By Peter Paul Fuchs, 32
“Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.”[i]
It is curious fact of Masonic history that despite the great fame of the concept of the Grand Architect of the Universe, this notion did not seem to have gained official status within the Craft till relatively late. There is significance in the fact that it was only with the Reunion of 1813 that this most Masonic of ideas seems to have acquired an explicit codification. Perhaps we can see in this fact an indication that initially it was the golden notion of Temple Architecture as a cultural phenomenon, more that Geometry or Architecture per se that spoke to Masons at this early period. Thus we can pursue a more focused reading of factors like Geometry or Architecture which might have been of interest to Nineteenth Century Masons from the perspective that would have been central for early Masons, the symbolic profusion allowed by the Solomon’s Temple theme. This in turn will allow us to make more clear the important contexts of Thesim, Deism and Atheism as they would have appeared for early around the time of the formation of the Grand Lodge.
Tracing this sense of things involves distinguishing the unique world that early Masons inhabited, strongly influenced by the singularity and commonsense persuasion of tavern culture, from the larger intellectual environment. We know that early Masons were much interested in all aspects of the Temple. This might lead us to think that Geometry per se would have been their focus in an overriding sense. But it is the simplicity of the Temple idea that gave their activities a meaningful and enjoyable theme. In this sense as a common symbolic argot we can see it as set against the coldness and austerity of Geometry itself. And this may be part of the reason why the notion of the Grand Architect had to wait for later approbation. We can see how different the almost homey and thus familiar use of Solomon’s Temple for early Masons gains meaning in contradistinction to the potentially de-personalizing characteristics of Geometry at this period.
The history of ideas is very useful in this matter because the concept of Geometry at this period had both a scientific and religio-cultural valence. Hobbes in his Leviathan had worked out a massively persuasive theory of geometry, which in the end led to some rather unpalatable conclusions about the nature of human life. For this reason Hobbes’ conclusion about geometry, though widely influential, were only explicitly embraced with some reluctance. For in the end, the Hobbesian view would have us assenting religion as a way to overcome fear and danger, hardly something the average solid- citizen would likely want to admit openly. So while the religious matrix of Hobbesian geometry might have been so influential as to persist in the background, surely we must search elsewhere for the Masonic meanings of Geometry, and thus for the various contexts of belief or unbelief we have mentioned. But, somewhat ironically, we must always keep this Hobbesian notion in mind, paradoxically, if we are to be clear about the reception of these Masonic ideas in intellectual history. Or to put it more precisely, the lack of reception. It is probably the assumed connection with Hobbesian Geometrical theorizing, with its very bleak conclusions about human existence, which has formed the ground for the skepticism about Masonry’s potential wisdom on these vexing theistic and non-theistic notions. As well a lot of confusion about the meaning of these issues for Masonry itself. The simple fact that these Hobbesian ideas were probably not very germane to the beliefs of many Masons should not obscure our sense that the public skepticism of Masonry significantly might have assumed them to have been. This can only have colored the self-perception of Masons as well by way of reaction.
In contrast to this cold and potentially brutal Hobbesian notion of Geometry, we have the clubby and warm common argot of the Temple and its Architecture. But this is an architecture not based so much on vast scientific or mathematical competence, which realistically few early masons would have had, but on less well known aspect of intellectual history. It was very common in the Eighteenth Century for religiously-minded scholars and clerics to attempt academic treatises, which tried to show the congruence of scientific, and specifically geometric ideas with the beliefs of Christianity. These works have not exactly been looked on as great productions of the age.[ii] The connections are often haphazard and fortuitous. To a certain extent this is attributable to the less than brilliant theological forays of the era’s most famous scientist, Newton. Indeed, some contemporaneous thinkers were “unpleasantly insightful about his methods as a theologian.” [iii] But that should not deter us from seeing in them a package of assumptions that may have influenced early Masons. For underlying the attraction to such reasoning by men of the period is a more basic sort of argument, which could not be more perfectly typified by Tillotson, a famous arguer for the reasonableness of Christianity of the period:
“But Tillotson had gone so far as to suggest that, as it was desirable that there should be a divine being primarily concerned with satisfying human needs, our wish for such divine comfort constituted good grounds [!] for believing in it. Tillotson’s words…appeared in his sermon On the Wisdom of Being Religious…specifically devoted to exposing the unreasonableness of atheism…Tillotson had been arguing that apart from divine providence, men had no security against the innumerable dangers to which human nature was exposed and continued: “So that if a man had arguments sufficient to persuade him that there is no God…yet the belief of a God is so necessary to the comfort and happiness of our lives, that a wise man could not but be heartily troubled to quit so pleasant an error, and to part with a delusion which is apt to yield such unspeakable satisfaction to the mind of man…he would appear to be so lovely a Being…Is it not everyman’s interest that there should be such a Governor of the world as really designs our happiness…”[iv]
Of course the strange thing about reasoning like Tillotson’s is that is assumes the Enlightenment picture of an orderly, coherent universe created by scientific rationalism, but at the same time tries to evade the demands of evidence created by the scientific demands. No matter, our interest in such thinking is not to anatomize its weaknesses, but to assess its social power. In this regard, we must give a pretty strong assessment in regards to its potential attraction for a Brotherhood of men who prized order and harmonious get-along in fraternity, if it may be put that way. Further, the fact that these intellectual attempts may today not be thought of as significant philosophies, and only of interest historically as quasi-museum pieces in a scholarly sense, does not mean that Freemasonry did not use them to make something much better both aesthetically and intellectually for itself.
We can speculate specifically on how this came about. We know that the really significant part of the Masonic interest in Geometry comes in a specifically religious form. That is in connection with the symbol of Solomon’s Temple, not as an interest in Geometry as a science, or as an attenuated one. In fact it is significant and telling fact that the early Masonic interest in Geometry also has a symbolic relevance in connection with the less often used symbol of the Camel. And the Camel is a symbol of travel.[v] The idea suggests both the idea of pilgrimage to and/or sacred perambulation of the Temple environs. Thus early Masonry was only really interested in Geometry then not in a static, or abstract matter, but one closely connected with malleability or diversity or changeability of position in relation to the notion of walking in the Temple precincts. This is what travel provides as a symbol. This sense of movement, of circling, or perambulation then can be quickly connected with notions of transformation, or in a Christian context metanoia or conversion, and even more simply with the idea of changing one’s mind, or having a diversity of views.
Even if this is the case, the question still remains how did early Masonry carve out its own meanings and rituals set against rather theoretical Enlightenment notions of religious justification using aspects or language of a scientific Enlightenment worldview? As with so much in the field of Masonry the royal road seems to be through the ritual-making genius of the Craft. An historical detail makes this strikingly clear. Some have speculated that the formative interest in the use of Solomon’s Temple ideas was perhaps initially stimulated by Schott’s famous model of the Temple.[vi] The relevant detail of this matter is that originally the model was the result of an opera production in Hamburg. To say the obvious, you could not get a more theatrical genesis for a phenomenon. So, to the extent then that early Masonic interest was stimulated by this model– and more than a few very serious sources claim that this was so[vii] — we have a specifically theatrical stimulus on our hands.
So we can return to the aforementioned odd corner of Enlightenment scholarship and theorizing, which seeks a facile combination of faith with science, and see it with different eyes. From the point of view of persuasive apologetics, or serious philosophy, those works may seem quite weak and perhaps risible by contemporary standards. This is so both in terms of later scientific discoveries and in terms of contemporaneous standards of the best scholarship. The connections may indeed be fortuitous and sudden. They may be a virtual example using a conceptual Deus Ex Machina, used to solve a problem that should have been resolved by careful scholarship. But if the real interest and context for Freemasonry is theatrical, in the sense of ritualistically theatrical – and Masonic ritual could conceivably be construed this way — then this particular Deus Ex Machina is pretty attractive. This theatrical sense helps us see how perfect Solomon’s Temple is the meanings needed by those who had a paradoxical interest in clubbing and having a deeper philosophical meaning. These theatrical digs of Solomon’s Temple offer the perfect stage setting on which to write a variety of meanings.
