Many of us feel the impact of the degrees of the blue lodge. With my temperament, I can’t help but tinker with and wonder how things work. Months afterwards I wondered how the degrees work; how they impart the lessons. This offering is my attempt to pull together what I came to, as an initial exploration.
Begin with the common saying:
Freemasonry is a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.
The sentence itself seems as veiled itself as what it is trying to describe. So let us begin with what symbols and allegories are in the first place.
An allegory is a story where the characters and actions stand for something beyond themselves. Sometimes, the characters represent abstract ideals, or moral qualities, such as honesty or fidelity. For the craft to be “veiled in allegory” means that the meaning is hidden, and that a brother must work at those stories to remove the veil and derive the meaning for himself.
A symbol is an event, object, or person which we attach extra meaning to. All of the working tools are symbols, with a speculative moral meaning relating to the operative purpose of the tool. The meaning of these symbols is explicitly given – and so those symbols help illustrate the allegories. Yet even in the explicit description of these symbols, individual brothers are left to decide how to use these symbols.
This covers what allegories and symbols are, but why? If the goal is to teach a brother the “peculiar system of morality”, why in this way?
Teaching Morality: Principles and Examples
Many lessons of freemasonry are moral in nature, speaking to what a brother should do, when faced with an infinite number of possibilities in life. The lessons being taught are not simple facts, rules, or recipes, but guides to action. Life offers an open-ended set of possibilities, and men need very general principles that can be applied to new situations as they come.
“…its deeper import does not appear on the surface of the ritual itself. This is partly in correspondence with human life itself and the world we live in, which are themselves but allegories and symbols of another life and the veils of another world”Wilmhurst, W.L. (1999). The Meaning of Masonry. New York: Barnes & Noble ISBN 0-7607-1092-9
Symbols are Principles and Ideals
The 24-inch gauge for example teaches us to balance competing demands in our lives; the common gavel to work on self-improvement. As for ideals – there is the perfect ashlar, representing an aspiration even if it is never reached. And so symbols, both positive and negative represent traits to be displayed or goals to aspire to.
Allegories are Examples
Watching children grow makes it clear how people learn through watching examples and imitating the behavior of others. Parents who want their children to be moral will get more effect by leading their own lives that way (and causing that to be seen) than by lecturing their children. They show, in the form of presenting useful myths; they do not just tell.
As children look to their parents as role models, masons can look to the characters in allegory as role models who show, rather than tell. Allegories represent situations and stories where principles are used, and ideals shown.
Combining Symbols & Allegory
Looking at the two together can be a useful way to uncover more meaning, to ask how they come together. Consider some of the following questions – your lodge’s thoughts on this might make for interesting discussion.
- Master Mason: consider our first grand master’s reaction to the events that unfolded in the third degree. How does he use the symbols of his working tools?
- Fellowcraft: in the allegory of the winding stair, the candidate is paid symbolic wages. Why was he paid, and how did he earn them?
Each Must Do His Own Work
Questions like these each can answer for himself, using his past experiences and beliefs. Symbols and allegories require work to make more than a surface shallow sense, and that work is why they suited to freemasonry. By veiling the meaning, they become universal across centuries, refreshed with the interpretation and context of each new generation’s time, politics, technology, and so forth. Within a single lifetime, layered meaning and continued work means that allegories may be like pebbles thrown into a pond, with ever widening ripples. The requirement to work on meaning is itself in a ritual allegory:
“There are two doors of entrance – the Inner and the Outer – and to use these the Fellowcraft of life must have the Pass, which is so dramatically explained to him on his way to the middle Chamber. Others may help him but this assistance is limited for each man must learn by his own efforts and knowledge is never permanently won until it is made a part of ourselves”Brown, William Moseley, “The Degree of Fellowcraft”. Committee on Masonic Education, Grand Lodge AF&AM of Virginia, Revised 2003
Even more pointed:
“Unlike other systems, Freemasonry employs chiefly the person-to-person approach in its teaching. (…) This method of teaching is more difficult than many others, but it makes a Mason study and learn for himself.”
The entire structure and edifice seems designed to induce Level 3 Adulting in the candidate.
This work is what creates the personal impact for that brother, not the greatness of the lesson itself. As he imbues the ritual with meaning, he participates in the work, he does not receive it. This participation includes and even predates the petition, going back to where he was first prepared to be a mason. It includes necessary elements of the candidate’s physical and mental activity in a degree. These efforts unlocks what candidates get out of it, because what a person invests in is part of why they value it. It creates personal impact as he learns he has earned the meaning, not been given it.
Even as I write this, I’m reminded of what my masonic mentor said many times: “it is impossible to get out of freemasonry more than you put into it” and I realize this may just be a restatement in new words.
Contributions of Secrecy
Some insight into this interpretive process provided me with a new perspective on secrecy and its use. Secrecy’s effect is to preserve a blank perspective without preconceptions, permitting a candidate’s experience to unfold, in turn requiring a level of trust. Imagine, before trying a new food, you read articles on what the taste is like. Trying it for yourself, you might not be able to experience it without comparing it to the description.
This would be a shame, because we know that reading a description of a fine meal is distant from the experience of eating one. Secrecy then, can be thought of as a tool used to permit the interpretive process to take place unaffected by the biases that take root so easily. Your brother does not keep secrets from you: he needs you to experience it for yourself, and put in your own work.
To preserve through centuries, a system must contain a universal lessons that can be understood in any place and age of technology, politics.
To be meaningful to very different people, a system must make room for a brother to do his own work to mine the meaning, and then require him to do that work.
For the brother to be enabled to do work honestly requires a clear perspective and an open mind, with as few preconceptions as possible.
To be useful as a guide to action in a world of infinite contingencies, it must be a set of broad principles, paired with examples as an aid to their application. There is only one way to create a gentle craft that can do all of these things, and that is to present a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.