quarta-feira, 15 de junho de 2011

Visions of Utopia

Matthew Scanlan Reports on the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre Conference

The first weekend of November saw the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre (CMRC) host its ninth international conference, an event that drew speakers and delegates from across Europe and North America. One of the original aims of the CMRC was to address the lack of scholarly research being conducted into Freemasonry in the UK and elsewhere, a focus that remains at the heart of the Centre’s mission.
     The dire need for such scholarly research was recognised as long ago as 1969 by the Oxford historian, John Morris Roberts, who made an impassioned plea to fellow academics to study an area of history that had been almost completely neglected - Freemasonry - yet his plea went unanswered for almost thirty years. 

     In October 1998, the Pro Grand Master, Lord Northampton, and Lady Northampton, founded the CMRC in order to help encourage scholarship in this area and to provide an ecumenical approach to the study of Freemasonry, western esotericism and symbolic expressions of the sacred. In addition, the CMRC also aims to encourage researchers to examine a huge wealth of only partially tapped archival resources available in this field, including several important Masonic libraries in the UK.
     The key event in the CMRC’s annual calendar is its autumn conference which allows scholars and delegates, academic or masonic, a chance to meet and discuss their various interests in a relaxed atmosphere. The location of the Centre provides a congenial backdrop for these two-day events; a leafy and tranquil oasis of north London, on land that was once home to the medieval Canons of the Priory of St. Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, as well as the philosopher and Lord Chancellor, Sir Francis Bacon.
     Since the first conference in 1999, the CMRC has hosted nine such events, each of which has focused on an eclectic array of topics. The themes covered so far have included: the social impact of Freemasonry on the modern western world, the relationship between Freemasonry and enlightenment, Freemasonry and the visual arts, Freemasonry and music and literature, Freemasonry and religion, Freemasonry and initiatic traditions, and Gnostic movements and secret traditions. The Centre is currently publishing the proceedings of these events in a series of edited volumes.

Visions of a Perfect Land

The theme of this year’s conference, ‘Visions of Utopia: masonic, religious and esoteric’, explored a variety of themes which either underpin, compliment, or run in parallel to, themes contained in the many of the degrees of Freemasonry. The word utopia in Greek means ‘no place’, and as such, the word has traditionally been used to allude to a perfect place or state, which is somewhat analogous to the masonic concept of an idealised temple or a well-ordered society.
     The term was made famous by a statesman and humanist of the English Renaissance, Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), who in 1516, wrote of a fictional island called Utopia just off the Atlantic coast. As Dr. Chloe Houston, a lecturer in early modern literature at the University of Reading explained, More himself referred to Utopia as ‘Noland’ or a place that does not exist. More modelled his imaginary island state on Plato’s Republic and described it as having the perfect social, legal and political system, where everyone was equal, where everyone shunned war, where poverty had been completely eradicated, and where all religions were tolerated.
     Another well-known thinker who wrote on utopianism was the Dominican, Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), who was the focus of a presentation by Dr. Peter Forshaw, a lecturer at Birkbeck College, London University. Campanella, who lived a century after More, famously rejected the orthodox philosophy of Aristotle and championed various unorthodox beliefs. For his literary defence of Galileo and the Copernican system, he spent much of his life in gaol courtesy of the Inquisition.
     While he was incarcerated that Campanella wrote one of the most important utopian works of the era –– The City of the Sun. The work took the form of a dialogue between a Genoese sailor, who had sailed with Columbus to the New World, and a knight Hospitaller.
     In the work, he described his imaginary city as being of a philosophical hue, a communistic republic where all things were governed according to nature; even the city’s concentric walls were related the seven planets of traditional astrology, which as Dr. Forshaw explained, reflected Campanella’s interest in natural magic, common to many intellectuals of the time.
     Dr. Guido Giglioni of the Warburg Institute presented a paper on Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, in which he spoke of an ideal state called Bensalem where both the temporal and religious establishments promoted the advancement of learning in all its forms, in an attempt to understand the ‘secret motion of things’.
     Professor Tony Lentin, of Clare College, Cambridge, gave a fascinating address on an eighteenth-century utopian vision, Journey to the land of Ophir, by Russian Prince Mikhail Mikhailovich Scherbatov in 1784.
     Prince Scherbatov was Imperial Historiographer to Catherine the Great and is widely recognised as one of the most important commentators on her reign. However, his path to political advancement was personally blocked by Catherine as she was aware that he had secretly written critiques of her absolutist rule. Consequently, many scholars now believe that Scherbatov, when writing of his utopian land, may have couched his politically-charged beliefs in a literary narrative, and thereby proffered a subtle blueprint for potential social reforms. Intriguingly, Prince Scherbatov was also a Freemason, and in the 1770s he was a member of the Lodge of Equality as well as a Royal Arch Chapter.
     Continuing in this political vein, Pierre Mollier, Director of the Library and Museum of the Grand Orient of France, gave a fascinating paper on several social utopians of the nineteenth-century. Concentrating predominantly on the social theorist, Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Mollier explained that Fourier believed French society should be reorganised into self-sufficient units which would be scientifically designed so as to offer the maximum amount of co-operation and self-fulfilment.
     This ‘utopian’ society would radically alter the concepts of marriage, private property and the way people lived. Mollier also pointed out that Fourier’s theories emerged at a time when French Freemasonry was changing, when the lodges were moving away from philanthropy and esotericism, and were beginning to develop an interest in social issues and new religious concepts.
     Consequently, many French Freemasons began to adopt Fourier’s theories. In 1836 one lodge in Brest, Les Elus de Sully, even advocated that the Grand Orient of France should change its name to ‘The Disciples of Fourier’, a move no doubt assisted by the fact that Fourier was himself a mason.
     But as Professor Wouter Hanegraaff (holder of the Chair of History of Hermetic philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam) pointed out in a paper, ‘Utopias of the Mind’, utopias need not necessarily be understood as ideal societies in a three-dimensional sense. On the contrary, if we look again at the original meaning of utopia, he argued, it is essentially ‘no place’, that is, it does not physically exist. 

     Instead, such places belong to the realm of the imagination. Such places can and have been visited during altered states of consciousness, which for the sojourner, it may be argued, are just as real. And such places have been known to mystics in all cultures throughout the ages, right down to the practitioners of the so-called ‘new age’ movements of today. 

     Indeed, perhaps it is to such places that every mason must travel if they want to quarry material for the construction of the true Masonic temple.