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.
Martinism
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 HebrewChristian 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
Saint-Jacques, R. P. de Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1340
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.
Sources
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.