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The Spiritual Vision of the Seven Liberal Arts
by Thomas D. Worrel
A paper presented to The Philalethes Society on September 27, 1997 and revised and enlarged, January 2002
Table of Contents
Let me begin this talk by first stating that this particular project is a work in progress. This paper is really the second part of a larger work. The subject matter is one of such breadth and depth that one can only hope to accomplish little in a short paper or talk; but, on the other hand, in my opinion, its Masonic significance is of the highest magnitude and must be addressed. The first part of this work I presented to the Northern California Research Lodge in March of this year. It regarded the history of the Seven Liberal Arts, the various interpretations of the Arts given by different Masonic authors, the cathedral and school of Chartres in France where the Seven Arts reached their highest expression and were even incorporated in the stone iconography of the cathedral. And finally, I gave an analysis of the symbol of the winding staircase in terms of symbology and mysticism. These have all been addressed in the earlier paper, and if interested, you can find it in the latest Northern California Masonic Review (The Seven Liberal Arts).
The focus of this paper is different; it looks at how the pursuit of the Seven Liberal Arts eventually develops into a psychological and spiritual architecture. That is, the ultimate quest of these disciplines teaches the mason to construct a spiritual edifice that allows the mind to ascend to the spiritual heights. To begin with I will review some of the old legends of the Craft that speak of the seven arts. I will also point out other areas where the Seven Arts were represented in art and literature. I call this section: the Old Tales. Next, I will digress (some may say sink) into some fertile grounds of speculation regarding a few of the personalities and organizations that seemed to all converge at one era of this history. I call this section: Strange and Mixed Companies - the Tall Tales. Following that I will get to the heart of this paper - which concerns a mystical handling of architecture and the use of the art of memory as a possible path to spiritual insight and illumination. In other words, a way to deepen our spiritual vision. I call this section: the Vision of the Temple. And finally, I conclude with some remarks about the crucial role that the Seven Liberal Arts could and should play in the destiny of Freemasonry. In that spirit, I have added an appendix with my opinions of how these principles could unfold a new era for Freemasonry.
It is my contention that the seven liberal arts were included in the Masonic ritual for a far greater purpose than secular educational reasons. Being that their original purpose in classical antiquity was philosophical; their high purpose in the Latin West was as a preliminary study for theology; and that they have prominent presence on the facade of the West portal of the Chartres Cathedral where the Seven Arts reached their highest expression; their incorporation into the poetry of Dante and into the practices we call the "art of memory", including the use of the image of King Solomon's temple -it is hard to imagine that their inclusion into Masonic ritual had any lesser motive.
We know that the formulation of the seven liberal arts began in antiquity. The quadrivium was taught as early as Plato. Some have postulated as early as Pythagoras but this is not substantiated. And in Plato's Republic they are treated as subjects to prepare for the highest type of knowledge. It was not till later that the subjects crystallized into the seven as we know them. The curriculum of the seven liberal arts evolved from earlier Greek and then Roman systems of education. Scholars consider that the fourth century was when the seven arts became the standard curriculum of the Pagan schools. It wasn't till later that it was modified to exhibit Christian ideals as it was accepted into the Latin West. For this was a century of transition: The so-called Christian Constantine I became sole emperor in 324. A pagan writer, Martianus Capella, sometime before 330 wrote his De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. And this was a work which preserved the basic structure of the ancient educational system based on the seven liberal arts. Later in that century the imperial decree of Theodosius in 392 prohibited all pagan cults. As a result the sanctuaries were destroyed and the Mysteries began to disappear. In the beginning the Christian leaders were suspicious of the pagan centers of learning but gradually, in time, began to incorporate them. Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410. About 19 years later the Vandals conquered North Africa. By 450 all the remaining pagan temples were being destroyed and anyone known as pagan could not hold office. If it wasn't for a few pagan nobles, what knowledge there was would have been lost. The first known Christian writer to use the term 'seven liberal arts' was Cassiodorus who lived from 480-575. This curriculum was adopted and basically remained fixed all throughout the Middle Ages. Its ultimate expression taking form at the Cathedral School at Chartres in 12th century France.
As I mentioned earlier, Capella's treatise The Marriage of Philology and Mercury is the earliest known depiction of the seven liberal arts as a unified course of study. But besides being a description of the seven arts there is also a story being told -an allegory. The tale goes like this:
"Mercury, after some successful attempt to secure a suitable wife, consults Apollo, who advises him to marry Philology, an astonishingly erudite young lady. The suggestion meets with the approval of both parties, and Philology after considerable preparation and instruction, is wafted to the upper heavens, where her marriage is to take place before a Senate' consisting of gods, demigods, and philosophers. The connection between the setting and the seven liberal arts becomes clear when an elderly but attractive lady named Grammar, one of the seven learned sisters, is introduced to present her discipline first to the assembled wedding guests. The seven sisters, personifications of the seven disciplines, have commonly been referred to as bridesmaids. What they actually were are handmaids presented by Mercury to his bride. The marriage of Mercury and Philology has been taken, both early and late, to symbolize the union of eloquence and learning, the arts of the trivium and the quadrivium." (Stahl, Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, p. 24)
About a thousand years later, seemingly after the peak of the seven liberal arts as a unified study we find reference to the seven liberal arts with Dante. He refers to the seven liberal arts in both his Divine Comedy started in 1302 and in the Convivio written in 1304. In the Comedy we encounter the Seven Arts in the Inferno. Explaining this episode one writer on Dante informs us: "The fire that enveloped the castle of pagan learning was unique because within, though there had been separation from God, there had been no opposition. Entering the castle of seven walls by the gates of the seven liberal arts, Dante found himself among the representatives of the greatest thought of the past." (Inferno IV, 68-69) (Flanders, Symbolism in Medieval Thought, p. 172) In the Convivio or "Banquet", a later work, Dante associates the seven planetary heavens with the seven liberal arts.
