THE SECRET OF FREEMASONRY
A. E. Waite
Thomas De Quincey, the immortal consumer of a daily dose of 60,000 drops of laudanum, was a man of many words, and of these some were sufficiently bitter and satirical. Writing on the subject of secret societies, he once said that Freemasonry was the great imposture of the modern world, even as the Eleusinian Mysteries were the great fraud of antiquity. It must be admitted that in the course of its existence the Masonic Brotherhood has numbered in its ranks some exceedingly strange personalities. The transcendental trickeries of Cassanova, St. Germain, and Cagliostro must rank among the most entertaining scandals of history; but the rogueries which are grafted for a time upon great institutions are not to be identified with essential elements which go down into the heart of institutions, and are part of their bone and flesh. It would be preposterous to suppose that a passing shaft of De Quincey has clung like a stigma to Masonry in the popular mind, but it is certain that those persons of average intelligence and education who are not attracted by its mystery are still frequently repelled by the conceptions it presents to them. A vast institution which includes upwards of ten thousand lodges in all parts of the world, and considerably over one million members, which in the mere matter of paid-up capital must be enormously rich, and of almost incalculable resources in the collective wealth of the Brothers—where is the limit of its possibilities? Each of these lodges is a storehouse of extraordinary symbols which cannot be generally interpreted—what do they mean? Every one of these million initiates is bound by solemn vows to an inviolable secrecy—what do such pledges conceal? Is it some colossal conspiracy which has been elaborating for centuries, and possibly is now ripe for universal revolution? Alternately favoured and proscribed in most countries where it has openly and conspicuously flourished, long persecuted and still consistently denounced by the Church of Rome, accredited more or less definitely with most of the social cataclysms which have convulsed Europe, identified in methods and ends with the dark policies of plotting Illuminés and Carbonari; though in England it may be a benefit society, abroad it is a political league, and where the surface is all mystery and secrecy there must be some volcanic danger in the depths. So reasons the ignorant and nervous mind. There is a literature of the subject which exhibits it in another light; but it is practically unknown to the vulgar, who at most are acquainted with the bogus revelations of Carlile and a few kindred retailers of “the secret out.”
There are just three elements in the mystery of Freemasonry which deserve to be briefly appraised. In the first place, the brotherhood has existed for an indeterminate number of years, of which the first unit is occasionally denominated the night of time, and it is unequipped with any adequate materials for its own history. Apart from the fabulous extravagances of romantic theorists, it has no notion of the date, place, or circumstances of its origin, and it is wholly improbable that the researches of the most painstaking antiquaries would succeed in disentombing its past. This element of mystery may, therefore, be accepted as of an essential and unavoidable kind. Its natural consequence has been the gradual growth of a second species of mystery in the fables which have been devised by imaginative persons, who have produced many marvellous histories designed for the enhancement of its dignity. Their name is legion; a moderate computation at least would fix them as numerically equal to the “Arabian Nights’ Entertainments,” and their collection, would any one undertake it, might be worthy of Scheherazade herself; it is all glamour and enchantment, and as each is exclusive of the other, as they begin with Adam in Paradise and end with the alchemist Ashmole, there is an enormous variety of legend and a very satisfactory chaos. But as we have ceased to write folios on the Druids, and on the origin of Stonehenge and Carnac, as the archaeology of to-day is content to confess itself ignorant about many matters which gave monuments of erudition to our ancestors, what is fabulous in the history of Masonry may also become a thing of the past; the adept may be content to be ignorant of what he cannot possibly know, so that this element in Masonic mystery is not of an essential kind. There is, finally, the secret of Masonry. There is that profound and abysmal mystery which the rope and plummet of the vulgar have never sounded, though it is more than broadly whispered that all initiates who have bottomed it have discovered themselves in vacuo bombinans, like the famous chimera of the schoolmen. In spite of Carlile and Johnson, in spite of occasional revelations of expelled and seceded associates, the secret of Masonry would appear to be still undivulged. Now, in an association which has existed in the open light of history for at least two hundred years, which, moreover, is credibly averred to be as ancient as old night, which numbers, as we have seen, ten thousand lodges and a million members, and has occasionally initiated that sex which is the chartered libertine of the great world of gossip—in such an association, it is plain, from the nature of humanity, that there is no secret. Had there been such a treasure in such a storehouse of mystery, it would inevitably have been spoliated long ago, oaths and adjurations notwithstanding. As it is, the vacuous nature of the great arcanum of allegorical architecture is its permanent protection. Curiosity has attracted thousands to the ranks of the brotherhood, and they have returned to inform us that there is no cause for mystery, that there is nothing to tell, and of course they have never been believed.
