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The Masonic Philosophy
part III - interpretation
HAST any philosophy in thee, Shepherd?" 1 was the question of Touchstone in the Shakespeare play; and that is the question we must always ask ourselves. Long ago Kant said that it is the mission of philosophy, not to discover truth, but to set it in order, to seek out the rhythm of things and their reason for being. Beginning in wonder, it sees the familiar as if it were strange, and its mind is full of the air that plays round every subject. Spacious, humane, eloquent, it is "a blend of science, poetry, religion and logic" 2--a softening, enlarging, ennobling influence, giving us a wider and clearer outlook, more air, more room, more light, and more background.
When we look at Masonry in this large and mellow light, it is like a stately old cathedral, gray with age, rich in associations, its steps worn by innumerable feet of the living and the dead--not piteous, but strong and enduring. Entering its doors, we wonder at its lofty spaces, its windows with the dimness and glory of the Infinite behind them, the spring of its pillars, the leap of its arches, and its roof inlaid with stars. Inevitably we ask, whence came this temple of faith and friendship, and what does it mean--rising lightly as a lyric, uplifted by the hunger for truth and the love for beauty, and exempt from the shock of years and the ravages of decay? What faith builded this home of the soul, what philosophy underlies and upholds it? Truly did Longfellow sing of The Builders:
In the elder years of art,
If we examine the foundations of Masonry, we find that it rests upon the most fundamental of all truths, the first truth and the last, the sovereign and supreme Reality. Upon the threshold of its Lodges every man, whether prince or peasant, is asked to confess his faith in God the Father Almighty, the Architect and Master-Builder of the Universe. 3 That is not a mere form of words, but the deepest and most solemn affirmation that human lips can make. To be indifferent to God is to be indifferent to the greatest of all realities, that upon which the aspiration of humanity rests for its uprising passion of desire. No institution that is dumb concerning the meaning of life and the character of the universe, can last. It is a house built upon the sand, doomed to fall when the winds blow and floods beat upon it, lacking a sure foundation. No human fraternity that has not its inspiration in the Fatherhood of God, confessed or unconfessed, can long endure; it is a rope of sand, weak as water, and its fine sentiment quickly evaporates. Life leads, if we follow its meanings and think in the drift of its deeper conclusions, to one God as the ground of the world, and upon that ground Masonry lays her corner-stone. Therefore, it endures and grows, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it!
While Masonry is theocratic in its faith and philosophy, 4 it does not limit its conception of the Divine, much less insist upon any one name for "the Nameless One of a hundred names." Indeed, no feature of Masonry is more fascinating that its age-long quest of the Lost Word, 5 the Ineffable Name; a quest that never tires, never tarries, knowing the while that every name is inadequate, and all words are but symbols of a Truth too great for words--every letter of the alphabet, in fact, having been evolved from some primeval sign or signal of the faith and hope of humanity. Thus Masonry, so far from limiting the thought of God, is evermore in search of a more satisfying and revealing vision of the meaning of the universe, now luminous and lovely, now dark and terrible; and it invites all men to unite in the quest--
One in the freedom of the Truth,
Truly the human consciousness of fellowship with the Eternal, under whatever name, may well hush all words, still more hush argument and anathema. Possession, not recognition, is the only thing important; and if it is not recognized, the fault must surely be, in large part, our own. Given the one great experience, and before long kindred spirits will join in the Universal Prayer of Alexander Pope, himself a Mason:
Father of all! in every age,
With eloquent unanimity our Masonic thinkers proclaim the unity and love of God--whence their vision of the ultimate unity and love of mankind--to be the great truth of the Masonic philosophy; the unity of God and the immortality of the soul. 6 Amidst polytheisms, dualisms, and endless confusions, they hold it to have been the great mission of Masonry to preserve these precious truths, beside which, in the long result of thought and faith, all else fades and grows dim. Of this there is no doubt; and science has come at last to vindicate this wise insight, by unveiling the unity of the universe with overwhelming emphasis. Unquestionably the universe is an inexhaustible wonder. Still, it is a wonder, not a contradiction, and we can never find its rhythm save in the truth of the unity of all things in God. Other clue there is none. Down to this deep foundation Masonry digs for a basis of its temple, and builds securely. If this be false or unstable, then is
The pillar’d firmament rottenness,
Upon the altar of Masonry lies the open Bible which, despite the changes and advances of the ages, remains the greatest Modern Book--the moral manual of civilization. 7 All through its pages, through the smoke of Sinai, through "the forest of the Psalms," through proverbs and parables, along the dreamy ways of prophecy, in gospels and epistles is heard the everlasting truth of one God who is love, and who requires of men that they love one another, do justly, be merciful, keep themselves unspotted by evil, and walk humbly before Him in whose great hand they stand. There we read of the Man of Galilee who taught that, in the far distances of the divine Fatherhood, all men were conceived in love, and so are akin--united in origin, duty, and destiny. Therefore we are to relieve the distressed, put the wanderer into his way, and divide our bread with the hungry, which is but the way of doing good to ourselves; for we are all members of one great family, and the hurt of one means the injury of all.
