(That ought to get the search engines working.) Freemasonry’s secrets are indeed hidden and therefore “occult” in the literal sense of the word. “Occult” is traced this way in my handy-dandy dictionary ap:
late 15th cent. (as a verb): from Latin occultare ‘secrete,’ frequentative of occulere ‘conceal,’ based on celare ‘to hide’; the adjective and noun from occult- ‘covered over,’ from the verb occulere.
And here are the definitions provided:
- of, involving, or relating to supernatural, mystical, or magical powers or phenomena : a follower of occult practices similar to voodoo.
- beyond the range of ordinary knowledge or experience; mysterious : a weird occult sensation of having experienced the identical situation before.
- communicated only to the initiated; esoteric : the typically occult language of the time.
Every Mason understands quite well (I hope) that it each of these definitions applies to the secrets of Masonry. Those brothers who believe that the “secrets” consist simply of words and grips, have not yet learned the Craft. I have been harping on this for some time, but since I am a bard, I guess harping on things is in my job description. All three definitions apply but without the sinister overtones. Masonry is hardly very similar to voodoo. It is about as similar to that kind of “occultism” as is any spiritual practice or religion. One will do well to bear in mind that “religion” comes from the Latin for “obligation” or “to bind.” What is more “weird” – binding yourself to a set of beliefs handed to you by institutional religious authorities or studying knowledge that is hidden?
Science is the study of hidden knowledge and is taught only to the initiated. But today, with such a vast flow of knowledge (or at least texts) at the fingertips of everyone with a computer, it is pretty darn hard to hide teachings of any kind. Still, Masonry is hidden in another way (as are the teachings of most religions), because one has to learn a special language including a symbolic language in order to study the subject. The problem with Freemasonry today (and it seems as if this has always been a problem) is that many men are made Masons and then do not receive any instruction in the symbolic language. Oh, yes, since Preston and Webb, Masons have received the instruction of the set lectures, but these are obviously still given in the symbolic language, so without understanding how to read a text symbolically and how to unfold the myriad meanings of a metaphor, no brother can be expected to learn these “secrets.”
I put “secrets” in quotation marks because the very word has grown connotations that are sinister, somehow suggesting spies and conspiracies to the modern mind, rather than simply knowledge that is hidden. Which is to say, knowledge of the world, oneself, other people, which has not yet been learned. Until one learns a piece of information and understands its place in relation to other pieces of a whole, one does not possess knowledge. Information (words and statements) is not the same thing as knowledge.
Information may be presented by a teacher, but it does not become knowledge until the student learns it and understands it in context of a larger system – the Big Picture. No word or utterance by itself can mean anything. It only has meaning in relation to other words and its context in life. That contextual quality is one reason we have such a hard time understanding old texts (such as the Bible, to take just one instance.) Masonic rituals are another old text for which even Freemasons lack the proper historical context. The words thus become obscured to the modern reader or listener.
“Secret” is (surprise) another Latin word, derived into English from secretus, “set apart.” Think about this not as “Top Secret” but in its more benign use in “secretary.” Yet even that word has been confused because of the odd fact that our Western culture shifted the job of secretary from the male sphere to the female sphere when women began to enter the workworld as typists. A secretarius, to a Latin speaker was a “confidential officer” of some sort, not a typist. He (or she) was charged to work with a superior and keep things confidential even though they might be written down. This relationship between the “boss” and the secretary is really very fundamental to human civilization for this very reason: that it permits things to be recorded and filed away for later reference. It permits the boss to keep all his knowledge organized and relieves him (or her) from the necessity of memorizing everything. Secret things are set apart because they are specific to a certain audience, and because they are stored.
Certainly the stored records in a computer system, or in “the Cloud” as we like to say now, are secreted away out of sight until they are called upon for use. This is the work of homo documentis that has built “civilization as we know it.” So, the idea that any thinking person today should be afraid of secrets is more than a little absurd. Yet, when such recorded information is labeled “occult” it takes on a meaning that is, as the dictionary intimated, fraught with “supernatural” overtones. Now, religious authorities have considered anything “supernatural” to be their own bailiwick. They have been losing the battle as more and more phenomena have shifted from the category of “supernatural” to natural. That is, the domain of religious institutions and their social power has diminished with the development of the natural sciences.
