Freemasonry - its historic role

Symbolic representation of the 33 degrees of freemasonry.
Symbolic representation of the 33 degrees of freemasonry.

A brief history of the development of freemasonry, its relationship to politics, its mythology and its practice.

Submitted by Red Marriott on May 7, 2007

Freemasonry has long had a relationship to the politics of both left and right. Bourgeois revolutionaries in France and America and modern mainstream politicians have all been members, as were some founding members of the 1st International.

From; "The Wordworth Dictionary of the Occult"; Andre Nataf, Wordworth, 1991.

Freemasonry - Its historic role

There are three aspects to freemasonry - the initiatory, the historical and the psychosociological.
Although an impressive number of books have been devoted to it - at least 60,000 to date - freemasonry remains largely misunderstood, especially in Latin countries. Modern freemasonry (we have no knowledge of earlier forms) came into being on 24 June 1717, the Feast of St John, when the Grand Lodge of London was created. Having united four lodges of operative masons, the Grand Lodge codified four ancient charters and produced the texts known as The Anderson Constitutions, which remain to this day the central tenets of freemasonry.

The centre of union
One of the founding texts of modern freemasonry, The Anderson Constitutions, published in 1723, says:
"A mason is obliged, by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law; and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient Times Masons where charged in every Country to be of the religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet 'tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is to be good Men and True, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguished, whereby Masonry becomes the centre of union, and the means of conciliating true Friendship among persons that must have remained at a perpetual Distance.

A history shrouded in mystery
How far do we have to go back to find the real origins of freemasonry? Anderson, the editor of the Constitutions, tells us in both symbolic and historical terms. He tells us that the institution goes right back to Adam and at the same time he tells us that the first charters were granted to masons by the Anglo-Saxon king, Athelstan (895--940). In this way he alludes to a historical chronology, which we can see for ourselves, and also to an extra-historical chronology (in which Adam symbolizes the mists of time). We shall see that this double reference constitutes the essential originality of the masonic movement. Freemasonry develops in an ambivalent manner; more precisely, there is a continual coming and going between visible, or concrete, reality and invisible, or mythological, reality.

Practically everyone agrees that modern speculative freemasonry derives directly from historical operative freemasonry. But when we try to discover the origins of the latter, we are faced with legends, that is to say a strange, sometimes crazy, symbolism, mixed up with historical memories. Moreau wrote in 1837 that God was the first freemason, and that the society of freemasons existed before the creation of the earth. However, the main story is that of Hiram, the architect whom King Solomon brought from Tyre to build the Temple of Jerusalem and of whom we read in the Old Testament, in the first book of Kings and in Chronicles. This story - or myth - is so important that modern freemasonry has seized upon it as its central mystery, and the ceremony to confer the degree of master is a re-enactment of it. Hiram, to whom Solomon had entrusted the supervision of the work on this temple, according to the biblical legend, had under his command such a great number of workmen that he could not recognize them all. To distinguish between them, a system of different words, signs and touches was devised. Modern masonry still embodies a hierarchy along these lines, each degree having its own signs. The legend goes on to tell how three journeymen all wanted to be put in command. When Hiram refused, they killed him. In the ceremony of elevation, the man who is being made into a master mason identifies himself in succession with the three journeymen who symbolize his inner darkness and with Hiram who is his light. He dies to the world, killed by his alienation, in order to be reborn in freedom.

The choice of a symbol is never arbitrary. Why did the freemasons choose the legend of Hiram instead of the legend of Osiris? Rene Guenon responds by pointing out that Hiram is a builder and that the temple in Jerusalem symbolizes the will of the Jewish people to take up residence there. This is clearly a builder's initiation. The journeymen referred to it in a concrete, or operative, manner and the freemasons in an intellectual, or speculative, manner. A curious detail is that the transformation from operative to speculative freemasonry corresponds to the period of the centralization of the initiating lodges. The Grand Lodge of London united a number of scattered lodges which had up until then been self-governing, thus enabling the initiating phenomenon to be adapted to the modern age.

The early history of freemasonry is difficult to separate from the history of the trade groups, Roman collegia, brotherhoods and corporations. It was in the 13th century that the trades began to organize themselves, and the earliest texts which mention freemasons are from England. There is one mention of freemasons in 1376, and in 1396 the Archbishop of Canterbury made a distinction between freemasons and vassal-masons. We should remember that in the Middle Ages the word 'free' could he applied to any person who was not bound to a feudal overlord.

