but basic introduction to the stream of thought known as Rosicrucianism. The book is written by Christopher McIntosh, author of several works on the history of Western esotericism. The foreword is authored by Colin Wilson, which may or may not be a commendation. Wilson seems to be writing forewords to pretty much everything!
The original Rosicrucians emerged in Germany during the 17th century and rapidly spread to other lands, most notably Britain. Organized as a secret society and based on part-ironic founding documents, their real history and purpose is somewhat difficult to gauge. McIntosh sees Rosicrucianism as a more or less direct continuator of the esotericism which thrived during the Renaissance. Ficino, Pico, Agrippa and Paracelsus were important characters in this revival of earlier esoteric traditions such as Hermetism, Neo-Platonism, the Cabala and Pythagoreanism. McIntosh describes Rosicrucianism as “Gnostic”, but personally I feel that Hermetic is a better term, since the brothers of the Rosy Cross were interested in transmuting this world, not simply leave it behind. The original Rosicrucians also had millenarian streaks freely based on Joachim of Fiore and his apocalyptic speculations. There was also a related utopian streak. The world would be changed to the better by a combination of science, spirituality and education. Campanella's “City of the Sun” and Bacon's “The New Atlantis” preached a similar-sounding message. At some point, alchemy became Rosicrucianism's defining feature, while the movement started to overlap with Freemasonry, in particular “Scottish” Masonry (really a Jacobite invention during their French exile). The alchemy wasn't strictly spiritual in character, but really involved attempts to make gold from base metals.
It's not clear whether there is a direct continuity between 17th and 18th century Rosicrucianism. What is clear is that groups claiming the mantle of Rosicrucianism were popular in Germany during the 18th century as a conservative counter-reaction to the Enlightenment. For a brief moment, Rosicrucians even had political power. The Prussian king Frederick William II was a member of the “Order of the Golden and Rose Cross”, and appointed his spiritual mentors to important political offices. He also organized bizarre séances at the royal court, including attempts to contact spirits with the aid of a machine!
During the 19th and 20th centuries, new occult groups emerged which had little or nothing to do with the original Rosicrucians, but laid claim to the tradition anyway. Of these, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and some of its offshoots were probably closest to the original version of the tradition. Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy, Max Heindel's Rosicrucian Fellowship, H Spencer Lewis' AMORC and R Swinburne Clymer's Fraternitas Rosae Crucis are further removed, being strongly inspired by other occult streams. The book also contains a chapter on the late 19th century “Rosicrucian” revival in France, and an additional section on Rosicrucian-inspired literature, Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel “Zanoni” being a well known specimen. For some reason, the author doesn't discuss Paul Foster Case's group Builders of the Adytum.
Since McIntosh's book is meant as an introduction, more advanced readers might be disappointed by the summaries and omissions. Still, I think it was well worth reading. I consider it a good complement to the Rosicrucian entries in John Michael Greer's “The Element Encylopedia of Secret Societies”, which I also warmly recommend.
So what is Rosicrucianism, then? Perhaps the best short explanation is a cluster of secret societies, somewhat resembling Freemasons, which originally embodied the Western esoteric tradition in a mostly Renaissance garb. Later, the “meme” started to mutate and today, the term has little meaning except as mystery-signaling. But sure, if you look hard enough, perhaps Master Christian Rosenkreuz will appear behind a stack of obscure alchemical treatises in some used book store…