There are a few old Masonic legends beginning about 1350 regarding the seven arts that, in my opinion, provide hints as to their more spiritual purpose. We find older but similar legends in the Near East -even back to Babylonia. One such, a Hebraic version tells us that: "... Eve instructed Seth and his siblings to record on tablets of stone and baked clay the word of Archangel Michael when he ordered them from the Garden of Eden. The tablets would survive whether flood or fire destroyed the world." (Curl, The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry, p. 28) Later, we find the story a little different: "Zoroaster was said... to have inscribed all seven liberal arts on fourteen columns (seven on brass and seven on brick) to preserve them against destruction by a vengeful God. ...Later medieval versions claim that after the Flood both pillars were found, one by Pythagoras and one by Hermes Trismegistus ..." (Curl, The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry, pp. 28 - 29) Although somewhat changed, they play a significant role in the Old Charges. One of the tales is right out of the Regius Manuscript (dated about 1390). Following the part on the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum (The Four Crowned Artisans) and the Tower of Babel (which was said to be built seven miles high!) is the mention of the Seven Arts. That part reads like this: "Many years after the good scholar Euclyde Taught the craft of Geometry wonderfully wide. So he did at that time introduce Many other divers crafts Through the grace of Christ in Heaven. He established the Seven Sciences." And a similar legend is found in the Cooke manuscript (dated around 1410) but it is more elaborate. In the Dowland MS. (1500) we find basically of the same story: It tells of how the worthy sciences were preserved through the Deluge. Simply, Lamech's children (one was Tubal-cain) knew God was going to destroy the world but did not know in what fashion -fire or water- so they chiseled their knowledge on two pillars of stone.
Another tale is told in a seventeenth century copy of an earlier work called a Commentary by Toz Graecus, philosopher of great renown, on the books given by Solomon to Rehoboam concerning the Secret of Secrets. We are told that: "The preface reveals that Solomon gathered his vast learning into a book intended for his son Rehoboam, which he locked up in an ivory coffer concealed in his tomb. Later Toz (Thoth) discovered it, and as he was weeping for his incapacity to understand its contents, an angel of the Lord came to reveal its meaning to him, but enjoined him not to disclose it to any but those who were worthy of it. We also learn, thanks to the Liber de secretissimo philosophorum opere chemico (fifteenth century) that Hermes traveled to the Valley of Hebron, where Adam was buried, and there found seven tablets of stone written before the Deluge, containing the doctrine of the Seven Liberal Arts." (Faivre, The Eternal Hermes, p. 95)
In an article about the Royal Ark Mariner degree, the author R.M. Handfield-Jones, in speaking about the association of Noah with Freemasonry makes the following observation:
"In the first known MS Constitution, the Regius Poem, there occurred on line 537 a passing reference to Noah and the Flood. From then onwards from the Cooke MS every Masonic Constitution contains allusions to Noah, not however to the Flood and the Ark but to his finding the two great pillars inscribed with the seven liberal arts and sciences. The date of the Regius poem is about 1390 but like the Cooke it bears evidence of being derived from an earlier document written in 1350. Here therefore as early as the middle of the 14th century we have the Noah story appearing in association with Masonry, but the flood and the Ark take a secondary place to the two pillars found by Noah AFTER the Flood." (Handfield-Jones, The Royal Ark Mariner Degree, pp. 15-16)
Of course representations of the seven liberal arts were emerging in many arenas of the Middle Ages. It is believed that the stone carvings on the Chartres Cathedral were the first such personifications of the seven. These were done in the twelfth century. In paintings we find many examples, one is a fourteenth-century fresco of Thomas Aquinas. It pictures Aquinas in the midst of a very crowded scene with figures representing saints, the virtues, the patriarchs, and of course the seven liberal arts. This fresco can be found on the walls of a Dominican convent in Florence. And we find, as well, many artistic representations in manuscripts of the era.
When we get up to the institutional beginnings of Freemasonry when James Anderson published the Constitutions of Freemasons in 1725, he included these statements: "Adam, our first parent, created after the Image of God, the great Architect of the Universe, must have had the Liberal Sciences, particularly Geometry, written on his Heart; for ever since the Fall, we find the Principles of it in the Heart of his Offspring..." (Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, p. 213) Jumping ahead again to early in this century we find in the "Emulation" ritual the question being asked and answered: "Why do seven or more make a perfect Lodge? Because King Solomon was seven years and upwards in building, completing, and dedicating the Temple at Jerusalem to God's service. They have a further allusion. To the seven liberal arts and sciences, namely, ..." and they are then named individually with a short definition of each given. And so now, in the modern American version, we find in the Fellowcraft degree only the mere association of the arts and sciences with the seven steps of the winding staircase. There is no elaboration nor even any definition that informs the candidate.
To conclude this section, one can see that just a short look at the old tales and legends surrounding the seven arts emphasize their importance - and their importance from antiquity. Although we don't know for sure, it seems probable that the seven liberal arts had larger parts in the ritual the earlier we go. If nothing else the candidate was certainly very aware of the legends and stories surrounding them so that the ritual would probably have had much more meaning to him than maybe it has to us. Being steeped in the lore would have triggered deeper responses because the language of myth and symbol is that of the soul. This is a glaring reminder of just what we have lost in modern masonry. To strip freemasonry of its stories and myths will destroy it. The rituals will become meaningless formalities destined to be changed and shortened for the sake of convenience.