But we must be quick to notice further that this ritual theatricality had a deeper purpose in tying together a number of diverse Masonic valences. This means that in Freemasonry this theatricality has a very different meaning and purpose than it would in pure theater. Further, that these may be related to some particularities of the symbols adopted for the rituals. Bromwell in his historic and very comprehensive study of Masonic Geometry makes a point not often encountered in studies of Solomon’s Temple generally. Namely, all of the famous measurements of the Temple are actually supposed to be “inside” measurements. That is that they do not measure so much the building as the room. The accent is important. Here, Bromwell connects this specifically with the deeply Masonic notion of seeking deeper personal meaning, or perhaps specifically esoteric ones.[viii] He notes:
“This mode of measurement comports with the Masonic principle that internal and not the external qualities of a man are those by which he should be estimated, that is measured, for measure signifies judgment.” [ix]
Thus we can quickly see that this Solomon’s Temple architecture uses a Geometry which is at the same time a Geometry of the interior of Man. Indeed, this interior geometrical measurement is so critical in the Masonic context that Bromwell states flatly that, “no other mode of reckoning…will be of any use.” So we can say in this sense that Masonic ritual, in crystallizing perhaps awkward philosophical combinations into a potent symbol, has added to itself ritually this unique mode of interior measurement as another layer of symbolic clarification. And it does so by ritualizing the Solomon’s Temple myth in these unique ways. By this unique combination it has created a somewhat philosophical, but most symbolic space for freedom of belief. In addition it has exquisitely added the potential for a variety of non-normative notions of belief, be they esoteric or occult, or, as we will discuss later, aspects of limited belief, Deism, or more speculatively, aspects of disbelief, atheism or non-theism. All of this is bound up ritualistically in the reassuring and evocative form of a central -symbol of necessary, communal Judeo-Christian belief broadly conceived, and the internal mode of geometrical reckoning needed to grasp it.
This allows us to gain greater insight into the deeper meaning of other aspects of peculiar imagery involved. In this regard, Bromwell and other Masonic sources are distinguished by another very interesting and telling emphasis. That is, that they focus on the fact that the architecture of the Temple of Solomon had ramps as a remarkable feature.[x] After comparing this feature to other famous architectural monuments, from Egyptian to Mayan, Bromwell notes:
“But the Temple of Solomon probably displayed the greatest extent and succession of ramps ever seen connected with a single building, as it was constructed around and upon the summit of a hill in stages, with ramps ascending from one to another”[xi]
I think it is curious that it is mostly Masonic sources (as well as a few academic architectural studies) and not usual biblical-studies sources that place this emphasis on the ramps at King Solomon’s Temple. It seems highly appropriate for a number of symbolic uses in Freemasonry. The image of ramps betokens a vision of ascent and descent phenomenologically. That is, that it speaks of gradations or, by extension, degrees. Thus it speaks to the very foundational phenomenology of Freemasonry itself. I think it is in this regard that we should interpret Bromwell’s later words:
“This is the Masonic idea that the ramp and floor are all one…so that the steps of the ramp are not mere additions built against the foundation or base, but the foundation itself….”[xii]
This is different from the phenomenology of the Temple that is typically emphasized in orthodox Christian scriptural studies. In the traditional, orthodox perspective the fundamental distinguishing symbol is the locus of the Holy of Holies, which is evocative but somewhat exclusive in terms of meaning. It says that there is one mode of Holiness, and that it is in the most exclusive spot. Whereas Masonic uses of the Holy of Holies contains a different emphasis in light of the unique view of the Temple imagery.
By emphasizing the notion of ramps, and the unity of the ramp with the foundation, in the Temple of Solomon Freemasonry strikes a more conceptually variegated note. It says that all different stages are part of the foundation and the profound journey we must make to understand it. It also says that there may be various vantage points by which this Temple structure might be appreciated, from high to low, and that one is not necessarily better than the other. This is different from the orthodox notion that phenomenologically distinguishes people in terms of those who either are admittable to the Holy of Holies or not admittable to the Holy of Holies. In this sense the Holy of Holies in the Masonic sense is one of ritual continuity of membership between Brothers, not exclusivity.
This distinction should make us reflect on a seeming paradox at the heart of the very notion of Degrees in Freemasonry. For the Craft both naturally contains an existential leveling- notion, and an intrinsic sense that the distinction of virtue and accomplishment are important to the Masonic enterprise. But if the accent of Masonic symbology is not centered on the exclusivity of the Holy of Holies per se as a giver of meaning, then in what does it consist? Bromwell again is mightily helpful. After almost completing his entire study of Geometrical complexities of the Lodge and its Rituals, he has this to say:
“[E]verything of excellence in each Lodge or Degree is a perfection of the whole, but is attributed to the degrees in severalty, according to their order as possessed by each as proper to itself, in universal congruence and participation. Accordingly the Degrees are not to be conceived of as one thinks of these stories in a building, where, if he stands, or walks in one, he is absent from the other two, but as a concurrence of the rays of the threefold sunbeam … and cumulative in the effect of all.”[xiii]
Therefore in the Masonic context being in one part of the Temple is intrinsically like being in other parts of the Temple, from high to low, from within the sanctum, or to faithfully guarding the outer door. Being present in one spot ritually does not imply being absent from the other. This can help us understand how Freemasonry is, in a cultural sense, religious yet not hieratic. It is hierarchical, but still operates on the level. This sense is embodied in the ritual, the very notion of Masonic degrees. So if the effect of the degrees contains a radical unifying element, then in what real sense are they “degrees” per se, which imply progressive attainment? This is a question that is intrinsic to clarifying some fundamental religious notions of Freemasonry.
Well, the most obvious answer is first, of course, that the Sublime Degree of Mason is different in terms of the institutional access it grants to a Brother as a full member of the Lodge. While this is an important fact, its institutional and practical meaning may have tended to obscure in some minds the deeper philosophy of the unity of the Degrees, which says something almost the opposite. It says that all points on the continuum of membership in the Lodge, just as all points high or low in the Temple, are sacred. As everywhere in life, there are always those who are higher and closer to the center. But this is in a ritualized and institutional sense.
Freemasonry teaches deep respect for the accomplishments of a Brother, but yet everywhere admonishes to meet on the level. In other words, to respect another’s position on the ramp, yet see all positions as part of the Temple’s foundation. My point is that some of the fundamental Masonic tendencies of interpretation of the Temple of Solomon are indicative, in the extreme, of this abiding and inspiring paradox at the heart of the Masonic ethos.
We should sharply distinguish this culturally, further from simplistic notions of perfectibility that were contemporaneous with the foundation of the Grand Lodge in 1717. Sadly, because Freemasonry has degrees it has been ignorantly lumped in with this notion of perfectibility. The very heady notion of perfectibility, based on a thoroughgoing rationalization of culture in the Enlightenment, is only partially applicable to Freemasonry. This is for all the reasons just given above. Different degrees of understanding are not to be discounted –in fact they are to be reverenced – but such are not conceived as strictly a matter of personal merit alone. It is the perfection of the conception of the Temple symbolically, that created a counterbalance to the necessary emphasis on striving for virtue and personal service and accomplishment. In this regard it is curious to note, as Alex Horne does, that ancient Jewish Rabbinical sources had a novel way of mythically resolving the potentially problematic questions of unequal contribution for the enterprise – the building of the Temple – which were influential on Freemasonry:
“Thus it is said King Solomon’s Temple was entirely miraculous, from start to finish. The Temple having in fact built itself by its own power…’the stones broke themselves off and flew thither and laid themselves upon the structure.’”[xiv]
If Freemasonry shares in some mythic sense with the Rabbinic notion of the miraculous genesis for the Temple, then that solves, on the profound phenomenological level of symbology, the persistent question of worth and inequity. The Lodge never asked members to pretend that they were in fact all the same. Each builds the Temple of Freemasonry based on his particular talent and drive. Yet we must still meet on the level. If the Masonic mythos of the Temple contains an implied notion of the miraculous conception of the edifice, then that puts the emphasis ritualistically away from the notion of individual striving, for human hands are ultimately not responsible for it. This shows, I think how deeply different speculative Freemasonry is truly from the operative. If it were really about building a Temple, then those with more special skills are in every way more important to the enterprise than those with fewer. By contrast we are in a realm, “ from which the trade secrets have perforce been eliminated, and a moral symbolism substituted.”[xv] If the building of the Temple, and the degrees of virtue that might be possessed by each builder, is given meaning by the symbology of the Lodge — which might even extend to miraculous or mythogically far- fetched explanations — and not by other means, then there is chance that a truly different sense of mutual respect can obtain.
Thus a chief insight might be gained from this. Freemasonry creates a realm in which respect can be inculcated and extended in a way that the profane world not only will not allow, but often seeks to destroy. In a sense it is not all that important to what extent this notion of the miraculous genesis of the Temple was precisely influential in the development of ritual. It is a symbolic background possibility per se, given the nature of Masonic symbolism and ritual. As a conceptual pole of interpretation, or mythic interpretive meme, it represents the detachment of Masonic symbolism from normal, “Profane” notions of the genesis of virtue. As well as from the operative Masonic sense of exclusivity based on a literal mason’s skill. It says that there is something fundamental which must be respected in a brother ritually standing beside one in this Temple because this edifice is –mythically speaking – not the work of any man. Thus the Craft could maintain deeply religious notions of progressive virtue without getting into a religious version of the Enlightenment notion of the perfectibility of man. As a side matter I think it also indicates something, which is somewhat beyond the scope of this paper, but still important to note. That is, that the mythologizing legends and stories starting with Anderson were in their very ethos understood in some sense to be “miraculous” tales intrinsically, even when they were laid out as history. For this was history, which unlike all human history, is the work of no man. In this sense the Masonic ethos precedes the later understanding of “myth” developed by others in the nineteenth century. It’s genesis and founding mythos treated the building of an edifice, which truly was outside history per se in its construction. And that this sense was not just an contingent fact of the Masonic historiography and methods, but an intrinsic part of the truly Masonic vision of how man constructs a virtuous edifice, by granting that the very construction may be out of his hands, while still needful of his efforts; thus mythically outside of history (or historiography). This sense will be developed later in terms of a Masonic sense of the meaning of life.
