This paper was presented by W Bro. B. Newton (Red Deer #12) at a public forum marking the conclusion of a month long exhibit – featuring Freemasonry in Red Deer – at the Red Deer Public Library in April 2008
Secrecy in Masonry
I am going to tell you something tonight about the secrets of Freemasonry and you will live to tell the tale. Now the ideas I’m going to present have been cobbled together from the writings of other Masons, skewed with my own ideas and observations. I am not representing Freemasonry or my lodge; I am representing myself. And believe it or not, this will be one of the points of my presentation, because each Mason in this room, if you were to get him to reveal the secrets of Freemasonry as he sees them, would give you a different answer.
I have, on occasion, been approached by people who confront me with the accusation that masonry is a secret society.
“How do you know I’m a mason,” I’ll ask.
“Well, you’re wearing a Masonic ring.”
“And how do you know it’s a Masonic ring?”
“It has the square and compasses on it.”
“And do you know where our lodge building is?”
“Sure. Just across from the dry cleaners. It has the sign on the outside.”
“Gee, we’re not very good at keeping secrets, are we?”
My point is that we are not secret, we are private. Our organization is known. Our lodge buildings stand in all cities. Upstairs you will see a display of our regalia and our history – even an open ritual book.
Our members are proud to be known as masons. We will answer any question respectfully put about who we are and what we do. But as with any business or with any person, there will be a point where the issues go beyond what is appropriate – it isn’t knowledge but nosiness.
Think about your business or your family. As I ask deeper and deeper questions, at some point you’ll say to me, “well, that’s really none of your business.” And you’d be correct. There are secrets within your family, your business, your organization. We are, like many others, a private society that has secrets.
But to some, the privacy of others is a threat. To what, I’ve never been sure.
So why are we considered a secret society – one who’s very meaning and purpose is hidden – who guards itself against outside scrutiny – whose passwords and rituals are a doorway to mysteries and truths of the universe?
Because in the beginning, we were.
Mediaeval society was dominated by king and nobles, the Catholic Church, and the guilds. The guilds united a trade in a single organisation, hierarchically ordered and governed by ritual, “mysteries” (the skills and secrets of their particular business), and a royal monopoly to stop others practising their craft. They regulated trade, restricted entry to their guild, and ensured that the passage from the bottom of the ladder (“apprentice”) to the top (“master”) was a long and difficult process.
It was how you protected your trade; it was how you ensured you would have work and be able to feed your family in very uncertain times. It allowed to you travel and work in foreign lands.
One of the oldest and most renowned of these guilds was the stonemasons (or, as they became known from about 1490, the Freemasons). They built the bridges and castles and palaces of the nobility, and their supreme achievement was the great medieval gothic cathedrals. They were the custodians of the art of mathematics, particularly geometry, necessary to build those marvelous structures.
We could consider these masons as the leading experts in the technology of those times and their secrets could be considered equivalent to patents or copyrights.
The early guilds of masons possessed an advanced knowledge of mathematics, especially geometry, which came from Arab sources – the Arabs being much in advance of Europe in these disciplines during the Middle Ages – but being Arab it was therefore suspect in the eyes of the Church. The Church, however, needed the masons to build their great cathedrals. The masons protected their knowledge by rituals of secrecy and binding obligations, thus preventing the spread of that knowledge, which would have incurred the wrath of the Church and the loss of their prestige and protection. The Masons also required adherence to an ethical code to ensure the workers could be trusted with the good name of the craft.
So our initial purpose in maintaining secrecy was the protection of our livelihood and to ensure that the technology necessary to construct the great buildings was learned and utilized correctly. Our original lodge buildings were usually wooden structures built next to the work site.
At some point in the 16th century, the Scottish masons’ guild (likely more organised and established than the English guild at that time), began accepting as members gentlemen who did not practice the arts of stone-cutting and architecture, but who wished to gain access to the “mysteries of the craft” – the mathematical and scientific knowledge that was the special preserve of the masons. These gentlemen masons were known as “speculative” or “accepted” masons, in distinction to the working “operative” masons.
Many distinguished Scotsmen (even, according to some authorities, the King of Scots himself, James VI who later became James I of England) were speculative masons. What the speculative masons sought in the Freemasons’ Guild was a strict ethical code, a pattern for living and self-improvement, and, above all, a knowledge of the hidden mysteries of nature and science.
With the inclusion of speculative masons, the need for secrecy should have diminished, but in a world where religion would not countenance any discussion of unsanctioned issues, a guild or group where men could ask questions, form ideas and contemplate the workings of the world without the fetterings of dogma was highly valued by some, and deemed dangerous by others.