I am of the opinion that our fore-brothers in Freemasonry realized that this was happening. They saw the development of natural science in the 18th century when it began to study electricity and magnetism, chemical elements and physical forces. This new knowledge was clearly pushing its way into explanation of phenomena that had hitherto been filed under “supernatural” by the secretaries. But it would be a mistake to think that the shift in categories diminished God.
I Am OK, God is OK
The Supreme Being, even if we say “the idea of a Supreme Being” or source of creative power, is not diminished when supernatural things move to the domain of Nature. This absolute being, the “I Am” which makes the verb “to be” mean anything, is not one or the other. Religions have, for a long time, claimed the Supreme Being to be “supernatural” that is, literally, “above nature.” Some thinkers about spiritual things have always considered that this Divine was in Nature too. That is, Deity is not “part of” Nature, but is larger than Nature, and larger than whatever is considered to be supernatural too. It is both. It transcends the dichotomy of Nature/Supernature.
This idea was what the spiritual thinkers of the 18th century had begun to see. Such thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries have continued to realize the breakdown of the old dichotomy. Today, in the 21st century, thinking people have at least an inkling that “all things are One” and the implication of this fact, that each human being has the whole of creation within his or her being. Being with a capital B is everywhere by definition, and so the Supreme Being is understood to be omnipresent. But that omnipresence does not mean it is everywhere around you. It means it is Everywhere including inside you.
That heretical understanding of Being does not undermine the Divine in any way, but it does undermine the category of the “supernatural” upon which religious authorities have staked their claim to authority. Personal experience of the Divine – of Ultimate Being – of the I Am – has been filed under M for Mysticism. Freemasons declare that their Craft is “mystical.” Yet, how many Masons today have bothered to look into the meaning of the word “mystical” or “mystery.” At its base, the meaning of the word “mysterious” is “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.” Yet, we expect mysteries to have a solution. Mysteries are like puzzles and we expect that collecting clues and reading them correctly will lead to understanding the whole story.
That is to say, Mysteries are texts to read, just like life in general around us and within us is a text to be read. Nature is a text we can read. That isn’t a new idea. Medieval thinkers, or maybe even the ancients, gave us the metaphor “the book of nature.” But nature’s mysteries are always “hidden” or “veiled” in the old poetic language of natural philosophers. Science has created a jargon that is set up as the opposite of poetry – its speakers try to make it a language of factual statement and mathematical accuracy rather than a language of imagination and metaphor. Freemasonry gives honor to both. In the crucial second degree of the Craft, that of Fellowcraftsman, the apprentice learns that he must study and comprehend all of the seven liberal arts before he can arrive in the Middle Chamber of the Temple. That is, he must master grammar, logic, rhetoric (the way language and thought works), arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
Seven is a Magic Number
Today’s scientist might think the seven liberal arts of the medieval universities are old-fashioned and out of date, given the hundreds of disciplines and sub-disciplines articulated in universities now. Freemasons today make the same mistake, naturally following the dominant manner of thinking about knowledge. Astronomy is for astronomers; music for musicians. Scientific thinking has so dominated our culture that everything is given a compartment, a label, and some expert to do it.
The staircase upon which the Masonic apprentice climbs through the liberal arts is not a journey through compartments or professions or even “disciplines” in the modern sense of the term. It is a progressive science of understanding more and more about the way the cosmos works. Only then, when the order of the cosmos (Creation) is understood can one enter the Middle Chamber and encounter the Letter G there with comprehension. If one does not actually learn the liberal arts, one enters that chamber and is likely to think that the letter stands for something “supernatural.” That is one of the many traps of Masonic initiation. At every turn in the degrees of Masonry, the Apprentice, and then even the Fellow is set up to fall through a trap-door if he should interpret the signs incorrectly.
Freemasonry is like the old game Shoots and Ladders. You are invited to climb but if you make a false step you shoot back to the beginning and start over. Freemasons will fall down those shoots every time they encounter a Masonic symbol and fail to recognize it as a symbol. In other words, any time one encounters a symbol and takes it literally instead of figuratively, whoosh! — back to the beginning. The liberal arts are seven steps, but you won’t get past grammar if you take them literally. Learning each art requires that it be understood symbolically. For example, Grammar, is the knowledge of the structure of language. Does that mean knowing how to spell and how to make a sentence correctly, with proper punctuation? Or how to write a five-paragraph essay? Or how to avoid dangling your modifiers? If you said “yes,” then Whoosh!
