Vol. XXVI No. 12 — December 1948

The Golden Rule and Freemasonry

A quarter of a century ago, M.W. Arthur S. Tompkins, grand master in New York, 1922 and 1923, wrote:

The great need of the times is for the practical manifestation of the spirit of fraternity and brotherhood as it is embodied in Freemasonry — the spirit of giving and doing for others, the spirit of service, the unselfish spirit, more love and less hate — more kindness and less bitterness, more toleration and less bigotry. What a transformation this old world would witness, and how it would be filled with joy and peace and thanksgiving, if men everywhere would learn and practice and live by the Golden Rule. It is too much to expect until the hearts of men are regenerated and their selfish intolerance and brutal instincts are transformed into the attributes of love, service and toleration by the influences of religion and the doctrines of Freemasonry. We Masons may, and should, make practical application of the truths of our great Fraternity and give concrete expression to its tenets by the manner of our lives and the force of our example, the words we speak and the things we do, and thereby we may hasten the day of universal peace and a worldwide brotherhood.

Woodrow Wilson, President during World War I, said:

Surely a man has come to himself only when he has found the best that is in him, and has satisfied his heart with the highest achievement he is fit for. It is only then that he knows of what he is capable and what his heart demands. And, assuredly, no thoughtful man ever came to the end of his life, and had time and a little space of calm from which to look back upon it, who did not know and acknowledge that it was what he had done unselfishly and for others, and nothing else, that satisfied him in the retrospect and made him feel that he had played the man. That alone seems to him the real measure of himself, the real standard of his manhood.

The adjective golden has been applied to many subjects by countless men. We speak of the Golden Age of man, when everyone was happy and there were no problems. There are the Golden Apples of mythology; the Golden Bull, an Edict of Charles IV; the Golden Calf, made by Aaron; the Golden Fleece of mythology; the Golden Fleece, an order of knighthood, referred to in Masonry; the Golden Gate, connecting San Francisco Bay with the ocean (named by Sir Francis Drake); the Golden Gate Canyon, a beauty spot in Yellowstone National Park, not far from the northern entrance; the Golden Horn, the inlet on the Bosphorus on which is the city of Constantinople; the Golden Mean, meaning “nothing in excess”; the Golden Number, marked in gold on Roman calendars, now used in obtaining the date of Easter; the Golden Wedding, the fiftieth anniversary, and so on almost indefinitely. Man has used the word to express that which was at once beautiful, valuable, important, necessary.

“Do as you would be done by” is the popular wording of the Golden Rule. The words do not appear in the Great Light; there the truth is phrased (Matthew 7:12) “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” A different version is given by Luke 6:31: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Jesus phrased it yet another way, in the Second Commandment, (Matthew 22:39) “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Who first called this thought “The Golden Rule”? Isaac Watts (1674-1748) gets credit for it in the London Encyclopedia. Clement Ellis, an English churchman, spoke of “the just rule — not that leaden one — but that other golden one,” in 1660, fourteen years before Watts was born. Still earlier (1540) the phrase was used by a mathematician to describe the rule of proportion.

Whoever first named it, the rule of life is far older than the gentle Man of Galilee; indeed, it has been a part of so many of the worlds religions that there is no way to prove who first originated the thought. Rabbi Lewis Browne, in The World’s Great Scriptures lists a few phrasings of the Golden Rule as they have been in other Volumes of the Sacred Law besides our own Bible:

BRAHMANISM: “This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” — Mahabharata.

BUDDHISM: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” — Udana-Varga.

CONFUCIANISM: “Is there one maxim which ought to be acted upon throughout one’s whole life? Surely it is the maxim of loving kindness: Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” — Analects.

TAOISM: “Regard your neighbors gain as your own gain, and your neighbors loss as your own loss. — T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien.

ZOROASTRIANISM: “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.” — Dadistan-i Dinik.

JUDAISM: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowman. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.” — Talmud, Shabbat.

ISLAM: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” — Sunnah.

Literary references to the Golden Rule, paraphrases, recastings, are without number. A few are famous: Aristotle thought: “We should behave to friends as we would wish friends to behave to us”; Emerson stated: “Every man takes care that his neighbor does not cheat him. But a day comes when he begins to care that he does not cheat his neighbor. Then all goes well.” Shakespeare could not neglect so great a truth of life — the master who put so many truisms into unforgettable quotation said: “Be as just and gracious unto me as I am confident and kind to thee.”

Even some fun has been made of the Golden Rule. Bernard Shaw thought: “Do not unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same!” and Edward Noyes Westcott, author of a best seller of half a century ago, had David Harem say: “Do unto the other feller the way he’d like to do unto you, and do it fust!”

Freemasonry took the Golden Rule for her own at a date so early no man may name it with accuracy. Just when the guilds’ and the operative builders’ tools and rules became foundation stones for the teaching of morals and ethics is perhaps less important than that the philosophy of Masonry does so strongly emphasize that rule of conduct which has been a foundation stone of all religions.

The Golden Rule is phrased as such only once in modern Masonic ritual; in the Charge to the Entered Apprentice, as almost universally given: “There are three great duties which, as a Mason, you are charged to inculcate . . . to your neighbor, in acting upon the square and doing unto him as you wish he should do unto you. . . .”

But if only put into words once, the Golden Rule permeates the ethical content of all three degrees.

