Wherever thought has struggled to be free, there the great Theosophical Movement is to be discerned. The twelfth century is interesting from this point of view, as it marked the beginning of the struggle for intellectual freedom in Christian Europe. Up to this time the Church had been the only educational institution in Christendom, and no one, unless he were a member of the clergy or had studied in some monastical institution, could either read or write. But in the twelfth century small groups of students began to gather in France, determined to gain an education themselves and to pass on their knowledge to others. In 1100 a young man named Peter Abelard came in contact with some of these students. He prepared himself to teach and encouraged others to do the same. As the result of his efforts, the teachers of Paris formed a guild or union, known as a Universitas, and from this original impulse sprang the first Universities in Christian Europe.
At the same time another group of people banded themselves together for altruistic service, and in 1118 the Order of the Knights Templar was founded by the two Knights Hugh de Payens and Geoffrey de St. Omer. The purpose of this Order, on the surface, was to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Its secret object, however, was to encourage the new-born struggle for intellectual freedom and to restore the one universal religion in the world. Even Masonic authorities differ as to the forces which lay behind the founding of this Order, although it is agreed that they were in Asia Minor. Lawrie, in his History of Freemasonry, claims that the Templars inherited their occult knowledge from the Druzes of Mount Lebanon. In reality Hugh de Payens was initiated by Theocletes, Grand-Pontiff of the Nazarenes, or “St. John Christians,” who had inherited the esoteric instructions of Jesus as found in the original Gospel of Matthew. The first Templars regarded Jesus as a Brother, not a God, and strictly adhered to the secret teachings of their Chiefs in the East. The red cross on their white mantles had the same significance as with the Initiates of every other country.
The Knights Templar were opposed to the Church of Rome from the very first. In order to keep their real purpose a secret from the Church, the Templars held their meetings in caves or isolated country houses. In the early part of the fourteenth century the French King Philip the Fair and Pope Clement V concocted a plan for the destruction of the Order and the confiscation of their property. Jacques de Molay, the head of the Order, was called to Paris and thrown into prison, and every Knight in France was arrested on the charge of heresy. After a mock trial de Molay and fifty-four other Knights were burned at the stake. Says Albert Pike:
The Order disappeared at once. Its estates and wealth were confiscated, and it seemed to have ceased to exist. Nevertheless it lived, under other names and governed by unknown Chiefs, revealing itself only to those who had proven themselves worthy to be entrusted with the dangerous Secret. For the modern Orders that style themselves Templars have assumed a name to which they have not the shadow of a title. (Morals and Dogmas of Freemasonry.)
The Temple was the last secret organization in Europe which, as a body, had in its possession some of the mysteries of the East. For centuries a meeting was held every thirteen years on the Island of Malta, where thirteen representatives of the Order, among whom were crowned heads, planned for the religious and political fate of the different nations. As late as the eighteenth century there were isolated “Brothers” secretly working under the direction of Eastern Brotherhoods. The spurious Order which later arose in France was under the supervision of the Jesuits. In 1826 this Jesuitical Order brought about the assassination of one of the greatest Princes in Europe. This Prince, whose mysterious death has never been satisfactorily explained, was the last possessor of the secrets of the true Knights Templar.
To the “intellectual heresy” of the student groups and the “spiritual heresy” of the Knights Templar a third form of “heresy” — this one philosophical — was soon added. It was known as Averrhoism, and was based upon the doctrine of Emanations, which directly opposed the idea of a Creative Deity. The work of Averrhoes was supplemented by that of two Jewish Rabbis, Isaac the Blind and Azariel ben Menachem, whose Commentary on the Ten Sephiroth presented the same doctrine from the Kabalistic point of view. Averrhoism quickly penetrated into the University of Paris and was adopted by some of the foremost thinkers of the day. The Emperor Frederick II openly espoused it and was excommunicated from the Church as a result. Roger Bacon studied it and approved of it. It formed the favorite theme of discussion among the later Italian painters, Leonardo da Vinci accepting it without question, while others used Averrhoes in their paintings as the type of anti-Christ. In 1512 the Church anathematized Averrhoes and his doctrines and branded all who studied them as infidels.
By the thirteenth century the number and variety of “heretics” had increased so rapidly that for the first time the Church began to be afraid. As H. G. Wells humorously remarks: “It was hunting everywhere for heretics as timid old ladies were said to look under beds and in cupboards for burglars before retiring for the night.” (Outline of History, p. 655.) In her frenzied search for all who opposed her supreme dictatorship, the Church found in the south of France a veritable hornet’s nest of “heretics” known as the Albigenses and Waldenses.
