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Conspiracy theories of a secretive power elite seeking global domination have long held a place in the modern imagination. His depiction includes the "eye of providence" and also the red Phrygian cap, two symbols associated with freemasonry.
At the beginning of , John Robison was a man with a solid and long-established reputation in the British scientific establishment. He had been Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University for over twenty years, an authority on mathematics and optics; he had recently been appointed senior scientific contributor on the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica , to which he would contribute over a thousand pages of articles.
Yet by the end of the year his professional reputation had been eclipsed by a sensational book that vastly outsold anything he had previously written, and whose shockwaves would continue to reverberate long after his scientific work had been forgotten.
The first edition of Proofs of a Conspiracy sold out within days, and within a year it had been republished many times, not only in Edinburgh but in London, Dublin and New York. Robison had hit a nerve by offering an answer to the great questions of the day: what had caused the French Revolution, and what had driven its bloody and tumultuous progress? From his vantage point in Edinburgh he had, along with millions of others, followed with horror the reports of France dismembering its monarchy, dispossessing its church and transforming its downtrodden and brutalised population into the most ruthless fighting force Europe had ever seen — and now, under the rising star of the young general Napoleon Bonaparte, attempting to export the carnage and destruction to its surrounding monarchies, not least Britain itself.
But Robison believed that he alone had identified the hidden hand responsible for the apparently senseless eruption of terror and war that now appeared to be consuming the world. Note the red Phyrigian cap, a symbol of the French revolution also associated by some with Freemasonry - Source. Many had located the roots of the revolution in the ideas of Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Diderot and Condorcet, who had exalted reason and progress over authority and tradition; but none of these mostly aristocratic philosophes had advocated a revolution of the masses, and indeed several of them had ended their lives on the guillotine.
In the early s it had been possible to believe that the power-hungry lawyers and journalists of the Jacobin Club had whipped up the Paris mob into their destructive frenzy for their own ends, but by Danton, Robespierre and the rest of the Jacobin leaders had followed their victims to the guillotine: how could they have been the puppet-masters when they had had their own strings so brutally cut? What Robison was proposing in the meticulously documented pages of Proofs of a Conspiracy was that all these agents of revolution had been pawns in a much bigger game, with ambitions that were only just beginning to make themselves visible.
The French Revolution, like all convulsive world events before and since, had been full of conspiracies, bred by the speed of events, the panic of those caught up in them and the limited information available to them as they unfolded. Portrait of Adam Weishaupt featured in Cagliostro: the splendour and misery of a master of magic by W. Trowbridge - Source. Obsessive and domineering, Weishaupt had from the beginning found difficulty in attracting members to his secret society, where they were expected to adopt mystical pseudonyms chosen by him, jump through the hoops of his strict initiatic grades - Novice and Minerval, Illuminatus Minor and Major, Dirigens and Magus - and take up subservient roles in his grandiose but unfocused crusade for world domination.
After , when the Order had been exposed and banned by the Elector of Bavaria, Weishaupt had exiled himself to Gotha in central Germany, since when he appeared to have done little beyond producing a series of morose and self-justifying memoirs of his adventures.
Yet there was much in the career of the Illuminati that offered, to Robison at least, a view of a far more expansive and sinister scheme. It had become a lightning-rod for the deep anxieties of church and monarchy about the agenda of reason and progress that was being seeded across Europe by the confident vanguard of philosophers and scientists. The Illuminati furore had generated hundreds of screeds, polemics, handbills and scandal sheets, all competing to file the most damning charges of godless infamy.
It was these sources that Robison had spent years perusing intently for anecdotes and allegations to mould into the proofs of the conspiracy that he now presented. To the dispassionate observer, Weishaupt and his Illuminati might have offered an eloquent metaphor for the forces that were reconfiguring Europe, but for Robison they had become the literal cause: the centre, thus far invisible, of the web of events that had consumed the world. The original insignia of the Bavarian Illuminati: the owl of Minerva, symbolising wisdom, on top of an opened book - Source.
Robison may have been a distant spectator of the Illuminati furore, but he was no dispassionate observer. While Proofs of a Conspiracy came as a surprise and in most cases an embarrassment to his friends and scientific colleagues, there were many reasons why the Illuminati had presented itself to him in this form. His discovery resolved long-standing suspicions and conflicts in both his private and professional life, and chimed in particular with his own curious adventures in freemasonry.
In he had begun to suffer from a mysterious medical condition, a severe and painful spasm of the groin: it seemed to emanate from beneath his testicles, but its precise origin baffled the most distinguished doctors of Edinburgh and London. Racked with pain and frequently bed-ridden, by the late s he had become a withdrawn and isolated figure; he was using opium frequently, a regime which according to some of his acquaintances made him vulnerable to melancholy, confusion and paranoia.
As the successive crises of the French Revolution shook Britain, the panic was particularly intense in Scotland, where ministers and judges whipped up constant rumours of fifth columnists and secret Jacobin cells. Tormented, heavily medicated and assailed by terrifying news from the outside world, Robison had all too many dark threads to weave into the plot that came to consume him.