This section may seem tangential to the main theme of this work but there is some justification for its inclusion. Here I want to briefly talk about St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Knights of the Temple, and Dante Alighieri. As most of you probably already know, there are more than a few interesting interconnections between the three. Some are actual and some are inferred. But by bringing these to light here, I hope to produce a better "feel" for this time in history as well as show the high esteem the seven arts were held and how they were represented. It should help us understand the power and wisdom of what was transmitted to us and clarify one possible rivulet that at some time at the far end of the level of time converged with other rivulets and emerged as Freemasonry.
Bernard was born into a family of some nobility in the Burgundy region of France. His father was a knight as were his brothers. By the time Bernard had reached his twenty-fifth birthday he had become the abbot of a Cistercian monastery. The Cistercians, by the way, were known for their architectural skill. "Gothic appeared everywhere at the same time in the Christian west; always in the Benedictine or Cistercian abbeys, Cistercian above all. ... Gothic appeared after the first Crusade and more particularly after the return in 1128 of the first nine Knights Templar." (Charpentier, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, p. 36.) Also, we find the statement: "The influence of Cistercian upon the first gothic architecture is beyond question." (Otto von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral, p. 56) Bernard went on to become one of the most influential men in twelfth century Europe. By the time he died he had written at least 3,500 pages of religious work. Although there are many colorful aspects of his life, there are only a few pertinent here, namely, his special type of mysticism, his connection with the Chartres Cathedral and his relation with the Knights Templar. Even after his death his influence was strong; we find him again portrayed in Dante's Divine Comedy.
Bernards' mystical theology was based on love and knowledge. He taught that there were four consecutive degrees in the soul's progress in experiencing God's love. The soul becomes more immersed in Divine Love as it conforms to Divine Will. The disorder of human life is ultimately due to the separation and conflict of the human will from the Divine Will. Changing and redeeming can only come about through love, in Bernard's view. It is only love that can unite the division of wills. That is why his mysticism has been labeled "affective mysticism" or "bride mysticism". The mystical union with God comes about through a union of wills, not personalities or beingness (There is always a substantive union of the soul and God). Spirituality becomes almost a courtship between two lovers and he wrote some 86 sermons on The Song of Songs attributed to King Solomon. The mysticism of Bernard worked in the world through a balance of contemplation and action. It was a process of bringing the will closer and closer to reflect the Divine Will through contemplation and bringing that Will into the world through action.
Another aspect of Bernard's theology was his dedication to the Holy Virgin. "He gave impetus to two devotions that flourished in the later Middle Ages, becoming major forces in subsequent spirituality: devotion to Mary and to the humanity of Christ." (G.R. Evans, Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, Preface by E.H. Cousins, p. 5) Titus Burckhardt speaks of the ambiance of the times: "…various currents flowed together and formed a new and reawakened cult of the Holy virgin: the longing for the Holy Land, the true home, the need to turn to the maternal mercy of God, and the chivalric cult of the celestial Lady as the epitome of nobility of soul, innocence and beauty. St. Bernard himself, who know how to call forth the highest spiritual powers of his contemporaries, is said to have been the first to use the chivalric mode of address notre Dame (Our Lady) for the Mother of God." (Titus Burckhardt, Chartres and the Birth of the Cathedral, p. 60.) Bernard had many connections with both the cathedral and school at Chartres.
There were many points of contact between Bernard and the Knights Templar. The Council of Troyes (1128) set the regulations (the so-called Rule) by which the Templars would act. It was Bernard's cousin, Hugh of Payns, who became the first Grand Master of this Order that had been established in Jerusalem. And it was Hugh of Payns who requested Bernard to write his famous treatise In Praise of the New Militia (sometime between 1128-1136). Bernard was obviously torn in regards to the idea of monks (holy types) and knights (warrior types) and the problem of uniting them into one person. This was quite a struggle for Bernard but one he gradually resolved. Being that their duties lie in the Holy Land, Bernard wrote a collection of meditations for the Templars that were based upon the sacred sites of the area (such as the Temple, the cities of Bethlehem and Nazareth, on Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher) and events that occurred there. In this way, the knights could lead a contemplative life while "out in the field". Yet, the main point here is that the Cistercians were the guiding force of the Templars who later built castles and churches themselves.
The last thing about Bernard of Clairvaux I wanted to bring to your attention was his part in the Divine Comedy of Dante. Of course, I am sure that we have all read this masterpiece of Medieval literature so I do not have to go into any great detail explaining it! But I will refresh your memory anyway. The Commedia is a story about Dante's journey through the three regions of hell, purgatory, and paradise. On this journey he describes what he experiences and who he meets at every level, and sometimes sublevels of these three zones. He has three guides through this process whereas one is his beloved Beatrice, who embodied all that was good and beautiful, and as his guide, she leads him to higher and higher realms - almost but just short of the highest sphere of Paradise. It is at this point that he meets St. Bernard of Clairvaux who then guides his vision to the Ultimate Sphere.
The Knights of the Temple were started by a few knights probably in 1119 about eighteen years after the first crusade. Their first Grand Master was Hugh of Payns. By 1128 when they were officially established by the Council of Troyes but consisted of only nine knights. Nevertheless, they gradually grew in power and prestige to become a major power in Europe. According to Malcolm Barber: "During the thirteenth century the Order may have had as many as 7,000 knights, sergeants and serving brothers, and priests, while its associate members, pensioners, officials, and subjects numbered many times that figure. By about 1300 it had built a network of at least 870 castles, preceptories, and subsidiary houses, examples of which could be found in almost every country in western Christendom." (Barber, The New Knighthood, p. 1) We also know that there was cross influence between the Templars with the Islamic communities and sects known as the Karmates, the Ismailis, the Fatimites, and the Assassins. Some of these were initiatic societies such as the Ismailites who conferred ritual degrees to their members.