We can bolster our sense of this with another aspect of the Temple relevant to our discussion. Namely, that of the famous Pillars, which have become so significant in Masonic symbolism. We should surely not shy away from obvious explanations based on blatant cultural antecedents. The Pillars, “can clearly be traced to the Pillars of Hercules which Spain flaunted throughout Europe at the close of the 16th Century”[xvi] Ockham’s Razor would certainly confirm that for a male fraternity the genesis for a symbol in a image of strength is a great likelihood. This ties in easily also with Freemasonry’s emphasis on the original meaning of Virtue as Manliness or Courage.[xvii] Thus, however we construe various difficult theological notions we must do so with the underlying sense that the Masonic notion of Virtue involves preeminently this very masculine notion of right conduct.
But keeping with the symbol the Pillars we can gain even greater insight. Surely, it is a profoundly significant matter of Masonic symbology that the Pillars were hollow. The hollowness of the pillars is highlighted by Alex Horne in his masterful tome on Solomon’s Temple. But in that book he seems to diffuse the insight he elsewhere achieved, to my mind, with a welter of biblical and historical digressions. By contrast his earlier development of the same ideas, published by the American Lodge of Research, contains the simpler, more elegant assessment: The idea that the pillars were, “made hollow is predominantly Masonic and follows no Biblical text except the account in Jeremiah.” [emphasis added] In support of this contention, he then goes on to note that this “predominantly Masonic” notion, “goes back to Masonic lectures of the Eighteenth Century.”[xviii] One cannot help but surmise that in the later treatment of his published tome Horne lost some of the basic insight by trying to cover all the bases in the more comprehensive development of the ideas in his book-length treatment. Perhaps this is one more example that total biblical comprehensiveness is a very tempting quicksand from which few critical ideas tend to emerge[xix]. But what is quite clear from both treatments is that the hollowness of the pillars involved a place of storage for important materials and more. Symbolically this involves the notion that these representatives- of -strength once again involve a deeper meaning vis-à-vis the manliness of Virtue. The pillars of strength were not just strength per se; they contained something. In the Masonic context Virtue is not just the elegant parsing of moral conundrums, or even worse a rational whittling- away of moral certainties. Both ideas have been very wrongly imputed to the Lodge, and it flies against these most important symbols. Rather for Masons being virtuous is intrinsically linked with being a man. The pillars of Masonic rectitude may be filled with diverse and interesting documents or manuscripts, the autographs of a lived- life, so to speak. But at bottom they are strong, supportive and unbending elements of reliability. Yet this strength, in the unique Masonic perspective, always contains something not seen in the mere strength, a deeper meaning.
Having now indicated that there is an underlying, potent meaning to the Craft’s appropriation of some of the symbols of the Temple of Solomon, we are in a position to take on broader the perspective of intellectual history. By culturally situating these matters we can get more pointed insights about the underlying meanings. It is of course no revelation that Masonry’s historical legend -making, which did not begin to cease till the late nineteenth century, has involved it in a realm sometimes of fanciful and perhaps uncritical considerations of its very symbol system. Whereas looking at them critically in fact liberates the potent power behind the symbol –system, and allow them to have even greater influence by their natural position in the history- of -ideas. That Freemasonry’s meanings are in fact so close to the central issues of the age may be due to a number of factors. But to my mind none so articulate, and potentially broadly descriptive, as the one that Trevor Stewart presents in his study, the Prestonian Lecture 2004, on the origins and themes English Speculative Freemasonry. Stewart notes the type of scientific tropes that Freemasonry used, namely Newtonianinsm, had a “fairly obvious epistemological connection” with a vast cultural and economic force that changed literally everything in the world, namely “rapid national industrialization.[xx]” To support this remarkable insight Stewart cites a number of cultural histories. But surely his own close reading of the Craft’s history must be taken as significant and reliable evidence in the making of this enormous epistemological connection. Thus, I feel wholly justified in expanding on this idea.
The principle extension surely would involve the fact that the industrial revolution created a great feeling of societal dislocation for many. And one hardly even needs to repeat the fact that, described by seemingly innumerable scholars, that the eventual bourgeois conservatism of the early nineteenth century was a response to that feeling of dislocation and class instability. This brings us to the related insight. That while Freemasonry may have developed its symbols of religious geometry, both the Letter G
and Solomon’s Temple, in a way that could allow for inner personal meaning of myriad and perhaps radical variations, there was a problem. These same conceptions ran into cultural forces so vast that their meanings could have been complicated, or potentially even practically obscured. Indeed, when the tropes of cultural Newtonianism which Masonry contains – and certainly everything discussed here could fit under that rubric – were forced to confront the massive forces of “rapid national industrialization,” then it becomes not just possible but likely that something of the original inner cues of these tropes were in reality obscured. This notion receives a significant social science foundation in Harland –Robert’s sociological study of the Craft in the British Empire. Harland Roberts describes a process of how in British society a more radical sense of the Craft and its ideas were gradually down-played in favor of a more reassuring civic vision![xxi] In addition this allows us to see the somewhat delayed official reception of the concept of The Grand Architect of the Universe as itself simply exemplary of the reality of this evolution. This fact stands almost like a beacon telling us that there are likely historical meanings by dint of such evolution that must be clarified by cultural analysis.
With this striking trajectory in mind, we are surely justified in assuming that there is a more recondite meaning to all these symbolic phenomena that may have been later obscured with time. Since it is clear from the results of much historical research that we do not know the actual character of original rituals or thinking related to ritual-genesis on the part of very early speculative Masons, we are further justified in offering conjectures drawn from comparative sources of cultural history. The fact that Solomon’s Temple and Geometry generally were chosen as grids for ritual development should be seen with an eye for critical -historical cues inherent in those choices. Surely Newton’s interest in the Temple counts as one important and famous background layer:
“The concern which Newton and others had about the exact nature of Solomon’s Temple, the type of objects, vessels, cherubims, etc. which were in it, and the kinds of prayers and sacrifices that were conducted in it had taken on a definite immediacy for writers in this period. The structure of he Temple was a, or the, key to understanding the universe, since the Temple was a microcosm of God’s plan for the universe.”[xxii]
Such a broad insight makes very unproblematic the collateral assumption that the Temple would have been an attractive symbol for more widespread metaphysical[xxiii] meanings for early Masons. And indeed it may well have encompassed a number of occult meanings as well, perhaps even beyond the already heady alchemical ones Newton seems to have favored.[xxiv] But still we are left to wonder why a budding group of speculative “builders” meeting in the shadow of Wren’s magnificent structures[xxv] did not choose a metaphor based on specifically Greek or Roman classical tropes? This should be a fundamental query for analysis. The aegis of the whole Palladian stylistic era under which they had come to live raises this question even more sharply. Also, popular and royal-aristocratic entertainments were more likely to be set in Greek or Roman classical environments, so why not the Lodge? There is absolutely no reason to assume that the choice of Jerusalem and not a classical locus did not have a particular rationale.
This fact is surely related to Anderson’s interest in developing an evolving notion of some sort of Noachite philosophy. In this sense Anderson’s view is distinguished by being pre-Jewish per se, and thus was perfect for symbolizing the aims for an organization that admitted all faiths. But this Noachite emphasis also is also distinguished by not being intrinsically or necessarily theurgic, which the classical tropes were much more likely to suggest. Thus by veering away from a theurgically classical set of symbols and meanings, and centering more on Noachite philosophy with its more simply educational and communal sense of things, early Masons were making their choice of Jerusalem very meaning for a fraternity of men that prized the ability to educate its members.
