As Masons we are encouraged to study the origins and philosophy of Freemasonry, to “converse with well informed Brethren”, to better understand what Masonry is and to what ends its “Art” is directed.
What Masonry is likely differs from Mason to Mason, but there are common attributes that signal certain constants throughout its course. One such universal, for example, characterizes Masonry rather like a labyrinth – with appendant bodies cropping up behind every corner to disappear amid the circuitous twists and turns of an alternatively visible and invisible hierarchy. Folks will likely disagree as to what end this labyrinth is wrought, and what is at its center. But all will agree that Masonry is a path of a kind, or an allegorical journey. The character of our degrees necessitates such.
Every journey has its steps, and the steps of our institution invariably lead the seeker before the altar of Freemasonry – each time approaching a specific allegorical place to receive another teaching and further instruction relative to the degree at hand. We’ve all heard Brothers use the phrase “Masonic journey”, many times no doubt. But where does this journey lead?
Few can point to a common future; the future, always uncertain, is generally conceived through individual perception and therefore variegated by individual desires. But a common past is more easily sought. As an object’s end typically derives from its origin, or is at least influenced thereby, seeking a common past is a good place to begin – and so many have, seeking to understand what Masonry is, what its objects are, and from whence they are directed.
Following the corresponding multitude of opinions on the subject, the suspected origins of Freemasonry can be grouped into two general categories1. The first, loosely termed the “Authentic School”, seeks our origins in the guilds of operative stone masons active during the high middle ages. The Authentic School is concerned with facts and verifiable documentation, it is less interested in highfalutin intimations of secret doctrine steeped in antiquity and the metaphysical aspirations of a secretive society.
The second category is loosely termed the “Romantic School”. Proponents of this view seek our origins down hidden avenues, avenues rife with arcane and esoteric imagery. They follow its symbols as if learning a secret language, a language which speaks of a lasting knowledge removed from a distant past through a concatenated chain of initiates intent on tending the fire of spiritual illumination.
These views are typically anticipated as mutually exclusive. The Authentic school contends that Freemasonry might well have adopted various symbolisms from other mystery traditions, but, they insist, Masonry proper, as practiced today, did not evolve such symbolisms. Rather, Masonry was subsequent them.
The Romantic School counters that such symbolisms emerged from Masonry, that Freemasonry has a longstanding tradition, in one form or another (even if unrecognizable to modern Masons), back through ancient Egypt2, perhaps even to antediluvian times. Masonry, according to this opinion, is not merely the forms and ceremonies of our institution, but foremost an idea that has taken many forms to communicate its tenets.
The Authentic School is often couched as a pragmatic, down-to-earth school, the Romantic School lofty and enigmatic.
The truth is neither of these extremes is necessary. This author believes that both are true, to an extent. Much depends on perspective.
So let’s focus on a point where both these views converge. Both schools agree that Freemasonry was codified in the high middle ages into a nascent form perhaps recognizable to the one we know today3.
It is important to remember that the operative stonemasons of the high middle ages were more than just cutters of stone. To properly understand the origins of our institution – or the origin of the historically verifiable documents of our institution – one must be conscious of the worldview of the society in which such referential documents were fashioned.
It’s a common limitation of the modern mind to view the past from a presentist point of view. But to the contemporaries of the high middle ages the way of seeing the world was entirely different indeed. To construct a cathedral, or any edifice, really, was not simply a matter of engineering and physical concern. Rather, such an endeavor necessarily touched upon the metaphysical philosophies which utterly informed the day.
To an operative stonemason such construction was the manufacture of a microcosmic representation of creation itself, suitable for the indwelling of Deity, wherein man could offer praise to the undeniable Source of All, which, fashioning man in its own likeness, had imbued man with a creative potential. Aligning this innate human potential with the Will of God was considered the ultimate purpose of humanity, and a fair display of creation adoring its Creator under the dominion of an all powerful Deity. An operative Mason was, by virtue of his trade, already a speculative Mason to a certain extent.
Thus a cathedral was not just a house of worship. It was a small universe, a veritable nexus where the influences of the higher spheres and the lower world combined. It was a chamber for communing with God, a holographic piece which contained the whole in representation.
