I found this article quite fascinating on many levels. It tells how modern day cryptographers broke the code on manuscripts hundreds of years old, and rendered them into modern English, Much of the article is the “how” they did it.
Here is the result they got by decoding the initiation ceremony of the Great Enlightened Society of Oculists:
“The master wears an amulet with a blue eye in the center. Before him, a candidate kneels in the candlelit room, surrounded by microscopes and surgical implements. The year is roughly 1746. The initiation has begun.
The master places a piece of paper in front of the candidate and orders him to put on a pair of eyeglasses. “Read,” the master commands. The candidate squints, but it’s an impossible task. The page is blank.
The candidate is told not to panic; there is hope for his vision to improve. The master wipes the candidate’s eyes with a cloth and orders preparation for the surgery to commence. He selects a pair of tweezers from the table. The other members in attendance raise their candles.
The master starts plucking hairs from the candidate’s eyebrow. This is a ritualistic procedure; no flesh is cut. But these are “symbolic actions out of which none are without meaning,” the master assures the candidate. The candidate places his hand on the master’s amulet. Try reading again, the master says, replacing the first page with another. This page is filled with handwritten text. Congratulations, brother, the members say. Now you can see.“
A rather odd little ritual, but similar in minutiae to the countless similar initiations performed by the numerous secret societies that abounded about Western civilization 260 years ago.
The reason? Some people wanted to study physics and the other sciences to see what they really revealed, to look at all issues with an open-minded mind, and even to question the very purpose of the universe and if God really existed.
They were the first modern agnostics – bringing evidence, logic and reason to the fore, to ask un-askable questions, to challenge the very existence of priest and prince. Even if the actual word “Agnostic” was not coined by Huxley until 1869.
This was a very dangerous course of action. Under the dualistic nature of religion, all who did not have faith were, by definition, atheists. It mattered not whether one had lost your faith by doubt or by certainty: failure to recant was burning at the stake, or the gibbet or the noose.
The largest of these secret organizations, the Freemasons, incurred papal wrath, and in 1738 Pope Clement XII forbade all Catholics from joining a Masonic lodge. All secret societies of the embryonic agnostics were seen to be a threat to Catholic authority: initially rumors were engendered that these all male societies practiced sodomy. Later it was said that the members were devil worshipers.
Which resulted in their papers being encrypted so thoroughly, it took the modern machine age to give the tools to crack them.
And we are also in the information age – a boon for some, an anathema to others.
The use of our modern machines to share information makes it, in the main, unnecessary to hide our thoughts from anyone holding a position of authority. Pastors may rail against evolution, and creationists against the fossil record. But they have lost their blanket power to silence all discourse.
Modern politicians may long for the good old days when secret deals remained secret, when dissidents could be quietly silenced, when the ad-mass toed the party line for that was the only line one got to hear about.
Our modern society has problems incomprehensible to our ancestors – but freedoms they waged their silent war for us to benefit from their toils.
I wold opine that just all that is good in our modern society is from the philosophy of the agnostic, and all that is not quite so good stems from our inability to shed all that still tries to stop free thinkers from thinking freely.