In this post I’d like to summarize 3 very different perspectives about Masonic secrets & secrecy. Masons don’t all agree on the purpose or meaning of these secrets, and I think it’s useful to compare these views because it helps understand where people are coming from. The three perspectives:
- There are secrets, and it’s impossible to divulge them, even if you want to.
- There are secrets, and they serve functional goals that help the organization.
- There are no secrets at all, it’s just marketing.
Before we begin, I should stress that the jurisdiction that I am in does not have an actual list of what the secrets are. When we think about Freemasonry we should always remember how different its practice is from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Even Freemasons argue online about whether this or that is secret. There are a few things such as certain spoken words and motions that are clearly covered which are collectively called “the modes of recognition” but there are many other aspects which some brothers consider to be secrets and others not. This post won’t be revealing anything of the sort.
Perspective 1: Revealing Secrets Is Impossible
In a nutshell: a secret is an experience you live through, and you cannot reveal it because it can’t be quite placed into words anyway. If you can recall your wedding, or maybe even seeing a family member pass away, you might agree there are certain experiences that can be described with words, but that nobody is ever really going to understand in the way you experienced them. And that there is a large gulf between those two things.
This is what we might call the esoteric perspective on secrecy:
But these symbols and the hidden meanings they convey cannot be communicated to everyone at once. They are, by their nature, hidden. The great secrets of Nature and the Divine do not have to be hidden by humanity. They keep themselves and are very capable in doing so. The secrets of life are extracted only by experience and understanding, they cannot be granted by committee or passed down by decree. They must be earned by every individual who wishes to gain them and great sacrifices, sacrifices of comfort, ease and safety, must be made upon the altars of Life if the seeker wishes to prove worthy. For this reason, in every age and in every place, societies of men and women have gathered to attempt to pierce the veil that guards this wisdom.
This is the true work of the Mysteries and must be done in secret, not to conceal the existence of the secrets themselves or to prevent the worthy from seeking their knowledge, but to unify the workers who would attempt to construct another fragile rung in the great ladder leading to heaven.Esoteric Freemasonry
I would like to state, forthwith, that it is my belief that the entirety of what we recognize as Masonic literature is but a series of commentaries on an experiential system which can only be viably transmitted in the form of symbolism, ritual, and allegory — and that these are the sole means by which the Hidden Mysteries of Freemasonry are conveyed.Jamie Paul Lamb — Approaching the Middle Chamber
These two quotes emphasize going through a process. “Experiential” is the key word here. You’ll often find other Freemasons talking about the initiatic experience and its importance. This reason is why ritualists place so much emphasis on getting the atmosphere and situation of degree work right. They would say: you do not gain access to wisdom by reading books – you grow it by living through certain experiences. Carl Jung:
“We never know the real secrets, even the so-called esotericists do not know them. Esotericists—at least earlier—were supposed not to reveal their secrets. But the real secrets cannot be revealed. Nor is it possible to make an “esoteric” science out of them, for the simple reason that they are not known. What are called esoteric secrets are mostly artificial secrets, not real ones. Man needs to have secrets, and since he has no notion of the real ones he fakes them. But the real ones come to him out of the depths of the unconscious, and then he may reveal things which he ought really to have kept secret. Here again we see the numinous character of the reality in the background. It is not we who have secrets, it is the real secrets that have us.”Carl Jung, Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology (1959)
Perspective 2: Secrets are Functional
Some masons will hasten to tell you that Freemasonry is derived from the medieval stone guilds, and that secrets functioned like job resumes and professional recommendations. Freemasons didn’t keep secrets because it was fun; they had a practical purpose.
That was then, this is now. What practical purpose do secrets have in the 21st century?
- They act as a “trust test”. One proves himself worthy of trust by keeping them.
- They act as a form of “commitment signaling”. You show others that you are committed by keeping them.
A Mason I really like in my jurisdiction puts it this way: “look, the secrets aren’t that important to me, but if you can’t even keep a few words and motions secret, then how am I supposed to talk to you about what’s going on in my life, or how my relationship is with my wife?”. What he’s saying here places emphasis that members need to be able to trust one another, and that we’re supposed to form bonds & relationships that allow for real, meaningful conversation.
Just for the moment, suppose that the secrets don’t matter at all. Well, this Mason has a good point. Why should you be considered trustworthy as a person if you can’t keep a meaningless secret?
Perspective 3: There are no Secrets
It’s hard to keep count of the number of “masonic exposes” that have been published throughout the centuries. Certainly there is no word or motion that hasn’t already been published somewhere. This is 2021, the Internet is real, and in the sense of raw facts and figures, there is no such thing as a secret.
This first perspective is one of those that I find to be annoyingly narrow but true in a sense. We all have that one friend who might jump in and say something like, “Well technically…”. That person is rarely technically wrong, but is often missing important pieces of the puzzle.
There are no real secrets in Freemasonry is technically true, just like it’s technically true to say that a river is nothing but some water flowing through a particularly big ditch. It’s reductive, minimizing, and misses certain points, but not technically wrong.
These interpretations all take different positions on the following 3 questions. Developing your own answers to these three questions is a great jumping off point for your study of Freemasonry.
- What is the secret? Is it a word, a movement, or something more divine or abstract?
- How do you gain access to a secret? Is it something you are told, an experience that you go through, or do you not gain access to any secrets in the first place?
- What is the purpose of secrets? Are they defined by the utility they have for us, or by what they do to us?
- You Can’t Map Your Way Out of Mystery
- Bogdan, H., The Sociology of the Construct of Tradition and Import of Legitimacy in Freemasonry, 2010.
- You Can’t Map Your Way Out of Mystery
- Masonic Services Association of North America: Freemasonry and Secrecy
- What Lies Beyond the Veil? Esoteric Freemasonry