Building a cathedral is indeed a monumental task. It is even more monumental when that superstructure is oriented to the seasons and the rising and setting of the Sun, among other super-terrestrial concerns. At the height of this period cathedrals were cropping up everywhere, along supposed lines of mystical power crisscrossing the old world, all mirroring a spherically ordered cosmos. This time period also coincided with a decentralized form of currency minted by monasteries individually (as was done in the Roman days – the term “money” derives from the Latin Moneta, a goddess in whose temples coin was fashioned), and it represents a time of relative plenty across the old world. How and why this should be the case is beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that such a form of currency engendered a sustainable and plentiful economy by separating the store of value from the medium of exchange. Philosophy, requiring an amount of plenty to sustain its musings, reflection and inquiry, was therefore prevalent; the Cathars were rising in Southern France, promulgating a philosophy with two degrees, the higher claiming a direct revelation of Deity; the Kabbalah was being written down in multi-denominational cities where Moslems, Christians and Jews interacted peaceably, as a system for understanding and revealing God; the crusades were bringing trade and knowledge of distant civilizations together; and a great syncretism was underway.
As was again evidenced in this time period, there is one constant that informs every human civilization. There are traditions documented in each, throughout time, that illustrate a man’s awakening to his true and ultimate nature. This revelation concerns all creation, it reveals the true situation of being. The individual consciousness of the human being is merged with a super-consciousness. The All is known, and All is One. This is the origin of everything, and – returning to the subject of this paper – everything can be known by its origin.
This is really the only thing that persists through the ages, and proof of its existence is scattered through the millennia.
You have either had this experience or you haven’t. If you think you might have had it, you haven’t. It’s an experience that cannot be given to another, nor explained – although all human endeavor is, in one way or another, an attempt at such an explanation. It is an experience that is simply known.
The varying traditions that speak of this experience were coming into contact with each other around the time of the high middle ages. Many were killing each other in pursuit of it. They nonetheless influenced each other – suddenly the same experience referenced through other traditions could be evinced from a new perspective, and a common center found.
One syncretism pouring Westward, that lucidly explained the logical process of awakening to the Western mind, is now known as the Hermetica, a group of writings attributed to Hermes, the Greek archetype of the Egyptian Thoth, the Jewish Michael, or messenger of the gods. These writings, if properly understood, are known to actually effect awakening in the reader.
The earliest known mention of the word Freemason comes from a September 8 entry into a Calendar of Coroner’s Rolls of the City of London from 13254, wherein reference is made to one Nicholas le Freemason, a fellow who abetted the escape of a couple of prisoners. Was he simply a fabricator of rock working at the end of the high middle ages? Who knows. But by the dawn of the 18th Century four hundred years later the term had come to represent a type of philosopher and learned man. At the time of the founding of the first Grand Lodge of England, Renaissance thought had codified much in the way of Hermetic and Gnostic philosophy from the previous centuries and across various traditions. It was believed that a system of experiential lessons could engender the aforementioned awakening in others, as had been done before in the mystery traditions of the ancient world (including the practices of the Essenes and the early Christians). It was believed that by a series of actions, thoughts, words and deeds man could commune with heavenly intelligences.
Such thinkers as Euclid and Pythagoras were revered because the sciences these philosophers used to demonstrate the principles of divine understanding became practical sciences by which man transformed his world. This was – is – magic. (It is ironic, but no less interesting, to consider that the geometry of Euclid was at once a “speculative” science before it became an “operative” one.)
By the fifteenth century such esoteric practices as the invocation of angels and spiritual entities (as is now known of the Essenes) was so commonplace that manuscripts extent today reference King Edward the IV (reigned 1461 – 1483) conjuring, or having his court magician conjure, the spirit Birto to find hidden treasure5. Within a century, references to spirits and Masonic precepts are clearly discernible in Shakespeare’s plays, popular plays accessible as much to the common people as to the nobles of the day. (In the Tempest for example, a play whose main premise is the use of “magic”, Gonzalo waxes idly on an idyllic society, where there would be “No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil…”, and in Henry V, Nym states to Pistol in the beginning of Act II, “I am not Barbason, you cannot conjure me…”.)
With John Dee counseling Elizabeth I at the height of the English Empire, invoking angelic intelligences to invent (or, perhaps, transmit) his famous Enochian script – a script recorded among the Scottish Rite ciphers6 – it is easy to see how prevalent this “magical worldview” really was at a time integral to the formulation of Masonry as we recognize it today7.
While earlier traditions may well have evolved certain rites to awaken their initiates, the type of philosophy practiced in the Elizabethan age was distinctly Theurgical, and had central to its philosophy the inherent divinity of man whereby to command the spirits8. In other words, it was not necessary to be enlightened per se. All that was required was a type of knowledge; of barbarous names, arcane rituals, mathematical formulae, the ability to erect an astrological horoscope to elect appropriate times, all fairly complex in their own right. Such knowledge took education, literacy in several languages, dedication, and was considered dangerous in the wrong hands. (For one, despite counting a number of magician Popes in their cannon, the Catholic Church – certainly mystical and magical in its own right – typically outlawed such practices as heresy. From another perspective, if this stuff actually worked it could be dangerous in the hands of those unready to wield such power for the betterment of humanity.)