This profound and reverent faith from which, as from a never-failing spring, flow heroic devotedness, moral self-respect, authentic sentiments of fraternity, inflexible fidelity in life and effectual consolation in death, Masonry has at all times religiously taught. Perseveringly it has propagated it through the centuries, and never more zealously than in our age. Scarcely a Masonic discourse is pronounced, or a Masonic lesson read, by the highest officer or the humblest lecturer, that does not earnestly teach this one true religion which is the very soul of Masonry, its basis and apex, its light and power. Upon that faith it rests; in that faith it lives and labors; and by that faith it will conquer at last, when the noises and confusions of today have followed the tangled feet that made them.
Out of this simple faith grows, by inevitable logic, the philosophy which Masonry teaches in signs and symbols, in pictures and parables. Stated briefly, stated vividly, it is that behind the pageant of nature, in it and over it, there is a Supreme Mind which initiates, impels, and controls all. That behind the life of man and its pathetic story in history, in it and over it, there is a righteous Will, the intelligent Conscience of the Most High. In short, that the first and last thing in the universe is mind, that the highest and deepest thing is conscience, and that the final reality is the absoluteness of love. Higher than that faith cannot fly; deeper than that thought cannot dig.
No deep is deep enough to show
There is but one real alternative to this philosophy. It is not atheism--which is seldom more than a revulsion from superstition--because the adherents of absolute atheism are so few, if any, and its intellectual position is too precarious ever to be a menace. An atheist, if such there be, is an orphan, a waif wandering the midnight streets of time, homeless and alone. Nor is the alternative agnosticism, which in the nature of things can be only a passing mood of thought, when, indeed, it is not a confession of intellectual bankruptcy, or a labor-saving device to escape the toil and fatigue of high thinking. It trembles in perpetual hesitation, like a donkey equi-distant between two bundles of hay, starving to death but unable to make up its mind. No; the real alternative is materialism, which played so large a part in philosophy fifty years ago, and which, defeated there, has betaken itself to the field of practical affairs. This is the dread alternative of a denial of the great faith of humanity, a blight which would apply a sponge to all the high aspirations and ideals of the race. According to this dogma, the first and last things in the universe are atoms, their number, dance, combinations, and growth. All mind, all will, all emotion, all character, all love is incidental, transitory, vain. The sovereign fact is mud, the final reality is dirt, and the decree of destiny is "dust unto dust!"
Against this ultimate horror, it need hardly be said that in every age Masonry has stood as a witness for the life of the spirit. In the war of the soul against dust, in the choice between dirt and Deity, it has allied itself on the side of the great idealisms and optimisms of humanity. It takes the spiritual view of life and the world as being most in accord with the facts of experience, the promptings of right reason, and the voice of conscience. In other words, it dares to read the meaning of the universe through what is highest in man, not through what is lower, asserting that the soul is akin to the Eternal Spirit, and that by a life of righteousness its eternal quality is revealed. 8 Upon this philosophy Masonry rests, and finds a rock beneath:
On Him, this corner-stone we build,
Now, consider! All our human thinking, whether it be in science, philosophy, or religion, rests for its validity upon faith in the kinship of man with God. If that faith be false, the temple of human thought falls to wreck, and behold! we know not anything and have no way of learning. But the fact that the universe is intelligible, that we can follow its forces, trace its laws, and make a map of it, finding the infinite even in the infinitesimal, shows that the mind of man is akin to the Mind that made it. Also, there are two aspects of the nature of man which lift him above the brute and bespeak his divine heredity. They are reason and conscience, both of which are of more than sense and time, having their source, satisfaction, and authority in an unseen, eternal world. That is to say, man is a being who, if not actually immortal, is called by the very law and necessity of his being to live as if he were immortal. Unless life be utterly abortive, having neither rhyme nor reason, the soul of man is itself the one sure proof and prophet of its own high faith.
