PRETENTIOUS BUT USELESS BODIES
by Bro. A. G. Pitts
ONE is apt to think that there must be some excuse for the existence of the Scottish Rite, in view of the amount of time and money spent upon it. Therefore I am not surprised that the editor of THE AMERCAN FREEMASON, in his article in the April number, gave that organization credit for being, at least potentially, a system further elucidating and explaining the degrees of Masonry. I am convinced that the editor gave it too much credit. It would perhaps be correct to say that it was the original aim of the body to do such work. But it is out of date. Every intelligent man who has gone through its ceremonies admits that it has no significance; that as a key to Masonic mysteries it is negligible; that where the makers of a certain one or two degrees appear to have had a glimmer of truth, that glimmer has been dimmed, and for all practical purposes extinguished, by the ritual-mongers. See the testimony of Albert Edward Waite in his new book, The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry, as the latest piece of evidence. There was a great plenty of it before.
It seems to me that the third degree, rightly understood, asks a momentous question, and leaves it unanswered. It is not strange that many attempts have been made to answer it. It is not strange that as many as 1,400 Masonic degrees have been invented in the attempt to give an answer to this question. Not one has succeeded, and each has been practically abandoned as its failure has become evident. The final conclusion is not that the question is unanswerable, but that there is no one answer for all seekers. One Mason gets his answer in the Christian religion, another even in Mohammedanism, another even in agnosticism. If this matter were rightly understood the universality and the tolerance of Masonry would have a real and a definite meaning. Nor would we hear any more nonsense to the effect that Masonry is a religion — "religion enough for any man," is the common formula. Masonry is the introduction to religion. It has to do with a certain loss — a loss of real consequence. For the loss actually represented is only a symbol. The question it asks is, how can that which is lost be recovered and that is a question which for some men must be answered by religion. If a man is of that sort, Masonry leads to religion.
Masonry is tolerant and the perfection of tolerance, and that without any effort. Masonry does not have to aim to be tolerant: it can be nothing else. For it leads up to a certain door and asks a certain question, which door is the important door and which question is the all-important question for every man — Jew, Gentile, Chinaman or negro. And there it leaves each man to find the answer for himself, and by the very fact that it itself gives no answer, it intimates in the clearest possible way that the answer is not the same to every man. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the lesson of Masonry is not that the way back to God is different for each soul — that there are as many ways as there are souls; that one should not put his trust in any fixed formula, in any well-trodden path, in any set of guide-posts.
Now in the eighteenth century, and especially in France — the age and the land of systems — men were unwilling to leave Masonry in this apparently incomplete state, and each man who had a solution to the question of Masonry thought it the one solution for all the world. Result: not fewer than 1,400 Masonic degrees, each set fondly believed by its concocter to be the one answer — the one final chapter of Masonic philosophy.
These fall into certain categories, the more important of which are degrees founded respectively upon Ceremonial Magic, Philosophical Alchemy, Christianity, the Kabbala, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, Mysticism and Hermetical Science. It is very likely that these several categories are not exclusive, and that some of them shade off the one into another. It is not worth while to inquire, for they are all out of date and out-worn. I do not mean to say that Christianity is out-worn, but Christian degrees never had any more excuse for existence than would have Mohammedan degrees. To the Christian man Masonry propounds the riddle of the universe, and if Christianity solves it to his mind, it sends him to the church — to any variety of the Christian church which satisfies his conscience. It propounds the same riddle to the Mohammedan, and if Mohammedanism solves it to his mind, it sends him to Mohammedanism, which has its sects also. There is no excuse for Christian degrees, unless they shed some new light on Christianity — unless there are not enough of Christian sects — unless they teach a variety of Christianity differing from that of any or all the sects — unless some Christian soul must have some new way back to God charted for him through Christianity.
At this very day in some parts of the world Masons are trying to follow up Masonry through Philosophical Alchemy, through Gnosticism, through all the different categories of Masonic degrees already catalogued. Such men have right to continue to struggle with the Rite of Memphis, the Rite of Misraïm, and what not. But what sense can there be in a hodge podge of Masonic degrees of all categories at once? That is what the Scottish Rite degrees are, and, in this country, most absurd of all, the men who go through the motions of studying and of practicing them are usually professing Christians.
The truth is that the Scottish Rite degrees in America have no other than an archaeological interest. But men who never heard of Philosophic Alchemy or Gnosticism or Hermeticism; men who could not define one of these terms, profess to be disciples and students of Scottish Rite philosophy. The truth is, of course, that the Scottish Rite degrees have, in American hands, lost all semblance of philosophy; that the peculiar doctrines which they once taught, traces of which can be found in the rituals by a really enlightened student, have been cut out and covered up until not one initiate in ten thousand ever guesses what the degrees originally meant, and would be shocked and alarmed if he did guess.