But for the Templars this all ended with the mass arrests of the knights in France in October on Friday the 13th, 1307. The 22nd and last Grand Master Jacques de Molay, after being held and tortured for almost seven years was executed March 18, 1314. Of course not all of the Templars could be arrested. This fact might be contrary to what some people have been led to believe. But even some of those that were arrested were later released for various reasons. Again Barber explains that even after being arrested and later released: "Most of those... received pensions and some even continued to live in former Templar houses; others were sent to the houses of other orders like those of the Cistercians and Augustinians, especially in England, ..." (Barber, The New Knighthood, p. 304) And then some just went back into society. Professor Antoine Faivre of the Sorbonne tells us that: "...the Knights Templar supported and considerably developed the freecrafts and, after the disappearance of the order, entered into the corporations of builders." (Faivre, Modern Esoteric Spirituality, p. 51) Things were easier in Portugal for the Templars. In 1319, the Militia of Christ was formed and some former Templars were members. But at this time the religious military orders were going out of public favor and secular knighthood became increasingly popular. Some of the more interesting orders to freemasons (because they are mentioned in our lecture on the apron) included: The Order of the Garter formed in England in 1348; the Order of the Star in France in 1351, and later the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1429.
And as Faivre informs us: "The year 1429 was marked by an event having a major influence on the esoteric thought of modern times; this was the creation of the Order of the Golden Fleece by Philippe the Good, duke of Burgundy, ...The Order possessed a beautiful symbolism in dress and ritual, over which generations of alchemists would ponder, at least up to the eighteenth century." (Faivre, Modern Esoteric Spirituality, p. 69) The orders of chivalry were springing up all over Europe, many whose central theme was much like the theme borrowed from Dante, that of the idealized woman, who appears as the guide for man on his quest. We find this same theme in the Troubadours, the lyric poets of the 11th -13th century in France who sung of chivalry and courtly love.
So that brings us to Dante. He began the Commedia in 1302, before, of course, the arrests of the Templars. He began work on the Convivio in 1304. Of these works I have already spoken. What I want to point out is his incredible detail of mapping the three zones of the universe. Although there is no doubt that Dante was strictly Christian there is evidence of other influences as well. Titus Burckhardt points out that:
"The type of epic poem describing the path of the knower of God in symbolical form, is not rare in the Islamic world. It may be surmised that certain of these works were translated into the Provencal language, and we know that the community of the 'Fedeli d'Amore' to which Dante belonged, was in communication with the Order of the Temple, which was established in the East and open to the intellectual world of Islam." (Burckhardt, The Mirror of the Intellect, p. 96)
There are other interesting things about Dante. The following long quote is out of Rene Guenon's book on Dante:
"In the Vienna Museum there are two medallions, one representing Dante ...on the reverse side both bear the letters F.S.K.I.P.F.T., which Aroux interprets as: Frater Sacroe Kadosch, Imperialis Principatus, Frater Templarius. ...we think it should read Fidei Sanctoe Kadosch. The Association of the Fede Santa, of which Dante seems to have been a leader, was a tertiary order of Templar filiation, justifying the name Frater Templarius; its dignitaries bore the title of Kadosch, a Hebrew word meaning 'holy' or 'consecrated', ...It is not without reason then that Dante takes St. Bernard, who established the rule of the Order of the Temple, as his guide for the completion of his own celestial journey." (Guenon, The Esoterism of Dante, p. 7)
In trying to understand Dante's work, Guenon considers the significance of the symbolic regions that Dante illustrates in the Divine Comedy. The hints Guenon says are in the later work, the Convivio or Banquet where Dante associates the seven liberal arts with the celestial realms. Dante says: "To see what is meant by this third heaven, I say that by heaven I mean science, and by heaven, sciences." (Convivio,ll, Ch. XIV) Guenon says that: "These regions are in reality so many different states; and the heavens are, literally, spiritual hierarchies: that is to say, degrees of initiation." (Guenon, The Esoterism of Dante, p. 8)
And he links them all as we can see in the following lengthy quote:
"But what exactly are these 'sciences' understood under the symbolic designation of the 'heavens', and must we see therein an allusion to the 'seven liberal arts' so often mentioned elsewhere by Dante and his contemporaries? What leads us to think that this must be the case is that, ...'the Cathars had, as early as the 12th century, some signs of recognition, passwords, and astrological doctrine (they conducted their initiations at the vernal equinox). Their scientific system was founded on the doctrine of correspondences: Grammar corresponded to the Moon, Dialectic to Mercury, Rhetoric to Venus, Music to Mars, Geometry to Jupiter, Astronomy to Saturn, and Arithmetic or Illumined Reason to the Sun.' Accordingly, to the seven planetary spheres -the first seven of Dante's nine heavens - corresponded the seven liberal arts respectively; and precisely these same designations are depicted on the seven rungs of the left upright of the Ladder of the Kadosch (30th degree of Scottish Masonry)." (Guenon, The Esoterism of Dante, p. 8)
We can conclude this section by pointing out the incredible tapestry interwoven in this period. We know of the connections between Bernard and the Cistercians with the Cathedral and School of Chartres (just to name one actually), and the Templars. We know their architectural influence upon both. We also know the importance the Seven Liberal Arts were to architecture and theology. And we know that they were taught extensively at the school of Chartres; so much so, it is generally accepted that the Seven Liberal Arts reached their zenith at this place. Later we see Dante represent them in a celestial and spiritual way. We also see a version of the Celestial Lady in Dante that we saw earlier with Bernard and as well in the stonework of Chartres where personifications of the Seven Arts surround the Virgin. So this inevitably brings us to a more detailed examination of the deeper meanings that must be within the seven liberal arts and how these arts inform the spiritual dimension of architecture. This will bring us to the next section.