That is also why to this day we forbid discussion of politics and religion in our lodge rooms, as these subjects divide men rather than unite them in the pursuit of knowledge.
With this shift in Freemasonry from the protection of knowledge to the pursuit of greater knowledge, it should come as no surprise that early speculative members of the Craft included people such as Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect, Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist, the philosopher and theorist of liberalism, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Boyle who, with Robert Hooke, explored the properties of a vacuum, and John Desaguliers, the first man to demonstrate the existence of the atom.
In the pre-scientific age, ruled as it was by absolutist kings and dogmatic religion, gentlemen with a curiosity about nature and science could find protection as accepted or speculative members of the masons’ guild. There they could discuss ideas freely, and overcome the barriers and prejudices that made such talk dangerous outside the walls of the lodge.
Through the 17th century, the monopolies and privileges of the guilds were slowly eroded by the State. The building of castles and cathedrals diminished. From mid-century on, speculative members gradually replaced the operatives, so that by the end of the century the lodges were dominated by the speculatives. The craft guild had evolved into a society which retained something of the old while incorporating the interests and values of the higher classes who rapidly came to dominate.
This new culture, with Freemasonry as its vanguard, is known today as the Enlightenment, a key passage in European development. It argued that people’s habits of thinking were based on irrationality, polluted by religious dogma, and over-conformed to historical precedent and irrelevant tradition. The way to escape was to seek true knowledge in every sphere of life, to study the liberal arts and sciences, to establish the truth and build upon it. Its premises were pro-science, and anti-superstition, and that the State and not the church was the proper vehicle for the improvement of the human condition.
The essence of Enlightenment philosophy was reason. Logic had been borrowed from the Greeks as early as the time of Thomas Aquinas, but Descartes and other 17th century philosophers understood that logic alone could be used to defend all manner of absurd notions, and insisted on combining it with this new principle, which embodied common sense and observation, as well as incorporating their own inclinations towards scepticism and freedom.
Freemasonry encouraged its members to explore the hidden mysteries of nature and science, and to follow the paths of virtue and science.
So, is all this relevant now, because, quite frankly, I haven’t built a great cathedral in weeks? And the only group hunting me down for the purpose of persecution is Revenue Canada, and the Masons offer little protection from that.
Perhaps Masonry’s task has been done: as a child of the Enlightenment, its once-secret values have become universalised, so much so that we tend to take them for granted in the modern world. In the civil sphere, they included religious tolerance, democracy, secularism, constitutionalism and parliamentary process. In the scientific sphere, at a time when superstition and magic governed reason, and the Church claimed a monopoly on “true” knowledge, they called for the use of logic and experimentation to establish the facts of nature.
Even our Masonic terms have entered common usage: to be “on the level”, to be square with someone – even to give someone the third degree.
And as far as our secrets, you have only to access the internet for a few minutes to discover all the secrets of Masonry and Masonic rituals. There you can find all of our secret handshakes, the passwords, the entire scripts for our lodge work.
In fact, I find the anti-masonic sites to be the best places to go to for research because, whereas we will not publish details of our lodge work, these sites are only too glad to provide every syllable and comma. Once you get past the hostile rhetoric, they’re very useful. I sometimes wonder if they realize what a tremendous service they’re offering to Masons.
Here is the question though: given that the original purposes of secrecy – self-protection and self-enlightenment – the protection of technology and the freedom of intellectual pursuit – given that these are no longer relevant, and that our ritual “secrets” are published all over the internet, libraries and bookstores, why do we continue to keep them secret?
The first reason is that we promised to do so. This seems simple, but in a world where every person who wants to know the “secrets” can find them at the click of a mouse, we still keep the modes of recognition secret because we have always kept them secret.
In a word, tradition.
The second reason is that we share a bond with our brother masons, to keep a brother’s secrets as our own, murder and treason excepted. If a brother cannot keep his word in so simple a manner as keeping the “secrets”, how can the brother be trusted with trusts that are more important? If a brother cannot be trusted to keep his word in all times and in all things, how can he be trusted to be there for a brother in a time of need?
A third reason for keeping the secrets is what has been termed temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice. A mature man holds his tongue where there is nothing of value to be spoken or communicated. That is a definition of prudence.
A mature man tempers his speech, to reflect consideration, for himself, for others. Much of speech is space filler, filling the vacuum of silence and offering little of value to the mind or spirit. It takes fortitude and strength of character to consider carefully how your words will be received, to weigh the usefulness of communicating them against the value and impression they will leave with others.
