Vol. XXXIII No. 9 — September 1955


What is Freemasonry’s greatest symbol?

Some thoughtful brethren incline to the belief that the question may be answered in either of three ways; Freemasonry is a vehicle that has traveled a long road and continues to travel (towards the East, of course!) and in that vehicle are certain truths, teachings, mandates. Her greatest symbol, then, might be concerned with the vehicle, with the load that the vehicle carries; with the destination to which both go.

If Freemasonry, the vehicle, is to be the truth behind the symbol, then its greatest symbol might be denominated the Brotherhood of Man.

If in Freemasonry the load carried by the vehicle is the verity behind the greatest symbol, then the Fatherhood of God may be selected as the greatest.

If Freemasonry’s destination is to be considered the root of its greatest symbol, then light maybe thought of as the most important.

It is a curious fact that there is comparatively little Masonic literature about light as a symbol. Apparently it has for so long been considered a commonplace of the Fraternity that it needs little description or comment. Men accept the daily rising and the setting of the sun as an ordinary fact of life and speak or write little of it. On the same principle, Masons accept Masonic Light as so much a part of Freemasonry as to need little in the way of explanatory discourse. Yet Freemasonry is devotedly concerned with light, more light, further light. Generally, brethren believe the word is a synonym for facts, knowledge, truth.

In this the Ancient Craft but follows the poets of all ages to whom light has always meant much more than an illumination by which eyes are able to see objects.

Francis Bacon speaks not only of “God’s first creature, which was light” but again “the first creature of God in the works of the days was the light of the sense, the last was the light of reason.” Fuller thought light was “God’s eldest daughter.” John Milton wrote “Light, the prime work of God.”

The Book of Books is filled with poetry of light, in which the word stands for beauty, truth, knowledge, help, hope, expectation, and happiness. “Oh Lord, in the light of Thy countenance”; “Light is sown for the righteous”; “Ye are the light of the world”; “The Father of lights”; “The true light now shineth,” are some examples.

As was shown in the Association’s Digest, Masonic Parallels in Shakespeare, there is much of Masonic thought and language in the great dramatist’s writings, although he was not, of course, a member of the Fraternity.

“Lesser lights” is found in Pericles. “Bring to light” is in Henry VI, Measure for Measure, Rape of Lucrece. “Brought to light” is found in Much Ado About Nothing and “more light” is in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare also refers to light as “gracious” as “seeking” and as “living,” which are symbolic uses of the word.

From the earliest times in which man began to reason about the world in which he lived, “what is light?” has been asked. The question has never been answered to the agreement of all learned men, and today, in the light of modern science (how impossible to write and not use light in a metaphor!) at least two theories, apparently contradictory, are required to define light by its behavior.

One school thinks of light as a wave motion in or of a something — it was once a wave motion in “the ether” until science ruled that out of existence. Sound in the ear is caused by a wave motion of air. Light in the eye has been considered to be a wave motion of — something!

A second theory has light a pulsing stream of infinitesimal particles — scientists call them photons. According to this theory, our eyes are bombarded with never ending streams of something that may be “particles of electricity” (if that phrase has a meaning) but, at any rate, of something that has measureable properties, which differ with the colors and intensities of light.

It is a commonplace of everyday life that some bodies emit light and some do not. The sun, a candle, an electric light, a match, the fire on the hearth, the volcano, lightning, all give out light, whatever it may be, and by these differing lights, eyes see.

Other objects are seen by reflected light; one's hand, the faces of friends, trees, flowers, sea and earth cannot be seen in darkness.

They require to be illuminated by some source of light. Sometimes this source is itself a reflector of another source — the moon is the first in this category, since it shines only by reflected sunlight. Yet that reflected sunlight is strong enough to act as if emitted directly and by moonlight we can see, if not as well as in sunlight, at least fairly well.

Objects seen by reflected light appear differently in different colors and strengths of light. Clear water has no color of its own; it appears as blue beneath a blue sky, as green in certain angles of sunlight. Some water has color because of something within it, but the surfaces of lakes, rivers and the ocean are largely the color of the light they receive.

Some surfaces diffract — i.e. break up light — and we see colors that are not actually in the surfaces; the iridescence of bubbles, the colors in an oil film on water are examples. Some substances are of different colors at different times; “white” snow is proverbial, yet the shadows in snow banks are often blue or violet in color.

White light is a mixture of all colors of light. But “white” paper appears in red light to be red, and blue in blue light. Gold is yellow when reflecting light, but beaten gold leaves are greenish by transmitted light.

All of which are common examples of every day facts so usual as to excite no or few reflections. These are commonplaces. Masonic light can be, and is, either direct or reflected.