But it is also crucial to note that these early Masons were taking novel steps in intellectual history, without perhaps having the utter derring-do to baldly portray those steps for what they were. Thus even this Noachite theme shows the intricate complexity of wanting to provide for a free ambit of belief, but the inner necessity of veering away from revealing it as a novel development, and thus attributing it to something ancient –Noachite – even if its actual genesis was more specific and contemporary. As the fine scholar of Jews and Freemasonry, Jacob Katz, tells us on this precise point:
“[Anderson] regards the adherents of all religions as being subject to the moral law but….these religions are to subscribe to a common concept: the three “great Articles of Noah.” The author responsible for the wording of the constitutions of 1738 wrote as if the concept, “Noachide”, and the “great Articles of Noah” were universally known. As the learned opponents of the Masons in the nineteenth century pointed out, however, these terms were culled from John Selden’s De jure naturali et gentium juxta disciplinum Ebraerorum , which had described the seven Noachide laws as part of the ancient Jewish legal heritage. Christian tradition had never known of such concept as Noachide commandments. It was, however, current in Talmudic and medieval Judaism as the grounds for tolerance towards such gentiles as Jews considered deserving of respect. If a prior revelation had occurred in the time of Noah and this revelation was vouchsafed to all mankind, then all who acknowledged and obeyed the commandments given at the time would attain salvation. Christianity lacked a principle of this nature and so found difficulty in according any positive religious status to those beyond its [doctrinal] pale. The introduction of this concept, culled from ancient Jewish jurisprudence, into European thought by identifying it with the law of nature provided non-Jewish thinkers with an intellectual instrument which allowed them to justify toleration without abandoning their belief in divine revelation.”[xxvi]
What this shows at bottom, to my mind, is a cleverness and realism that was characteristic of early Masons. By using this Noachite theme they at once affirmed their chosen identification with Hebraic themes, but in such a way that could embrace a quite novel concept of religious toleration that went beyond the original Jewish intent of “tolerance towards such gentiles as Jews considered deserving of respect.” In addition this was emphasized by the fact that the very fabled antiquity of the Noachite ethos predated even limited, and potentially insular, Jewish themes as well!
Thus, when we go from this general sense of ethos to particular historical considerations we have to recall again that Masonry had twin ambitions. As an organization of men, it prized, as we have said, a notion of virtue connected to manliness. It also prized a deeper meaning to such notions. In the symbology of architecture at this point, classical notions per se had historically become mixed up with French ideals that were seen as “soft.” The perhaps disastrous monarchy of Charles II, of fairly recent memory, would have been a caution against that. “To many plain Englishmen, this love of things French [had been] an unpleasing feature of Charles’s Court…the common folk loathed the French and their elegancies…For it affected everything; our architecture…Through France, England drew…a deep draught…from Ancient Greece and Rome.”[xxvii] There is little precedent in cultural history for such deep-seated cultural animosities simply evaporating in a few generations. Thus we can assume this persistence of this view far past the monarchy of Charles II. (Incidentally, it is worth noting that this was a later ascription to the classical style which not present at it inception. Indeed, Pericles is supposed to have said at the completion of the Parthenon, “Our love of the beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of things of the mind does not make us soft.”)[xxviii]
Of course part of what has obscured this matter is the fact that Anderson had shown a marked preference for Palladianism. As a deft student of the issue, Christopher Haffner has indicated: “It is immediately clear that Anderson had taken Freemasonry…on the side of Palladianism.”[xxix] Indeed, that there was a strong cultural preference, which Anderson merely reflected, cannot be doubted. But this hardly means that the uneasiness that accompanied it in the culture, which might have been somewhat class-based, did not also have an underlying effect. The Palladian aesthetic involved many architects of the day –known under the rubric of Burlingtonism – who followed “Palladio who designed unostentatiously but graciously and this struck a ready chord with … beliefs in Britain.” This aesthetic sense under which Palladio had worked in the Veneto was such that, “the position of the Whig aristocracy are analogous.”[xxx] Thus, we can begin to see that the complex cultural influences are precisely what could have made the matter somewhat indecipherable for later scholars seeking to understand the choices of early speculative Masons. For while the classical style in architecture had gradually become identified with disliked French sources, connected with the Stuarts, in fact the beginning of it was with James VI of Scotland who had yet to have the French connection, so to speak. Indeed, Haffner notes Anderson’s words: “James was also the First Prince in the world that recovered Roman architecture from the ruins of Gothick ignorance,” as well as connecting him with patronage of Inigo Jones and the inception of the Augustan style. In fact Anderson even apotheosizes the whole matter by observing that the Augustan style is “true masonry in all future times”[xxxi] Palladianism may have been a reaction to French and Baroque influences, but it still contained the classical meme, that could be reacted against.
But while Haffner convincingly made the case that Anderson and probably other early Masons identified with Palladianism, he does not deal with the why and wherefore of the choice of Solomon’s Temple as the locus of the rituals.[xxxii] It bears repeating that much contemporary theater and opera of the day was set in classical times, so the fact the rituals are not set there also surely must mean something. In fact, the cultural preferences of Anderson and others towards Palladianism only set the ritual choice in sharper relief.
In addition we have some indication that the impulse to identify with Jewish sources was so strong that some early Masons were moved to try fancifully construe the Palladian cultural preference as if it had in fact originated from Jewish sources! Let me say that my reading of this strange and complicated conflation is that it only supports the notion that they had a strong particular need to identify with cultural characteristics of Jewish sources. Also that the impetus for the fantastical conflation was an underlying feeling of disease with the somewhat effete French tendency, which in their unique cultural distribution were contiguous with characteristics of Greco-Roman tropes in ascendant Palladianism. Surely the peculiar details are fascinating in filling in the historical sense of the matter. As an analyst tells us:
“We must bear in mind that much of what we now regard as allegory or myth was a reality in the minds of our 18th Century Brethren. A builder like John Woods the Elder, was called ‘an architect of obsession’ by his biographers…on account of his obsession with the ‘masonic’ idea of ‘the Perfect Pattern’ and ‘true masonry for all future generations.’ They write of Woods’ almost ‘life long, almost religious, devotion to the Masonic theory that proportions of classical architecture had come down, via the First Temple of Solomon, from divinely ordained dimensions of Moses’ tabernacle’ When Woods designed the famous Kings Circus in Bath he deliberately deployed the ‘three classical orders to honor the men who he believed had created them [!]: the Prophet Moses, and Jewish architects of the First and Second Temple of Jerusalem.’”[xxxiii]
The very fact that such fanciful conflations could be made, even by famous architects, shows, I think, at the very least that the meanings are very malleable, and that cultural preferences could seep in from a lot of different directions. Thus it also becomes quite sensitive to strongly held views even if hardly explicitly expressed. Apparently it was possible to be a devotee of the irenic style Palladianism and also be drawn to another meaning because of unease with the original preference. If Palladianism had been an utterly successful reaction away from the foreignness of earlier Wren-like work then why would there be a need to enter into such fantastical conflations to try to resolve the anxiety? So we should not be surprised that in the context of later English culture these classical tropes, perhaps unjustifiably, still had the taint of Stuart Frenchified ways. We should remember that many English felt that their country had in the fairly recent past “become quite another nation” because ”France had become … the ascendant…and much of the later bitterness towards the Stuarts is attributable to this cause.”[xxxiv]
Indeed this intrinsic fear of Stuart softness can be seen quite tellingly by the popularity during the Eighteenth Century in Scottish high-brow intellectual circles for an idealization of Sparta as a societal epigone. Clearly this was meant as a foil for supposed and more typical Greco-Roman-classical softness identified with the Stuarts. This idealization of Sparta reached such a point that the age’s greatest skeptic David Hume found it necessary to criticize it. “It was Hume who attempted to introduce reality into this romance of ancient [Spartan] republican virtue”[xxxv] Surely, if this strange tendency reached such a level of de facto dogmatism that it invited David Hume’s celebrated skeptical pin-prick, then we know that it was quite widespread. And further, we know that the collateral point, of Greco-Roman supposed softness was also clearly in evidence.
So we are left, finally, with the rather simple available deduction: That Jerusalem with Solomon’s Temple was chosen as the locus of Masonic rituals because it could combine the manliness at the heart of the Masonic conception of virtue, at the same time that it provided the possibility of deeper meanings. For surely, the hardscrabble history found in the Hebrew Bible is not one that suggested softness. We are profoundly justified in seeing the choice of Jerusalem over Greece and Rome as a basic character-preference in Freemasonry for a fraternally inclusive and educational which Anderson’s Noachite interests indicate over then-contemporaneous notion of classical effeteness and the potentially solipsistically theurgic or magical sense related to Ancient Greece and Rome.
So given the importance of this choice we are further justified in assuming that manliness of virtue will be an intrinsic meaning at all levels for the Masonic conception involving all the principal matters attendant to the Temple imagery in the Masonic context, Theism, Deism and Atheism. Thus manliness has a meaning not just for virtue in the Masonic context, but is of a larger relevance. To sum up let us explore these phenomena with this reality in mind.
The Deeper Masonic Contexts of Theism, Deism and Atheism:
From a number of historical and intellectual indications that we have described, we can see that the Masonic sense of various religious phenomena will have a bespoke character. We have seen that Freemasonry’s is not interested in Geometry in isolation but as it related to a choice of a ritual mise en scene at Solomon’s Temple. That we employed general intellectual history to conjecture on what some of the characteristics or assumptions would have been should not be taken to mean that Freemasonry was merely the sum total of a number of diverse historical and intellectual characteristics. On the contrary, we should begin with the assumption that in forming the Grand Lodge initially, these early Freemasons did it for a reason, or need. It is a commonsensical notion that if the phenomena contained in the Lodge were the same as already existing ones, there would be little reason to go through all the trouble to start something new.