There was possibly a time in the past, between the epochs of chaos and Solomon, between Solomon and Eleusis, or between Eleusis and the “Artist Elias,” when Masonry may have had a secret. The doctrine of analogy—in other words, the principle that there is no smoke without fire—would lead us to conclude so much; but it has melted, like its early Grand Masters, into “the infinite azure of the past.” The prophet has, in fact, departed, and has left nothing but his footprints to be cherished by his less favoured successors. The secret of Freemasonry is therefore a mystification rather than a mystery, but it is an inheritance from the past; it is not a conscious imposture; it has been hallowed by the curiosity of the centuries; it answers well as a modus operandi, and may therefore pass unchallenged in an age which has elaborated the gospel of utilitarian philosophy.
The society, however, has an object, though its secrecy be its sole secret, and the universal diffusion of such a brotherhood is in itself a substantial indication that this object is catholic or universal in character. The dutiful children of the Latin Church are taught to believe that it is atheism in religion and anarchy in law; there are others who affirm that it is the transmutation of base metals into gold, and that it is only the wealth of the society which prevents this object being practically prosecuted by its members. Many erudite persons, on the other hand, are assured that the sole purpose of the entire order, whether here or at Pampelavuso, is to execute a tardy vengeance on pope and king for the butchery of Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Templars. It is equally certain in the opinion of yet another section that the restoration of the Stuart dynasty is the sole end of the Royal Art. All of these theories have been proved times out of number to the satisfaction of those who hold them. Yet the world has been preserved from universal cataclysms, few persons as yet manufacture gold; the dust of five centuries has collected above the ashes of the Templars; and the House of Hanover remains unmenaced by the mythic dynasty of Bavaria. The truth is that, as usual, popular opinion and romantic theory have mistaken the transitory purposes of individual Masons for the grand ends of the united brotherhood. Some Continental lodges have undoubtedly meddled with politics, and hatched plots in the penetralia of their temples under the mask of the square and compass. The grand luminaries of the Reign of Terror were most, if not all, of them Masons, and the Grand Orient of France in the days of Maximilian Robespierre seethed in a sea of blood which was of a redder dye than her allegorical Rose of Morning. But this was an incidental aberration at a period of fever heat. So also in the middle of the eighteenth century that form of the golden passion which was known to our ancestors under the name of the Philosopher’s Stone, took possession of the strongholds of the fraternity, and Masonry, both in France and in Germany, was practically divided between those who were in search of alchemical secrets, and that extraordinary crowd of Mystics who were followers of Weishaupt, Martinez Pasquales, and the more celebrated initiate Saint Martin.
The true object of the Masonic fraternity differs from the aims which have been ascribed to it precisely in that way wherein a universal institution would be expected to differ from a fanatical craze. In its vulgar aspect, its purpose is benevolence and providence; in its esoteric significance, it is an attempt to achieve the moral regeneration of the human race; by the construction of a pure, unsectarian system of simple morality, to create the perfect man. It is therefore at one with the intention of evolution, and at one with the end of Mysticism. Whether it has consistently pursued this sublime end, whether, as a body, its members have conformed their daily lives to this ambition, is another question. It is sufficient for our purpose to indicate the true aim of the fraternity, which, even at a period of generous indifference like the present, has continued to be misjudged.