Of course, this fortitude, prudence and temperance should be weighed with justice. Are the words being communicated just and upright before man and God. A Mason should strive to communicate only what is good, valuable, and just, lest he, by his intemperate, imprudent words injure himself, his friends, neighbours or Freemasonry.
Keeping the secrets is not just an exercise in not speaking that which is often well known, it is an exercise in learning to be temperate in our speech, prudent in our choices, and just in our actions, words and deeds. Keeping the secrets is an exercise in making us better men by making us more contemplative and aware of our actions before we speak.
A Greek philosopher, when asked what he regarded as the most valuable quality to win and the most difficult to keep, replied, “To be secret and silent.”
If secrecy was difficult then, it is supremely difficult now. We live in a world where privacy is almost unknown. And when secrecy becomes more and more rare, it becomes a priceless virtue. To paraphrase one mason: “If the ancients worshiped a god of silence, the world seems intent on erecting an altar to the god of gossip.”
People clammer that they have a “right to know”, ignoring the rights of others to their peace and solitude. And they ignore that rights involve responsibilities – responsibilities to others.
Secrecy is a priceless but rare virtue, but little effort is made to teach and practice it. It has been said that if Masonry did nothing more than train men to preserve sacredly the secrets others confided to them as such – except where a higher duty demanded disclosure – it would be doing a great duty.
In our work, we teach new members to trust their guides. And secrecy is interwoven with trust. Secrecy allows someone to feel more connected to their organization. It defines, to some degree, the group to which you belong.
We are not alarmed about the books or internet sites written to expose Masonry. The information is harmless, although the approach of disrespect and vitriol may not be. Because the real secret is . . . we don’t have any secret truth, unknown to the best wisdom of the ages. Concerns over the esoteric nature of Masonry miss the mark. The wisdom of masonry is hidden not because it is subtle, but because it is simple. Its secret is profound, not obscure – so rare in its utter simplicity that to many it might as well be buried in the depths of the earth.
The real secrets cannot be learned by prying eyes or the idle curious. We protect the privacy of the lodge, but the secrets of Masonry can only ever really be known to those open and contemplative enough to seek them.
It is the fashion of some to say that our ceremonies, signs and tokens are of little value. They form a tie uniting us to men of the Craft everywhere. They form a network of fellowship, friendship and fraternity around the world. But as it has been said, it is the spirit alone that gives life; the letter alone is empty.
I could recite for you now all of the passwords of our degrees and it would mean nothing. It would be as disappointing as discovering a conjurer’s trick. The words are in the dictionary or the Bible, and have been used by non-Masons for years. The words themselves have no meaning. They’re only sounds. The only meaning or power a word has is what we assign to it.
For that reason, we are annoyed but not alarmed about the various attempts to expose the secrets of masonry. Others will never know it, though they be adepts in all the signs and tokens of every rite and rank of the craft. The letter alone is empty.
The true secrets of Masonry cannot be uttered. They depend upon the individual and their journey. There are many within the craft itself who will never know them, even though there are, in fact, an open secret. Like all the things most worth knowing, no one can know it for another and no one can know it in isolation from another.
In fact, rather than hiding its secret, Masonry is all the time trying to give it to the world, through the quality of the character and labours of its members through their individual self-discovery and self-development. A summary of Masonic principles, as suggested by the Masons of California, covers it quite well, including:
- Act with honour and integrity in everything you do.
- Believe in a Supreme Being and keep faith in the centre of your life.
- Be tolerant and considerate of different religious, social and political views.
- Strive to leave the world a better place than when you entered it.
- Practice mutual help.
- Uphold and maintain the principles of good government; oppose divisive and degrading influences, and be a good citizen.
- Value self-improvement over financial success.
- Remain good at heart.
- Strive to live a brotherly life.
If masonry has evolved from the original need of secrecy for its survival, to its current illusion of secrecy now – an irony, since those particularly opposed to Masonry are often opposed to the concept of evolution as well — it is because we know that it is the very nature of man to seek what is hidden and to desire what is forbidden. Our members who look at Masonry this way will find that their Masonic life is a great adventure of perpetual discovery. The man who finds its degrees tedious and rituals a rigmarole only betrays the measure of his own mind.
And I would suggest that those who are most vehemently opposed to Freemasonry are not unlike those of old who would have the world defined by their standards and their rules – and by their single-minded opposition they reveal their own secret – the limited measure of their own minds. And, like Masonry itself, that is not really a secret at all.