One way of understanding our work as Freemasons is the idea that we are building 'that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.' We have our symbolic tools to build and design, our arts and sciences to inform and guide our work, and the prototype to emulate -King Solomon's Temple. Down through human history there have been many monuments that have sought to embody that very spirit in order to be a living icon for the world to see. The Cathedral of Chartre is considered by many to be just such an example. Like many gothic cathedrals it was dedicated to the Holy Mother. And to many, she represented the human soul. Titus Burckhardt explains:
"According to the Medieval theologians the Virgin Mary, by virtue of the innate perfection of her soul, possessed all the wisdom of which man is capable. A direct reference to this wisdom is to be found in the allegories of the seven liberal arts which, just outside an inner circle of adoring angels, decorate the tympanum of the Door of the Virgin. In the Medieval context the seven sciences were not exclusively empirical sciences, as are those we know today. They were the expression of so many faculties of the soul, faculties demanding harmonious development. This is why they were also called arts. ... The seven planets, on the other hand, govern, according to the ancient viewpoint, the world of the soul. And Mary is the human soul in all its perfection." (Burckhardt, The Mirror of the Intellect, p. 77)
We can naturally come to the question of how do we express and develop these faculties and where does it lead us? Burckhardt answers that there is a "reciprocal relationship between knowledge and will, ... Knowledge of the eternal truths is potentially present in the human spirit or intellect, but its unfolding is directly conditioned by the will, ..." (Burckhardt, The Mirror of the Intellect, p. 89) This same Platonic sentiment is echoed in our Second Degree with the words: "... a fund of science and industry is implanted in man ..." So if we assume that knowledge of the eternal truths is available and within the human soul, the question then becomes how do we gain access into that interior Temple? Burckhardt has already answered by saying that the key is the will. To fully understand the solution it is necessary to understand the medieval mind. In their world-view everyday life was lived in the presence of the supernatural.
The overwhelming notion was that you could behold sacred reality with your senses. Therefore, to approach the Cathedral was to be on the threshold of the spiritual dimension for it was considered to actually be a representation of ultimate reality. How was this ability developed? It was through the seven liberal arts. These seven arts, studied in the special way they were taught, guided their intellects to approach the hidden light behind the world. They had to learn how to see it. The invisible underlying structure of Reality, the Truth could be apprehended, and this apprehension had as its foundation, the senses. So the temple of God demanded exact building codes. And the prototype for the House of God was Solomon's Temple. The key to building the temple was geometry. One author on the subject of sacred geometry explains that:
"In the same way that the Logos is a mediator between unity and multiplicity, the temple is a mediator between heaven and earth, the timeless and the temporal. Therefore, ever since the earliest times, religious architecture has been rooted in the timeless principles of "sacred geometry." By basing sacred architecture on the principles of transcendent form and harmony, temple architects expressed the harmony of heaven on earth. Not only do ancient temples express this harmony, but, through the use of gematria, they were designed to attract the spirit to which they were consecrated." (Fideler, Jesus Christ: Sun of God, p. 216)
Included in the concept of sacred geometry are all the liberal arts. If nature is the true temple of God's dwelling, then cosmic and natural laws must be the trestle board. These laws are the laws discovered by the practice of the seven arts. These include such things as the interconnection between numbers, ratios and proportions in such areas as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. It was thought that the same laws linked and even bound the microcosm to the macrocosm.
The masters of Chartres (and Dante after them) were inheritors of the tradition of Augustine, the Platonists and the Pythagoreans. Like these philosophers of old they considered geometry to have an anagogic function: "that is, its ability to lead the mind from the world of appearances to the contemplation of the divine order." Or in other words: "...that number may guide the intellect from the perception of created things to the invisible truth in God." And it is believed that it was the combination of the Platonic cosmology and the spirituality of Clairvaux that produced gothic art.
Another very pertinent concept we find at Chartres is that God is the architect of the universe; and, as masons this is particularly close to our heart. The teachers of the school of Chartres:
"… identify the Platonic world soul with the Holy Ghost in its creative and ordering effect upon matter; and thy conceive this effect as musical consonance. The harmony it establishes throughout the cosmos is represented, however, not only as a musical composition but also as an artistic one, more specifically, as a work of architecture. ...the theologians of Chartres, the notion of the cosmos as a work of architecture and of God as it architect has a special significance, since they assume a twofold act of creation: the creation of chaotic matter and the creation of cosmos out of chaos. Since the Greek word kosmos signified ornament as well as order, it was plausible to view matter as the building material, the creation proper as the 'adorning' of matter by the artful imposition of an architectural order. In the Platonic cosmology, moreover, the masters of Chartres could detect the design and method according to which the divine architect had built the universe, the cosmic temple,..." (Simson, The Gothic Cathedral, p. 29.) This dominant view is also thought to have caused a sociological phenomenon. Here is another fact that should be of particular interest to freemasons in search of their roots. It is interesting to realize that clerics were mostly responsible for building, and the term architectis was not used very often. But: "... the revival of the term in the mid-thirteenth century coincided exactly with the sociological change that transformed the humble master mason into the architect of the thirteenth century, no longer considered a mere craftsman but the 'scientist' or theoreticus of his art." (Simson, The Gothic Cathedral, p. 30.)
It was then considered that only he who had mastered the seven liberal arts was entitled to the designation 'architect'. (Simson, The Gothic Cathedral, p. 31.)
And: "... it was the School of Chartres that dramatized the image of the architect ...by depicting God as a master builder, a theoreticus creating without toil or effort by means of an architectural science that is essentially mathematical. The Platonists of Chartres, moreover, also defined the laws according to which the cosmic edifice had been composed. ... And in submitting to geometry the medieval architect felt that he was imitating the work of his divine master." (Simson, The Gothic Cathedral, p. 31) We could, as well, characterize it as participating in the divine work.
