Breitbart’s Nightmare — The Mythology of the Secret Societies — Conclusion by J.M. Roberts (1928-2003)

Filippo Buonarroti (1761-1837)

Buonarroti’s last years blended the myth and the reality of the secret societies as never before. Each, too, was then at the peak of its strength. This book has been about the first; it has argued that though secret societies existed in large numbers in Western Europe between 1750 and 1830 and strove to influence events, their main importance was what people believed about them. This always mattered more than what they did and their numbers and practical effectiveness were in no way proportionate to the myth’s power. This is their true instrumental importance as well as their interest for the historian; what was believed about them was an important part of the information shaping men’s reactions to great events.

If this is granted, then can we hope – ought we to try? – to understand any more about this fact than its historical context? The mythology is, after all, a historical artefact. It is one characteristic achievement and expression of a particular age, a collective dream of one particular culture. We feel able to understand quite a lot of the social context in which, over eighty years or so, it was born and grew to its full stature; we ought therefore to have a fair chance of discerning what there was in it that locks the mythology into that particular culture at that particular time. Most of what has gone before in this book perhaps expresses that view implicitly. Yet this does not seem to exhaust the matter. Although the mythology has its peculiar features it is also based on elements which recur in other historical situations and it has itself shown astonishing powers of survival and adaptation. Long after the years which saw its birth, these powers have renewed its life at many times and in many places.
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