Vol. XXXVI No. 11 — November 1958

A Living Perpendicular

Conrad Hahn

Thus he shewed me: and, behold, the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand. And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou. And I said, A plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel: I will not again pass by them any more. — Amos 7:7-8

The plumb is an instrument made use of by operative Masons to try (i.e. to test) perpendiculars. The plumb admonishes us as Free and Accepted Masons to walk uprightly in our several stations before God and man. Symbolically the plumbline is a criterion of just and upright conduct.

Such a figurative use of one of the builder’s tools is as old as the plummet itself. Amos was making vivid to his listeners a prophecy of retribution, by picturing Jehovah as a master builder, who tests the perpendicularity of a wall by means of a plumbline. The craftsmen, his people Israel, are being tested for their rectitude of conduct and found wanting. In the Biblical phrase, they “had forsaken righteousness” and had merited the terrible judgment pronounced by the Lord: “I will not pass by them any more,” i.e., “I will not forgive their iniquities any longer.”

Amos continues the dire prediction: “The high places of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,” because the children of Israel had deliberately failed to raise true spiritual perpendiculars. The Lord had spoken; Amos had to prophesy the dreadful penalty that was to be inflicted on careless fickle craftsmen, whose wall was sagging and “out of plumb.”

One of the first lessons taught to the newest Entered Apprentice is that he must make figurative applications of the builder’s tools in his progress toward moral and spiritual perfection while erecting that “house not made with hands eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).

“What are signs?” is one of the first questions he must learn to answer. The idea might be more completely expressed by the query: “What are Masonic symbols?”

Among other things he replies that he recognizes horizontals and perpendiculars. From the very beginning a Mason learns to think in terms of symbols derived from the noble but practical art of architecture. To examine some of the meanings and applications of the concept of perpendicularity is the purpose of this Short Talk Bulletin.

By definition a perpendicular is a line drawn vertically or at right angles to another line. A perpendicular, therefore, is a secondary or dependent line, which can be understood only by its relationship to another line, the horizontal.

The straight line, by which was originally meant the horizontal line, is the fundamental concept of the builder or designer. The first sketch or plan is usually made on a plane surface — the sand of the seashore sufficed for some of our ancient brethren — by means of horizontal lines to suggest the floor plan of an edifice.

In Isaiah 44:13, we read that “the carpenter stretcheth out a line; he marketh it out with a pencil.” In the King James version this reads: “The carpenter stretcheth out his rule,” which may be any device for laying out or measuring straight lines, like the twenty-four inch gauge, which quite appropriately is the first of the Masonic working tools presented to a speculative Entered Apprentice.

This concept of the line, the oldest and most fundamental idea in the art of building, has always symbolized a moral principle that is easily understood, by the profane as well as by the Craft “. . . and the crooked shall be made straight” (Isaiah 40:4) “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” (Matthew 3:2) Mencius, the famous Chinese philosopher of the fourth century B.C., taught that men should apply the square and compasses figuratively to their lives, and the level and the marking-line besides, if they would walk in the straight and even paths of wisdom and virtue.

In the last century the English writer, George Borrow, applied this concept at a more philosophical level when he wrote in Lavengro:

O ye gifted ones, follow your calling, for, however various your talents may be, ye can have but one calling capable of leading you to eminence and renown; follow resolutely the one straight path before you; it is that of your good angel.

Even today “to go straight” is a description of the transgressor’s return to a mode of living and to standards of conduct that are approved by the great institutions of civilization, the church, the family, the school, and the state. In geometry a straight line is the shortest distance between two points; in ethics and religion straight conduct is an undeviating observance of the requirements for moral and spiritual perfection.

A perpendicular is also a straight line, but it is said to be raised on a horizontal line, which was originally the meeting place of the sky and the sea, or of the sky and the earth where it stretched out level for a considerable distance. May we not speculate on the evolution of man’s intellectual capacities, by attributing his ability to conceive of perpendiculars to his increased perception of height and of depth when he assumed in his development the upright position of the creature Homo sapiens?

Man walking is a living perpendicular; and much of his superiority to the rest of the animal creation is a result of his godlike posture, which enables him to look up and to raise perpendiculars, mentally as well as physically. The primitive builder raised vertical columns to support a covering for his shelter; but as Free and Accepted Masons we are taught to raise spiritual perpendiculars to support that beautiful building that we call the Temple of Brotherhood.

You now stand as a just and upright Mason, and I give it you strictly in charge, ever to walk and act as such. These words point out to the newly-made Mason that every good craftsman must become a living perpendicular, an exemplification of that rectitude of conduct that good men in all ages have approved.

Many animals have the ability to contrive shelters against the rigors and inclemencies of the seasons. The beaver exhibits considerable engineering skill in the construction of dams to insure a sufficient depth of water in which to construct his split-level “lodges.” The oriole succeeds in putting together a remarkably snug and pendant habitation.

