There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.—Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891
It was in Lyons that a respectable individual, whose acquaintance I made at the house of M. de Rochebaron, obtained for me the favor of being initiated in the sublime trifles of Freemasonry. I arrived in Paris a simple apprentice; a few months after my arrival I became companion and master; the last is certainly the highest degree in Freemasonry, for all the other degrees that I took afterward are only pleasing inventions, which, although symbolic, add nothing to the dignity of master.
No one in this world can obtain a knowledge of everything, but every man who feels himself endowed with faculties, and can realize the extent of his moral strength, should endeavor to obtain the greatest possible amount of knowledge. A well-born young man who wishes to travel and know not only the world, but also what is called good society, who does not want to find himself, under certain circumstances, inferior to his equals, and excluded from participating in all their pleasures, must get himself initiated in what is called Freemasonry, even if it is only to know superficially what Freemasonry is. It is a charitable institution, which, at certain times and in certain places, may have been a pretext for criminal underplots got up for the overthrow of public order; but is there anything under heaven that has not been abused? Have we not seen the Jesuits, under the cloak of our holy religion, thrust into the parricidal hand of blind enthusiasts the dagger with which kings were to be assassinated! All men of importance, I mean those whose social existence is marked by intelligence and merit, by learning or by wealth, can be (and many of them are) Freemasons; is it possible to suppose that such meetings, in which the initiated, making it a law never to speak intra muros [within the walls] either of politics, religions, or governments, converse only concerning emblems that are either moral or trifling; is it possible to suppose, I repeat, that those meetings, in which the governments may have their own creatures, can offer dangers sufficiently serious to warrant the proscriptions of kings or the excommunications of popes?
In reality such proceedings miss the end for which they are undertaken, and the pope, in spite of his infallibility, will not prevent his persecutions from giving Freemasonry an importance that it would perhaps have never obtained if it had been left alone. Mystery is the essence of man’s nature, and whatever presents itself to mankind under a mysterious appearance will always excite curiosity and be sought, even when men are satisfied that the veil covers nothing but a cipher.
The Cairo gang, a group of British intelligence operatives, Dublin, 1920. © Sean Sexton Collection / Bridgeman Images.
Upon the whole, I would advise all well-born young men who intend to travel to become Freemasons; but I would likewise advise them to be careful in selecting a lodge, because, although bad company cannot have any influence while inside of the lodge, the candidate must guard against bad acquaintances.
Those who become Freemasons only for the sake of finding out the secret of the order, run a very great risk of growing old under the trowel without ever realizing their purpose. Yet there is a secret, but it is so inviolable that it has never been confided or whispered to anyone. Those who stop at the outward crust of things imagine that the secret consists in words, in signs, or that the main point of it is to be found only in reaching the highest degree. This is a mistaken view: the man who guesses the secret of Freemasonry, and to know it you must guess it, reaches that point only through long attendance in the lodges, through deep thinking, comparison, and deduction. He would not trust that secret to his best friend in Freemasonry, because he is aware that if his friend has not found it out, he could not make any use of it after it had been whispered in his ear. No, he keeps his peace, and the secret remains a secret.
Everything done in a lodge must be secret; but those who have unscrupulously revealed what is done in the lodge have been unable to reveal that which is essential; they had no knowledge of it, and had they known it, they certainly would not have unveiled the mystery of the ceremonies.
The impression felt in our days by the noninitiated is of the same nature as that felt in former times by those who were not initiated in the mysteries enacted at Eleusis in honor of Ceres. But the mysteries of Eleusis interested the whole of Greece, and whoever had attained some eminence in the society of those days had an ardent wish to take a part in those mysterious ceremonies, while Freemasonry, in the midst of many men of the highest merit, reckons a crowd of scoundrels whom no society ought to acknowledge, because they are the refuse of mankind as far as morality is concerned.
In the mysteries of Ceres, an inscrutable silence was long kept, owing to the veneration in which they were held. Besides, what was there in them that could be revealed? The three words which the hierophant said to the initiated? But what would that revelation have come to? Only to dishonor the indiscreet initiate, for they were barbarous words unknown to the vulgar. I have read somewhere that the three sacred words of the mysteries of Eleusis meant: watch, and do no evil. The sacred words and the secrets of the various masonic degrees are about as criminal.
From The Story of My Life. Accused of practicing magic, Casanova was imprisoned in the Piombi in Venice in 1755. After his escape the following year, Casanova helped establish the first French state lottery and, during the 1770s, spied for the Venetian government. He spent the remainder of his life as a librarian in Bohemia, where he wrote his autobiography. “Imaginative writers rarely have a biography,” wrote Stefan Zweig of Casanova, “and men who have biographies are only in exceptional instances able to write them.”