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Stephen J. Trachtenberg, 33
President, The George Washington University

Once we realize how the Enlightenment, Freemasonry, and the United States of America have become overlapping categories of human behavior, we also have to recognize the extent to which Enlightenment, as a system of values, is presently under siege.


The word Enlightenment with a capital “E” had very special meaning in the 18th century when Freemasonry was making such an impact in Europe and America and when this Lodge was in the process of being founded.Q

Open a textbook on the history of Europe in the 18th century, and one of the first references you’ll find is a reference to “The Enlightenment,” an intellectual movement based in France but extending its appeal as far away as Stockholm and Moscow. The Enlightenment represented a new attitude toward the human past, present, and future. It was an attitude consciously opposed to all the forces that locked the human mind into a narrow, prejudiced, and basically passive type of functioning. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, when they looked back at human history, tended to see it as a long sequence of prisons, each of which tended to stand in the way of intellectual pursuits, social progress, and constructive change.

Needless to say, these same philosophers knew that there had always been exceptions to this rule. In the upper ranks of European monarchy and aristocracy, there had been individual figures who somehow transcended the limitations of their time. The time of the Renaissance in Italy produced some obvious examples. So did the age of Elizabeth the First in England. And the 18th century produced its share of enlightened monarchs in Austria, Russia, and Sweden who looked beyond the rituals of their courts and their churches to broader visions of humanity and human progress. But the deeper impulses of the Enlightenment tended to be more democratic, to look further than such occasional exceptions allowed for.


When we feel an inevitable temptation to surrender some or all of our autonomy as individual citizens, let’s remember that the ultimate craft is the one whereby we craft ourselves.


One crucial defining point of the Enlightenment was the great encyclopedia produced in France by Denis Diderot and his colleagues. Its articles and illustrations were concerned not just with famous names out of history but with the arts and crafts that made human life and human progress possible. It saw the entire human race as engaged in a common endeavor--the struggle toward sharing widely the benefits of human reason.

Needless to say, a philosophical movement that was inclined to be appreciative toward people of every social and economic level, that encouraged tolerance and openness rather than compulsion and limitation, was bound to stir up a lot of opposition in societies based on hereditary privilege. In France itself, the proponents of Enlightenment got used to drastic shifts of personal fortune. When they weren’t being lionized by their admirers, including admirers drawn from the French aristocracy, they were being threatened with imprisonment or physical violence. And the more they were threatened in this way, the more influential they became.

In every country and on nearly every continent, people became aware of an altogether new point of view which actually saw the earth as a planet whose processes we could understand and influence, rather than a divine mystery whose destructive aspects we could only accept.

Looking back at the 18th century from the perspective of the present moment, we can see how the force of Enlightenment and the force of Freemasonry were destined for a marriage. There is a haunting parallel between the imagery of craftsmanship in the Masonic vision and the new interest in human craft that was incorporated into Diderot’s Encyclopedia. What was slowly diminishing in this new vision was the older contempt for most human beings as the members of a so-called “lower order” whose habits and thought patterns respectable members of society could only regard with contempt and distrust.

Already implicit in the Enlightenment, for example, was a new attitude toward public health. In the 19th century, enlightened doctors spread out through the nations of Western Europe, starting with France, and tried to alleviate the subhuman living conditions of the rural peasantry. The notion that “we can do it” became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ideals of sanitation and education took the place of an earlier indifference which, of course, had translated into nonstop plagues of various kinds.

Enlightenment and Freemasonry served each other well and reinforced each other’s strengths. They also exercised a great power over the political experiment that was underway along the Eastern Coast of North America. The kinds of Europeans who picked themselves up and moved across the Atlantic, who chose the rigors of Colonial life over the predictable servitude of the places in which they were born, were sympathetic to the notion that human beings--all human beings--could generate the kinds of ideas that made the world a better place.

It was no accident, therefore, that so many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment and were also members of the Masonic Order. And it was no accident that they shared a deep distrust of any national religious system, especially the kind of national religion that operated hand-in-glove with a hereditary monarchy. Enlightenment would always be crushed, they believed, when the forces representing the authority of faith could back up their power with the armed force of an organized nation.

In the most natural way, therefore, Enlightenment became the deepest prevailing value of the United States of America. As all of us know, the philosophy of our Constitution is one that seeks to create a “breathing space” for even the simplest, humblest, most average American. The wars waged between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial elements of our national system, the countervailing powers with which our states confront the federal government, the ways in which the residents of a single municipality can assert their needs and concerns when they feel these have been ignored--all these checks and balances have one major purpose: to permit the individual American citizen to flower into full strength, influence, and creativity.

We may often argue about the details of this grand system of balance and opportunity. We very seldom argue about the kind of human being the system is designed to favor: an American who “knows his or her rights” and who is, therefore, as little inclined to worship authority as any philosopher of the 18th century.

In today’s world, when so many foreign nations are turning to the American model in their own quests for Enlightenment, it’s tempting for us to sit back, to pat ourselves on the back, and to bask in the fact that “we got there first.” But that’s a temptation we must resist. Once we have realized how the Enlightenment, Free- masonry, and the United States of America have become overlapping categories of human behavior, we also have to recognize the extent to which Enlightenment, as a system of values, is presently under siege.

Open the newspaper and you are likely to find yourself reading about the most recent actions of this or that religious cult. Driven along by the unquestioned authority of their leaders, cult members have engaged in murder, armed confrontation, and suicide. Their visions of life are often grounded in a selection of religious texts, especially those which envision a global catastrophe of some kind. Meanwhile, they ignore the texts which suggest that we ought to be working on a day-to-day basis to make life a more orderly process whose ultimate goal is justice.

