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
Winter 2007

by Bro. Gerald Reilly

Readers of this Column may be interested to know that Candide recently visited the Pantheon in Paris and there to honour the last resting place of Brother Voltaire, Brother Rousseau and other Enlightenment Brethren. Yes, a most moving experience. It is also the location of Foucault’s Pendulum; Umberto Eco’s book of the same name is, it is respectfully suggested, essential reading for Freemasons.


Referring to another Masonic read, under the entry Ethics and morality in Mackey’s Encyclopaedia, we find:-


“Freemasonry is not a system of morality……and was never intended to be but is a fraternity of which the grand idea is work…….never intended to be an ethical cultural society, nor one devoted to moral reform; it requires that any work of moral reform shall have been completed (if needed) (sic!) in the petitioner as a qualification for his candidacy. Also, to describe Freemasonry as a system of morality….makes it appear that it may have one to itself whereas there is no datum….to show that in any grand lodge …..the question of forming a system of morality has ever been raised.”


For many, this claim will fly in the face of the ritual with which they made their entry and progression into, and through, the degrees of Freemasonry. Yet, it is clear why this was written and for whose benefit. It certainly addressed problems at the faultlines of Masonic theory and practice. However, in so doing, it opened a fissure that is wider and into which any rational basis for Freemasonry seemingly disappears into the fiery mantle below.  Not so much a body without a soul; but rather, a language without a grammar: that by definition cannot be possible. 


Mackey’s pragmatic could be dismissed by suggesting that any organisation, with a constitution, creates a system which states, what is to be done, how it is to be done and safeguards against contrary practice; in so doing it must be understood as a cultural and ethical entity. That is to say, a system that defines “what” and “how” and “what not” and “how not” must provide a moral imperative for those who join of their own freewill and accord.  However, please permit me to dilate.  


To claim that any moral reform will have been completed (“if necessary”!) in a petitioner entails the question - reform from what and to what? What is the moral position that qualifies a petitioner for admission? Whatever it is, it must equate with that of the particular grand lodge’s own concept of morality. That in turn must identify that particular grand lodge with a moral position; whether or not, that was its intention, or if “the question ever been raised”!  


The reason why Mackey wished to dismiss the idea of Freemasonry as being a discrete system of morality follows precisely along the lines of Anderson’s own pragmatism wanting to be, “all things to all (the right) men”, without incurring a tectonic collision with the plates of the established systems of morality in general; and, with the leaderships’ of the communities of revealed faiths in particular.


However, all is not lost; far from it. On one point Mackey is so correct and in so being, the rest of his comments dissolve. Yes, “Freemasonry’s….grand idea is work”. That being the case, Freemasonry has created its own distinctive system of morality. 


In the Autumn 2007 edition of Pietre Stones review, Candide’s Column, written with Dr. Judith Rasoletti, it was suggested that:- “What may be a unique feature of Freemasonry is that the source of its system of morality is found in the places of work and labour and from there applied to life rather than the other way around.  That is to say, the virtues of integrity, cooperation, accuracy (honesty) and assiduity that combine to produce quality outcomes arise from the workplace, the Masonic Lodge, and are then applied to the rest of life.”  


Perhaps it is timely for a development of this concept. However, and by way of setting an unfamiliar scene, the suggestion is made that the designation, “a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols” so fully, stunningly and breathtakingly, describes any and all religions that one could be persuaded that it is a definition made in heaven. The revealed religions are thus called as they claim an extraterrestrial inspiration for a text written, edited, interpreted and disseminated by terrestrials. These texts include the “what” and “how and the “what not” and “how not” as indicated above.


It is with great relief that I indicate my unawareness of any GL claiming an extra-terrestrially inspired text as being the basis of its constitution. As Mackey correctly says, “the grand idea is work”. Or perhaps even better, the grand idea is the work-place and the values that originate and emanate there from.


Freemasons are very clear that without food, clothing and shelter, existence for humans is not possible. And, perhaps it is the case that without a surplus of these primary material goods, human existence in anything like its fullness is not possible. These primary social goods have to be produced, albeit by the sweat of the brow (or stress of the mind in the case on non-manual operatives).  It is in the process of producing and distributing these primary goods and the activities of the operatives involved – labour - is to which we must turn our attention in order to seek and identify the source of the Masonic system of morality.                   


Obviously, and given Freemasonry as known and loved, we are drawn to the building site as being the paradigm workplace. However, what are the requirements that are both necessary and sufficient to ensure the construction of a building fit for purpose? Firstly, there has to be a purpose and it will necessarily inform the design of the building. This will be followed by an action plan to sub-divide the design proposal into a series of deliverable operations; and finally, resources of labour, materials and the implements of labour with which to execute the action plan. What is it that is required of the labour force to ensure that the outcome will be fit for purpose? The only possible answer is, the identification of, and adherence to, a system of workplace values – a system of morality that identifies and defines the “what” and “how” and the “what not” and “how not” - otherwise known as the work ethic. Obviously this will include being trained in workplace practice to ensure the production of an acceptable quality and quantity of output. It is not good that man should dwell alone; therefore, all good human work is teamwork and this entails operations that provide self and mutual respect.


These values are necessary to deliver outcomes that are fit for purpose – good work. Freemasonry is an identification of, and engagement with, good work. That is to say, a oneness with what is required to achieve it, taking these values and applying them to the rest of life.  A person, on first joining the workplace is unaware of these values and is without them; they are taught by degrees!  It is by progressing through these degrees, in the workplace, that the person’s character is thereby improved – built up.  


This is reinforced by Freemasonry. Therefore, Mackey is surely incorrect to suggest that a petitioner is reformed (if necessary – oh dear!) as a prior qualification for initiation.   There are testimonies of masons to the effect that it was through their practice of Freemasonry that the work ethic was acquired and/or reinforced.


 It is through working the degrees in the workplace of the lodge that a person is formed, a better person and more able to be of service to humankind; that is to say, an improving person and one who thereby contributes to building a better world - that, it is respectfully suggested, is Freemasonry’s peculiar system of morality. However, as it emanates from the workplace and not extra-terrestrially, it does enjoy being proscribed by large sectors of the revealed religions.  


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