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The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order Hardcover – November, 1997
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About the Author
Colin Wilson is a prolific author whose works include the bestselling "The Outsider, From Atlantis to the Sphinx," and his autobiography, "Dreaming to Some Purpose," He is also the coauthor, with Rand Flem-Ath, of "The Atlantis Blueprint," He lives in Cornwall, England. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
The original Rosicrucians emerged in Germany during the 17th century and rapidly spread to other lands, most notably Britain. Organized as a secret society and based on part-ironic founding documents, their real history and purpose is somewhat difficult to gauge. McIntosh sees Rosicrucianism as a more or less direct continuator of the esotericism which thrived during the Renaissance. Ficino, Pico, Agrippa and Paracelsus were important characters in this revival of earlier esoteric traditions such as Hermetism, Neo-Platonism, the Cabala and Pythagoreanism. McIntosh describes Rosicrucianism as “Gnostic”, but personally I feel that Hermetic is a better term, since the brothers of the Rosy Cross were interested in transmuting this world, not simply leave it behind. The original Rosicrucians also had millenarian streaks freely based on Joachim of Fiore and his apocalyptic speculations. There was also a related utopian streak. The world would be changed to the better by a combination of science, spirituality and education. Campanella's “City of the Sun” and Bacon's “The New Atlantis” preached a similar-sounding message. At some point, alchemy became Rosicrucianism's defining feature, while the movement started to overlap with Freemasonry, in particular “Scottish” Masonry (really a Jacobite invention during their French exile). The alchemy wasn't strictly spiritual in character, but really involved attempts to make gold from base metals.
It's not clear whether there is a direct continuity between 17th and 18th century Rosicrucianism. What is clear is that groups claiming the mantle of Rosicrucianism were popular in Germany during the 18th century as a conservative counter-reaction to the Enlightenment. For a brief moment, Rosicrucians even had political power. The Prussian king Frederick William II was a member of the “Order of the Golden and Rose Cross”, and appointed his spiritual mentors to important political offices. He also organized bizarre séances at the royal court, including attempts to contact spirits with the aid of a machine!
During the 19th and 20th centuries, new occult groups emerged which had little or nothing to do with the original Rosicrucians, but laid claim to the tradition anyway. Of these, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and some of its offshoots were probably closest to the original version of the tradition. Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy, Max Heindel's Rosicrucian Fellowship, H Spencer Lewis' AMORC and R Swinburne Clymer's Fraternitas Rosae Crucis are further removed, being strongly inspired by other occult streams. The book also contains a chapter on the late 19th century “Rosicrucian” revival in France, and an additional section on Rosicrucian-inspired literature, Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel “Zanoni” being a well known specimen. For some reason, the author doesn't discuss Paul Foster Case's group Builders of the Adytum.
Since McIntosh's book is meant as an introduction, more advanced readers might be disappointed by the summaries and omissions. Still, I think it was well worth reading. I consider it a good complement to the Rosicrucian entries in John Michael Greer's “The Element Encylopedia of Secret Societies”, which I also warmly recommend.
So what is Rosicrucianism, then? Perhaps the best short explanation is a cluster of secret societies, somewhat resembling Freemasons, which originally embodied the Western esoteric tradition in a mostly Renaissance garb. Later, the “meme” started to mutate and today, the term has little meaning except as mystery-signaling. But sure, if you look hard enough, perhaps Master Christian Rosenkreuz will appear behind a stack of obscure alchemical treatises in some used book store…
Better to quickly dismiss the possibilities than to take them seriously. The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology and Rituals of an Esoteric Order is an interesting book that is fearless about challenging conventional thinking.
I suspect people who read this book and suspend their disbelief may not admit it. Of course the nature of the esoteric is not for everyone.
A quick, compelling read about beliefs.
The book spans just under 150 pages, which is relatively slim for a scholarly work, but then this is mainly intended as an overview, and is certainly not lacking in depth in those 150 pages. It has thirteen chapters, ranging from an exposition on groups and beliefs that influenced the Rosicrucians, the general esoteric tradition in Germany prior to the birth of Rosicrucianism, the actual release and effect of the manifestos themselves, and then the spread of Rosicrucianism, to its alchemical emphasis, the Golden and Rosy Cross Order, the King of Prussia's membership, the French revival, the Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucian Adept in literature, and modern Rosicrucian movements, most notably AMORC.
McIntosh cites numerous sources, displaying a wealth of knowledge on the subject that cannot easily be dismissed. The bibliography is also fairly extensive (though McIntosh calls it "select"). Much of the translations of texts quoted throughout are his own, and the reasoning for this is explained by Colin Wilson in his foreword, where he explains McIntosh's love of detective work, "especially when it involved reading in French and German". This adds an extra layer to the book, where the various translations can be compared and cross-referenced with others in the fully-translated published texts.
McIntosh presents an overview of Rosicrucianism that is both scholarly and literary. The facts are there, and are well supported, but this is far from a dry academic tome (although parts of it unfortunately sink to that level). It is clearly evident that the author is partial to the subject at hand, and this is best explained in his own words: "When I began it, I was going through a phase of rather dry, scholarly objectivity in my attitude to such subjects and I intended to examine Rosicrucianism simply as a rather curious historical phenomenon without really expecting to find that it contained a teaching of any real depth or coherence. Since then, not only has my attitude changed - I have become much more pro-occult - but I also found ... that Rosicrucianism goes deeper than I had realized, and does contain something valuable and coherent. ... It has taught me that, sooner or later, anyone studying these subjects from an academic point of view has to make the decision whether they are going to take a personal stance for or against. To turn away from this decision and try to remain neutral is, to me, death."
This is not to say that McIntosh has abandoned his scholarly focus, as that is not true, but this is a book to be enjoyed mainly (though not exclusively, as it has a broad appeal) by historically-inclined Rosicrucians, for they will find that McIntosh really identifies with the powerful mythology that Rosicrucianism has invented. It matters little in the end who created it and where, but rather the many people who felt moved and empowered by it, and the rapid spread of its movements and ideals across Europe and America. The historical questions are answered as best as they can be at this time in this book, but never at the expense of the heart of Rosicrucianism itself.
The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order, by Christopher McIntosh; Weiser Books, 3rd Revised Edition (1997)
Review originally posted at Mishkan ha-Echad