Saint-Martin, Louis Claude de (1743-1803)
Saint-Martin, Louis Claude de (1743-1803)
French mystic and philosopher, commonly known as "le philosophe inconnu" (the unknown philosopher), the pseudonym under which his books were published. The name of Louis de Saint-Martin is a familiar one, which is partly due to his having been a voluminous author, and partly due to his being virtually the founder of a sect, the Martinistes. Literary critic Augustin Sainte-Beuve wrote about him in his Causeries du Lundi. Saint-Martin was born on January 18, 1743, at Amboise. He came from a family of some wealth, but his mother died while he was a child. Fortunately his stepmother, besides lavishing a wealth of affection on him, early discerned his rare intellectual gifts and made every effort to nurture them.
The boy was educated at the Collège de Pontlevoy, where he read with interest numerous books of a mystical order. One that impressed him particularly was Jacques Abbadie's Art de se connaître soi-même (1692). At first he intended to make law his profession, but he soon decided on a military career instead and accordingly entered the army. A little before taking this step, he affiliated himself with the Freemasons, and when his regiment was sent to the garrison at Bordeaux, he became intimate with certain mystical rites that Martines de Pasqually had introduced into the masonic lodge there. His immersion in the philosophy of Pasqually, who became his teacher, and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg alienated him from regimental life, and thus, in 1771, he resigned his commission, determined to devote the rest of his life to philosophical speculations.
He then began writing a book Des Erreurs et de la Vérite, ou les Hommes rappelés au Principe de la Science, which was published in 1775 at Edinburgh, Scotland, at this time a center of literary activity. This initial work by Saint-Martin was brought to the notice of Voltaire, the old cynic observing shrewdly that half a dozen folio volumes might well be devoted to the topic of erreurs, but that a page would suffice for the treatment of vérité!
The next years were spent in travel to England, Italy, and Germany (where an interest in the teachings of the mystic Jakob Boehme would eventually lead to his translating a number of the German mystic's writings into French). He never married, but he appears to have exercised a most extraordinary fascination over women, and in fact various scandalous stories were told, some of them implicating various courtly women of the French nobility.
Upon returning to France, he found his outlook suddenly changed. The revolution had broken out in 1789, and a reign of terror had set in. No one was safe. Saint-Martin was arrested in Paris simply because he was a gentleman by birth, but he was saved by his affiliation with the Freemasons. He resumed writing, and in 1792 he issued a new book, Le Nouvel Homme. Two years later he was commissioned to go to his native Amboise, inspect the archives and libraries of the monasteries in that region, and draw up occasional reports on the subject.
Shortly afterward, he was appointed an élève professeur at the École Normale in Paris, in consequence of which he now made his home in that city. He became acquainted there with Chateaubriand, of whose writing Saint-Martin was an enthusiastic devotee, but who appears to have received the mystic with his usual haughty coldness.
Saint-Martin had a large circle of admirers, and he continued to work hard, publishing in 1795 one of his most important books, Lèttres à un Ami, ou Considérations politiques, philosophiques et réligieuses sur la Révolution, which was succeeded in 1800 by two speculative treatises: Ecce Homo and L'Esprit des Choses. What proved to be his final volume appeared in 1802 as Ministère de l'Homme Esprit. In the following year his labors were brought to an abrupt close, for while staying at Annay, not far from Paris, with a friend, he succumbed to an apoplectic seizure, and died October 23, 1803. After his death it was found that he had left a considerable mass of manuscripts, and some of these were issued by his executors in 1807. In 1862 a collection of his letters appeared.
As a philosopher, Saint-Martin found a host of disciples among his contemporaries, who gradually formed themselves into a cult and took the name of their teacher. His teachings are best summarized in his latter volumes L'Homme du Désir (1790) and Tableau natural des Rapports qui existent entre Dieu, et l'Homme et l'Univers (1782).
He suggests that human beings are divine, despite the fall recounted in the Hebrew/Christian scriptures. Dormant within lies a lofty quality of which we are too often scarcely conscious, and it is incumbent on us to develop this quality, striving without ceasing and avoiding the snares of materialism. This lifestyle is exemplified by a life of occult striving. This basic perspective is common to the Gnostic writings of the Rosicrucians, past and contemporary theosophists, and ritual magicians. In writing in this vein, Saint-Martin owed a good deal to Freemasonry, Swedenborg, and Boehme. Saint-Martin also developed a system of numerical correspondences that are easily adapted to gematria.
Saint-Martin's teaching found their greatest response, as might be expected, in French-speaking areas and the lack of English translations of his works limited his influence in a large part of the world. Martinist themes, however, permeated the occult revival of the nineteenth century and can be seen in both the writings of Éliphas Lévi and the teachings of the Gnostic churches that began to appear toward the end of the century. Gérard Encausse, who authored numerous occult texts, emerged as the primary Martinist interpreter to the next generation. In England, Arthur E. Waite developed a great appreciation for Saint-Martin and tried to make his work known to his contemporaries in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Waite wrote three separate titles about Saint-Martin, and for the first he received an honorary doctorate from the École Hermetique, an indication of esteem from Encausse and the French Martinists. Saint-Martin's ideas spread to Haiti and from there entered the United States, where a new Martinist thrust emerged in the late twentieth century in the person of Michael Bertieaux, a thelemic magician residing in Chicago.
Matter, A. J. Saint-Martin, le philosophe inconnu. Paris, 1862.
Waite, A. E. The Life of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, The Unknown Philosopher. London: Philip Welby, 1901.
——. Saint-Martin. Monroe, N.C.: The Sunnside Press, 1935.
——. Saint-Martin, The French Mystic, and the Story of Modern Martinism. London: William Rider & Son, 1922.