Grammar is the beginning of the study of signs. It is the art of manipulating signs to communicate information. What are signs? Anything at all can be a sign. A horizontal line may signify the horizon of one’s vision as one looks across the surface of the globe. A perpendicular line may signify uprightness, a man standing straight and true, strong and reliable. Just a line! A letter, character, word – these are also signs and those alphabetical signs along with the signs of grammar (the ordering of words and the forms they take in order to convey nuances of meaning) are the very special sign system of human beings. If you have not mastered this system of signs in the first place, you can hardly be expected to master the more complex system of signs that comprises Masonry. For Masonry is a symbolic language. Its symbols stand for big ideas, abstract ideas, spiritual ideas.
Logic? Rhetoric? If you have grasped that language is a system of signs used to convey information, then it is easier to understand that our human utterances must follow certain rules of thought in order to make sense and convey true statements. Logic is the study of those rules and the mistakes that can be made if premises and conclusions are faulty. You may get all the words and punctuation right; people may even believe you have stated truth; and yet, if logic is flawed at some level, the proposition fails the test. Many religious utterances have this problem: that they are based on undemonstrated premises or unverified authorities rather than first principles. St. Thomas Aquinas recognized this problem in the Middle Ages and addressed it in his Summa Theologica. That work may be credited to a large degree with starting the scientific “revolution” in thinking, and the medieval universities themselves.
Rhetoric then – what is that? It is the use of signs to persuade. That is, we learn how utterances may play upon human emotions rather than (or in addition to) Logic, thereby convincing an audience of fallacies in the guise of fact. Why would a seeker after truth want to study such a subject? Because until you know how language can be used to convey falsehoods, you cannot proceed to the next step. Moreover, Rhetoric can be used to convey truths far more powerfully than Logic alone. Rhetoric appeals to our emotions, our feelings, our intuitive imagination. So, to learn Rhetoric is to learn a very important aspect of how humans work. Humans, as every Trekkie knows, are not Vulcans – they cannot think without imagination and feelings. Indeed, such abstract ideas as Justice, Righteousness, and Love cannot be arrived at with Logic alone.
And this is perhaps the most important lesson of this third of the liberal arts: that we cannot isolate logic and free it of feelings, nor should we try to do so. For our understanding of the world and thus the Divine, demands that we use all of our faculties. Emotions and feelings are not like an appendix that can be removed as a vestige of some earlier state of evolution (appendixes are proving to be not entirely useless too).
To continue up this staircase, here would make a blog entry into a book. I have given these three examples (the Trivium, as they are called) to try to demonstrate how each art helps us to understand the language of signs in which we make our knowledge, preserve it, and change it. The system of Freemasonry is a practice that includes but is not limited to the seven liberal arts. That gives you a pretty good idea of how big it is and why the dimensions of the Lodge are described as they are in the first degree lecture.
Having completely learned that one is working in a cosmos of signs, the Mason steps further into Arithmetic, a new and different language that used numbers and quantities instead of alphabetical letters. Arithmetic teaches the “grammar” of the new language of quantities. Geometry teaches its logic. Music teaches its Rhetoric.
How do quantities move us emotionally and convey feelings? In music. And music is itself more than simply the use of quantities of sounds as a language. It is where the quanta of numbers become something else again. They become a new language again that is both quantitative and qualitative. Music is mathematics that can be combined with the spoken word to convey things far beyond what either language could convey alone. Moreover, in music we create harmony or dissonance. Harmony is a very important idea in the Craft of Speculative Masonry.
Eternal in the Heavens
If I leave off here and let you figure out how Astronomy figures into this system, will you scream at me?
All right then. Astronomy is the study of the stars, but not as today’s science defines them. The liberal art of astronomy refers to the study of all things Celestial. It is therefore, not the study of things in space (that is Geometry), it is the study of the Divine. The Emerald Tablet of the Hermeticists (so beloved of all “occultists”) may be the ultimate in secret mysteries. It actually holds a vast set of ideas in its thirteen lines of text, but its most famous part is the simple statement “That which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like that which is above within the Whole.” (*If you do not like my translation, then Whoosh!) It literally says, within the One, or the One Thing. If we take it that this really means Whole when translated into English, then the idea is that what exists in the Terrestrial realm is like that which exists in the Celestial realm and that both of these poles are not opposites but two halves of a whole.