By taking Solomon’s Temple as a symbol and lodestar, and making ritual choices that emphasized the same, especially with notion of virtue as true manliness, Freemasonry was radically situating itself in relation to religious and philosophical phenomena in a way that nothing else had done before. In the simplest sense this amounted to a de facto declaration that men, good men, can choose to concentrate on an aspect prized by all religions, namely morality or ethics. This does dove-tail potentially with broader Enlightenment currents, which reinterpreted Christianity as a merely moral affair, and the figure of Christ as simply a wise and good man. But while it may be similar, it is not at all the same. Freemasonry took a philosophical position that the moral dimension is primary. But also that the continued importance of other dimensions of religious experience are not intrinsically, or necessarily, diminished by the fact one’s philosophical position, namely that of the Craft, remains ritually or philosophically agnostic towards them. This is a radical step in the history of ideas, and should be recognized as such. Let us be clear that such agnosticism does not at all mean a determined personal agnosticism, as is common today, a doubting position on faith or creedal assertions. It means rather that Masons believed there was an important balance to be struck which would emphasize something very crucial to all important philosophical or religious positions —morality – while de-emphasizing collateral phenomena for the sake of the original emphasis. How exquisite it is that we can say that all of these phenomena were what came to be symbolized by the Letter G. Giuliano di Bernardo has described this balance well:
“…Freemasonry has purposely renounced any investigation into all man’s aspects, and takes into consideration only those concerning his ethical improvement. This does not mean that these other aspects have no value for Masonic thought, but that they are secondary, and subordinate to ethical issues.” [xxxvi] [emphasis added]
Di Bernardo’s words here give a fine context to the excellent notion he develops that the issues of Theism in Freemasonry are most aptly described by a “regulative”[xxxvii] notion of God. In this sense, with Di Bernardo’s acute analysis we can see that Theism is ironically the least complicated matter in Freemasonry. Since the Craft is committed in its very ethos to the notion of a grander architecture in the universe, which has come about by an actual Grand Architect, then the collateral notion that Masonry’s Theism would amount to the maintenance of balance, or regulation is not surprising. Again, this dove-tails with the emphasis on morality, and as was noted above it in principle does not exclude any other aspect of religious faith including of course much more orthodox ones. But it must be added that it does not require them either.
Since it has been established that most of the members of the early Lodge were likely rather orthodox Christians[xxxviii] it quickly becomes apparent that the Masonic understandings of Deism and Atheism are much more problematic than Theism, but not in the way that is often presumed. For the Masonic emphasis on manliness in virtue means that any kind of softness or haziness on moral strictures is proscribed by the Masonic ethos. One of the striking criticisms of the Deistic standpoint, to say nothing of Atheistic, is that the impersonal sense of Deity tends to make morality more relative due to the de-emphasis on rewards and punishments in the afterlife. Though the Lodge was not mostly made up of Deists, as is sometimes inaccurately presumed, it did allow them initiation, they were “accepted”. But we are in a position now, from our foregoing discussions, to make a critical distinction on how they would have been “accepted”. The architectonic for societal structure symbolized by Solomon’s Temple, meant that Freemasonry did not allow in its ethos an utterly relativized view of morality. “This means that man experiences in the society in which he lives, a set of values that are objective since they already existed before he came into being, and also because they are shared by other men.”[xxxix] So while the Craft may have had a principled stand, which allowed for faith-diversity, represented by admitting Deists, this did not extend to making relative moral claims. This is utterly consistent with the intellectual emphases of the Craft, but also with its ethos as a Fraternity. As a grouping of men it emphasized the reality of group-acceptance of certain acceptable parameters of behavior. It has not been remarked enough that in this way its view of these restricted parameters might de facto be stricter than many religious systems.
Thus the fact some Deists were admitted to the Lodge has been incorrectly taken to mean that the culture of the Craft would have been such that all Deists would have felt at ease with the strictures of the Lodge. Or conversely that the Lodge would have felt comfortable with the views of all Deists, philosophical, religious or political. As one analyst has remarked with a very canny commonsense:
“The Mason Attitude to Deism: We have to ask ourselves as a matter of simple logic, whether a small and in reality new fraternity, presumably seeking to attract men on the basis that it provides ‘a safe and pleasant relaxation from intense study and hurry of business without politics or party’ would deliberately embark upon so revolutionary a cult as Deism”[xl]
With a strong, potent ritual and symbolic structure which in every way reinforces those parameters of behavior there would doubtless have been many who would have not felt that they fit- in. But strangely, mostly from ignorance of the actual tendencies of Eighteenth Century Deistic thought, many have assumed the opposite. That is, they have assumed that the presence of Deists meant that there was not a substantial moral grid to Freemasonry. As I have tried to make clear throughout his study, the very notion of the choice of Solomon’s Temple tells us the opposite. So if we are to have a greater sense of the Masonic context of Deism then we must first have a clearer sense of how a certain segment of Deists – probably a sizeable portion – could have ascribed to the rigorous moral structure of the Craft.
For this purpose Charles Taylor’s marvelous study The Secular Age, which despite its title provides mostly incisive understandings of religious phenomena, is a great help. Taylor discusses what he calls “Providential Deism,” which is very much on point for our discussion. In trying to re-describe the true nature of Eighteenth Century Deism in terms that would have some correlation to identifiable and understandable realities in our times, Taylor identifies what he calls very aptly a “subtraction story”:
“According to a conception widely canvassed in the Enlightenment and since, what powers the movement along this continuum whether to its half-way mark or all the way is reason itself. We discover that certain of the features of the original [theistic] view are untenable, and we end up adopting what remains after the unacceptable elements have been peeled off, be this some kind of Deism, or world-soul, or cosmic force, or blank atheism. Each variant has its designated end-point: that of Voltaire is not that of today’s scientific materialists. But whatever end-point a variant enshrines is seen as the truth, the residual kernel of fact underlying the husk of the invention or superstition that surround it. We’re dealing with the classic subtraction story”[xli]
Charles Taylor has anatomized with elegant simplicity a phenomenon that has been made very unclear over the last three centuries or so. Taylor’s description of what Deism would be, without the false and ultimately a-historical “subtraction story,” is very helpful for understanding the Craft’s relation to it. Though Deism construed the Universe more impersonally as an order, it still participated in strong ideas of the development of a polite and coherent social- order which were themselves evolutions of the ideas of the Protestant Reformers:
“The shift in Deism was also justified by arguments which are central to the Christian tradition, often those which had been used by the Reformers. Take this matter of abjuring false heroics for our ordinary self-loving nature. This parallels closely the Reformers’ defense of ordinary life, and the vocations of work and family…these high flyers were seen as being filled with prideful illusion, as though they could do without what ordinary human beings need as God made them.”[xlii]
So, to the extent that Deism, even with its quite different metaphysics, still accepted notions that had started with the Reformation of emphasizing the importance of the strictures of ordinary life, it would thus avoid being merely a “subtraction story.” For instead of just being left with a lessened theistic sense –which at least conceptually is what deism is – it shared in broad cultural movement toward increased sociability and civilized behavior. Indeed this sense is so strong that Taylor even sees a skeptic like Hume as participating in this wider quasi-deistic sense of the age that contained, “an ideal of sociability, derived from this order, which has been erected into than independent criterion for social relations…this first understanding of polite society, through a view about its own genesis.…” [xliii]
So this more perspicacious understanding of the Deism at this period allows us to focus on the philosophical assumptions that someone like Anderson would have made. Seeing him as a Presbyterian minister we surely can concur with the broad notions of the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum that sees him as specifically not Deistic. As a logical matter there is no reason that his Masonic sense of freedom of religion said anything whatsoever about the reality of his Christian belief. It merely said something about the exact issue of freedom of belief. But his Presbyterian beliefs naturally would have a profound impact on his sense of Atheism per se. There is no doubt that Anderson meant to proscribe Atheism from the Lodge. But as a cultural matter we should see this against the background of the well understood fact in religious scholarship of the period that competing denominations often imputed Atheism to those with who they did not agree. And such disagreements were often on matters that from our perspective today look like very small variations on a rather orthodox theme.
Thus our initial sense of Anderson’s construal of Atheism is that he did not, consistent with Masonic belief, embrace a philosophy which would easily anathematize other Christian beliefs as Atheism, as so many did in this period. But this sense of decency and principle on Anderson’s part, related to his avowal of the Noachite theme, logically raises the question of how he would have seen those who were of a more skeptical persuasion in his society. Certainly skepticism had a very strong and elitist pedigree in Eighteenth Century England. Though it is clear that Anderson wished to proscribe Atheists, it is not so clear that he wished to proscribe skeptics per se. And surely part of the apparatus of skeptical thought at this period was at least a dalliance, if never quite explicit, with Atheism.