In the anteroom the initiate meets the Golden Rule concealed in the first words he there hears: “Our ancient and honorable fraternity welcomes to her doors and admits to her privileges worthy men of all creeds and of every race, but she insists that all men shall stand upon an exact equality. . . .”

The Golden Rule is the only formula of life by which men who are “upon an exact equality” can live. He hears the 133rd Psalm under unforgettable circumstances — brethren who dwell together in unity, like those upon an exact equality, must act and interact upon the Golden Rule or unity could not exist.

In the Rite of Destitution, the Entered Apprentice is taught the need of relief to the distressed; to contribute to the necessities of all “in a like destitute condition” — to do, obviously, as he would be done by.

If he climbs Jacob’s Ladder with understanding, he knows that the charity there explained, like that of the Rite of Destitution, is an essential of human conduct; if he offers it not to his neighbor he may not expect it for himself.

Throughout the three degrees the initiate learns much of the square; in the Entered Apprentice Degree it is set before him as part of the furniture of his lodge and as an emblem of virtue. In a Chinese book named The Great Learning, the Chinese version of the Golden Rule is given and then the author adds: “this is called the principle of acting on the square.”

The Entered Apprentice learns of the Principle Tenets, usually denominated Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth, (sometimes Friendship, Morality and Brotherly Love) and then is told: “By the exercise of brotherly love we are taught to regard the whole human species as one family; the high and low, the rich and poor . . .” again emphasizing the equality of brethren, who must, to maintain that equality and unity, act each by each as each would wish to be acted by.

In the Fellowcraft Degree are many references founded on the Golden Rule, inculcating the Second Commandment, and supplementing the teachings of the Entered Apprentice Degree in a manner both beautiful and satisfying. Some of these are direct; more commands than admonitions, as when the brother being passed is instructed of the evil done by him who cheats or wrongs his fellowman. Other teachings, if indirect, are perhaps the stronger for that; such is the quotation in which God promises Amos to erect a plumbline “in the midst of my people Israel.”

Here one of the greatest teachings of Masonry is concealed for the Fellowcraft to dig out for himself; ethical instruction to judge the work of others as he would wish his own to be judged — by his own plumbline; his own standards, his own ideas of what is good and true and square and worthy. As each man has a conscience by which he acts, so every man wishes to be judged by his own standards — by the plumbline “in the midst” of us. The great Masonic principle of toleration is here set forth — that Masonic judgment of a brother must be by the brother’s standards, not the standards of the judge. God promised Amos to set the plumbline “in the midst of my people Israel, I will not again pass by them anymore.” The Mason who judges others by their own plumbline pleads mutely that they judge him by his — surely a beautiful way to inculcate the Golden Rule.

The Fellowcraft is again taught of the square — another veiled reference to the Chinese version of the Golden Rule — in the instructions about the working tools. He is to square his actions by the square of virtue, which as has already been noted, is the square of the Golden Rule. He is admonished, too, to “keep a tongue of good report,” a phrase which may have more than one interpretation. But most will agree that one of its meanings is that a good word should be spoken of another; that praise, not blame, should be pronounced upon the absent, which of course is a part of the Golden Rule. And finally the Fellowcraft is adjured to judge with candor, admonish with friendship and reprehend with justice. All men wish these at the hands of their friends; there is no Mason but should offer these to this brethren as a Masonic exemplification of the Golden Rule.

It is in the Sublime Degree of Master Mason, however, that the greatest teachings of the Golden Rule are set forth. Every Master Mason may repeat again to himself his obligation in this degree, and be sure that these promises which he has made for the sake of others are those which he wants to have others remember in their dealings with him.

He will remember that the purpose of the trowel is to spread the cement of brotherly love for those who can best work and best agree — and no man works best or agrees at all, who cannot offer kindness for kindness, courtesy for courtesy, affection for affection.

In the three steps upon the master’s carpet Masons learn that we have duties to our neighbors as well as to God and to ourselves. In the Bee Hive is the admonition that we must not sit, contented, while our fellow creatures around us are in want; sloth and the Golden Rule cannot live at the same time and place. Here, too, is the phrasing of a truth the world learns slowly — too slowly! — that mankind were made dependent on each other for protection and security. We may not depend, each of us, upon our neighbor, if our neighbor, in turn, cannot depend upon us.

Here is a curious bit of lore; Seneca — famous Roman statesman and author — said: “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.” In the Charge to a Master Mason as almost universally given are there words: “It is your province to recommend to your inferiors, obedience and submission; to your equals, courtesy and affability; to your superiors, kindness and condescension.”

But solid teaching, beautiful exemplification and a spiritual interpretation of the Golden Rule are found in the very heart of the degree — the Five Points of Fellowship. The need to go gladly to assist a brother; the welfare of others we should seek not only by actions but in devotions; the requirement to keep sacred and inviolate our brother’s confidences, whether they be of good or ill; the hands of fellowship we offer in support, in rescue if help be needed; the advice and counsel and warning we give to our brother even at cost to ourselves.

Are not these the hopes on which we build high? Are not these the virtues in another which afford us comfort and happiness because we know they are for us?

Here is the truth set forth as the Great Teachers taught it — here is the Second Commandment made manifest in ritual and in noblesse oblige. Could it be seen and known and loved of all men it would be the heart of a world happy and at peace.

It is because Freemasonry so well teaches it, and, as well as faltering humans may, so many Masons practice it, that the very soul of Freemasonry may be said to be The Golden Rule.

The Masonic Service Association of North America