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Masonic Encyclopedia

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Secret Societies

Secret societies may be divided into two classes: First, those whose secrecy consists in nothing more than methods by which the members are enabled to recognize each other; and in certain doctrines, symbols, or instructions which can be obtained only after a process of initiation, and under the promise that they shall be made known to none who have not submitted to the same initiation, but which with the exception of these particulars, have no reservations from the public. Second, those societies which, in addition to their secret modes of recognition and secret doctrine, add an entire secrecy as to the object of their association, the times and places of their meeting, and even the very names of their members.

To the first of these classes belong all those moral or religious secret associations which have existed from the earliest times. Such were the Ancient Mysteries, whose object was, by their initiations, to cultivate a purer worship than the popular one; such, too, the schools of the old philosophers, like Pythagoras and Plato, who in their esoteric instructions taught a higher doctrine than that which they Communicated to their exoteric scholars. Such, also, are the modern secret societies which have adopted an exclusive form only that they may restrict the social enjoyment which it is their object to cultivate, or the system of benevolence for which they are organized, to the persons who are united with them by the tie of a common covenant, and the possession of a common knowledge.

Such, lastly, is Freemasonry, which is a secret society only as respects its signs, a few of its legends and traditions, and its method of inculcating its mystical philosophy, but which, as to everything else--its design, its object, its moral and religious tenets, and the great doctrine which it teaches--is as open a society as if it met on the highways beneath the sun of day, and not within the well-guarded portals of a Lodge.

To the second class of secret societies belong those which sprung up first in the Middle Ages, like the Vehmgericht of Westphalia, formed for the secret but certain punishment of criminals; and in the eighteenth century those political societies like the Carbonari, which have been organized at revolutionary periods to resist the oppression or overthrow the despotism of tyrannical governments. It is evident that these two classes of secret societies are entirety different in character; but it has been the great error of writers like Barruel and Robison, who have attacked Freemasonry on the ground of its being a secret association that they utterly confounded the two classes.

An interesting discussion on this subject took place in 1848, in the National Assembly of France, during the consideration of those articles of the law by which secret societies were prohibited. A part of this discussion is worth preserving, and is in the following words:

Bolette: I should like to have some one define what in meant by a secret society. Coquerel: Those are secret societies which have made none of the declarations prescribed by law.

Paulin Gillon: I would ask if Freemasonry is also to be suppressed?

Flocon: I begin by declaring that, under a republican government, every secret society having for its object a change of the form of such government ought to be severely dealt with. Secret societies may he directed against the sovereignty of the people, and this is the reason why I ask for their suppression; but, from the want of a precise definition, I would not desire to strike, as secret societies, assemblies that are perfectly innocent.

All my life, until the 24th of February, have I lived in secret societies Now I desire them no more. Yes, we have spent our life in conspiracies, and we had the right to do so, for we lived under a government which did not derive its sanctions from the people. To-day I declare that under a republican government, and with universal suffrage, it is a crime to belong to such an association Conquered. As to Freemasonry, your Committee has decided that it is not a secret society. A society may have a secret, and yet not be a secret society. I have not the honor of being a Freemasons.

The President: The thirteenth article has been amended and decided that a secret society is one which seeks to conceal its existence and its objects.

Secret societies, whose members take any oath binding them to engage in mutiny or sedition, or disturb the peace, or whose members and officers are concealed from society at large have been declared unlawful in various countries, England adopting measures to that end in 1799, l817 and 1846, but on these occasions specific exemption was made of Masonic Lodges. On the Continent of Europe the Carbonari has been confused by some authorities with Freemasonry or, at least, assumed to be a sort of political branch of it though this is, of course, far from the understanding of our institution possessed by those within te fold The Carbonari was founded in Naples by the Republicans in 1808 to destroy French rule in Italy The King of Naples in 1814 soon found the armed Carbonari useful as a means of driving Murat, a Freemason, out of the country. Later on the organization assisted the Austrians also to drive out the French and, gathering numbers up to what is claimed to be half a million members, spread into France and other countries.

Other secret societies found on the Continent and active in various countries are the Camorra and the Mafia. These secret societies need only to be mentioned here because the Roman Catholic Church has united Freemasonry with such political organizations in its condemnation (see Section Act, Politics, Carbonari, Camorra, and Mafia).

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