Though this tendency might be noticed somewhat even in writers like Hume, Taylor is quick to distinguish this sense from the one for which Hume is more known. That is the one presumably many shared in the Enlightenment which is described “negatively” as a return to the ideas of Lucretius.[xliv] That is denying any sort of over-arching societal schema and structure.
So it should be quickly clear that only the previous sense of Deism would be compatible with Freemasonry. The Humean-Lucretian[xlv] sense contains a possibility that would lead to a rejection for the possibility of order, and the rejection of the any kind of social metaphysics that would support it however attenuated or diverse. We can gauge the extent to which Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura managed to “push buttons” in contemporaneous sensibilities generally, and by implication in early Masons, by reactions to the thought in the period. “While Lucretius supplied the philosophers with passionate slogans and an attitude…eighteenth century Christians fought Lucretius as if he were still alive…to denounce Lucretius for his impiety.”[xlvi] But there is in this something highly instructive and even revelatory of the complexities , which inspired the Craft’s requirement of belief in God. This Eighteenth Century sense of Lucretian philosophy, so hotly debated in theistic discussion, surely would have conflicted with Freemasonry. But it was perhaps not the same as the “original intent” of Lucretius. “[A]lthough he preaches that the ultimate realities are material atoms and the void, he has a profoundly religious [!] attitude to the gods, and a keener awareness of moral and spiritual values than any of his contemporaries.”[xlvii] What this potentially odd hermeneutical disjunct indicates, I think, is that while a fully informed view based on the original Luctretian -type philosophy would perhaps not conflict with Masonry, it is the later accretion of the extreme skepticism of the Modern philosophy, which used De Rerum Natura as a famous bolster, that is the problem. Thus the Masonic requirement that a candidate must believe in God (or “the gods” by the extenuating lights of Masonic freedom of belief[xlviii]) would in the original Lucretian sense have been theoretically acceptable, and would have been exquisitely attenuated indeed! But in the sense of Eighteenth Century Lucretianism, it would have very wisely been excluded as antithetical, and a potentially destructive philosophy. Not just for the Craft, but for Society itself. Thus the profoundly shifting bell-weather in the intellectual maelstrom of the period tells us that the Masonic requirement can surely be read as a deeper matter than just a desire to fraternize and club with like-minded theists.
Further, this fine-level of detail allows us to see that the Hobbesian concept of Geometry against which background the Masonic symbols of the Temple would have been set in contradistinction may not have been intrinsically part of the apparatus of extreme skeptics, but was easily construed as such in the Lucretian terms mentioned above. Even though this might not be a fair reading of the deeper meaning of Hobbes’ thought, and may thus speak more to popular misunderstanding. This also illumines a conundrum of intellectual history: How it was that the most indisputably famous and brilliant exposition of geometry based philosophy of the era, namely that of Hobbes, served only as a background, and perhaps a rejected one, by Freemasonry, an organization which took the architecture of a holy building as its central building .
Thus this historical analysis helps us see that the central existential tenet that is incompatible with Masonic philosophy, in contemporary terms, is extreme skepticism of, not atheism per se or non-theism. Again, this is so because at this period Atheism was likely to be imputed to any belief that differed from one’s own denominational view, even if the person professed a belief in Jesus Christ or the Judeao-Christian God generally. In this regard we should note, as an important general but very oblique confirmation of this view, the very persuasive article by Alex Horne on Buddhism in the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum. The particular details of his argument about a faith quite distant from Western experience are not germane to this discussion. But the comparative conclusion which is reached, and generally approved of by the Brother commentators of the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum Lodge, is highly relevant. Horne notes that the general non-theistic viewpoint of Buddhism would conceivably be acceptable for Freemasonry. But he specifically notes that those particular Buddhistic philosophies which tend towards nihilism would not.[xlix] We can read this notion of nihilism as related to the Eighteenth Century tendency of extreme skepticism. I wish to emphasize that I am essentially making the same argument in a Western context. But that, unlike Buddhism, this non-theistic viewpoint would likely always remain, and certainly always was, an exceptional or minority view in the Lodge.
It is crucial to note that extreme skepticism has in our time become nihilism and has lamentably come to be a very identifiable world-view. In the Eighteenth Century terms it would have been enfolded only as a dark possibility of another more respectable form of thought, held by a lot of elite thinkers, extreme skepticism . This means that a philosophy that rejects the possibility of some wider meaning to existence, as represented in the structures of society, would be philosophically at odds with the Craft’s ethos. This is true even if some Masons might have shared conceptually contiguous views, without the analogously extreme skeptic overtones . This understanding helps us see that the symbols and rituals of Freemasonry, though allowing diversity on ultimate metaphysical matters, speak of a philosophy, which is less tolerant of potentially skeptical viewpoints. It is striking that Freemasonry would be inherently more critical of such extreme skepticism than many religions, which might possibly construe them in potentially mystical terms[l]. From the point-of-view of the Craft, world-views of whatever pedigree, which are redolent of these extremely skeptical tendencies are utterly “blackballed.” And this understanding in turn will help us come to a clearer understanding of the Masonic context of atheism.
In a prima facie sense for scholarly deduction, I believe we are justified in taking examples like Charles Taylor’s massively researched tome as evidence of a number of broad and difficult to pin down historical phenomena. One is that the intellectual form of Humanism itself was beholden to Christianity in a number of ways. This is a conclusion that he reaches cumulatively in his study, and the broad progression is beyond the scope of this paper. The other is that the forms of unbelief that are current today are outgrowths of ideas only in germ in the Eighteenth Century, but also later ones that would have been not considered in the Enlightenment. In spite of the underlying current of skepticism and possible atheism intrinsic to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, Taylor says explicitly that he believes the number of people who actually would have espoused a form of unbelief quite common today would not have been very “numerous.” [li] This point may be debatable, as may be Taylor’s larger contentions, though they seem right to me. I draw attention to them essentially to demonstrate that at the very least it is possible to re-construe difficult issues of belief and unbelief in a reasonable and scholarly way, and that Taylor’s study, again, at the very least is evidence of that fact.
For I wish to go somewhat out on a limb, in an effort to re-construe the Masonic prohibition on atheism. The famous prohibition that says that a Mason will not be a “stupid atheist” is from all my foregoing discussion ripe for a renewed understanding.
In the first place, it seems that the original meaning of this phrase for Masons was that the man would be a “fool”. This would be a man who misunderstood his cultural environs so badly that he would be foolish in Biblical sense.[lii] In other words one who would make a show of irreligion, and be pointlessly disruptive. Thus I think it is appropriate to put the emphasis on the very obvious way on the idea of the stupidity of the man, or lack of smarts generally understood. But, clearly many who espoused philosophies, which tended to atheism were hardly stupid. So there is no danger of cheekiness in asking simply: Would these people have been lumped together with the stupid atheists to be blackballed from the Lodge?
To answer this question we must first highlight as background the proto-Enlightenment notion of Benevolence, which was so especially important to arts and letters in Britain. Indeed, any notion that sees the character of gentlemanly conduct starting in the Restoration as being that of “rakes and libertines”[liii] is sorely mistaken. Also, surely also mistaken would be societal notions of those espousing notions of unbelief as directly contiguous with libertinage. And this particular mistake distracts from the very ease with which we may see the ideals of Freemasonry jibing with the developing sense of gentlemanly conduct at this period. In other words we are dealing more with the developing phenomenon of the period involving a strong correlation between belief and behavior. Not with the pre-modern elite view of belief an autonomous, and a critically impregnable realm unto itself. “During the seventeenth century …there was a shift from the epic and Roman conception of “heroic virtue” as indispensable to the true gentleman, from the ideals of composure…of Stoic restraint, to the ideal of the gentleman as a benevolent and Christian citizen of the world.”[liv]
Contrasting greatly, in a philosophical sense, with the classical, elite asceticism of the passions characterizing a Stoic mindset, this “Benevolism” had its roots in conceptual patterns based in the Judeao-Christian assumptions about the basic goodness of all men as Imago Dei. It is self-evident that such a view would sociologically facilitate any fraternal grouping that prized human equality, much more than the elite view. The third Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, was a chief representative of this view, and propounded his famous proto-Enlightenment view of a “Moral Sentiment” in human beings. This, Lord Shaftesbury says is a “[s]ense of right and wrong therefore being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first principle in our constitution and make, there is no speculative opinion, persuasion, or belief, which is capable immediately or directly to exclude or destroy it.”[lv]
The very pleasant and reassuring thought contained in Shaftesbury’s words almost hides the vast number of philosophical conundrums he has addressed. First he asserts that a sense of right and wrong is simply as basic to our world of feelings as our desire for human intercourse of all kinds, “natural affection. “ The amazing thing about this assertion is that such affection of course does not, and had not in philosophical history, ruled out concupiscence either. Thus Shaftesbury is really making a very radical suggestion here that this basic interior benevolence is naturally at least as strong as the passions generally. To say the least, this had not been the view of many philosophers in the past. Also this of course contrasts with other strains, especially of Protestant Judeao-Christianity, which emphasized human depravity. Still, even so, it represents an evolved or developed view which in some wise is based on the a traditional Judeao-Christian viewpoint. Second, almost more amazingly, Shaftesbury asserts that “no speculative opinion…or belief” can impinge on this basic benevolism in human nature. Looked at from the positive meaning of its inverse, this also means that every “speculative position” and “belief” would in fact support a benevolent nature. This was a practically unprecedented view in philosophy and religion.