The Albigenses were the descendants of those heretical Christians who had continued to follow the doctrines of the Persian Mani (Manichaeus), who had been flayed and crucified in the year 277. His principal doctrine, expressed in the words of The Bhagavad-Gita, was that “Light and Darkness are the world’s eternal ways.” From the third century onwards the Manichean doctrines began to spread rapidly, especially among the Cathars of Bulgaria and the Albigenses of southern France. The latter, protected as they were by William IX, Duke of Aquitania, and a large portion of the southern nobility, at last became so powerful that they rose in rebellion against the Church, declaring that the established religion was a motley system of errors and superstitions, and that the dominion which the Pope had usurped over the people was unlawful and tyrannical. Going still further, they declared that the Pope’s claim to be the Supreme Lord of the Universe was without foundation and a usurpation of the rights of man.
In 1170 another heretical sect known as the Waldenses arose in Provence and the valleys of Piedmont and joined forces with their Albingensian neighbors. They fought against the system of capital punishment which then prevailed in the Church, against the Holy Wars in which the Church was constantly engaged, and bitterly denounced the gross immorality of the Popes.
When Pope Innocent III came into power, he determined to exterminate these two groups of heretics without further delay, and sent out a Crusade against them in 1209. The officers of this Holy Army were Christian prelates, its generals were Bishops, and an Archbishop stood at its head. As it was difficult for the Crusaders to distinguish between the heretics and the orthodox Christians, the Abbot Arnold ordered the soldiers to “Kill them all! God will know His own!” In one day 7,000 persons were massacred in a Church, while 20,000 were slaughtered in the town itself. Another day 400 were burned in a single pile. H. G. Wells comments: “The accounts of the cruelties and abominations of this crusade are far more terrible to read than any account of Christian martyrdoms by the pagans, and they have the added horror of being indisputably true ” (Outline of History, p. 656.)
By this time Crusades had become a habit with the Church. Whenever the excitement of a fresh conquest failed to bring about a proper response from the elders, children were called out, as they were in the famous Children’s Crusade of 1212. In the fourth Crusade the atrocities committed shocked the Pope himself, for he admitted that “the Crusaders practiced fornications, incests, adulteries; they abandoned matrons and virgins consecrated to God to the lewdness of grooms; they lifted their hands against the treasures of the Church, carrying off crosses and relics.”
In this way the Abbot Martin obtained for his monastery in Alsace such relics as a spot of blood of the Saviour; the arm of the Apostle James; part of the skeleton of John the Baptist; and — a bottle of the milk of the Mother of God!
The rapidly increasing number of heretics caused the Church to found a new institution in the thirteenth century — the Papal Inquisition. This consisted of a series of Courts established for the purpose of ferreting out all cases of heresy and bringing the offenders to punishment. The power of the Inquisition was greatly augmented by the introduction of compulsory confession. If a man suspected of heresy failed to confess to his priest, he was called before the Court of the Inquisition, which sat in secret and allowed no witness for the accused to be present. If he still failed to confess, he was thrown into a dark and poisonous dungeon, where he was subjected to the thumb-screw, the stretching-rope and other instruments of torture. This usually brought out the desired confession, whether the man was guilty or not. Then the man was burned at the stake.
In the thirteenth century, when the slightest suggestion of “heresy” might cost a man his life, it took a brave man to defy openly the Church’s anathema against the study of science and philosophy. Such an one was Roger Bacon, who was born near Ilchester in Somerset in 1214. At the age of sixteen Bacon entered the University of Oxford, where he took his M.A. degree. Six years later he took the same degree in the University of Paris. When twenty-six years old Bacon returned to Oxford and entered a Franciscan monastery. His reason for taking this step is difficult to understand, since he described some of the famous Franciscans of his day as “fools, ignorant of philosophy and metaphysics, whose writings are full of puerile vanity and voluminous superfluity,” and openly denounced the moral corruption of the Church from the Pope downward.
On his return to Oxford, Bacon took up the study of philosophy, mathematics, physics and astronomy, and made many experiments with instruments constructed by himself. In 1267 he wrote: “During the twenty years that I have spent in the study of wisdom, I have spent more than 2,000 libra ($3,500) on secret books, languages, instruments and astronomical tables.”
