PS Review of Freemasonry

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voltaire writing
"If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?"
- Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 6
Bro. Gerald Reilly
Autumn 2008

by Bro. Gerald Reilly

Those who through e-technology frequently communicate with others of like mind will be aware of the dangers of humour! That is to say, what appears to be humorous in culture may not necessarily translate in an intended way. Idiom does tend to have a life of its own.


A common humorous enquiry in English is, “How many XXXs does it take to change a light bulb?” The intention of the prescribed answer is to provide insight into weaknesses and limitations within the XXX group. Hence the answer(s) to the question, “How many freemasons does it take to change a light bulb lays bare to the world what manner of people we are; there are two possible responses that come to mind.


The first is that it takes three; an entered apprentice to change it, a director of ceremonies to oversee it and a senior officer to say that isn’t the way we used to change light bulbs. The second possibility is to respond by spluttering “What! Change!   Indeed, perhaps it is the case that both are revealing what manner of people we are; perhaps both are really alternative forms of the same answer. 


When looking at these early renditions of the ritual the cry goes out; why change?


Your Candide is beginning to believe that a freemason can either take an interest in the early/originally printed versions of the various rituals or can have a normal life – but that you can’t do both! When looking at these early renditions of the ritual the cry goes out; why change? 


In Finch’s Masonic Treatise of 1802, in catechetical form and pertaining to the Second Degree, contains the response; Diligence, assiduity and application are qualifications for the Second Class in which an accurate elucidation of science, both in theory and practice is given, human reason is cultivated by a due exertion of our rational and intellectual powers; nice and difficult theories are explained, fresh discoveries are produced, and those already known are beautifully embellished. Wow! They don’t write like that any more. Perhaps in our age of technological bedazzlement we cannot see the light for the strobes; perhaps we cannot see if the light bulb needs changing, or not. 


It cannot be denied that in our masonic legacy there is a celebration of nature; that is to say, an awe and wonderment of Nature - the world, the universe - as described by scientific method. We are permitted, enjoined even, to differentiate between “Nature” the object of our study and “science” the methodology by which we pursue the study. This study takes the form of describing Nature in terms of prediction and control; that is to say the human management of Nature - we live in the age of the Anthropocene.


Perhaps…. the light bulb has to be changed for one of much lower power consumption but of higher sustainability.


But, for what purpose do we seek to understand and manage Nature? As freemasons, we are what we do, committed to the work ethic and are aware of the ultimate reality which is, that we need food, clothing and shelter for, without which, we will surely die. This world is a workplace where we cooperate to produce food, clothing and shelter. Our peculiar system of morality has emanated, not from beyond space and time, but rather from the workplace and the values that are required for the successful production of food clothing and shelter are those that we apply to the rest of life. It is only by a functional connection with work and production that morality is possible. Yes, it is from the material that our peculiar system of morality derives. Oh how true; Satan finds work for idle hands to do!  Deviance is the path of those who are without a functional connection to work.


In 1802 Finch provided in catechetical form a basis for the masonic respect of Nature as described by scientific method. It may be the case that by 1802 the synergies between the Grand Lodge of England and the Royal Society were no longer darting their rays in full meridian splendour. Yet the élan remained, and remains to some extent, captured within the ritual. Properly understood the Freemasonry of the 18th Century is modern and relevant and applies to the world today as much as ever. Perhaps more so given what we know, the light bulb has to be changed for one of much lower power consumption but of higher sustainability.


 Therefore in this light of this we can usefully consider diligence, assiduity and application, the moral imperatives required by the mason aspiring to the Second Class. It goes without saying that these terms pertain to the world of work. The root thought of the term “diligence” is love – diligence a labour of love. Its legal force is that it describes the quality of work as being beyond any possible claim for negligence and the worker beyond reproach. Both work and worker are fit for purpose.


Perhaps our light bulbs are hidden in the bushel of the lodge room


The term “assiduity” picks up on diligence requiring it to be both consistent and constant. “Application” indicates “to fasten” and here is the reality of the masonic oath, a total commitment to square work, the indivisibility of good work and a good person – the mason is what he or she does in the workplace – no more and no less! Perhaps these can be summarised as being honesty and fairness. Hence the labourer is worthy of his or her hire.


These values of the workplace are applied to the rest of life as the world can be understood to be a workplace in which food, clothing and are produced and distributed. This distribution has also to be fair and as one sixth of the world are starving the view could be taken that the moral challenge of fairer distribution, more than anything else, should be informing the actions of masons and lodges in their communities. Perhaps our light bulbs are hidden in the bushel of the lodge room – they don’t need changing - just the walls of exclusion taken down and the light allowed to shine and lead in communities.


“How many masons does it take to change a light bulb?” ….“all of them”.


Practices in the workplace develop and progress; this is sublimely captured by Finch when speaking of the description of nature by scientific method he speaks of already known, both nice and difficult theories being beautifully embellished and fresh discoveries being produced. That the work and the worker must be fit for purpose does not change but how this is achieved will change – call it moral relativity if you will. However, it must be remembered that it is inappropriate for ecclesiastical organisations, that have fixed views, to endorse “discoveries” old, new or embellished as clearly what is learned about Nature through scientific method is matter in motion.  Changes in the way that food clothing and shelter are produced will effect changes between the relationships of people in the workplace and those changes will apply to the rest of life. “How many masons does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer can only be, “all of them”.  That is to say, in the workplace each person has their role and contribution to make. If a man or woman is not clear about their role it is a duty of care to shed light on the subject. In the workplace this duty of care takes the form of (i) seeing the person; (ii) celebrating their abilities; and (iii) developing their potential. Surely this is recognised by all those with managerial responsibility. But, if this is true in the workplace then surely there is the moral imperative to apply it to the rest of life. Yes, as masons we all must look at the rest of humankind to see each as a person, recognise their contribution and ensure that they are bettered by our interaction.

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