When we put these ideas together we can quickly see their relevance for the Masonic ethos. The Masonic Lodge is centrally based on the notion that all faiths and creeds and views of the Deity are capable of harmonious interaction. Since, to say the obvious, this has not been the view of communal organizations throughout human history, it is wise to look to cultural phenomena like Benevolism, which supported this philosophical position for the Lodge. Further this is buttressed to the extent that even the human passions and/or “natural affections”, which were themselves previously used as a standard evidence or proof of the need for a rigid communal orthodoxy to keep the same unruly aspects in line, are now seen as amenable to the basic “good nature” of human beings. This revolutionary view, without a doubt, represents a philosophical evolution in society. Thus in a sense we can say simply that Freemasonry represented a sort of quintessence of a general societal evolution of viewpoint amongst the advanced, educated class during this period. Even if all members were not members of that class.
Thus, from our foregoing discussion of the crucial importance of benevolence we can see that an atheist in the sense of an extreme skeptic of the Lucretian variety, would be the real target of the proscription of “stupid atheist,” This would be a person who cannot see meaning to life in any way, and thus would be so radical to abjure even the benevolent model of culture so prized in English society especially at this period. In other words someone who uses irreligion pointlessly for disruption, or worse even anarchy. It goes with saying that such a person would have a hard time enjoying the virtues of Fraternity, at any rate.
But this last point makes more deeply clear why an Eighteenth Century extreme skeptic would have not been permitted in the Lodge. This is specifically because it would keep such a person from engaging the moral ideals of the Lodge. We can only sharpen our sense of this by seeing this difficult matter reflected in the views of some of the most famous thinkers of the era:
“Along with this dogmatic atheism went, of course, a skepticism about absolutes of any sort in the universe. The deist, even so halfhearted a deist as Voltaire, believed in God and after all and in a permanent order of nature guaranteed by God. But for Diderot everything in nature, including man’s ethical ideas, was in a state of flux…he argued not only that man’s ethical ideas are relative to the structure of his body…but that also they are relative to his changing experience and social needs. Thus [Diderot] proclaimed a sort of evolutionary and materialistic ethic, completely divorced from religious absolutes or indeed [social] absolutes of any kind.” [lvi]
The Masonic ethos would naturally contain, as we have said, a reading of such a person’s character as being weak, that is unmanly. This shows how radical the Masonic sense of things was, especially as applies to a thinker who was wont to be considered quite the radical enfant terrible. Whether the Masonic reading of such persons is ultimately correct, or fair in terms of the history of ideas, is not the central issue. As a society of men who vote for those for with whom they wish to associate, the accent intellectually cannot be expected to be utter impartiality. Freemasonry connects the ability to see a meaning to existence with a masculine strength. That is the central point of the matter. This lack of manliness in the person, would also mean that their possibility for real growth in virtue would be small. Therefore, the entire philosophy of the Lodge would be of little use to them. Or put the other way around, they would be of little use to the Lodge with its philosophy. Without this basic make-up, the rituals of the Lodge, which were chosen to evoke this manliness in virtue, would be meaningless..
So, in closing, I wish to offer the following implications of this study. We start with the assumption related to the foregoing that what “atheist” meant in the Eighteenth Century and what it means today are two very different things[lvii]. It is clear that Anderson wished to proscribe Atheism per se. But in the sense of a certain amount of skepticism which often accompanied a belief in the freedom of religion, it is not clear that he would have objected to that. The inability to make this important distinction strangely fogs up the central insight , made cumulatively through all of the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, that English Freemasonry never left its essentially religious ethos. That some Masons and non-Masonic enthusiasts on the Continent, and particularly in Germany, interpreted the matter otherwise was most based on misunderstanding of fine cultural details. We can see this operating even much later in a distinguished source that addresses this very issue. The moderate and temperate nature of the inherent aspects of my argument should be apparent in contradistinction to the misunderstanding demonstrated by the following:
“The pronouncements of Anderson’s Book of Constitutions about God and religion cannot be said to rest on that distinctive concept of natural religion which the deistic phase of the English Enlightenment had evolved. Nevertheless, as has been stated before, this idea, after voiding all claims of revelation not rationally maintainable, soon gained ground in English freemasonry, as a religion largely reduced to moral principles of universal applicability.”[lviii]
It is worth noting that the profound misunderstanding of English Freemasons that this source evinces has its source in the dilemma we have described in this article. Namely, that the inability to see that it was principally extreme skepticism that was the underlying problem. Even the most extreme form of skepticism maintained by a freemason of that period would not have been aimed dogmatically at “voiding all claims of revelation”. Rather the very moral ethos of the Lodge was dedicated to both protecting belief, and inhibiting fanatical manifestations of belief, which logically had to include the completely determinate demand or prescription for belief. This complex issue has become much more easy to parse in modern times when many religions themselves seem to have become modern equivalents of this extreme skepticism of morals, even to the point of embracing the modern equivalent of moral nihilism. Such faiths, nihilistically anathematize every other for of belief as atheism itself . Thus a rather nasty regressive circle that the Masonic ethos was designed to nip in the bud is given unfortunate completion.
To relate that to the sense that would have affected early Masons we have needed to a perspicacious historical understanding of Masonry’s ritual symbols in connection to these cultural phenomena of diverging levels of belief or unbelief. I in no way suggest that there should be a change in the formal requirements for Masonic admission. At the same time, I think it is a rather uncontroversial thing that the very symbols of the Lodge have a variety of meanings, which may mean considerably different things in the particular contexts of different ages. In this sense, as long as the man has the generosity of spirit to share in the symbol-structure of Masonry, and to share in its deeper philosophy of the rituals, there should be no intrinsic problem with a profound diversity of ultimate meanings. What matters is the basic harmony in the Lodge to the underlying philosophy, which is itself complex. But the whole point of this study is that they are also simple. Simple, in the sense of being centered on notions of manliness and respect for order. The redoubtable duo of Knoop and Jones have described this issue very well in their charming and intellectually valiant scholarship:
“Above all things Anderson and his contemporaries hated discord, as an architect might hate a building in which the parts were at odds with each other…The essential harmony was not to be reached by identifying Masonry with any one of the prevailing creed…it was rather to be sought by ignoring the creeds and by asserting…that a freemason might have two distinct religious beliefs.…”[lix]
If a person might have two different religious beliefs, then, in a sense, what problem is there if one of them is closer to atheism? Thus the Lodge has what it always had. Namely, the right to exclude men who cannot have the strength, and therefore manliness to parse these religious conundrums in a way that comes out with a meaningful life-philosophy. There are clearly always going to be insoluble nuances to such things. But the beautiful Masonic sense of acceptance and respect is ultimately perhaps based in a charming way on something “emotional rather than intellectual.” Even with all its profound ritual and concomitant philosophical implications, it springs, “more out of a disinclination to hurt…feelings than an eagerness to understand thought.”[lx] Finally, we can endorse this exquisite insight with the proviso that maintaining the ability to encourage harmony is also based on some concomitant profound understanding.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Larissa Watkins, Librarian at the House of the Temple in Washington, D.C. for her help and advice with this article. I would also like to thank Dr. S. Brent Morris for a helpful explanation of the general viewpoint expressed in many articles of the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum.
[i] “Called or not called, God will be present.”
[ii] For a masterful resume of this sort of thinking with its wider implications and conundrums see: Charles Vereker. Eighteenth Century Optimism: A Study of the Interpretations of Moral and Social Theory in English and French Thought between 1689 and 1789. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1967. For the classic treatment (originally published 1932) of this mode of thought, which assesses the tendency very sympathetically, but still with critical insight, see: Carl Lotus Becker. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. For a more recent discussion of the matter see also: Peter Harrison. “Religion” and Religion in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press.
[iii] James E. Force. Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies. Springer, p. 99
[iv] Charles Vereker, p.37.