Bacon’s unusual learning, coupled with his outspoken denunciation of the Church, caused him to be accused of studying and practicing magic. After making a demonstration of some of his scientific experiments in Oxford he was prohibited from giving further lectures. In 1266, when Clement IV, who had been a cardinal legate in England, was raised to the Papacy, he sent Raymond de Loudon to Oxford with a request for some of Bacon’s writings, irrespective of any conflicting regulations of the Franciscan Order. Bacon responded by sending the Pope his Opus Majus, Opus Minus and Opus Tertius. For the next twelve years Bacon was allowed to study and write without further interference. But in 1278 he was summoned to Paris and charged with two offenses. The first was that he had denied the possibility of miracles, declaring that everything that happens is the result of natural law. This, of course, directly contradicted the teachings of the Church, in which even the rainbow was considered as a supernatural sign placed in the heavens by God as an assurance that there would never be another flood. The second charge against Bacon was that he was in league with the Devil, since he had declared that all of the things which the Church attributed to his Satanic Majesty were also the result of natural causes. In those days, it must be remembered, it was as much of a crime to limit the power of the Devil as it was to limit the power of God.
The heads of the Franciscan Order met in solemn conclave, condemned Bacon and his writings and threw him into prison. There he remained for fourteen years, dying in 1292, in the seventy-eighth year of his life. In spite of his denunciation of the Church, he was buried at Greyfriars, the Franciscan Church in Oxford. It was not long, however, before his work began to be appreciated. By the end of the fourteenth century he had been proclaimed the foremost natural philosopher of his day, and in the fifteenth century the University of Oxford acknowledged him as “one of those Oxonians who had kept the brightness of Oxford’s fame untarnished.”
Roger Bacon was one of those men who belonged by right, if not by record, to that Brotherhood which includes all those who study the occult sciences. His knowledge did not come to him as a “revelation,” but because he studied ancient works on magic and alchemy and because he had the key to the real meaning of words. “All of my knowledge,” Bacon once wrote, “has come to me from the Sages of the East.” In his famous work The Mirror of Alchimy, Bacon referred to Hermes as the “Master Initiate” whose words may be taken as final authority upon every subject. The Theosophical trend of his thought is found in his statement of the three fundamental propositions of Theosophy. God, he declared, is not a Person, but a Principle. The Universe is simply the “process of Becoming.” Man is a God, capable of perceiving and understanding all things through “divine illumination” or union with the Higher Self. Bacon was equally appreciative of the attempts made by his contemporaries to keep certain aspects of the ancient Wisdom-Religion alive, frequently quoting from the works of Rhazes, Avicenna and Averrhoes. Two hundred years after his death Bacon’s statement that there was another continent on the other side of the earth was read by Christopher Columbus. It was probably due in part to Bacon’s influence that America was discovered. It is certain that Bacon exerted a powerful influence upon Copernicus.
The versatility of Roger Bacon appears in the fact that he was a philosopher, mathematician, philologist, physical geographer, chemist, and physician, earning for himself the title of “Doctor Mirabilis.” The amount of actual scientific knowledge he possessed seems almost phenomenal at the present day. He was a great astronomer, and rectified the Julian calendar. He was an expert in the science of optics, analyzing the property of lenses and convex glasses, inventing spectacles, telescopes and microscopes. One of his cipher manuscripts shows that he was familiar with micro-organisms, with the cellular structure of plants and with bacteria. In this manuscript many of the discoveries attributed to Pasteur and Lister are carefully outlined.
The predictions made by Roger Bacon are quite as astonishing as his discoveries. He anticipated the invention of the hydraulic press, the diving bell and the kaleidoscope, which he declared were all known to the ancients and would be known again in the future.
He foretold the time when ships would cross the ocean without the aid of rowers, propelled under the direction of a single man, and said:
It is equally possible to construct cars which may be set in motion with marvelous rapidity, independently of horses or other animals. Flying machines may also be made, the man seated in the center, and by means of artificial contrivances beating the air with artificial wings.
The story of Roger Bacon forms another dark chapter in the history of the Church. It is sad to think what this great man might have given to the world had he been allowed to do so. As Dr. Andrew D. White points out in his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology:
He held the key to treasures which would have freed mankind from ages of error and misery. Thousands of precious lives shall be lost, tens of thousands shall suffer discomfort, sickness, poverty, for lack of discoveries and methods which, but for this mistaken dealing with Roger Bacon and his compeers, would now be blessing the earth.