Another aspect of the gothic cathedral was its quantum leap in dealing with the use of light. This development in the history of architecture is of notable importance. Some have even characterized it as being a development way ahead of its time. The gothic architecture provided opportunities for more light:
"In the Cathedral of Chartres the architect has realized the cosmological order of luminosity and proportion to the exclusion of all other architectural motifs and with a perfection never achieved before. Light transfigures and orders the composition in the stained- glass windows. Numbers, the number of perfect proportion, harmonize all elements of the building. Light and harmony... are not merely images of heaven, symbolic or aesthetic attributes. Medieval metaphysics conceived them as the formative and ordering principles of creation, principles, however, that only in the heavenly spheres are present with unadulterated clarity. Light and harmony have precisely this ordering function in the gothic cathedral." (Simson, The Gothic Cathedral, p. 228)
I think the significance of the above to Freemasonry is self-evident. In the very least it should speak to what we should be doing as masons. It may possibly remind us of the high calling that the tradition of Freemasonry embodies which leads us to the imperative injunction to maintain its integrity. And this reminder leads us to the next part of this paper -the art of memory.
The practice of the art of memory developed to a very high level in the Medieval world. This practice was done by memorizing a series of places such as that found in a building. In these places you place other images to remind yourself of certain things. We also know that the art of memory was cultivated at Chartres. (Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 87) Its spiritual employment is illustrated by the reference to the word arca. Basically the word arca means a wooden chest or box mostly used for storage. As Mary Carruthers states in her work The Book of Memory :
"But there is another meaning of arca which is associated from earliest times with the process of Scriptural lectio and study. As arca sapientiae, one's memory is the ideal product of a medieval education, laid out in organized loci. One designs and builds one's own memory according to one's talent, opportunities, and energy. That makes it a construction, an edificatio. As something to be built, the trained memory is an arca in the sense understood by the Biblical object called Noah's Ark, the construction of which occupies some detail in Genesis, and the Ark of the Covenant, ..." (Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 43)
Why we want to practice the art of memory is explained by Avicenna by pointing out that there is a connection between memory and spiritual experiences: "The images produced during dreams and trances will disappear unless they are associated with images that are already in memory storage, already familiar and accessible to recollection. Thus even direct inspiration requires the immediate assistance of human memory, though in a way more mysterious than that of ordinary dreaming or consciously controlled recollection." (Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 59)
In Augustine's Confessions we read that he finds God through the memory. (Confessions, X, 25-6) Not in any image though. It is the Platonic conception that knowledge of the divine is a type of recollection (anamnesis). "In the doctrine of recollection, the soul's education is described as a process of reawakening by means of contacts with the sensible world that functioned as mnemonic prods, reminding the soul of the Platonic Forms. Theurgy should be seen as the development and translation of this epistemological theory into a ritual praxis where the prods of sensate experience were carefully controlled in rites designed to awaken the soul to the Forms." (G. Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, p. 24.) It was something we had "lost" thus something to search for within our soul. There were many systems of training the memory. The development of these systems gradually became extremely elaborate. One example is the treatise on memory by Johannes Romberch, a Dominican. He explains one system as using "...the cosmos as a place system, ...we see the spheres of the elements, of the planets, of the fixed stars, and above them the celestial spheres and those of the nine orders of angels ...This type of artificial memory may be called the Dantesque type, ...because Dante was influenced by such an interpretation of artificial memory,..." (Yates, The Art of Memory. pp. 115-116)
Giulio Camillo (1480-1544), who was one of the most famous men of the sixteenth century, constructed a wooden memory theater. It was very elaborate and is explained in the following manner:
"The theater rises in seven grades or steps, which are divided by seven gangway representing the seven planets. ... the solitary spectator' stands where the stage would be and looks towards the auditorium gazing at the images on the seven times seven gates on the seven rising grades. ...we can see that the whole system of the Theatre rests basically upon seven pillars, the seven pillars of Solomon's House of Wisdom. ...By these columns, signifying most stable eternity, we are to understand the seven Sephiroth of the super-celestial world, which are the seven measures of the fabric of the celestial and inferior worlds, in which are contained the Ideas of all things both in the celestial and in the inferior worlds. ...As Sephiroth in the supercelestial world they are here equated with the Platonic ideas. Camillo is basing his memory system on first causes, on the Sephiroth, on the Ideas; these are to be the 'eternal places' of his memory." (Yates, The Art of Memory, pp. 136-137)
And his way of using it is illustrated by the following description:
"Thus, following the custom in ancient theatres in which the most important people sat in the lowest seats, Camillo has placed in his lowest grade the seven essential measures on which, according to magico-mystical theory, all thins here below depend, the seven planets. Once these have been organically grasped, imprinted on memory with their images and characters, the mind can move from this middle celestial world in either direction; up into the super- celestial world of the Ideas, the Sephiroth and the angels, entering Solomon's Temple of Wisdom, ..." (Yates, The Art of Memory, pp. 138-139)
The result of this practice is nothing short of profound:
"In this atmosphere, the relationship between man, the microcosm, and the world, the macrocosm, takes on a new significance. The microcosm can fully understand and fully remember the macrocosm, can hold it within his divine mens or memory. ...That there is a strong Cabalist influence on the Theatre is obvious. ...For Camillo, it is the correspondence of the seven planetary measures of the celestial world with the supercelestial Sephiroth which gives the Theatre its prolongation up into the supercelestial world, into the abyss of the divine wisdom and the mysteries of the Temple of Solomon." (Yates, The Art of Memory, p. 148)
In much of this work the idea is to reproduce the celestial world within. Giordano Bruno's (1548 -1600) work continues the same theme:
"In relation to the fundamental zodiacal images, the planet images, moon station images, houses of the horoscope images of Bruno's list of magic images, move on the wheels of memory, forming and reforming the patterns of the universe from a celestial level. And the power to do this depends on the Hermetic philosophy, that man is in his origin divine, and organically related to the star-governors of the world. In 'your primordial nature' the archetypal images exist in a confused chaos; the magic memory draws them out of chaos and restores their order, gives back to man his divine powers." (Yates, The Art of Memory, p. 217)
This concludes the section on the art of memory. The development of this art grew to encompass a mental representation of the entire cosmos as conceived in the medieval world. Its use became as an object of contemplation through the use of will and imagination. Much of the structure of the process was inspired by the Hermetic sciences including Cabala and astrology as well as Pythagorean number mysticism. As the building of this cosmic temple proceeded, it provided the necessary link of the mind with the Divine World. Our journey has taught us that it is the understanding of the Pythagorean/Platonic view of the universe as well as the knowledge of the Hermetic art that provides us with the key to uniting the microcosm with the macrocosm, heaven and earth, and rediscovering that which was lost.
