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A Basic Historico-Chronological Model of the
Western Hermetic Tradition

The General Hermetic Features of the Masonic Rituals


So what can be said of the general philosophical features of the kind of Freemasonry being practised in the English Lodges? The masonic rituals which have been left to us from those years hint at a crucial, underlying concept: that the universe is a piece of divinely regulated mechanism or clockwork and Man forms only a small, though significant part of that ‘machinery’. There are several clues about this 18th century Enlightenment weltanschauung. Consider the following nine clues about the basic features of speculative Freemasonry.

  • The very nomenclature used invariably throughout to refer to the Deity – ‘the Great Architect of the Universe’ and ‘the Grand Geometician of the Universe’ – puts forward a recurring image of the Deity, not as the remote Descartian self-contained First Principle, but as an Sublime Interventionist directing human affairs in accordance with His own laws.
  • There are proliferating images of a celestial mechanism operating eternally according to Divinely ordained principles throughout the perceived cosmos.
  • There are proliferating emphases on measuring and quantification, coupled with what is almost an obsession with numerical symmetry.
  • There is a typically optimistic early 18th century assumption that by observing some simple moral rules freemasons will create internal as well as inter-personal harmony so as to mirror eventually the harmony enjoyed by the remote celestial spheres.
  • Morality is conceptualised as a process for formalising patterns of human existence as idealisations.
  • There is the proliferation throughout of three philosophical assumptions which David Hume, the most important Scottish representative of the northern Enlightenment, and other 18th century writers made popular: the universality, homogeneity and perfectibility of human nature.
  • Morality is conceived, therefore, as a kind of celestial mechanics – a state in which human nature is conceptualised as a kind of passive material that can be moulded correctly in a process, or chiselled in much the same way as stones were once carved using templates provided on the medieval building sites from designs conceived by the superintending Master Masons.
  • There is also the unquestioning acceptance of that other early 18th century concepts of universalised beneficence and that of ‘the Good Natured Man’ as a pursuable ideal.
  • There is, moreover, a typically Augustan utopianism of universal Brotherhood coupled with an equally optimistic assumption that members of Lodges will be enabled to actually live their espoused utopia via the associationalism of their Lodges as on-going institutions.

When all of these and similar internal clues are taken together, the resulting accumulated perspective is that speculative Freemasonry was a creation of that crucial era in the philosophical, scientific and theological life of the English nation when it was dominated by all of those potent forces simultaneously. Some of these trends and the image of ‘the spiritualised Temple’ of King Solomon may well have featured as part of the intellectual landscape before the latter half of the 17th century (e.g., John Bunyan’s Solomon’s Temple Spiritualis’d and Samuel Lee’s Orbis Miraculum) but it was only at that particular period that they co-existed simultaneously. Speculative Freemasonry - as evidenced in the available texts, all of which have been published and well-documented - was very much the synthetic creation of a few Enlightenment English gentlemen probably based in London who borrowed extensively and imaginatively from a wide variety of sources then available. What is more important for the present purposes, however, is that some of these key features are clearly Hermetic in nature. Viewed from a textual point of view, then, speculative Freemasonry may well have a legitimate claim to a secure part in the western Hermetic tradition as defined above.

Since then there have been some notable revisions and emendations of the basic Craft rituals from time to time. For example, in the late 1980s the ‘Gothic’, physical penalties associated with the Obligations taken by members in each of the three Degrees were removed by the UGLE because they were now considered to be too blood-thirsty and definitely not in accord with the perceived mentality of the late 20th century. Another notable occasion was when the Royal Arch ceremony came up recently for some amendment – again due not to doctrinal persuasion but because some Christian Churches had been criticising the ritual especially with one of the words used therein to refer to the Deity. By any standard these were major changes. The alterations to the Obligations surely presented splendid opportunities for a thorough, systematic and philosophical examination of the possible place that speculative Freemasonry ought to have in the late 20th century because these changes focused on the need for secrecy and the means of ensuring that it was maintained. The change made to the name used to refer to the Deity struck at the very heart of the religious content of the Royal Arch. This too ought to have been taken as a chance to re-examine the underlying theology. On both occasions, however, the debates were very stage-managed and not many voices were heard. Indeed, not many Brethren bothered to attend. Such apathy is hardly to be unexpected when, the important Charge delivered to the initiate, he is encouraged to make his ‘daily advancement in masonic knowledge’ but only as a last, general recommendation. The Charge goes into elaborate detail about his religious, legal and social responsibilities but does not mention until the very end the need for him to try to come to any deeper understanding of Freemasonry.

In spite of such changes the English rituals have remained remarkably the same although the UGLE has studiously avoided, after the initial work done by the short-lived and specially commissioned Lodge of Promulgation (1809-1811) and the similar Lodge of Reconcilation (1813-1816), any attempt to impose standardisation on the rituals used by its subordinate Lodges. It might be argued, of course, that this is not a deliberate policy of doctrinal diffidence due to a philosophical vacuum. It could be suggested that by being so vague and tentative, this will encourage Brethren to make their own Hermetic explorations. To do otherwise by being too prescriptive would stifle individual initiative. Well, there is not much evidence that the diffidence has actually facilitated the English freemasons to make their ‘daily advancement’. This was confirmed for me in recent years when I was responsible for processing the applications from some very distinguished and experienced English freemasons to join a foreign masonic Order. They were asked, in accordance with the constitution of that Order, to produce short essays without plagiarising on the subject of ‘Spiritual Regeneration’. Most simply did not have a clue how to start. This was obviously the first time that they had been asked to set out their own thoughts about such a topic and yet their decades of exposure to Freemasonry ought to have prepared them adequately. Clearly it had not!

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Last modified: March 22, 2014