But none of these creatures can be called builders in the architectural meaning of that term, because none of them is able to raise perpendiculars, or columns, which give strength and permit height and spaciousness in the construction of an edifice. Man’s ability to conceive of perpendiculars gave him an advantage in the erection of buildings, for it enabled him to design them not merely for utility, but also for adornment and for the enjoyment of his higher aspirations.

It is therefore not surprising to discover that even the earliest builders regarded perpendiculars as mysterious tokens of man’s divine origin. Pillars became symbols of strength and durability. The column itself was an acceptable monument “to last forever,” and thus a symbol of the imperishability of man’s spiritual nature. The legend of the sons of Lamech, the first students of science and the practical arts, reflects the confidence of the earliest “wise men” in pillars of brick and of marble, which they erected as repositories for the knowledge that they wished to preserve from conflagration and inundation.

At the building of King Solomon’s Temple there were erected at the porch of the Temple two great pillars, known as Boaz and Jachin, to denote God’s strength and the establishment of His people. They marked the dividing line between unconsecrated ground and the sacred precincts of the Temple; but at this stage of man’s development they had really come to symbolize Jehovah himself — the All Highest; to which only a speculative perpendicular can reach.

The erection of vertical columns revealed to the primitive builders another principle of architectural science^ the arrangement of a pillar as a true perpendicular to the horizontal on which it is based. Even a slight deviation from the right angled position renders a column weak and imperfect. From this discovery came understanding of right angles and squares and of their manifold application in the design and construction of buildings and fortifications.

From a comprehension of this simple geometric relationship there evolved the primitive builders plumbline and square, the tools by which he tested the true verticality of the supports he was erecting. The moral significance of these tools was quickly detected, and from time immemorial good work has been square work, and honesty is “being square.” To be “a square shooter” today is morally praiseworthy.

Yet even in the days of the Old Testament prophets, the symbolic use of the builder’s tools had been so thoroughly infused into the thinking of mankind, that the great moral problems of life were commonly illustrated by references to the masons’ art. God held a plumbline in His hand, to test the rectitude of His chosen people. As living perpendiculars, they were tried by the plummet of righteousness and found “out of line.” Freemasonry’s use of tool symbolism is no modern invention; its origins may be found in a pre-historic era.

While it may seem fanciful to describe the erection of columns or perpendiculars as a higher development than the laying of horizontals, the symbolic use of these concepts throughout the ages suggests that this must be so.

Young children at play give substance to this observation. When they first “play house” out of doors, they arrange horizontal lines of small stones to mark off chambers and apartments. They erect no pillars or walls on which to support a covering. Only later in boyhood, when the hand and the eye have gained some experience, do these fledgling craftsmen knock together crude sheds and build tree houses, those nostalgic “lodges” of our early adolescence.

Horizontals are tested by levels; and the level has always been a symbol of that which is on the earth, or of the earth, earthy.” We are traveling on that level of time to that undiscovered country, which is death. But time is only a habit of the finite human mind. We cannot, while we are earth-bound, comprehend that timelessness that is Eternity. The great leveler is death; the level is frequently found as a symbol on Masonic coffins.

At one point in the ritual of the Master Mason’s degree, the candidate’s situation is referred to as a dead level, which is not merely a figurative reference to physical death, but primarily a symbol of that previous condition of ignorance that characterizes the uninitiated, who have not yet been brought from darkness into light.

On the other hand, the symbol of the column lifts the eyes of the craftsman upward, to a starry-decked canopy of ideals and aspirations. It points to the Eternal, the Infinite, toward which the groping intelligence of man is always reaching.

“His column is broken” is another figure of speech to describe death; but in this graphic image we are made aware that the level of death is sharply contrasted to the soaring perpendicular of man’s yearning to know the Infinite, the Perfect. Death is a horizontal that is measured by the level; but the life of the spirit, the immortal better part of man that can never, never die, is a living perpendicular, which is measured by the infinite plumbline of the Great Architect of the Universe.

And this is the thrilling revelation that makes the degree of Master Mason “sublime,” — that the craftsman has been raised from a dead level of ignorance and materialistic concerns to become a living perpendicular, which reaches and towers to a boundless domain of wisdom and truth.

Only as a quickened and animate spirit, who places each stone of his transcendental column squarely on top of another, can the speculative master truly raise spiritual perpendiculars to support the dazzling arches of the temple of brotherly love. And only as he tests his columns by the speculative plumbline of integrity and righteousness can he hope to have his work approved by the Master of All Good Workmen.

Woe unto him whose column is “out of plumb”! The high places of his intellect and spirit shall be desolate; the sanctuaries of his inner peace and happiness shall be laid waste; his column shall be broken.

A living perpendicular is a Master Mason who builds with his life a true perpendicular of wisdom and truth and of love. With faith in the lines inscribed on the trestleboard of the Grand Architect of the Universe he raises an infinite perpendicular to reach to the stars!

The Masonic Service Association of North America