In short, what cults so often do is to favor precisely the kinds of authoritarianism and passivity that the 18th century Enlightenment set out to oppose. Meanwhile, they tend to ignore the political tradition embodied by America’s Founding Fathers and Freemasonry: the sense of politics as a humanitarian craft which could actually design a nation in such a way that its citizens agree it is fundamentally just.

As we all know, cults of this kind feed on feelings of despair and disillusionment. Many of the people who committed suicide after joining the “Heaven’s Gate” cult left behind letters and videotapes in which they said things like: “There’s just nothing here any longer.” And by “here” they meant nothing less than our entire planet! To commit suicide in order to begin an interplanetary voyage on a passing spaceship was a way of escaping from a world they saw as a prison. They felt that its continents, oceans, skies and societies--all of them--were in the grip of an evil force, usually identified by such cultists as Satan or Lucifer. Only by moving to some other world, therefore, can human beings make themselves comfortable and creative and truly happy.

One of the built-in problems faced by those who work on behalf of Enlightenment is that they have often underestimated the power of what they themselves have escaped. Most American tourists visiting other parts of the world would find it intolerable to live in the ages that produced huge churches, castles, and other kinds of authoritarian institutions. Were we carried back in time to one of those ages, five minutes of looking around would have us begging for a return to 1997. But if we can travel back in a much safer way, the way provided by modern travel and the human imagination, then we can’t wait to experience the past, even if the monuments we visit were once the sites of human sacrifice, religious persecution, and a murderous reaction to any form of disagreement.


It was no accident that so many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment and also members of the Masonic Order.


Enlightenment tells us that to engage in the act of disagreement is one of the most basic aspects of being human. I may find what you say or what you think is 100 percent wrong. I may even regard your ideas dangerous to the society within which we all live. But in the very throes of such disagreement, I still resist any temptation I may feel to burn you at the stake or otherwise remove you from my sight. I can actually recognize the supreme importance of allowing you to get on my nerves! In short, what Enlightenment, Freemasonry, and the United States of America all have in common is a singularly complex picture of the human mind. Those who join a Masonic Lodge may include people who have not, for many years, used any tool more sophisticated than a can opener. Those who become citizens of the United States probably include people who believe that our planet is flat as a pancake and sits on the back of a cosmic turtle. Those who took part in the 18th century Enlightenment included people whose rigid atheism and sheer hatred of religion resembled the angers of the very systems they were trying to overthrow.

But what we all tend to feel, despite our differences, is that we are better served by the freedom for all to express their opinions than we would be by a much neater and in some ways more aesthetically pleasing system. Back in the days when no religious procession was in danger of having people wave picket signs at it and when sickness and death were most often regarded as “acts of God,” apparent unanimity was achieved by the obliteration of inconvenient forms of disagreement. Everybody seemed to think alike. The result was the kind of harmony admired by the dictators of the 20th century who saw to it that everybody had the right to agree with them.

Clearly, the values of the Enlightenment which have done much to produce us may once again be facing a crisis. Those values seek to provide every human being with a large measure of autonomy. But autonomy, besides being a wonderful thing to have, is also very often a challenge. All of us experience, in the process of growing up, the difficult process of gaining independence from our parents. We’re no longer being told what to do. We have actually to decide what to do. And on those occasions when what we decide to do turns out to be a mistake or an outright disaster, can we really be blamed for looking back, nostalgically, to the time when life was so much simpler?

Once the Enlightenment shifted disagreement from being a kind of sin to being a kind of duty, our species began to experience the apex of its influence. Ancient sicknesses could be cured. Our moon could be visited. The earth itself could be explored with a thoroughness that previous generations would have regarded as science fiction. The biology of heredity could be mapped. And the most subversive political, social, or intellectual ideas could be proposed. No sooner had the thought of a Sigmund Freud overthrown so many taboos and sacred cows that the pre-Freudian world was no longer truly imaginable than the attack on Freud himself got underway and was soon suggesting that he was in fact a fraud. No sooner had we gotten through lamenting the influence of Marxist thinking on the Third World than the Third World started to pack its Marxism into the neighborhood trash can.

Such is the nature of the human mind. And what Enlightenment has represented, above all, is the growth and development of the human mind. We have accepted the keen discomfort involved in questioning old assumptions. And we have decided that a certain amount of permanent discomfort is better than the “harmony” achieved by murdering one’s opponents.

So if the dislike of being uncomfortable and the pain of being autonomous are forces currently nibbling away at Enlightenment, we can reassure ourselves by looking back at the first half of the 20th century. At that time, many people felt that Enlightenment would prove a historical “loser.” Fascism was a leading candidate for the status of “winner.” Wasn’t it obvious, many asked, that a quarreling, squabbling, systematically disunited democracy could never compete with a rigidly organized tyranny where everybody marched together? They were proved wrong. When it came to the most colossal war ever fought, the proponents of brutal unanimity lost out to the squabbling proponents of democracy who were willing to listen to just about any idea without rejecting it out of hand.

So let’s not confuse an itch with a disease. What Enlightenment, Freemasonry, and American history all teach us is that thinking a new thought isn’t often a very easy thing to do. And when we feel an inevitable temptation to surrender some or all of our autonomy as individual citizens, let’s remember that the ultimate craft is the one whereby we craft ourselves. No more thrilling moment can be imagined than the one that has our children or grandchildren looking back at us and saying, “They chose the hard way. And it turned out to be the right way!”


The article above is an address, edited for length, given by Illustrious Trachtenberg at the Stated Communication of Potomac Lodge No. 5, Washington, DC, on May 5, 1997, as part of a celebration of the Lodge’s 208th anniversary.