We now find that we have come full circle and have ended up back to the two pillars -the opening subject. From these old tales we remember that one pillar was found by Hermes and the other was found by Pythagoras. Remember also that within these two pillars the whole wisdom of the world was said to be inscribed. And this wisdom was divided into basically seven categories - the Seven Liberal Arts. From these old tales we can receive some glimmer of the high esteem in which these arts and sciences were held. They were not only tales told among the public but were woven into the old masonic legends.
We then considered the role of the Cistercians on gothic architecture and the building crafts and that one special monk, St. Bernard, having influence all over Europe, promoted the devotion to the Blessed Virgin, developed a mysticism based on love and set down the Rule for the Knights Templar. The Templars increased in power and influence, built castles and churches all over Europe, had numerous contacts with the religious orders in the Holy Land, and after their suppression, many went into the building trades or back to the monastaries. We know that the School of Chartres studied deeply the Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Pythagorean philosophy and blended it with Christianity. We know that the Seven Liberal Arts were developed to their zenith at this time and place. Scholars from all over Europe went to study there. We looked at how the Cathedral was a symbol of the Holy Virgin that also represents the human soul in its perfection. And it was the study of the Seven Liberal Arts that promoted this accomplishment. We then considered Dante's alleged involvement with the Fideli d'Amore and his masterpiece of the Commedia which represents the Idealized Woman and St. Bernard as his guides to the highest spiritual realms. There is no doubt that we could spin some tall tales with the implications that are so obvious.
In the final section, the subject shifted to the human endeavor of building with the express purpose of representing the spiritual dimension. Understanding the nature of the spiritual dimension demanded extensive study of the Seven Liberal Arts so that what was built was in harmony with and embodied the divine. We also discussed how at one point there developed the idea that only one who had mastered the seven arts could be designated an architect. From there this paper considered the development of the art of memory utilizing temple design to enhance its purpose. And, that some practitioners incorporated cabalistic, hermetic, astrological and numerology to develop this art into a spiritual practice. It was considered that developing mental representations to mirror the eternal and unchanging divine world and processes would bring about spiritual revelations. In other words, the practices would aid the soul in its ascent to the divine world. It would, in truth, give one the vision of the celestial temple.
All this brings me to the inevitable conclusion that the origins of the fraternity of Freemasonry can be found emerging from this background. There have been several masonic historians who hold that the fraternity is merely a romantic continuation of building guilds. And there are some who go to the other extreme and hold to fabulous speculations that the fraternity had its origins in secret rites brought back by the Templars from the Holy Land. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle once we take into account all the strange and mixed companies that were interacting at the time. The origins of our fraternity probably can be traced to the building guilds. But this is no humble beginning as we can see from above what incredible projects and spiritual ambitions they were pursuing. There may also be Templar influence as it is a fact that they themselves were prolific builders and many returned to the building trades after their suppression. We know that later in European history these great building projects came to an end. There were many cultural changes that made the old ways obsolete or impossible. Yet, we may think that there were those who felt that the tradition should be preserved even though the operative craft diminished.
Finally, this tradition that Freemasonry perpetuates and is the foremost custodian of has itself begun to diminish. It is not only the changes in culture that have caused this as the passage of time itself will produce an erosion of original intentions. Yet, this erosion is not inevitable if the fraternity itself will refresh its original purpose. The key to this refreshment is a revival of the means by which a speculative mason becomes an architect of the soul. And the means, my brothers, are the study and practice of the Seven Liberal Arts.
The following remarks are a departure from the historical consideration of the Seven Liberal Arts and focus upon the application of these same Arts to our own Fraternity. It is a mistake to say that because Masonry has done something one way in the past that it should necessarily continue that practice into the future. It is not necessarily the practice that we should carry forward but the principles. For example, Freemasonry has always promoted religious liberty within the brotherhood. But in the beginning of historical masonry that religious liberty meant that Christians of any denomination could be masons. It was not till later that Jewish members were allowed within the Fraternity. The principle of religious tolerance was expanded. And now in these times we have again expanded these principles as we recognize brothers of virtually all the world's faiths. This same principle has enlightened us along racial lines as well. It is not the past practices of freemasons that should guide us into the future but the ageless principles of the Fraternity.
Masonry has to have a spiritual vision as we enter the 21st century. We must decide what we want freemasonry to be in the future. We must build an ideal form to which masonry can eventually unfold. Without it we are rudderless, we will continue to splash about until perhaps we go down for the third and last time. Our traditional vision is embodied but hidden within the Seven Liberal Arts. The principles of our ageless craft can be found there as well. These very same principles are to be contemplated and then applied through our actions. In my opinion, this is the true work of our Craft. The pursuit of these Arts will lead the Fraternity into once again becoming the depository of Wisdom -a reputation it would then deserve and one it had earned.