Freemasonry was, however, never exclusively operative. Religious and initiatory preoccupations were always side by side with the concrete, professional occupations - the transmission of the practical skill and defence of members' interests, as in modern trade unionism. To these, we could add helping members in distress, charity and the duty of looking after thc good behaviour of initiates. The dual nature of the movement became accentuated by the admission of 'accepted' members, that is to say those who did not belong to the trade, and lodges sometimes became a meeting ground tor tradespeople and men of culture. Two things - the disappearance of the work sites where the great cathedrals were built, and the Renaissance - were to bring about the decline of the brotherhoods, thereby leaving vacant a structure, of which people of a more speculative turn of mind could take advantage.

Britain, France and Europe

As soon as modern freemasonry was created, it found itself torn betwccn various tendencies, which gave rise to schisms, reunifications and conflicts. The first quarrel between the ancients and the moderns arose in 1753. The ancients recalled the guiding principle 'of the free mason in the free lodge', which seemed to be running counter to the current trend of centralization, but principally they accused the moderns of secularizing the ritual. This is a quarrel Which persists to this day, in another form, between various rites, within rites and sometimes even within lodges, but which will not be pursued in detail here. To complete the early part of the historv of freemasonry, it is sufficient to note that the quarrel between the ancients and moderns, at least in England, was settled by the fusion of' the two groups under the name of the United Grand Lodge of the Ancient Freemasons of England. However, the Grand Lodge of England, with members of the Royal Family among its dignitaries, claims even today to be the only one to hold 'masonic regularity' and to have the right to attribute 'patents' to different lodges in various parts of the world.

Modern masonry was introduced to France, from Scotland. in 1649, in an earlier form than that which resulted from the fusion under the Grand Lodge of London. This freemasonry crossed the Channel when Henrietta Maria, widow of Charles I, took refuge in the Palace of Saint-Germain. In 1721, a specifically English form of freemasonry entered France and the first lodge appears to have been set up in Dunkirk. We can be certain that various lodges were set up in 1729, among them 'St Thomas with the Silver Louis', which used in the house of the famous Parisian caterer, Landelle, in the rue dc Buci; it received its patent from London or perhaps from the Parfaite Union ('Perfect Union') of Valenciennes. By 1753, there were 200 lodges in Frauce, of which 22 were in Paris.

In 1735, the 'English' lodges wanted to remain under the control of London, while organizing themselves into a group within France. London refused, principally because they were on good terms with the Scottish lodges. Faced with this refusal, French freemasonry took the bull by the horns and set up a specifically French rite, the provincial Grand Lodge, with the Duke of Antin as its Grand Master. In 1772 a certain number of the brothers, a minority, grouped themselves into a rival organization, the Grande Loge de France.

The rapid development of freemasonry could not help but draw attention to itself: secret societies always have a bad reputation, especially if they have connections with foreign countries. However, at long last, the masonic movement became accepted. At the time immediately prior to the Revolution, freemasonry occupied a very prominent position in France, with its membership numbering such important people as La Fayette, Brissot, Condorcet, Talleyrand and Voltaire. The same was true in America, where Washington, Franklin and all the 'Fathers of Independence' were members, and later, in Europe, where Mozart, Goethe, Lessing and Nerval were all masons.

The masonic system
"Various degrees of freemasonry can be distinguished:
Blue (the first three degrees: Apprentice, Journeyman and Master);
Red and Black (degrees 19 to 30, according to the Accepted and Ancient Scottish Rite);
White (grades 31, 32 and 33), Masonry of the Templars, of the Rosicrucians, Hermetic Masonry and Egyptian Masonry."
P. Riffard, Dictionnaire de l'esoterisme (Dictionary of Esoterism), 1983

