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Is it True that Secret Societies are Trying to Control the World?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 November 2020

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Summary

A few months ago, as I picked up my youngest daughter from school – she was nine at the time – she asked “Dad, do the Illuminati exist, for real?” She was obviously worried about them, so I tried to calm her down, explaining that it was only a myth or a story with very little connection to reality. She was silent for a moment, and then exclaimed, “Oh, you mean like a conspiracy theory!” The scholar in me was intrigued. Illuminati? Conspiracy theories? Where did she hear about things like that? As we continued our walk home, she explained that “everybody” in school was talking about it, and that many of her friends were terrified of the Illuminati. “So, what are the Illuminati?” I asked. “They are a secret club that rules the world … Have you seen the American dollar bill?!” I had indeed. “And a conspiracy theory,” I continued, “what's that, then?” “Well, it's like a story or theory about something which is not true.”

The point of this anecdote is not to show how credulous Swedish school kids might be. Rather, it nicely illustrates just how long-lived and widespread polemical narratives of Western esotericism actually are. Whilst the specific fear of the Illuminati goes back to the aftermath of the French Revolution, it is intrinsically connected to a grand mnemohistorical narrative of esoteric organisations having a secret political agenda with the ultimate goal of controlling the world. As we shall see, this grand narrative was shaped during the eighteenth century, but precursors or earlier versions can be found throughout the history of Western culture. In particular, it was with the emergence of the Order of Freemasons during the first half of the eighteenth century that the fear of institutionalised forms of esotericism developed into one of the more prominent tropes of what we might call the Grand Polemical Narrative of Western culture, or Western esotericism as rejected knowledge. The polemics against “secret societies” are thus in many ways illustrative of general processes of identity-formation, marginalisation, and the creation of an “Other.” What sets this particular strand of polemical narratives apart, however, is that the fear of secret societies has been (and continues to be) one of the most dangerous narratives in the history of Western esotericism – if not the most dangerous one.

Type
Chapter
Information
Hermes Explains
Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism
, pp. 39 - 46
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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