Ferdinand Saumarez Smith
Eleusis and Enlightenment: The Problem of the Mysteries in Eighteenth-Century Thought
How did we get from a late seventeenth-century European world in which the pagan gods were explained as corrupted versions of various biblical narratives, to a late eighteenth-century one in which the opposite claim could be made: that Christianity was pagan in its deepest origins? This study will argue that it was through the reception of the Eleusinian mysteries in eighteenth-century British, French, and German thought that the history of religion came to be written in this new way. The mysteries were a point of reference in a number of the century’s debates. In John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious (1696) they were used to conceptualise the externally mysterious but internally rational character of Christianity, and to explain how that rational revelation had been corrupted by priestcraft. For the antiquarian freemasons William Stukeley and Andrew Michael Ramsay they contained traces of a prior revelation of Christianity to Adam and the biblical patriarchs, the remnants of which they believed were contained in masonic ritual. In William Warburton’s The Divine Legation of Moses (1738-41), the abbé Noël-Antoine Pluche’s Histoire du Ciel (1739-41), and Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger’s L’Antiquité Dévoilée (1766) the myth of Demeter and Persephone that was celebrated at Eleusis offered new perspectives on the role of law, agriculture, and the afterlife in the origins of civilisation. In masonic thought of the second half of the eighteenth century they played a dual role: for the French physiocrat Antoine Court de Gébelin they were evidence of primitive deism (a view he shared with Voltaire) and the ultimately social purpose of religion, but for the German philologist Johann August Starck and Nicolas-Marie Leclerc de Sept-Chênes, author of Essai sur la religion des anciens Grecs (1787), these ‘deist’ origins contained a seed which was essentially ‘Christian’ and which had evolved into Christianity over time. The closing decades of the century also saw the German astronomer and freemason Christian Ernst Wünsch and the French astronomer Charles-François Dupuis arguing that the roots of Christianity were in the apocalyptic and astrological speculations of ancient Egypt and the Near East, which were evident in the figure of John the Evangelist and were fundamentally opposed to civilisation. These debates revise both our understanding of the process of Enlightenment and the influence of freemasonry on it, foregrounding the various attempts to reconcile ‘the rise of modern paganism’ with ideals of ‘ancient Christianity’ that occurred within the broader transformation of historical consciousness in the century.
“Pagans or Patriarchs? William Stukeley’s “On the Mysterys of the Antients”, the Bembine Tablet, and the religious culture of early English freemasonry,” Aegyptiaca 6 (2021): 3-43.