Freemasonry and revolution

A number of writers, including the notorious Abbe Barruel (see his Memoirs to Help in Understanding the History of Jacobinism, London 1797), believe that the movement of freemasonry actually started the French Revolution. This theory was especially popular with the enemies of the Republic, who never understood that the French Revolution, far from being the result of a plot, was really a groundswell of public opinion. On the other hand, there is no doubt that freemasonry, along with the Encyclopidistes, paved the way for the event by creating 'clubs' whose very existence ran counter to the customs of the Ancien Regime. Certainly, the activities of the lodges foreshadowed the spirit of democracy. In the closing days of the Ancien Regime, freemasonry was one of the few spheres where free speech was enjoyed and shared by all, irrespective of rank. It is not for nothing that the motto of the 1848 Republic - Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite - is still the cry of most of the brothers at the end of' their meetings. Joseph de Maistre wrote that 'freemasonry, in the several centuries of its existence, certainly had nothing in common with the Terror, but its general aim coincided with the principle of democracy!' This is particularly evident in a country like France where, as Karl Marx noted, political struggles are seen in their purest, clearest form.

Freemasonry cannot, however, be wholly reduced to political terms, for it never loses its concern for an invisible, mythological reality. The initiation ceremony of the freemasons seeks to bring together the feelings of freedom and spirituality in postulants. Is this utopianism? Is the 'lost speech' sought by the masuns, the wording that will open the hidden door of the temple, a figment of poetic imagination? It is difficult to get to the heart of this question to discover the initiating, psychological and social secret, but we can at least show how the different rites define themselves with reference to it.

Let us turn once again to history. As soon as the Terror in France was over, some brothers attempted to revive freemasonry. On 22 June 1799, at the end of lengthy discussions, the order was reconstituted 'one and indivisible' with the title of 'Grand Orient and Grand Lodge', so the new lodges were a fusion of the old Grand Orient and Grand Lodge. Meanwhile, 'Scottish' lodges were setting up the 'Scottish General Grand Lodge of the Accepted and Ancient Rite'. In 1806 Cambaceres, arch-chancellor of the Empire, was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge and deputy Grand Master of the Grand Orient at the same time. The Emperor's brother, Joseph Bonaparte, was then Master of the latter. Freemasonry was under the thumb of the government, just as it was later in the second Empire, when Napoleon ill decreed that grand masters had to be appointed by himself.

In 1877, the convention of the Grand Orient (i.e. its ruling body) decided to end the obligation on lodges to work for the glory of the 'Great Architect of the Universe'. This was of the greatest importance: the main rite was cutting itself free of all spiritual (or traditionalist) obligation and it adopted a more democratic constitution. Most freemasons of the period showed a frankly republican tendency and the Grand Orient was to play a decisive role in the laicization of the state. This involved a certain amount of upheaval: a number of lodges broke away to set up the Scottish Symbolic Grand Lodge, which merged later with the Grand Lodge. Similarly, in 1913 the French National Grand Lodge was founded and recognized by the British. In 1940, freemasonry was banned by Marshal Petain, but was allowed to reform after the Liberation.

According to current understanding, the freemason is the builder responsible for the 'great work', subject to neither feudal, corporatist, nor Church control. Continuing the analogy, the term 'freemason' differs from 'roughmason', just as 'skilled craftsman' differs from 'labourer'.

The movement in France
Note the existence of three main strands of freemasonry in France on the one hand, and 'The Rights of Man' and a scattering of unorganized lodges on the other. The first is the French National Grand Lodge, with a minority of members, but recognized by London and claiming to be the only one to maintain 'masonic regularity'. Reference to the Great Architect is evidently compulsory, and in certain temples, postulants must even provide a certificate of baptism. It is perhaps not overtly religious, but after the collection, there is a symbolic allusion to God. This lodge claims 'not to go in for politics' but most of its members are rightwing.

The second is the Grande Loge de France, occupying a position between the former and the Grand Orient, both in terms of numbers and also in terms of philosophy. Reference to the Great Architect is compulsory, but the movement claims not to be dogmatic. The Grand Lodge insists on tolerance and any display of political or religious opinion is forbidden. However, in practice, its members are politically in the centre.

The third is the Grand Orient of France, the most important in France in terms of both numbers and influence. It is placed firmly on the left of the political spectrum. 'I'hc Grand Orient uses laicization as one of the main ways it roots itself in the profane world. It is anti-racist and aware of all contemporary problems such as underdevelopment, but it lays equal stress on the 'humanizing' influence of the masonic movement.

