What do Genghis Khan, cotton, clocks, urban conflagration, Asia, gold, American indigenes, God, the pen, 1946, Jane Austen, the Inquisition, forced migrations, chemistry, prophecy, communism, Cesare Beccaria and the Battle of Midway have in common? You may have guessed it – they all ‘made the modern world’. Publishers seem never to tire of that catchy titular phrase, and who can blame them? Not only does it serve up history the way we like it – leading the past straight to us – but it has the added advantage of non-falsifiability. For surely everything has helped to make the modern world, including the world that was old.
That is certainly true of the freemasons, who, as scholars have shown in considerable detail, did their part. John Dickie, the author of an international bestseller on the history of the Sicilian Mafia and an authority on modern Italy, draws on their work with a judicious eye to tell an engaging tale of freemasonry’s fortunes from its beginning to the present day. The book may bear something of a hackneyed subtitle and cover what, to professional scholars at least, is largely familiar ground. But Dickie hasn’t written this book for professional scholars (even though he is one himself) and the result, happily, is a work that is sweeping, synthetic, finely crafted and freshly conceived.
There is a lot to tell, and Dickie manages to impose order on what might otherwise have proved a sprawling study by organising each chapter around a particular city that intersects with the history of the freemasons. He might have begun in Edinburgh in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, or in London in the early 18th, for it was in those places that the freemasons really got off the ground, building a loose but effective network of lodges that functioned originally as a kind of guild for the elite of the building trades and workers in ‘free-stone’, the fine-grained sandstone or limestone that gave freemasons their name. Dickie doubles back to those cities in the third and fourth chapters of the book, chronicling the gentrification of the early lodges and the complex mythmaking that accompanied it, featuring, not least, invented ties to the master builders of Solomon’s temple.
Yet the book begins in Lisbon in 1743, with the infamous tale of John Coustos, a Swiss freemason apprehended, tried and tortured by the Portuguese Inquisition for peddling what was coming to be known among adepts as the ‘Craft’. Coustos proved to be a brilliant publicist and made the most of his misfortunes, publishing back in London upon his release a lurid, self-serving and much exaggerated account of his trials, The Sufferings of John Coustos for Free-Masonry. The Craft’s first martyr, he became a celebrity and a sensational symbol for the causes it would claim: tolerance, rational inquiry, cross-border cosmopolitanism, relative equality and enlightened faith.
But the freemasons also stood for secrecy behind closed doors. They even took a pledge to kill any brother who divulged sworn mysteries. Little matter that the secret was the secret itself: no great revelations lie at the Craft’s heart, Dickie notes, beyond a few homespun truths. But if its elaborate cult of secrecy turns out to be a ‘ritual fiction’, it has been no less effective for that. Secrecy is seductive, drawing in the curious and binding together insiders in a spirit of privileged concealment. For the very same reason, freemasonry sparked from early on the lurid imagination of the suspicious, who, like Lisbon’s Inquisitors, could never seem to get a satisfying answer. Just what were those masons really up to? Sodomy? Atheism? Satanic rites? The questions have never fully gone away.
Seldom has anything so saucy or sinister been discovered behind the temple walls. Indeed, as Dickie emphasises, the masons’ most common activities – drinking (not infrequently in prodigious volume), socialising, networking for contacts and preferment, and looking out for kith and kin – are comparatively innocent pastimes. True, the lodges were exclusively male spaces, at least in the Anglo-American context (in France and the Netherlands, there were female lodges, a fact that Dickie acknowledges but plays down). But if in this respect the masons were not wholly modern, in other ways they were, so much so that Coustos’s Inquisitors may be excused their suspicions (if not their methods). For, in truth, as historians such as the pioneering Margaret Jacob have shown, the masons did embrace a set of values and practices that were at odds with those of staunch defenders of tradition. They promoted religious tolerance, pluralism and freedom of conscience, along with a formal egalitarianism among its members, who without rejecting hierarchy and differences of status treated fellow members as persons of equal dignity and worth. The masons also encouraged learning and scientific inquiry, supported charitable works and fostered a pragmatic and utilitarian approach to business. Their lodges served as laboratories for a kind of practical constitutionalism that gave members training in proto-democratic forms of self-organisation and self-government. In these ways, freemasons, like everybody else, made their contribution to the modern world.
Their example was quickly taken up around the world. Already by the time of Coustos’s arrest, freemasonry was well on its way to becoming a great British export, spreading like Shakespeare, football and Marmite around the world. Dickie is good on this advance and on the masons’ broad appeal. He devotes chapters to their vogue in Paris, Naples, Charleston and Washington, DC, and to their many celebrated members, including the Duke of Orléans, George Washington and Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law and for a time king in southern Italy. He also explores the appeal of the masonic model among African-Americans, who formed lodges and assistance networks of their own, and among revolutionaries like the Carbonari, who adopted the masons’ forms, even as they turned against them. And he offers as well rich chapters on the appeal of the brotherhood in various parts of the British Empire, India above all, and its astonishing popularity in the United States, where by the 1960s nearly one in twelve adult males was a mason and the Craft could boast an illustrious membership, including such presidents as Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.
The story of freemasonry is not all fraternal handshakes and matey slaps on the back, of course. Secrecy may be seductive, but it can also provoke wild speculation of a kind that didn’t end with the Portuguese Inquisition. Amid the violent upheavals of the French Revolution, the displaced Catholic priest Augustin Barruel could be heard denouncing revolutionary events as the consequence of a mischievous plot hatched by the brotherhood. Barruel provided little evidence for his claims, largely because there was none. But he did offer in his spectacularly successful book on the subject a template of supposed masonic machinations that has been recycled ever since. Dickie devotes some of his best chapters to this dark history of suspicion and persecution, with freemasons serving as scapegoats for Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, among many others. And today, freemasonry is banned everywhere in the Muslim world except Lebanon and Morocco.
Yet if freemasons have often been victims, that doesn’t mean that their own history is without stain. Dickie lays bare the chequered nature of the masons’ past, grappling not only with their resistance to female membership but also with their role in facilitating imperial conquest in places like Australia and in perpetuating racism in the United States. He is well aware, too, of the way that the brotherly spirit can go horribly wrong, metastasising into organisations like the KKK or serving, as in postwar Italy, as a front for the Mafia.
And yet at a time when masonic membership around the world is in decline and such forces as globalisation and the internet are ‘forcing us to rethink and reinvent a fundamental human need: community’, Dickie ends on a note of indulgence. We could do worse than contemplate how ‘a form of community born in an earlier global age’ grappled with ways to get along. In that he is surely right.