John Robison was born 275 years ago today. Professor Robison was a Scottish physicist and mathematician, who taught philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and was the first General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburg. Inventor of the siren, and collaborator with James Watt on an early steam car, Robison is significant to our purposes because in his later life he also wrote Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe, carried on in the secret meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Societies (1797), the founding text of the conspiracy theory of history in the English language. His book had an analogue in Augustin Barruel's Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, published in French at the same time, and arriving at the same conclusions (the two worked independently, unaware of each other until their books were published), but only appearing in English translation a year later.
Whatever fair criticisms may be made of Robison's methodology and use of documentation, and whatever one may think about conspiray theories, Proof remains valuable for a number of reasons: firstly, it provided a snapshot of Continental-style Freemasonry and secret societies in the 18th century; secondly, he examined obscure sources that have since been long forgotten; thirdly, surveyed the lowlands of the 'Enlightenment', by which I mean not the eminent intellectuals always mentioned, but the odd and dubious characters (see Kurth's review of Sten Gunnar Flygt's The Notorious Doctor Bahrdt) who were also involved in that movement and who are nowadays forgotten, though not unimportant actors in their day; and finally, he provides a systematic and very intelligent critique of the 'Enlightenment' (particularly the enthronement of equality), thus lending his work a philosophical and more refined approach as compared to Barruel's.
Robison's critique of the 'Enlightenment', coming in the first decade after the French Revolution, added a new facet to the discussion launched in 1790 by Edmund Burke, author of Reflections on the Revolution in France, who fully agreed with Barruel's (and presumably also Robison's) conclusions, as he states in a letter to the Abbé.
Proofs was wildly popular in its day, going through four editions in Robison's lifetime, but soon fell into oblivion. It's impact, however, was lasting, and has reverberated until present day—we, in fact, live in a time awash with conspiracy theories. But conspiracy theories developed very differently on either side of the Atlantic.
Later this month we will be publishing a fully annotated fifth edition of Proofs of a Conspiracy, incorporating much recondite information, and, more importantly, adding a major foreword—some 55 pages—with obscure biographical information about Robison derived from long-forgotten sources and a full discussion of the impact of Robison's book, the conspiracy theory of history, and the latter's development.