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A Basic Historico-Chronological Model of the
Western Hermetic Tradition

Future Prospects


In trying to answer the question ‘What part, if any, does speculative Freemasonry have within the western Hermetic tradition’ I have suggested that the model preferred by the prevailing orthodoxy of the ‘authentic’ school of masonic historiography may have to be abandoned now. It simply has not produced the evidence that would connect speculative Freemasonry up generally with any previous esoteric ventures, that evidence may well unavailable. Besides, dealing almost exclusively with texts it regards the masonic experience in a textual way, denies that it might be Hermetic and ignores the fact that the experience’s potency lies mainly in its lived-through continuity. It is no longer any use looking to the past to find a viable answer to the question.

So I have turned to the present and examined the different Initiation rituals used in England and on the Continent. I have tried to show that though there were and are interesting traces of Hermeticism within the English-speaking masonic tradition, these became neglected gradually. Demographic factors, throughout the 19th century influenced the influx of men with a bourgeois or a military mentality into English-speaking speculative Freemasonry and this brought about a laxity. The emergent British middle classes provided the motivation, the zeal, the opportunities and the personnel for the agrarian and industrial revolutions and the subsequent burgeoning economic prosperity in the 18th century. Once established as the major potent political force within the nation, they even brought about the acquisition and maintenance of the British Empire during the 19th century. These were worthy achievements in their day, of course, but they were centred on this world and not on any kind of Hermetic experience. Those men came to speculative Freemasonry in their droves with all of their cultural expectations, career experiences and training and their social ambitions and expectations. So, while the original potentially Hermetic traces remained as symbols within the texts of their masonic rituals, they became neglected generally as signposts for the ‘lived-through’ experience within Lodges.

Besides this, the minimalist and compromise definition of what is meant by ‘pure and ancient freemasonry’ by the nascent Union in 1813 meant that the possibility of Hermetic exploration on a continuous basis in a masonic context became severely restricted in the early decades of the 19th century. Those freemasons who wanted to pursue their Hermetic pilgrimages had to seek for or create opportunities outside of the restrictions imposed by their membership of the English-speaking Craft. This was why most of the so-called ‘higher’ degrees took their rise and flourished only in the latter half of the 19th century as part of that occult revival which was itself part of a general, spiritualised reaction against the incipient and rampant materialism of the post-Darwinian age. Since then, however, most English-speaking freemasons have become pre-occupied with various kinds of mere externalities; the Hermetic enterprise – in terms of individual Lodges’ corporate experience – ground almost to a halt.

But that Hermetic impulse is still preserved among European speculative freemasons. Their ‘lived-through’ experience is more prolonged, more intense, more cerebral – more Hermetic – again for historical reasons. So, as far as European Freemasonry is concerned the answer to the question posed is: ‘Yes, in Europe, speculative Freemasonry does have a secure place within the western Hermetic tradition’ because it still requires its members to engage in sustained reflection on the whole purpose of the phenomenon and the meaning of the symbols it employs.

What then of the future? What place, if any, can speculative Freemasonry have in the Hermetic enterprise in the next millennium?

I want to answer this, not by trying to guess whether and how Grand Lodges will adjust to the many fierce exigencies of the new age, but by raising some serious questions about the whole nature of the more orthodox varieties of speculative Freemasonry. How can it, as a cultural institution, claim to have any place in the modern world?

  • How can any institution that has secrecy as one of its key notions continue to be valid in the age of the every expanding and developing scientific and electronic communication? I can see the need for preserving secrecy in financial, military and even political matters where peoples’ lives and livelihoods may be at risk. I can see that the injunction to keep the masonic ‘secrets’ secret was simply a convenient psychological ploy, intended to serve as an exaltation and legitimisation of the revelation in Neophytes’ minds but the insistence now on preserving ‘secrets’ which are not comparable secrets must seem false in the modern world.
  • Furthermore, is there not an inherent contradiction between the principles of universal brotherhood and equality and that same notion of secrecy? Besides, how can any institution that professes pan-humanic amelioration require absolute secrecy of its members?
  • There is another aspect of this preference for universality. All of the Hermetic groups that I have studied have been small, even tiny in membership. Often, the most important insights have been produced in written form by individual scholars working largely in isolation. This diminutive membership size and this seclusion did not deter the pioneers of the ‘Invisible College’ in the late 17th century. Perhaps they realised that in order for any Hermetic group to be lastingly successful it would have to be small and exclusive. What then can be made of speculative Freemasonry’s claim to bring about a universal brotherhood?
  • How can any institution survive in the modern world when it demands large sums of money from its Initiates but refuses to define its basic aims and objectives. Speculative Freemasonry claims to be involved in the inculcation of ethical principles but it has yet to attempt a clear, systematic and thorough definition of all its fundamental philosophy.
  • It is claimed, among English-speaking speculative freemasons that the basic motivating principles are brotherly love, relief and truth. How can it survive then when at least two of these are no longer operative for it? The idea of a national organisation devoted to providing charity to deserving cases seemed fine in the 18th century when there was no welfare state but now it might be argued that in most modern states at least there is substantial, systematic provision for the poor. As far as devotion to the truth is concerned in the English-speaking masonic world, there seems little evidence now of any searching for truth, especially Hermetic truths, at an organisational level. Brotherly love seems to escape quickly out of the nearest window when the seasons for announcing promotions up the hierarchies come about and jealousy abounds once again. The rituals proclaim equality but the practice of awarding ever better ranks, for instance, proclaims inequality. And that inequality is there for all members to see.
  • How can speculative Freemasonry survive in the modern world as an organisation when it carries a hierarchy of at least 28 grades of officers in the various Grand Lodges in the UK and elsewhere - a hierarchy that is mirrored in detail at every Provincial level. Such structures become self-perpetuating and they militate inevitably against Hermetic exploration. People become obsessed with their place in the structure, with correct and orderly behaviour and decorum - not with their spiritual development. Huge, complex organisations have rarely been sources of profound religious or philosophical insights that accelerate Man’s progress towards greater understanding. Besides, in the ordinary, profane world, no manufacturing or commercial organisation would last if it continued to develop along such Byzantine lines. Such hierarchies are not sufficiently flexible in terms of their administrative hygiene to adapt creatively to external pressures for change. And after all, even Heaven itself has only nine orders of angels!
  • How can any institution survive if it refuses to accept the need for continual change? I am not thinking of mere organisational adjustments but of an acceptance of basic change as a part of the culture – or social psychology - of the organisation. In particular, how can speculative Freemasonry in the English-speaking world survive when it cannot conceive of the possibility of radical changes being necessary at some stage to its rituals?
  • Speculative Freemasonry, of the so-called ‘regular’ kind, excludes women from membership though there are no clear, identifiable reasons why this is so. How can any institution be Hermetic, or continue to exist in the modern world, when it arbitrarily excludes half the adult population? If the ‘lived-through’ masonic experience is concerned (at least in part) with the inculcation of ethical principles and uses the model of the transition from the Rough Ashlar to the Perfect Ashlar to represent the ethical progress brought about in individual members, how can speculative Freemasonry (as an organisation) say – by implication – that women are not capable of making that transition, of attaining that moral improvement? Such an exclusion is not Hermetic and is not in accord with the modern world and any institution which retains that exclusion in the next millennium will not continue to attract new members in sufficient numbers and so the exclusion of women will assist its inevitable decline.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014