It should come as no surprise, then, that the English Royal Family, among other such families across Europe, has had a longstanding interest in all things magical and mystical9. Lest we forget, the Royal Family was central to the Moderns, who would formulate their “speculative” Masonry in service thereto, as more and more nobles were attracted to the Craft.
Some of the earliest known speculative Masons, having association with the Royal Court, were pronounced “esotericists”, including Alias Ashmole who, without doubt, practiced Theurgy. Also of note is Christopher Wren. The point here is that an occult tradition was absolutely central to the philosophies of the time in which Masonry, as we know it today, began to take form. And it was indeed organized around principles that have a longstanding tradition – across a multitude of faiths – through antiquity.
Many of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. shared this worldview. Benjamin Franklin, especially, is worthy of note in this regard. So too, of course, is Albert Pike.
So what is the origin of Masonry? Some magical occult tradition that was popular in the Renaissance? Probably not, although I think that is part of it. I think Masonry, though, is more concerned, in its origin and intent, with that awakening mentioned earlier. Also, with the general corruption of the transmission of that awakening among contrary traditions that soon appropriate it.
Traditions are typically originated by disciples who witness an awakened individual and transmit his teaching. A few generations down the line and the transmission is corrupted, the tradition enforced, and unenlightened individuals co-opt it for their own ends – new clothes for old sins.
Therefore, in my mind, Masonry has three main objects – first, to create an equitable Brotherhood tolerant among teachings of various traditions wherein a series of moral instructions can better be performed which, when properly rendered, awaken a candidate to his true nature; without corruptible dogma, but perpetrated instead via universal truths. Second, to protect such individuals from the danger of the slumbering masses whose misunderstanding often creates a deadly, clumsy force, and third, to enact a system graduated in stages so to weed out and stifle any wills to power that might arise in clandestine candidates seeking more than light in Masonry.
Masonry is a safe haven for awakening. True to our Art, perhaps allegory will better explain these thoughts.
If you discovered a valuable treasure, too great to keep, would you run down the streets announcing it to everyone? If you did, you would rapidly loose it, and those who plundered it would have only a fraction of it between them – it would rapidly become worthless, no treasure at all.
A good man would instead use such a treasure in secret, funding deeds better performed anonymously,in service to God and humanity.
This treasure (a spiritual treasure), is alive in Masonry. And such a treasure has existed as long as there have been people, because as long as there have been people God has been recognized within and through the world; love has overflowed and performed miracles across religious differences; and an awakened few have awaited the arrival of others willing to walk the path to enlightenment. Don’t forget, Masonry is concerned with these things. In seeking Masonic light, we must eventually approach a spiritual awakening, one that transcends all differences, and see all things as One:
“God and man united after the species.”
(c) 2011, Rocky Mountain Mason. Originally published in the Rocky Mountain Mason, Issue 2
Endnotes - for Origin and Object of Freemasonry
1 See Scottish Rite Ritual Monitor and Guide, by Arturo De Hoyos 33º, pg. 75
2 Ref. For example the writings of C.W. Leadbeater, who claims the origin of the word “Freemason” from the Egyptian for “child of light”.
3 For example the Regius Manuscript, or “The Grete Sentence of Curs Expounded,” in Thomas Arnold’s Select English Works of John Wyclif and Robert Gould’s The History of Freemasonry, vol 2, pg. 308, as cited in Scottish Rite Ritual Monitor and Guide, pg. 76, and pg. 77, both of which trace a distinction between ‘freemasons’ and stone layers to the 14th Century.
4 See Scottish Rite Ritual Monitor and Guide, pg. 76.
5 See Sloane MS 3824, as published in The Book of Treasure Spirits, by David Rankine, 2009.
6 See Appendix 5, Scottish Rite Ritual Monitor and Guide, pg. 964.
7 A great book to better understand this worldview is The Elizabethan World Picture, by E. M. W. Tillyard.
8 The inherent Divinity in man is a central tenet of the Order of the Royal Secret, codified by Etienne Morin in 1734, or thereabouts.
9 The Royal Library is home to many interesting esoteric manuscripts, among them, the Liber Juratus. Also of interest, Fredrick the Great, the authority behind the Grand Constitutions of 1786, was a known Hermetecist, Kabbalist and alchemist.
10From Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius, reading “species” from speculare, Latin for “to spy out”.