This division into three main rites tells us a lot about the movement, its limits and its meaning. Is initiation concerned with the human dimension, or more with the spiritual? Every rite has its own answer to this question. Masonry as a body strives, within the modern world, to achieve the fine balance between meditation (or symbolism) and action (or politics). The lodges are of course centres for reflection, where members take stock of themselves, and any action outside the temple depends entirely on the individual. But it would be to miss the point of freemasonry completely if we neglected the psychocultural influence exercised by the movement on society. Alongside the Church, freemasonry provides the impetus for feelings we ignore at our own peril.

From the Zohar
"In every world there shines a triad, commanded by a monad, for it is within this triad that all things have been sown ... It is the spring of springs, and the womb which contains all things."

The three points

The meaning of the mysterious sign of the freemasons is purely numerological, and may come from Pythagoras. The three points, arranged to form an equilateral triangle, are a sign of masonic recognition. The age of the apprentice is three (the journeymen is five and the master seven) . From a cosmogonic point of view, 3 is the sign of accomplishment (while 1 represents unity and 2 the division of being). echoes of this type of speculation are found in Hegel.

The masonic temple
The masonic temple is not a simple hut, as in some Red Indian initiatory societies, nor a place of worship, as in revealed religion. It is a temple rebuilt each time by those taking part. In other words, for the masonic temple to be built (i.e. for the universe to be revealed to the initiate) it must be created by a common effort. Brotherhood is spirituality: God, if he exists, can only exist between beings. Spiruality and freedom are two aspects of the same reality, which have wrongly become separated through social alienation. It is therefore understandable that the new initiate should be required, symbolically, to question the existential concepts which hinder him from acquiring the status of 'seeker', i.e. an individual in quest of a reality which appears paradoxical to the profane. The seeker is thus expected to set himself free from his 'metals' or inner misunderstanding.

Personal experience of the secret
Why does freemasonry work in secret? In what way is it a secret society? What is the secret, anyway? What do these mysteries mean? It is absurd to claim, as some have, that the secrecy stems from unspeakable practices. Modern religious extremists continue to make this claim, although it is patently untrue. After all, we only have to read the many books about freemasonry, in order to find out all we want to know. Everything is known, except quite naturally - the personal experience of each mason. The masonic secret, let us be quite plain, has no independent existence; it is reconstituted anew in each masonic meeting. If we accept that the masonic quest is metaphysical (and it might be more accurate to state, as we did previously, that it has a mythological side), this explains why there is so much talk of symbolism and alchemy in the lodges. It is through these mythological references that a scarcely acknowledged psychical and cultural dimension emerges. This is a dimension which influences morality indirectly, but quite tangibly.

Freemasonry is a most unusual institution. It claims to have turned aside from politics and religion, but to say there 'must be no politics' in the lodge entirely misses the point of freemasonry. Masons reject neither politics nor religion. How could they without crippling those within the movement? The motto in the lodge is not 'We have no politics here' but 'We have something more urgent than politics to do'. The lodge is supposed to be the place where the initiate is aware of himself and his relations with others. It is the place where, with all dogma or teaching set aside, the individual is supposed to experience his inner freedom and to see that this freedom ultimately expresses itself in solidarity. This apprenticeship does not lead on to a reality, but to a virtuality, for initiation is concerned with potentiality, not dogma. This explains the banning of freemasonry in communist and fascist countries. However, it is worth noting that a number of Latin American countries have recently tried to revive freemasonry. Perhaps that means it has been robbed of its substance?

Women's lodges
Along with the Grand Orient, the Grand Lodge and the French National Grand Lodge, the minority group, 'Rights of Man', and the adopted lodges (the French Women's Grand Lodge) must be mentioned. These last are respectively the first mixed rite and women's lodges. This is not of merely anecdotal interest, but raises an important problem currently facing freemasonry and the phenomenon of initiation in general - the admission of women. Lodges of the Grand Orient accept Sisters as visitors, and sometimes even initiate them, but there is no general agreement on this point. In fact, the Grand Lodge and the French National Grand Lodge refuse absolutely to do so. The recognition of' women remains therefore something foreign to masonic custom. The problem is not as trivial as it might seem, as it is symptomatic of the ability (or inability) to be alive to the age. Initiation, like art, needs to acknowledge tradition and to approach the invisible, without becoming entrenched in modernity.