One of the most active secret societies at the height of the French Revolution, the Cercle Social or Social Circle was founded by radical journalist Nicholas de Bonneville in the summer of 1790, drawing together a network of fellow radicals linked by Bonneville’s journal Le Tribun du Peuple (The People’s Tribune) and associated in pre-revolutionary times with the Social Club, a progressive political lobby sponsored by Philippe d’Orleans. It took up a political stance on the extreme left, insisting that the revolution had not gone far enough, and championed ideas then at the fringes of politics such as equal rights for women and a social welfare program funded by a progressive tax system.

The Circle drew much of its structure and symbolism from Freemasonry; members received the title of francs-frères (“free brothers”) in place of francs-maçons (Freemasons), and a Circle publication announced that its members were “superior intelligences” who had found “a living light…in the highest spheres of Masonry” (cited in Billington 1980, p. 40). The Circle also had close links to the Bavarian Illuminati; de Bonneville was in close contact with radical circles in Germany, and was an associate of Christoph Bode, an Illuminatus who visited Paris in the summer of 1787, two years after the effective dissolution of the Bavarian organization. See Bavarian Illuminati; Freemasonry.

In many ways the Social Circle can be seen as de Bonneville’s attempt to organize a secret society of his own along Illuminati lines. Like the Illuminati, the Social Circle was tightly controlled by an inner circle of members, rather than being democratically run in the Masonic style; it worked through front organizations the way the Illuminati had used Masonry and other societies; and the imagery of the light of reason illuminating the darkness of ignorance and prejudice, a staple of Illuminati propaganda, also had a central role in the Circle’s imagery.

Like many political secret societies, the Circle walked a fine and wandering line between secrecy and publicity. Membersof the Circle took pseudonyms and had secret identification cards, but the Circle proclaimed its own existence loudly. Just before its formation, de Bonneville closed Le Tribun du Peuple, and in October 1790 he launched a new journal, La Bouche de Fer (The Mouth of Iron), as a mouthpiece for the Circle. The same month saw the appearance of a public front organization, the Confédération Universelle des Amis de la Vérité (Universal Confederation of the Friends of Truth), which drew 6,000 members to its opening session. While Paris remained the nerve center of the Circle, branch circles sprang up in Utrecht, Geneva, Genoa, London, and even across the Atlantic in Philadelphia.

De Bonneville himself achieved a modest political success in the course of the revolution, becoming secretary of the assembly of the Paris Commune in 1790, and his standing as the leading radical journalist of the time kept him from the guillotine during the Terror. He lobbied for left-wing causes via his own newspapers until 1800, when Napoleon closed down his journal Le Bien-Informé (The Well-Informed Person) after de Bonneville published an editorial comparing Napoleon to the English dictator Oliver Cromwell. The Social Circle apparently went out of existence sometime in the early 1790s, but several of its members played major roles in a later secret society, the Conspiracy of Equals. See Conspiracy of Equals.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006


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