Before our Fraternity can truly embody the vision that the seven liberating arts personify; that is, the soul actualizing its inherent potential, there are some glaring irregularities and deficiencies that need to be dealt with and overcome. We need to recognize the times in which we live and how society has changed and will continue to change and even change drastically in ways probably beyond our present capacity to imagine. The Seven Liberal Arts have a central role in the method of our improvement in the Craft of Freemasonry. It seems as if the true and deeper meaning of the Seven Arts has been long forgotten; even though a few of the Arts have developed into a serious study as of late (e.g. sacred geometry and the spiritual dimension of music). But it seems that most of this work is being done outside the Fraternity - which should be surprising being that the Seven Liberal Arts are or should be the chief pursuit of a mason's labor. It is an unfortunate situation that has developed and maybe there are social and historical reasons why this is so; but there are also important and even imperative reasons why now is the time to remedy that situation; the remedy, that is, of reestablishing the Seven Liberal Arts as the central focus of Masonic endeavor.
As we approach the Twenty-first century Freemasonry has to face many challenges. Challenges which some have even characterized as crisis. The precipitous fall in membership clearly being of major concern. Many theories have come forward to explain these challenges and to provide remedies to alleviate them. It seems that the most prevalent across this land is to make it easier on the prospective candidate to become a mason because we do not have the time anymore for all that "stuff". But there may be other reasons for this decline and it may not be due to time constraints. One only needs to consider the major social changes of our society and compare them with the prevailing views the general public has of our Fraternity. How are we perceived? Are we perceived as a progressive positive agent for a better society or as representing another weight of social stagnation. It is curious that there are some in our Fraternity who want to "modernize" our Craft by removing any barriers and accomplishments as requirements for advancement in the quest to make masonry more palatable to the modern man. But the modern educated man who is at least somewhat sensitive to social issues sees that our Fraternity has completely failed to address the gender issue which has been one of our culture's most pressing social challenges in the last few decades. Being that our Fraternity was previously a guiding light of society for much that we hold precious in Western Civilization, is it not odd that society has now moved into a superior moral position on this issue?
So instead of Freemasonry embodying the ideal of society and being proactive in issues of social justice, Masonry is now an inferior social force as we go into the twenty-first century. How are we being perceived? The issue of feminine masonry is probably just one of the possible reasons why a modern man may not want to associate himself with a society that does not permit females entrance.
Another possible reason for failing membership is the issue addressed here; that of the institution of Freemasonry as a repository of Wisdom. Are we now perceived as a repository of wisdom as we once were? Just as it has to be very hard to characterize any institution as representing wisdom, truth, beauty and justice that won't allow female members -approximately half the population; it must be very hard to see the Fraternity as such a repository of wisdom if the very means of achieving and maintaining that Light has been buried and forgotten.
The means given to us for increasing the light of wisdom are the Seven Arts which we can only find a passing reference of them in the Second Degree -a mention merely associating the Seven Arts with the Seven Steps of the Winding Staircase. As shown by their history and demonstrated by the role they played in medieval spiritual life, it is almost certain why they were included in the rites of Freemasonry. They were the central focus; they were what truly made a man a mason; and, transformed him into a working builder of the Great Architect, like a priest unto his God.
Another glaring inequity being perpetuated in modern Freemasonry is the fractionalization of the various Orders. Being that the essence of the teachings found within the Seven Liberal Arts transcend culture and religion, as they are the very principles of Freemasonry, and are designed to lead the mind to the realms of the Spirit thereby universalizing spiritual endeavor, it is curious that masonry has itself fallen prey to an odd type of sectarianism. I am speaking of the Orders that demand allegiance to a particular religion either on the petition for membership or within the obligation. These practices are divisive. Although this practice is consistent with masonry's past, it is not compatible with the future of Freemasonry nor its necessary evolution. There have been and are now notions to change this abomination. But the proposals thus far, in my opinion, have been unsatisfactory. There is no place in Masonry to require someone to be a certain religion; indeed, it is against every principle of Freemasonry. Therefore, any such requirements in either the petition or obligation to an Order should be expunged at the earliest possible time. There is no need to change the Christian or other religious nature of the rite. Its intrinsic Mystery should remain intact. The point is that no Rite of Masonry should require a fully qualified mason to denounce his particular religion in order to participate in and appreciate the Mysteries of another. In fact, this should be encouraged.
As we are all within the same Fraternity we should participate in and promote the Mystery traditions of all as well as welcome others into our own. And that, my brothers, is the true Unity and Light of the Spirit of Freemasonry shining through the triangular prism of Faith, Hope, and Love and reflecting the sevenfold spectrum of the Liberating Arts.
Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood
Burckhardt, Titus The Mirror of the Intellect
Chartres and the Birth of the Cathedral
Carruthers, Mary The Book of Memory
Charpentier, Louis The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral
Curl, James Stevens The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry
Denning & Phillips. The Magical Philosophy (3 volumes)
Dunbar, H. Flanders Symbolism in Medieval Thought
Evans, G.R. Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works
Evola, Julian The Mystery of the Grail
Faivre, Antoine, ed. Modern Esoteric Spirituality
The Eternal Hermes
Fideler, David Jesus Christ: Sun of God
Guenon, Rene The Esoterism of Dante
Hutchens, Rex R. A Bridge to Light
Shaw, Gregory Theurgy and the Soul
Simson, Otto von The Gothic Cathedral
Stahl, William & Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts Johnson, Richard
Yates, Frances The Art of Memory
The Rosicrucian Enlightenment
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Last modified: March 22, 2014