[v] Foster Case Letter G
[vi] Schott’s Model of Solomon’s Temple. Ars Quatuor Coronatorum Volume XII (1900), 29
[vii] Other AQC article and Solomon’s Temple Book
[viii] H.P.H. Bromwell. Restorations of Masonic Geometry and Symbolism, Being a Dissertation on the Lost Knowledge of the Lodge. Denver: The Henry P. H. Bromwell Masonic Publishing Company, 1905. p. 126
[ix] H.P.H. Bromwell, p. 126
[x] H.P.H. Bromwell. 221
[xi] H.P.H. Bromwell, p. 221
[xii] H.P.H. Bromwell, p. 222
[xiii] H.P.H. Bromwell, p. 381
[xiv] Alex Horne. King Solomon’s Temple in the Masonic Tradition. London: Aquarius Press, 1971, p. 164. Horne points out that later Josephus tried to give a “rational explanation” for this miraculous tale by noting that the stones on the Temple were so perfectly hewn that they looked as if no tool had been used on them. Horne also mentions that Rabbinic sources further considered as miraculous help given to King Solomon in constructing his Temple, which came from both angels and demons (!). To say the obvious, somewhat humorously, if a demon could have a hand in building such a perfect edifice, then the faults of one’s Brother might not look so bad in context!
[xv] Br. Professor Swift Johnston. “Seventeenth Century Descriptions of Solomon’s Temple” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum. Volume XII, MDCCXCIX. P. 135.
[xvi] Bro. C. Purdon Clarke (commentary) in Br. Professor Swift Johnston. “ Seventeenth Century Descriptions of Solomon’s Temple” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Volume XII, MDCCXCIX, p. 136.
[xvii] Bromwell uses this definition throughout his study.
[xviii] Alex Horne. “King Solomon’s Temple in Masonic and Popular Legend” in Transactions of the American Lodge of Research. Volume VII, Number 1, (1957), p.221
[xix] Let me say in passing that my view of biblical scholarship is that generally it tends by all its tropes to limit or diffuse the precise identification of cultural sources. The reason for this should be obvious. The whole point of biblical scholarship is to show the intrinsic necessity, in its view, of the notion of divine inspiration as the source of any real meaning in the text. So we can say that to the extent that one becomes involved in such theorizing, in almost inexorably involves the diffusion, or even avoidance of identifiable cultural sources. In the specifically Masonic context one of the authors who has resolutely and perceptively avoided this tendency while still investigating biblical sources is Rex Hutchens.
[xx] Trevor Stewart. “English Speculative Freemasonry. Some Possible Origins, Themes and Developments. “ Ars Quatuor Coronatorum. Volume 117 (2004) Prestonian Lecture 2004.
[xxi] Harland Roberts
[xxii] Richard H. Popkin. “Some Further Comments on Newton and Maimonides” in Essays on the Context, Nature and Influence of Isaac Newton’s Theology. Springer, p. 2
[xxiii] I want to associate this view with the notion that this may have included a variety of hermetic meanings as well. Though these meanings may have been at a deeper layer to the symbolism.
[xxiv] Heredom, 2009
[xxv] “Wren’s architecture was strongly influenced by the work of Claude Perrault (1615-1688) and other French architects, “ as well as Italian Baroque sources. (James Steven Curl. Georgian Architecture. David and Charles, p. 21)
[xxvi] Jacob Katz. Jews and Freemasons in Europe, 1723-1939. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970, p. 15
[xxvii] Arthur Bryant. King Charles The Second. London: Longmans , Green and Co., 1932, p. 110
[xxviii] Robin Sowerby. The Greeks: An Introduction to their Culture. Routledge, p. 170
[xxix] Christopher Haffner. “The Eighteenth Century Lodge as a School of Architecture” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Volume 101 (1988), p. 167.
[xxx] Christopher Haffner, p.166
[xxxi] Christopher Haffner, p. 168-69.
[xxxii] In fact when Haffner does mention the choice of Solomon’s Temple, he treats it inexplicably as a direct part of the Palladian discussion. This is a momentary bit of strangeness in an otherwise very convincing article, in the broad cultural sense. However, I believe he missed a very obvious question, as I have said, and it is in this sense that I can understand one of the responders’ comments that “Bro Haffner has lost sight of the wood for the trees, and I have to ask whether our early brethren…were really as concerned…with architecture…” My take on this criticism is that early masons were interested in a more philosophical choice, and in that sensed interested in architectural debates. And that while these cultural or aesthetic issues might have been present, there were other factors involved in their choice of ritual locus of a more philosophical nature. (Comment by Bro, F.W. Seal-Coon, p.187.)
[xxxiii] Bro. Dirk van Peype. “Freemasonry: A Royal Art.” In Ars Quatuor Cornatorum. Volume 113 (2000), pp. 8-9.
[xxxiv] Bryant, p. 170.
[xxxv] James Buchan. Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World. London: John Murray Publisher, 2003, p. 210.
[xxxvi] Giuliano di Bernardo, p. 3.
[xxxvii] Giuliano di Bernardo
[xxxviii] “A convincing case could be made out that far from having changed to a Deistic base, Anderson and his fellow masons considered that the Craft was still wholly Christian, even if tolerated by and tolerating liberal Jews…It is apparent that Deism was not being inculcated by Freemasons of the period. The articles in the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum… give many instances of Christians terminology being retained throughout the eighteenth century.” Christopher Haffner. Workman Unashamed: Testimony of a Christian Freemason. Shepperton: Lewis Masonic, 1989. p. 162.
[xxxix] Giuliano di Bernardo, p. 20.
[xl] Bro. Lt. Col. E. Ward “Anderson’s Freemasonry Not Deistic” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum. Volume 30, 1967), p. 38.
[xli] Charles Taylor. “The Impersonal Order” in A Secular Age. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2003, p. 270
[xlii] Charles Taylor. “Providential Deism” in A Secular Age, p. 230
[xliii] Charles Taylor. “Providential Deism”, p. 237
[xliv] Charles Taylor. “Providential Deism”, p. 247
[xlv] It is important to be able to analyze Hume and a very influential Humean position in the period both as a cultural phenomenon as distinguished from the complexities of Hume’s exact developed position taken as a writer and thinker. Hume in describing a skeptical position was influenced by ancient Pyrhonnists, Sextus Empiricus and Diogenes Laertes. His famous analysis of the Naturalistic Fallacy may have been a reworking of the Modes of Aenesidemus and the Modes of Agrippa. Even so he tried to mark off his position skeptically from these other thinkers. To such an extent that even today scholars have a hard time pinning him down in terms of his actual form of skepticism. But I think, given the complexity of the issues of skepticism, there should be no doubt then that in his own day he would have been broadly taken as a simple Lucretian in viewpoint. At any rate “Hume” as a cultural phenomenon of “Lucretianism” is the aspect others could have more probably reacted to in a religious context. For to understand his exact position would have been very difficult. (See Donald C. Ainslie. “Hume’s Skepticism and Ancient Skepticism” in Hellenistic and Early Modern Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. esp. pp 255-56.)
[xlvi] Peter Gay. The Enlightenment: The Rise of Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton, excerpting from 105, then p. 104.
[xlvii] D.E,W. Wormwell. “The Personal World of Lucretius” in Lucretius. New York: Basic Books Publishers, P. 65.
[xlviii] It is useful as an amplifying example to recall that Albert Pike, certainly an appreciator of “the gods” in some artful sense given his poem “Hymn to the Gods”, still heaped opprobrium on the Lucretian worldview by excoriating the “swinish doctrine of Epicurus.”
[xlix] Alex Horne
[l] There are strains of Christian apophatic mysticism, which seem antithetical to the Masonic viewpoint.
[li] Charles Taylor, p. 225.
[lii] Douglas Knoop and P. Jones. “Freemasonry and the Idea of Natural Religion.” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, CVI (1946), p. 45.
[liii] George Sherburn. [Albert C. Baugh, Editor.] “The Restoration and Eighteenth Century (1660-1789)” in A Literary History of England. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. 1948, p. 824.
[liv] George Sherburn, p. 824.
[lv] Quoted in George Sherburn, p. 825.
[lvi] Franklin Baumer. Religion and the Rise of Skepticism. New York: Harcourt , Brace, and Co. , 1960, P. 64.
[lvii] It is crucial to keep in mind that even in the Eighteenth Century this matter was parsed by some in a rather pragmatic manner. This is important as a background for Freemasonry, though few phenomena could have has such a clearly pragmatic way of delimiting association as the blackball. Still it is interesting and I think supportive of my general point, for instance, that “Shaftesbury…separates two ‘very different’ kinds of atheist. One sort of atheist ‘absolutely denies’ and the other ‘only doubts.’ “ ( Paul Russell. The Riddle of Hume’s Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 219.)
[lviii]Heinrich Schneider. The Quest for Mysteries: The Masonic Background for Literature in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1947, p. 30.
[lix] Douglas Knoop and P. Jones, p. 41.
[lx] Douglas Knoop and P. Jones, p.47.