If one were really interested in Occultism he might well study the Scottish Rite degrees as well as, but not more than, the rest of the 1,400, or perhaps a selection of 300 or 400. When a scholar makes this broad study, his conclusions as to the merit of the Scottish Rite will be those of Albert Edward Waite. I quote from his book, "The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry":
It is only the Rose Croix degree of which he speaks respectfully. This because he is himself a partisan of Christian high degree Masonry. But he makes it pretty plain that from his standpoint the Christian Rose Croix degree can be found in much better form elsewhere than in the Scottish Rite, and especially the Scottish Rite as re-written by Albert Pike, who was not himself a Christian, and who labors in his Morals and Dogma to prove that the Rose Croix degree is not Christian.
"The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is inchoate and negligible as a system." — Vol. I, p. 127.
"The unreason of its practical grouping." — Ibid.
It follows that if anyone wishes seriously to study Christian high degree Masonry in any aspect, or in all aspects, he must go further than the Scottish Rite.
How is it to be accounted for that the Scottish Rite has come to be regarded by nine American Masons out of ten as an integral part of Masonry, and in fact the most important part — the real Masonry to which the Lodge is only the vestibule — while all other high degree rites are by them neglected and despised? It is a marvelous thing that it may be accounted for to a certain extent by one who understands the American character.
Americans worship success. No true American cares a rap how any rich man got his money — he wants only to be sure that he has it, and a plenty of it. Forthwith he falls down and worships.
Partly by accident, partly because of its system of government, putting all power and the handling of large funds in the hands of a very few, the Scottish Rite was the one selected within our time to be pushed by some able and selfish and ambitious men — notably Bros. Pike and Drummond. Within our time, I say. For while the Rite can trace its origin back to a group of Jews in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1801, it never had any real existence in this country until within our time. How it came to succeed so marvelously would take too long to tell, and I am not sure I could tell if I were to try. I will venture to say that Pike and Drummond were themselves astonished at their own success.
But it is no mystery why it is so highly regarded today. It is rich and successful! No American Mason goes back of these two facts. No American Mason feels the need of doing so. Witness the debonair way in which men who never took the Scottish Rite degrees and never studied Scottish Rite history vote in Grand Lodges relative to the "legitimacy" of rival Scottish Rite bodies. It is nothing that from the standpoint of Master Masons all are illegitimate together. But those of us who have taken the trouble to unravel the tangled skein have all found that in point of origins and of early irregularities there is absolutely nothing to choose between the various bodies. But the average Grand Lodge has no trouble in deciding "which is the richest and most successful one" and that is "the only legitimate body."
You and I would have some respect for and some sympathy with a Mason who had made a serious study of the high degrees. But to speak of the Scottish Riters whom we know and of serious study in the same breath is only a good joke. Ninety per cent of them suppose that the Scottish Rite has always been a part of Masonry, and do not believe us when we tell them that it is Masonic only in so far as it has lately succeeded in attaching itself to Masonry.
Moreover, if a Mason wished to study the "high" degrees, it would be most irrational to join the Scottish Rite, and stop there. In the first place it is not necessary to join anything and to burden one's conscience with a heap of obligations presented by men in whom he can have and ought to have little confidence. In the second place the Scottish Rite is only a part, and a small part, of the whole subject. And in the third place the really significant part of the story is what these degrees were originally, not what they have become after being re-written half a dozen times, and modernized by Albert Pike and his contemporaries. As it is, you and I know more about it than 90 per cent of the Princes, and it is funny to have them assume, as they always do, that we are not entitled to have opinion concerning the Rite, because we have not taken the degrees.
To sum up: Many degrees were invented to give answer to the riddle of Masonry. All these answers are obsolete. Today we realize that no answer is possible — at least no one answer for all men. That it is not the function of Masonry to solve, but to propound it, and to stimulate each man to search for his own solution. Each continuation of Masonry has been tried in turn, and has been abandoned. They no longer have any message, and no interest to any but a few students of occultism — studied not as a practical science, but as a curious illustrations of the ways of the human mind. The least important of these systems is the Scottish Rite, because it was never a complete and harmonious system, but a patchwork of unrelated fragments. In its modern form it is still less significant and interesting.
As to the harm it does, you, Brother Editor, have covered the ground partially. Let it be added that it seeks to control the Lodges as well as Grand Lodges. I have sat in Lodge and seen a combination of Riters carry a vote against the interest of the Lodge and in interest of the Scottish Rite. And there is also the money cost, the amounts paid for things absolutely worthless. Genuine Masonry suffers because of this waste, and the best purposes of the fraternity are thereby kept back and impoverished.