From “The Great Light,” for instance, we have direct Masonic illumination. Its rays are words, its words phrase truths. From the square and the compasses we receive only reflected light; they shine physically for the beholders, of course, by reflected light from lamps, but in the Masonic sense, they give forth no light of their own; we see in them only a reflection of what we put into them.

The words of the ritual, like the phrases of the Great Light, are “direct” Masonic light. Where they fall upon Masonic symbols the latter are “seen” (understood) by the direct light from the words. Thus “the trowel is an instrument made use of by operative Masons to spread the cement which unites a building into one common mass, but we, as free and accepted Masons are taught to make use of it, etc.”

This paints a picture of the Masonic trowel quite different from the actual instrument. But it does not draw ALL the picture. The trowel spreads the cement of brotherly love; it unites the living stones of the lodge into a common “mass” of brethren, but it can also be a symbol of industry, an insignia of building, a call to labor, because it can be “seen” (i.e. understood) by the reflected light that is thought from the minds of studious brethren.

It has been noted above that ordinary light — sunlight — the light we know the best, is “white light” but that it is composed of colors. When a beam of sunlight falls upon a correctly made optical prism it is broken up into the spectrum of seven colors. Science explains this phenomenon by saying that as each of the seven primary colors of light has a different “wavelength” each is refracted, or bent, a different amount by the glass prism and so the seven colors are “spread out” in a band instead of all falling in one place, when their mixture appears white.

The seven colors of the spectrum are, as anyone may see by looking at the “natural spectrum” or rainbow, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

No one apparently has suggested that “Masonic light” can be directed through any spectroscope or prism and separated into seven divisions, but surely it is not stretching an imagery too far to think that Masonic light is not a simple, uniform, single symbol, but one that can be applied in several — here let it be said seven — ways.

Indeed, the great Mackey hints at this without saying it directly. Incidentally, Mackey’s words refute those who consider him only as the great fact-finder, not an inspired teacher.

He writes of light as follows:

It does not simply mean, as might be supposed, truth or wisdom, but it contains within itself a far more abstruse allusion to the very essence of Speculative Freemasonry, and embraces within its capacious signification all the other symbols of the order.

In simple words, Masonic light is not simple white sunlight, but compound, just as the sunlight is a compound of seven colors. Any brother may divide the results of looking at his world by Masonic light, into seven or seventy times seven subjects and be correct.

The following is not intended to be an authoritative pronouncement; it is offered as one of many ways in which sunlight, falling on a prism and being separated into seven colors, may suggest that Masonic light is compounded of at least seven principal “colors.” Any brother may, and doubtless many will, prefer their own lists of seven principal components of Masonic light.

The colors of the spectrum are listed in the orders of their wavelengths. No “wavelengths” of parts of Masonic light exist by which its several components should be listed; no one, apparently, can be considered of more importance than another.

The following then, arranged alphabetically, contains no suggestion of relative value.

Masonic light is composed of Charity and Relief; Honor and Honesty; Law Observance; Learning and Study; Patriotism; Reverence; Unselfishness.

It may be too all inclusive to say that these are the principal tenets of the order, but all will agree that they are among the fundamental verities of Freemasonry.

Charity is one of the principal teachings of the Entered Apprentice Degree and is reemphasized in the Master Mason Degree.

Honor and honesty are stressed in the obligations of the second and third ceremonies.

Law observance is taught in many places, specifically in the Ancient Charges given to masters on installation and in the Charge following the Entered Apprentice Degree.

Learning and study are a major part of the Fellowcraft Degree, in which William Preston wrote so greatly of the seven liberal arts and sciences.

Patriotism is taught throughout the degrees, more by implication than direct words, except in the Charge after the first degree.

Reverence is so much a part of Freemasonry that it dominates the whole order; reverence for truth, for religion (not any specific religion but religion in the abstract) and for the Great Architect, is inherent in all the degrees.

Unselfishness may be thought of apart from brotherhood, but brotherhood cannot exist without unselfishness. Therefore all teachings of Masonry that concern the Brotherhood of Man are teachings of unselfishness.

Masonic light is the core, the rock, the foundation, the soul of Freemasonry. It can be, and is, all things to all brethren, according to their understanding. For him to whom it is a single ray of white light, it is a good light, a true light, a light by which to see the unseen. For him to whom it is reflected and refracted into a rainbow of many sublime truths, it is the whole of Freemasonry.

And for the world at large, although it knows it not yet, the light of the Ancient Craft is the illumination by which, under the providence of the Great Architect, at long last men will learn to five, and act, and love together.

The Masonic Service Association of North America