Consider, too, what it means to say that this mighty soul of man is akin to the Eternal Soul of all things. It means that we are not shapes of mud placed here by chance, but sons of the Most High, citizens of eternity, deathless as God our Father is deathless; and that there is laid upon us an abiding obligation to live in a manner befitting the dignity of the soul. It means that what a man thinks, the parity of his feeling, the character of his activity and career are of vital and ceaseless concern to the Eternal. Here is a philosophy which lights up the universe like a sunrise, confirming the dim, dumb certainties of the soul, evolving meaning out of mystery, and hope out of what would else be despair. It brings out the colors of human life, investing our fleeting mortal years--brief at their longest, broken at its best--with enduring significance and beauty. It gives to each of us, however humble and obscure, a place and a part in the stupendous historical enterprise; makes us fellow workers with the Eternal in His redemptive making of humanity, and binds us to do His will upon earth as it is done in heaven. It subdues the intellect; it softens the heart; it begets in the will that sense of self-respect without which high and heroic living cannot be. Such is the philosophy upon which Masonry builds; and from it flow, as from the rock smitten in the wilderness, those bright streams that wander through and water this human world of ours.
Because this is so; because the human soul is akin to God, and is endowed with powers to which no one may set a limit, it is and of right ought to be free. Thus, by the logic of its philosophy, not less than the inspiration of its faith, Masonry has been impelled to make its historic demand for liberty of conscience, for the freedom of the intellect, and for the right of all men to stand erect, unfettered, and unafraid, equal before God and the law, each respecting the rights of his fellows. What we have to remember is, that before this truth was advocated by any order, or embodied in any political constitution, it was embedded in the will of God and the constitution of the human soul. Nor will Masonry ever swerve one jot or tittle from its ancient and eloquent demand till all men, everywhere, are free in body, mind, and soul. As it is, Lowell was right when he wrote:
We are not free: Freedom doth not consist
Some day, when the cloud of prejudice has been dispelled by the searchlight of truth, the world will honor Masonry for its service to freedom of thought and the liberty of faith. No part of its history has been more noble, no principle of its teaching has been more precious than its age-long demand for the right and duty of every soul to seek that light by which no man was ever injured, and that truth which makes man free. Down through the centuries--often in times when the highest crime was not murder, but thinking, and the human conscience was a captive dragged at the wheel of the ecclesiastical chariot--always and everywhere Masonry has stood for the right of the soul to know the truth, and to look up unhindered from the lap of earth into the face of God. Not freedom from faith, but freedom of faith, has been its watchword, on the ground that as despotism is the mother of anarchy, so bigoted dogmatism is the prolific source of scepticism--knowing, also, that our race has made its most rapid advance in those fields where it has been free the longest.
Against those who would fetter thought in order to perpetuate an effete authority, who would give the skinny hand of the past a scepter to rule the aspiring and prophetic present, and seal the lips of living scholars with the dicta of dead scholastics, Masonry will never ground arms! Her plea is for government without tyranny and religion without superstition, and as surely as suns rise and set her fight will be crowned with victory. Defeat is impossible, the more so because she fights not with force, still less with intrigue, but with the power of truth, the persuasions of reason, and the might of gentleness, seeking not to destroy her enemies, but to win them to the liberty of the truth and the fellowship of love.
Not only does Masonry plead for that liberty of faith which permits a man to hold what seems to him true, but also, and with equal emphasis, for the liberty which faith gives to the soul, emancipating it from the despotism of doubt and the fetters of fear. Therefore, by every art of spiritual culture, it seeks to keep alive in the hearts of men a great and simple trust in the goodness of God, in the worth of life, and the divinity of the soul--a trust so apt to be crushed by the tramp of heavy years. Help a man to a firm faith in an Infinite Pity at the heart of this dark world, and from how many fears is he free! Once a temple of terror, haunted by shadows, his heart becomes "a cathedral of serenity and gladness," and his life is enlarged and unfolded into richness of character and service. Nor is there any tyranny like the tyranny of time. Give a man a day to live, and he is like a bird in a cage beating against its bars. Give him a year in which to move to and from with his thoughts and plans, his purposes and hopes, and you have liberated him from the despot-ism of a day. Enlarge the scope of his life to fifty years, and he has a moral dignity of attitude and a sweep of power impossible hitherto. But give him a sense of Eternity; let him know that he plans and works in an ageless time; that above his blunders and sins there hovers and waits the infinite--then he is free!