When a Freemason approaches such an idea — approaches Astronomy, that is – he is given several symbols to work with in order to understand the truth. One is the Terrestrial and Celestial globes that he passed when he first approached the Fellowcraft’s staircase. Here they sit atop two columns, separate things. Yet, the columns are given names that fit together to form a single utterance: established in strength. Like all utterances or texts the words need to be understood in context and as signs.
As it happens, these two words are particularly tricky to get into English. We are given the words in Hebrew, but even that is tricky. There are undoubtedly many interpretations that can be made from these two signs, but one is that “to establish” is very like “to be” or “to create” and is a verb. That is, it signifies a certain action. The word “strength” or the phrase “in strength” as it is often given, signifies so many ideas in English that it is like opening a can of sardines. Or opening a dictionary. We use the word “strength” to describe not only physical endurance or power, but also moral force and good qualities (as in “he had both strengths and weaknesses).
Curiously, if you do open a dictionary and look up “strength” you will find that it is related to an old Germanic word “streng” which is the same root from which we get “string.” If there is some logic to this etymology, it may be that “streng” or “string” referred to setting things in a row. Think then of the strings of a harp or a violin, and we are back to cosmic music and harmony. (I am not even going to mention string theory…)
But I am reading the etymology with my imagination now. Reading it as symbolic. One should probably perform this operation with the original Hebrew words. I suspect, however, that one would find nuances just as interesting because when you dig deeply enough into word roots you almost always find symbolism.
I began this essay with the Occult – the idea of hidden knowledge. I said that hidden knowledge or “mysteries” are simply knowledge that one has not yet acquired. It is not supposed to be hidden, but it is because our brains are not endowed with the pleroma of universal knowledge at birth. We have to do it the old-fashioned way: we have to earn it. Freemasonry is just as occult as any other science. In fact, since in comprises within itself all sciences, it is as occult as all sciences put together. But that doesn’t make it “Devil Worship” or some such thing. Once the actual nature of Masonry as a Craft of learning to read symbols and then applying a particular set of symbols to the understanding of the Divine Order, the claim that it is some sort of “devil worship” sounds ridiculous and childish.
To say that Freemasonry is a religion or a cult is also wrong. When it is practiced in its true order, as given in our three degrees, the symbolic language of Masonry goes beyond “religion” to actual spiritual seeking. One does not “bind oneself” (remember the root meaning of “religion”?), to a limited set of utterances and beliefs handed down by traditional authorities. No. One sets forth on a journey to seek Light, to seek understanding, to See Truth.
The Masonic idea of Truth is not the religious idea – one fixed by authority and the past. It is the philosopher’s idea of Truth – a thing unfolding, spreading like Light itself, and our Understanding ever growing within it. Such Truth is not expressed in ten commandments or a list of a thousand rules and doctrines. It is infinite. It is Divine. It is the One Thing, the Whole, in which Freemasons are taught to see themselves as a single stone, a particle.
And yet, the Mason is also taught by the point within a circle, that this particle is not only a “part” of the whole. It is the very origin of the whole. For the point is where the one foot of the compass stands so that it may draw the circle. Point and circle are joined in a higher dimension of reality. That relationship is one of the symbolic meanings of the compasses in Masonry. Every Master Mason will appreciate that if this is the revelation given by the compasses upon the altar, then those other two great lights of Masonry that rest beneath the compasses are emblematic of two steps toward that highest Truth.
The two points of the compasses reveal that we must start with the wisdom of our ancestors first. Having understood that wisdom for what it is, we then cultivate the morality of dealing on the square with all men, including ourselves. That is, we cultivate a habit of constant truth, we test ourselves and all ancestral authorities to see if we or they are “right.” Only after this has been done do we find the lesson of the two points of the compasses, the higher meaning of the centerpoint and the circle’s circumference. Which is also the revelation in the Middle Chamber. We are the stone. We are the Architect. We die. We live on.
A wink is as good as a nod to a blind man.
— Hiram Owl McHobenny