Henry Raeburn - Source. Politics had also thrown a long shadow across his professional life. The physical sciences were in the grip of another French revolution, led by Antoine Lavoisier.
During the s Lavoisier had overthrown the chemistry of the previous century with his discovery of oxygen, from which he had been able to establish new theories of combustion and to begin the process of reducing all material substances to a basic table of elements. Robison had never accepted the French theories, and by had worked the new chemistry deep into his Illuminatist plot. Initiation of an apprentice Freemason around , an engraving ca. Petersburg, learning Russian and lecturing on navigation; during the course of his travels he had met with other masons and visited lodges in France, Belguim, Germany and Russia.
Now, thirty years later, as he recalled the occultism and freethinking to which he had been briefly but unforgettably exposed, he had no doubt as to the source of the destruction that had engulfed the Continent. Although Proofs of a Conspiracy became a handsome bestseller, the Illuminati conspiracy never gripped the imagination of the British political class as it did in mainland Europe.
Once the crisis of the French revolution was past, some conservative voices would attribute this to superior British common sense, but in truth Britain at that time had more serious threats and conspiracies to contend with.
With the British fleet convulsed by mutinies and the government struggling to contain mass protests and riots, it was hardly surprising that the doings of a long-disbanded Bavarian lodge seemed less than a pressing concern.
Here, the polarised forces of revolution and reaction that had swept Europe were playing out in a form that threatened to split the Founding Fathers and destroy their fledgling Constitution. While the likes of Thomas Jefferson saw themselves as cousins of a French republic that had thrown off the shackles of monarchy and with whom they traded amid British naval blockades, other founders such as Alexander Hamilton, whose Federalist party favoured a powerful state geared towards protecting the interests of its wealthy citizens, feared the infiltration of the radical ideals of the French revolution.
In an overheated political milieu where accusations of treason were hurled from both sides, Proofs of a Conspiracy was seized on eagerly by the Federalists as evidence of the hidden agenda that lurked behind fine-sounding slogans such as democracy, the abolition of slavery and the rights of man. Yet the episode had touched a nerve deep within the American political mindset, and it has been woven into many subsequent paranoias and panics.
Although Webster later consigned herself to the margins by joining the British Union of Fascists, her support at the time was more broadly based, and she even won admiring citations in the journalism of Winston Churchill.
Government booklet on the Great Seal. According to Henry A. Wallace, this was the version of the Great Seal reverse which caught his eye, causing him to suggest to President Franklin Roosevelt to put the design on a coin, at which point Roosevelt decided to put it on the back of the dollar bill - Source. Forged in the same crucible as every modern political ideology from conservatism to nihilism, anarchy to military dictatorship, the Illuminati conspiracy has become a modern myth: not merely in the dismissive sense that its factual basis evaporates under scrutiny, but as a shapeshifting narrative capable of adapting its meaning to accommodate new and unforeseen scenarios.
In popular culture and old-time religion, satire and nationalist politics, the Illuminati conspiracy still resonates with its warning that the light of reason has its shadows, and even the most enlightened democracy can be manipulated by hidden hands. A snapshot of late eighteenth-century psychiatry, and its relevance to current narratives of madness, conspiracy theories, mind control, and political manipulation. Foreword from Oliver Sacks. A collection of essays from America's most-cited legal scholar who for decades has been at the forefront of applied behavioral economics.
A comprehensive history of conspiracy theories in American culture and politics, from the colonial era to the War on Terror. Books link through to Amazon who will give us a small percentage of sale price ca. Discover more recommended books in our dedicated PDR Recommends section of the site. Mike Jay has written extensively on scientific and medical history and is a specialist in the study of drugs.
Explore our selection of fine art prints, all custom made to the highest standards, framed or unframed, and shipped to your door. Search The Public Domain Review. Published April 2, Public Domain Works Proofs of a Conspiracy.
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It was with great satisfaction that I learned from a Friend that you coincided with me in the opinion, that the information contained in this Performance would make a useful impression on the minds of my Countrymen. I have presumed to inscribe it with your Name, that I may publicly express the pleasure which I felt, when I found that neither a separation for thirty years, nor the pressure of the most important business, had effaced your kind remembrance of a College Acquaintance, or abated that obliging and polite attention with which you favoured me in those early days of life. The friendship of the accomplished and the worthy is the highest honour; and to him who is cut off, by want of health, from almost every other enjoyment, it is an inestimable blessing. Accept, therefore, I pray, of my grateful acknowledgments, and of my earnest wishes for your Health, Prosperity, and increasing Honour.
John Robison (physicist)
He was a professor of natural philosophy the precursor of natural science at the University of Edinburgh. A member of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society when it received its royal warrant, he was appointed as the first general secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh — Robison invented the siren and also worked with James Watt on an early steam car. Following the French Revolution , Robison became disenchanted with elements of the Enlightenment. He authored Proofs of a Conspiracy in —a polemic accusing Freemasonry of being infiltrated by Weishaupt 's Order of the Illuminati. His son was the inventor Sir John Robison — His mathematical skills were employed in navigation and surveying.