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Many people believe they influence almost everything. Why?


Questions:

1. Many so called secret societies figure in conspiracy theories as bodies, secretly ruling the world. But do you think some of these societies accomplished something really significant in reality? Or are they only ordinary groups of people with common interests who maybe sometimes delight in being seen in mysterious way?

2. Probably the most popular (if we can use the word popular) are Freemasons? Why?

3. Why do the people tend to believe that there is someone who is secretly ruling the world? Why is the idea of secret societies, comprised of rich / powerful / educated / religious people so popular?

Answers:

Michael Barkun, Professor of Political Science, Syracuse University, Author of the book Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America

1. The power of so-called "secret societies" is vastly exaggerated. As the question suggests, they are generally groups brought together by common interests or, in some cases, by common religious beliefs. They certainly don't rule the world. Indeed, the often-cited Illuminati ceased to exist in the late eighteenth-century, when European states suppressed them. What lives on are myths that events are manipulated by unseen powers.

2. I suppose the frequency with which the Masons are mentioned is a function of the large area of the West over which the movement spread, and the substantial membership it had when at its height. The irony is that Masonic conspiracy theories continue to thrive even as Masonry itself goes into decline.

3. Conspiracy theories are psychologically comforting, since they claim to explain the complexities of modern life by reference to a single cause -- some invisible group or organization that "pulls the strings." We all want the world to be understandable. Conspiracy theories provide the appearance of understanding that sometimes tempts even people who are affluent, educated, and worldly.

Ian McNeely, Associate Professor at Department of History, University of Oregon

1. The short answer is that they are indeed ordinary groups of people who simply share an interest in improving their morality and character. Secret rituals and mysterious, esoteric forms of knowledge aid them in that quest for collective self-improvement; such rituals and knowledge are attractive not because they make society members look mysterious to outsiders, but primarily because they are useful within society meetings, as means for members to develop a common bond through their ritual activities.

As groups, secret societies have had very little direct impact on the outside world. At the most, members of secret societies form business and professional networks within their organizations that sometimes help them in their outside occupations. But even then, the influence of these networks and connections has been vastly overstated. (The Illuminati, featured in Angels & Demons, did manage to recruit members from, or place members in, prominent positions in government, publishing, universities, and masonic lodges but did not manage to carry out any of the large-scale reforms that are mentioned in their statutes and other writings. The Illuminati numbered perhaps 2,000 members were only active for about a decade, from 1776-1786, mainly in Germany.)

2. The freemasons are the oldest continuously existing "secret society" in the Western world, though their existence has not been a secret since 1717. Even their rituals, myths, and symbols have been widely exposed in print since the 1720s. (Many of these exposés were written by masons themselves, whether to attack the fraternity or, more positively, to promote understanding of its rituals and symbols among other masons elsewhere in the world.) There are still a few million masons today, mainly in the English-speaking world, and their activities are secret only in that they are carried on behind closed doors, in meetings limited to those who are members. Their popularity derives, I think, not only from their age but from their flexibility. Originally, English freemasonry was a fairly straightforward organization, with three basic levels or grades of members. Other, later organizations copied or extended masonic ritual by adding higher degrees and incorporating bits and pieces of other esoteric traditions (such as speculation about ancient Egypt) into their rituals. So freemasonry has been able to change and adapt as it has grown; it is very flexible in its structure and in being open to new forms of ritual and mythology.

Above all, freemasonry appeals to people who, in addition to being attracted by the mystery and the secrecy, are seeking an ethical system and social connections outside of established religions and based on Enlightenment ideals of tolerance and rationality (though masons are not hostile to established religions and many remain sincerely devout).

3. Two reasons come to mind. First, people are fascinated, yet also confused, by power. If professional historians are still arguing about the causes of the French Revolution, or any number of revolutions, wars, financial crises, and the like, then non-historians are certainly likely to gravitate to "short-cut" explanations that rely upon secret societies to account for complex, large-scale historical events that are otherwise hard to explain.

A second, deeper reason is that secret societies do often blur the lines between science and religion. Many have adopted rituals, symbols, and mythology that allegedly go back to a time, far in antiquity, when the truths of religion and the truths of science coincide. Whether or not one believes any of this, the suggestions that religion and science do ultimately unite at some distant point in the past and that their shared truths have been preserved in secrecy ever since is a very powerful one.

Dan Edelstein, Assistan Professor of French, Stanford University

1. I'm not an expert on secret societies, but have studied a number of them in the 18th and 19th centuries. The only instance I can think of where a secret society contributed to accomplish real historical change would be with the Italian Carbonari (roughly 1810-1830). Modeled on the Freemasons, the Carbonari fought, first to expel Napoleonic forces, then the Austrian army. They were not directly successful, but they're credited with constituting a first step toward the Risorgimento. One could also look at the role certain German "Volk" societies (usually not secret, though) played in the genesis of the Nazi party. The "Thule Society" in particular played a very influential role in the development of the N.S.D.A.P.

Otherwise, for the vast majority of secret societies, you're entirely right: there is a real "delight" in mystification. This goes back as far as the "Rosicrucian society," which apart from a series of published texts, probably never even existed! Freemasonry started (in England) as more of a "club," but when it migrated to the Continent (in the 1730's and 1740's), it developed many more mysterious trappings. The best example of this are the infamous Bavarian Illuminati, founded by Adam Weishaupt: in order to challenge the Jesuits, in the name of Enlightenment philosophy, Weishaupt invented a whole collection of initiation rituals, symbols, etc. The power of the Illuminati ultimately rested on their power of mystification, no more.

2. I think the popularity of the Freemasons comes from the fact that Freemasonry is the blueprint on which most every subsequent secret society has modeled itself.

3. As to why this model is so popular... I think secret societies play a similar function as "the devil" did in earlier times: they're a useful scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in the world.

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