Vol. XXI No. 12 — December 1943

Square, Level, and Plumb

Among the most important of the working tools of a Freemason, and thus among the most important symbols of Speculative Freemasonry, the square, level, and plumb are essential in all three degrees.

The candidate first sees the square as one of the Three Great Lights; if he is observant, he later finds it hung about the neck of the Master and is instructed that “the square is dedicated to the Master as the proper Masonic emblem of his office.” He also sees the level about the neck of the senior warden and the plumb hung upon the breast of the junior warden. Later, as a Fellowcraft, in the degree which is a symbol of manhood and therefore of the work of a man — he learns of all three as his working tools.

Square, level and plumb obviously must have been known to the builders of a remote antiquity; it is hardly possible to imagine stone buildings of any size constructed without their use. Curiously enough the references to square in the Great Light are but few: 1 Kings 7:5; Ezekiel 41:21, 43:16-17, 45:2. The word level does not occur in either Old or New Testament, and only in Amos is the word plumb to be found and then it is plumbline. Plummet is referred to in 2 Kings 21:13; Isaiah 24:17; and Zechariah 4:10.

It is probable that the plumb is the most ancient of the three tools; it must have come into being coincident with, or shortly after, man first revised a rope or string. Observation would soon show that a weight at the end of a string always hung straight up and down; that two weights on two strings produced parallelism in the strings.

Later must have come the observation of the levelness of a water surface in quiet air; dwellers by sea observed the horizon. Still later the level was developed from the plumb — both are but different forms of the same instrument, the modern level of fluid in a closed tube being young compared to the plumbline in a frame with a broad base.

Doubtless both level and plumb were used on early walls built of unhewn stones; only with the beginnings of a much more highly developed civilization could the concept of “an arc of ninety degrees or the fourth of a circle” come into consciousness. Yet even this is very old; older than the earliest monuments discovered on earth, even old compared to a reference to the square in a Chinese book dated at least seven centuries before Christ.

No man can say how old Freemasonry is, in some form. In any form whatever of operative Freemasonry, however, from which we can conclude that speculative Masonry originated, square, plumb and level were common working tools, and from them developed the moral teachings and ethical significance of Masonic precepts.

It is not necessary here to rehearse the common meanings given to these symbols. All Freemasons know them; indeed, all the world has adopted their symbolism. A “square man” is one who deals honestly. “On the level” is an affirmation of truth. “Plumb” is colloquially used as an adjective of supremacy in some circles, as “You are plumb right in what you say.”

To delve a bit into the rise of these tools from mere instruments to symbols of honesty, right dealing, good character, permanency, solidity of foundation, etc., it is necessary to define the tools in terms of what they accomplish, as well as what they are.

A square is a tool by which a workman can ascertain if two surfaces are at "right” angle each to the other, a “right” angle being of course ninety degrees or the fourth of a circle.

A building stone which is "square” is not necessarily rectangular. A square piece of paper is one with four equal sides, each of which is at a “right” angle with its neighbors. But a “square” building stone may be cubical or oblong; if its six faces are square, each with its immediate neighboring faces, the stone as a whole is "square” whether cubical or not.

A stone which is square remains square no matter what its position may be. It can be suspended in the air in a rope sling and swing like a pendulum; if it was square when suspended, it remains square no matter what gyrations it is caused to have. On the ground, in a wall, balanced on one edge, a square stone remains a square stone and no movement alters its squareness.

This property of the stone — that of squareness — differs sharply from those measured by the level and the plumb. A stone is level when its top and bottom faces are parallel to a free liquid surface. A stone is plumb when its upright faces are at right angles to a free liquid surface. And by common usage, a stone is set plumb only when it is directly above the stones beneath.

Put another way, the square is an instrument used in the hewing of stone to decide when the perfect ashlar has wholly emerged from the rough ashlar. Hewing a stone is wholly a process of taking away, never one of adding to. The perfect ashlar is always within the rough ashlar; requiring patient work of gavel and chisel to chip away the outward uneven layers to reveal the right-angled faces of the perfect ashlar within. Once the work is done it is finished; more taken away after perfection is reached produces imperfection. Once finished and square, the stone remains so regardless of what disposition is made of it.

But the level and plumb are not tools concerned in the making of the perfect ashlar but with the use of the squared stone. It is by level and plumb that the perfect ashlars are built into a wall which will be solid, enduring, stable, strong. The results of their tests are correct positions; they determine if the workman has done well or ill in the disposition of his material. The stonecutter may have labored to produce absolute perfection and succeeded as nearly as man may ever succeed; his work is of little use and small worth if the builder of the wall does not properly apply level and plumb, so that the proper use is made of the right material which has been prepared.

From the moral or Freemasonic standpoint, these differences are important if the whole lesson of the working tools of a Fellowcraft is to be well learned.