Nevertheless, if life on earth be worthless, so is immortality. The real question, after all, is not as to the quantity of life, but its quality--its depth, its purity, its fortitude, its fineness of spirit and gesture of soul. Hence the insistent emphasis of Masonry upon the building of character and the practice of righteousness; upon that moral culture without which man is rudimentary, and that spiritual vision without which intellect is the slave of greed or passion. What makes a man great and freed of soul, here or anywhither, is loyalty to the laws of right, of truth, of purity, of love, and the lofty will of God. How to live is the one matter; and the oldest man in his ripe age has yet to seek a wiser way than to build, year by year, upon a foundation of faith in God, using the Square of justice, the Plumb-line of rectitude, the Compass to restrain the passions, and the Rule by which to divide our time into labor, rest, and service to our fellows. Let us begin now and seek wisdom in the beauty of virtue and live in the light of it, rejoicing; so in this world shall we have a foregleam of the world to come--bringing down to the Gate in the Mist something that ought not to die, assured that, though hearts are dust, as God lives what is excellent is enduring!
Bede the Venerable, in giving an account of the deliberations of the King of Northumberland and his counsellors, as to whether they should allow the Christian missionaries to teach a new faith to the people, recites this incident. After much debate, a gray-haired chief recalled the feeling which came over him on seeing a little bird pass through, on fluttering wing, the warm bright hall of feasting, while winter winds raged without. The moment of its flight was full of sweetness and light for the bird, but it was brief. Out of the darkness it flew, looked upon the bright scene, and vanished into the darkness again, none knowing whence it came nor whither it went.
"Like this," said the veteran chief, "is human life. We come, our wise men cannot tell whence. We go, and they cannot tell whither. Our flight is brief. Therefore, if there be anyone that can teach us more about it--in God's name let us hear him!"
Even so, let us hear what Masonry has to say in the great argument for the immortality of the soul.
"But, instead of making an argument linked and strong, it presents a picture--the oldest, if not the greatest drama in the world--the better to make men feel those truths which no mortal words can utter. It shows us the black tragedy of life in its darkest hour; the forces of evil, so cunning yet so stupid, which come up against the soul, tempting it to treachery, and even to the degradation of saving life by giving up all that makes life worth living; a tragedy which, in its simplicity and power, makes the heart ache and stand still. Then, out of the thick darkness there rises, like a beautiful white star, that in man which is most akin to God, his love of truth, his loyalty to the highest, and his willingness to go down into the night of death, if only virtue may live and shine like a pulse of fire in the evening sky. Here is the ultimate and final witness of our divinity and immortality--the sublime, death-defying moral heroism of the human soul! Surely the eternal paradox holds true at the gates of the grave: he who loses his life for the sake of truth, shall find it anew! And here Masonry rests the matter, assured that since there is that in man which makes him hold to the moral ideal, and the integrity of his own soul, against all the brute forces of the world, the God who made man in His own image will not let him die in the dust! Higher vision it is not given us to see in the dim country of this world; deeper truth we do not need to know.
Working with hands soon to be folded, we build up the structure of our lives from what our fingers can feel, our eyes can see, and our ears can hear. Till, in a moment--marvelous whether it come in storm and tears, or softly as twilight breath beneath unshadowed skies--we are called upon to yield our grasp of these solid things, and trust ourselves to the invisible Soul within us, which betakes itself along an invisible path into the Unknown. It is strange: a door opens into a new world; and man, child of the dust that he is, follows his adventurous Soul, as the Soul follows an inscrutable Power which is more elusive than the wind that bloweth where it listeth. Suddenly, with fixed eyes and blanched lips, we lie down and wait; and life, well-fought or wasted, bright or somber, lies behind us--a dream that is dreamt, a thing that is no more. O Death,
Thou hast destroyed it,
O Youth, for whom these lines are written, fear not; fear not to believe that the soul is as eternal as the moral order that obtains in it, wherefore you shall forever pursue that divine beauty which has here so touched and transfigured you; for that is the faith of humanity, your race, and those who are fairest in its records. Let us lay it to heart, love it, and act upon it, that we may learn its deep meaning as regards others--our dear dead whom we think of, perhaps, every day--and find it easier to be brave and hopeful, even when we are sad. It is not a faith to be taken lightly, but deeply and in the quiet of the soul, if so that we may grow into its high meanings for ourselves, as life grows or declines.
