The Masonic Trowel

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What is esotericism, and how does it differ from the “esoteric work” of our ritual?

In Masonry, “esoteric work” refers to the elements of Masonic ritual and teaching that are to be communicated only to a properly qualified member and are unlawful to write or publish.  Esotericism is a broader field of studies and practices.

For a good summary of what esotericism means in a scholarly context, we refer to Antoine Faivre, Professor of Esoteric and Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe at the Ecole Practique des Huates Etudes (Sorbonne), in Paris. Perhaps his most notable works are his contributions to the SUNY series in Western Esoteric Traditions.

Faivre says that since its first use in 1828, the term “esotericism” has generally referred to three different areas of interest:

Secret knowledge or secret science preserved as arcana and passed on to only a select few. 

Masonic ritual is performed in secret, and it may be thought of as a science by which Masons become more educated in the principles, virtues and obligations of the fraternity. Drama, symbolism, and allegory are key methods in this science. In the field of education, these methods are widely understood to have instructive value, yet nowhere are they practiced and preserved as they are in Masonry.

Paths or techniques addressed to the truths hidden or secluded within Nature or Man, the knowledge of which is attained by only those who have achieved or received a gnostic or transformative experience. 

Our own ritual teaches us that Speculative Masonry “leads the contemplative to view with reverence and admiration the glorious works of creation and inspires him with the most exalted ideas of the perfections of his Divine Creator.”  “By it [Geometry] we discover the power, the wisdom, and the goodness of the Grand Artificer of the Universe, and view with delight the proportions which connect this vast machine.” Clearly these statements are not limited to the issue of morality, but neither do they specify practices or doctrines peculiar to any one religion.

Groups of works and currents dealing with perennial philosophy, Hermeticism, alchemy, astrology, Kabbalah, Christian theosophy, and so on, which can be subjected to historical studies.

Although our Craft ritual does not refer directly to such traditions and teachings, rightly or wrongly many esotericists believe that there are allusions to them throughout the teachings and symbolism of our rituals.  Some historians, both Masonic and non-Masonic, hypothesize that various esoteric traditions and ideas influenced the founding and/or development of Speculative Masonry, especially when considering the plethora of rites and degrees with overt references to such traditions that began within a few decades after the founding of the UGLE.  Such references continue to exist today in certain degrees of the appendant rites, but they do not require Masons to accept the doctrines or practices of any specific religion.

What are Masonic esotericists and what do they do?

In all other respects they are usually ordinary Masons, and typically are serving the fraternity in every jurisdiction, appendant body, and official capacity. They pursue esotericism because it is a personal interest, and not because they believe it is a requirement of Masonry. To many people, Albert Pike is the epitome of a Masonic esotericist.

They are men trying to improve themselves in Masonry by:

Examining the great questions of life.

Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is the essential nature of reality? What is wisdom, truth, or beauty? Etc.

Practicing introspection (“Know thyself”).

What do I really believe and value? What are my virtues and vices? What are the secret hopes and fears that influence how I think, feel and act? How do I need or want to change? Etc.

They are historians researching esoteric influences on the ritual, symbols, and philosophies of Masonry. 

They ask questions such as: To what extent were early Masons interested in such things as Pythagoreanism, Rosicrucianism, Templarism, Hermeticism, and Kabbalah? Why were they interested in them? How did those interests affect the principles, values and ideals of Masonry as we know it today?

They are scholars performing comparative studies of ritual, symbolism and teachings among Masonry and other fraternal, philosophical and spiritual traditions. 

They ask questions such as: What are the parallels and differences between Masonry and other traditions? How might those parallels and differences shed more light on the meanings of our ritual, symbols, and myth?

They are students of life pursuing more light through studies in psychology, sociology, anthropology, mythology, philosophy, religion, history, languages, etc.

Masonry teaches us to polish and adorn our minds, to advance ourselves in learning, to improve our relationships with others, to always seek more light, and to search for that which has been lost.  Each of these noble pursuits is advanced by studies in the humanities, the liberal arts and sciences that address the individual human being, society, and culture, all of which are Masonic concerns.

They are contemplatives practicing various disciplines of meditation, including prayer.

