Mishkan ha-Echad

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Book Review: The Rosicrucians

The history of Rosicrucianism is a bit of a muddled affair, not least of all due to the fact that we don't really know who wrote the two manifestos (barring the likely candidate of Andreae, who wrote the Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz), nor why they were written, nor, indeed, if it was intended as a joke or a subtle social experiment designed to bring about change, propelled by the powerful forces of mystery, secrecy, and intrigue. It is difficult, even in modern times, to separate the myths from the facts, to discern which was the first actual Rosicrucian group from the many that claim its ancient heritage. The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order, by Christopher McIntosh (author of The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason) is an excellent attempt at this discernment.

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)
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