Freemasons are taught that the square is an emblem of virtue. Unfortunately, the thought is not very fully developed and the neophyte is left to think through the phrase to its real meaning for himself. A Freemason with an attentive ear and a good memory may recall the stress laid upon the four cardinal virtues in the Entered Apprentice Degree, but many are at a loss to frame even for themselves a workable definition of the word “virtue.” Hence the following brilliant passage from Philosophy of Conduct (G. T. Ladd) is quoted here:

The essential nature of virtue has been much discussed by writers on ethics from the beginning of reflective thinking. Socrates taught that virtue is identical with knowledge of the good, or wisdom. Plato recognized the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice. Aristotle regarded the virtues as those habits of an excellent manhood that distinguish and choose the mean or middle way between the excesses and defects in which the vicious forms of conduct consist. The scholastic moralists followed him in dividing the virtues into the practical and the intellectual. With the spread of Christianity, humility, chastity, and above all charity became prominent as forms of virtuous living. Indeed, many followed Augustine in regarding charity as the source of all virtue. With Bentham and the English and French Sensational school, virtue was made identical with conformity to civil law, or to custom, or to utility, while the New England theologians allied themselves with Augustinian view by reducing all the virtues to benevolence. Modern idealism is recognizing anew the essential truth foreshadowed by the earliest ethical usage of the word, and regards the virtues as various qualities or forms of character and conduct shaped after the ideal of a perfect personal life in social relations.

In the thought of mankind the virtues are those habitual forms of conduct which realize the conception of the better and nobler self.

The Standard Dictionary gives the following synonyms for virtue: "chastity, duty, excellence, faithfulness, goodness, honesty, honor, integrity, justice, morality, probity, purity, rectitude, righteousness, rightness, truth, uprightness, virtuousness, worth, worthiness.”

If, then, the square in a Masonic lodge as an emblem of virtue teaches these things, it is obvious that it is spiritually a means of judging whether character has reached perfection; whether or not a man has come to be adequately represented by the perfect ashlar and has, in very truth, "divested his heart and conscience of all the vices and superfluities of life, thus fitting his mind as a living stone in that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

Here symbolism and practice meet upon common ground. The squared stone may be tumbled about, swung in the air, poised on edge or set in a wall, yet lose no part of its squareness. The man of character may be tumbled about in the world, dangled in the space of misfit, precariously balanced economically or be an integer in solid society, but he keeps his character even as the squared stone keeps its squareness.

A perfect ashlar is built into a plumb wall of level courses and proved by level and plumb. The perfect ashlar can lose its level and deviate from its plumbness if sufficient force be applied to destroy or damage the wall, but the squareness of the stone remains, because it is inherent.

The virtuous man of character may build himself into a level and plumb society in which he plays the part of good citizen, honorable associate, loving father and husband, distinguished servant of his fellows. The accident of circumstances may break him loose from such foundations; he may lose his job, be falsely accused of improper conduct, forced to move to another locality by happenings beyond his control, there to attempt to build life anew. But if his square has really been one of virtue, he will not lose any of his character, though the plumbness and level of his life be wrecked.

“We meet upon the level.” All Freemasons know the phrase. Some of them understand it; others argue about it.

The Declaration of Independence states “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, etc.”

The statement that “all men are created equal” must be read in the light of what follows, and not as an isolated statement of a truth contained in five words. Common experience shows us that all men are not created equal in the sense that all have equal strength, health, size, capacities, talents, abilities. Nor does Freemasonry mean by the level teaching equality that men all possess the same abilities and have all the same capacities. Equality in a lodge, like the equalities in the Declaration, are equalities of fundamental rights.

Indeed, Freeemasonry qualifies her own statement when the ritual refers to the level as admonishing that we all travel upon the level of time — which is the same for all men.

In a lodge we meet upon the level of all having the same right in the Fatherhood of God; the same opportunity to seek Him; the same equal possession of the right of brotherhood with our fellowmen. In the lodge neither place, position, strength, power, money, count at all. Our Masonic equalities are equalities of opportunity for each of us to learn and improve to the limit of our own capacities, just as the civil rights of citizens in this nation are rights to do the best we can with what we have, unfettered by oppression from masters, or prevention by laws which are different for the rich and for the poor.

Albert Pike, one of Americas greatest Masons, wrote:

Masonry follows the ancient manner of teaching. Her symbols are the instructions she gives; and the lectures are but often partial and insufficient one-sided endeavors to interpret those symbols. He who will become an accomplished Mason must not be content to hear or even to understand the lectures, but must, aided by them, and they having as it were marked out the way for him, study, interpret and develop the symbols for himself.

This Bulletin is but the "study, interpretation and development” of three symbols as one Master Mason has done it for himself, and in the hope that these words, enlarging upon and adding to the few and simple phrases concerned with square, level and plumb to be found in the ritual, may be at least a lamp to another’s feet, pointing to a still further study.

For at the end of the promise in the sky which is Freemasonry there is the wealth of knowledge to be found. The never-ending possibilities of study and investigation give the assurance — proved true in multiplied and remultiplied thousands of instances — that at long last he who seeks shall find.

He whose character is formed and judged by the square, and whose place in Freemasonry is positioned by plumb and level, may with confidence assume that, a pilgrim on Masonic paths, he may at long last find the-pot of gold beneath the rainbow’s end.

The Masonic Service Association of North America