The most revered saints and respected sages of history have practiced meditation and extolled its virtues, as have a considerable number of modern psychologists and clergy.  Meditation has been identified as the key that opens the door to spiritual enlightenment, and lauded as an indispensable means to attain the fullest measures of peace, joy, health, artistic creativity, personal productivity, philosophical insight, and understanding and compassion for our fellow human beings.  In short, meditation is understood to be a valuable working tool in achieving everything that Masonry values.

 Why haven't I seen or heard more about Masonic esotericists?

They may not want to force their views on others.

Many esotericists have learned that the insights and inspirations that come through the study and practice of esotericism are often very personal and not easily communicated to others, especially those who have not done the same kinds of work.

They may not want to fuel anti-Masonic attacks. 

While Masonic esotericists know that no single person or sub-group of the fraternity speaks for the whole, they are well aware that anti-Masons have often based their intolerant criticisms of the fraternity on the opinions and beliefs of a few Masonic esotericists. Of course, these attacks are always based upon very narrow religious views, which almost automatically rule out the generally open-minded willingness of esotericists to investigate different beliefs and practices.

They may want to avoid conflict with anti-esoteric brothers. 

It is unfortunately the case that some Masons have significant prejudice of their own, and thus esoteric brothers who have spoken up have too often been ridiculed as misguided zealots, incompetent scholars, ignorant dupes, deluded crackpots, or even malicious phonies.

Why would anyone object to esotericism in Masonry?

Some people may misunderstand esotericism as un-Masonic. Most Masons who consider themselves esotericists are individuals practicing "regular" Masonry in duly constituted lodges in accordance with the ancient charges and landmarks. Masonic esotericists are not making a religion of Masonry, though they are often exploring its spiritual implications. Some of these regular Masonic esotericists may also belong to unofficial Masonic clubs or groups based upon their shared interest in esotericism. However, there are a number of unrecognized, spurious, or clandestine organizations claiming the right to make Masons and emphasizing esotericism as central to their teaching and aims. Being a Masonic esotericist does not mean that one belongs to any such organization.

Some people may be concerned that esotericism is incompatible with the "Abrahamic" faiths, or even “satanic”.  Masonic esotericists believe in the same principles, virtues, and ideals that unite all Masons, no matter what their specific religious preferences. From a radically conservative or fundamentalist point of view it may be impossible to think of esotericism as anything but heresy and even evil, but the same is true of Masonry. From such a perspective it is almost always the case that one’s own beliefs are the only ones that are good or true while everything else is evil or false.  The fact is that there have been and are now esoteric traditions in all three of the great Western religions. In Christianity there are the contemplative practices of monastic orders like the Jesuits, as well as apostolic denominations and churches that are Gnostic in orientation.  In Judaism there are a number of esoteric currents, including the orthodox Chabad Kabbalists of the Chasidim. In Islam there are the Sufi orders. 

Masonic esotericists have not always exercised the highest standards in their historical research of Masonry and, as a result, have made claims about the fraternity’s origins that are easily discredited.  Often this pattern has been more about incomplete research, unreliable or discredited sources, and overconfidence in speculations than it has been about any intention to mislead anyone.  The most scholarly of Masonic esotericists know the difference between speculations and substantive conclusions, and they are comfortable in acknowledging which kinds of thoughts they are voicing.

Some Masons have publicly accused Masonic esotericists of intellectual conceit and elitism. In their enthusiasm for what they have personally discovered in their esoteric studies and practices, some Masons have been overzealous in presenting them as the secret or true meanings of Masonic ritual and symbolism.  Such authors are at times offensive in their claims that a “real” Mason must be an esotericist who thinks just as they do. Intolerance and narrow-mindedness is no more acceptable from esotericists than it is from any other Mason. Conscientious Masonic esotericists understand that no single Mason or group of Masons speaks for the entire fraternity. They also warmly acknowledge that there are many different interests that men can explore in Masonry, that we are all equal in our obligations to one another, and that our fraternity is united in its dedication to God and by the cement of brotherly love and affection.

How can I learn more about Masonic esotericism or get in contact with Masonic esotericists?

There are many Masonic Groups in the internet.  For example, you may apply for membership in the Yahoo Esoteric Freemasonry Group at

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Last modified: March 22, 2014