Build thee more stately mansions, O my
1 As You Like It (act ii, scene ii). Shakespeare makes no reference to any secret society, but some of his allusions suggest that he knew more than he wrote. He describes "The singing Masons building roofs of gold" (Henry V, act i, scene ii), and compares them to a swarm of bees at work. Did he know what the bee hive means in the symbolism of Masonry? (Read an interesting article on "Shakespeare and Freemasonry," American Freemason, January, 1912.) It reminds one of the passage in the Complete Angler, by Isaak Walton, in which the gentle fisherman talks about the meaning of Pillars in language very like that used in the Old Charges. But Hawkins in his edition of the Angler recalls that Walton was a friend of Elias Ashmole, and may have learned of Masonry from him. (A Short Masonic History, by F. Armitage, vol. ii, chap. 3.)
2 Some Problems of Philosophy, by William James.
3 In 1877 the Grand Orient of France removed the Bible from its altar and erased from its ritual all reference to Deity; and for so doing it was disfellowshiped by nearly every Grand Lodge in the world. The writer of the article on "Masonry" in the Catholic Encyclopedia recalls this fact with emphasis; but he is much fairer to the Grand Orient than many Masonic writers have been. He understands that this does not mean that the Masons of France are atheistic, as that word is ordinarily used, but that they do not believe that there exist Atheists in the absolute sense of the word; and he quotes the words of Albert Pike: "A man who has a higher conception of God than those about him, and who denies that their conception is God, is very likely to be called an Atheist by men who are really far less believers in God than he" (Morals and Dogma, p. 643). Thus, as Pike goes on to say, the early Christians, who said the heathen idols were no Gods, were accounted Atheists, and accordingly put to death. We need not hold a brief for the Grand Orient, but it behooves us to understand its position and point of view, lest we be found guilty of a petty bigotry in regard to a word when the reality is a common treasure. First, it was felt that France needed the aid of every man who was an enemy of Latin ecclesiasticism, in order to bring about a separation of Church and State; hence the attitude of the Grand Orient. Second, the Masons of France agree with Plutarch that no conception of God at all is better than a dark, distorted superstition which wraps men in terror; and they erased a word which, for many, was associated with an unworthy faith--the better to seek a unity of effort in behalf of liberty of thought and a loftier faith. (The Religion of Plutarch, by Oakesmith; also the Bacon essay on Superstition.) We may deem this unwise, but we ought at least to understand its spirit and purpose.
4 Theocratic Philosophy of Freemasonry, by Oliver.
5 "History of the Lost Word," by J. F. Garrison, appendix to Early History and Antiquities of Freemasonry, by G. F. Fort--one of the most brilliant Masonic books, both in scholarship and literary style.
6 Symbolism of Masonry, by Dr. Mackey (chap. i) and other books too many to name. It need hardly be said that the truth of the trinity, whereof the triangle is an emblem--though with Pythagoras it was a symbol of holiness, of health--was never meant to contradict the unity of God, but to make it more vivid. As too often interpreted, it is little more than a crude tri-theism, but at its best it is not so. "God thrice, not three Gods," was the word of St. Augustine (Essay on the Trinity), meaning three aspects of God--not the 'mathematics of His nature, but its manifoldness, its variety in unity. The late W. N. Clarke--who put more common sense into theology than any other man of his day--pointed out that, in our time, the old debate about the trinity is as dead as Caesar; the truth of God as a Father having taken up into itself the warmth, color, and tenderness of the truth of the trinity--which, as said on an earlier page, was a vision of God through the family (Christian Doctrine of God).
7 The Bible, the Great Source of Masonic Secrets and Observances, by Dr. Oliver. No Mason need be told what a large place the Bible has in the symbolism, ritual, and teaching of the Order, and it has an equally large place in its literature.
8 Read the great argument of Plato in The Republic (book vi). The present writer does not wish to impose upon Masonry any dogma of technical Idealism, subjective, objective, or otherwise. No more than others does he hold to a static universe which unrolls in time a plan made out before, but to a world of wonders where life has the risk and zest of adventure. He rejoices in the New Idealism of Rudolf Eucken, with its gospel of "an independent spiritual life"--independent, that is, of vicissitude--and its insistence upon the fact that the meaning of life depends upon our "building up within ourselves a life that is not of time" (Life's Basis and Life's Ideal). But the intent of these pages is, rather, to emphasize the spiritual view of life and the world as the philosophy underlying Masonry, and upon which it builds--the reality of the ideal, its sovereignty over our fragile human life, and the immutable necessity of loyalty to it, if we are to build for eternity. After all, as Plotinus said, philosophy "serves to point the way and guide the traveller; the vision is for him who will see it." But the direction means much to those who are seeking the truth to know it.
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