Vol. XXXVI No. 12 — December 1958

The Ultimate Lessons of the First Degree

Thomas Sherrard Roy, PGM

This Short Talk Bulletin was written by Most Worshipful Thomas Sherrard Roy, past grand master of Massachusetts, and forms the substance of his address in the Association’s motion picture, The Ultimate Lessons of the First Degree.

It is always a particular pleasure to address oneself to Masons. For we have a common interest of which it can be said that “age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety.”

One of the things that has both amazed and gratified me as I have thought about Freemasonry is the universal element in it, particularly in the first degree. The probability is that those outside our ranks who think of our degrees, think of them as having a purely local and contemporary interest. That is, they think of them as involving a ritual that was put together for the purpose of impressing a candidate at the time of initiation, but with no particular relevance to the life situations that must be faced after the initiatory rites are over; a ritual designed to meet a particular situation at a particular time, but that may be conveniently left behind and forgotten as we pass to a new interest. No greater mistake could be made.

Our ritual is universally true. It is not true for Masons only, and then under certain circumstances in life. It is true for all men, at all times, and under all circumstances in life. The philosopher Immanuel Kant gave to the world what he called a categorical imperative. It is called categorical because it admits of no conditions and no exceptions. He said: “Act as if the maxim of thy will were to become by thy adopting it a universal law of nature.” Which means that we must act in such fashion that it would be safe and beneficial for the whole world to act the same way.

Our ritual conforms to this categorical imperative. It demands action that could be established as a universal law of nature. There can never be a situation in the life of a Mason when he must put aside what he learned in the first degree to find a right solution to a problem. Indeed, every problem he faces will be more certain of a right solution if he conforms to the great universal laws of nature taught in the first degree.


The very first thing symbolized in the first degree is a man’s helplessness, and his dependence upon others to help him in his quest for life. The candidate finds himself in a position in which he is almost completely dependent upon others. This is the first and most important lesson to be learned in life.

Occasionally you will hear a man referred to as a self-made man. If we explore the ultimates of that description, we are forced to conclude that there is no such person in the whole world. A self-made man, strictly speaking, is a man who has achieved success all by himself. Let us look at it for a minute and see where we come out.

I once heard a man named Poteat, the uncle of our late lamented and beloved Hubert Poteat, discuss this matter in the light of the factors that make for wealth, or success. When I was in college, my professor in economics used to pound home day after day that the factors that make for wealth are land, labor, and capital. In those days I thought of these three factors in a narrow and exclusive sense. Then along came Dr. Poteat to stretch my mind on the subject.

What is land? It is not just that part of the planet that is under my feet. Land is everything in the way of physical resource upon which we depend for life and production. It is the air that we breathe. It is the soil in which we sow our crops, and it is the gold, and iron, the gas and the oil that are under the soil. It is the sea with its wealth. Your self-made man needs all of this for his success, for without it he could not make a penny or walk a step towards achievement. How much of it did he bring with him, or create after he got here? None whatever. Now where is your self-made man?

The second factor is labor. But what is labor? We think of the great army of those to whom we refer as the laboring class, and we say that that is labor. But in a far truer sense labor is society. It includes all mankind. Over here on this side are those who are making what I want to sell. Without them Henry Ford would have continued to tinker with bicycles all of his life, instead of establishing a mighty industrial empire. Without their skill and their toil I have nothing to sell. Over on this other side are those who buy what I have to sell. Without them I am helpless, for if I don’t sell I don’t eat. How many of these people did the self-made man bring with him? None, for he found them when he came. Again, where is your self-made man? He seems to be shrinking.

The third factor is capital. Perhaps we think that at last we have found a factor created by the self-made man. But what is capital? We are inclined to say that capital consists of our financial resources. But it is much more than that. All that you brought with you into the world of physical strength, of mental acumen, of personal magnetism, of leadership potential, of all that makes you superior to your fellows, these constitute your capital, important beyond financial resources to a degree impossible for us to compute. While a man brings these things into the world with him, he cannot claim credit for creating them. They are the gift of God that man can develop or waste as he chooses. Therefore a man can claim as little credit for the real capital he possesses as he could for the creation of land and labor. Now where is your self-made man? He has disappeared.

Let us face the fact that there is no hope for the future security of mankind unless we learn this lesson of mutual dependence. We need one another. It is only as we recognize and accept the fact of mutual dependence that we shall be able to live together in mutual helpfulness.


Much as we depend upon one another, we soon discover a more fundamental fact, our dependence upon God. Freemasonry at this point goes right to the heart of the relationship of man to the Eternal and insists upon faith, not in a religion, but in God, who is the source of all religion. It is left to man to work out his own relationship to God. We insist that Masons of many faiths can join hands and say with equal fervor and conviction, “I believe in God.” If we were to insist on affirming what we believe about God, then we should be divided. That is why we have no theology. Belief in God unites; but theology, which is belief about God, divides.

When a man knocks at our door we say: “If you believe in God, come in. What you believe about God is your own affair.” This does not mean that we are so fatuous as to assert that it does not make any difference what a man believes about God. What we say is that it does not make any difference to Freemasonry what a man believes about God, provided that his belief enables him to rise to the level of the best in character in his own fife, and to the level of the best in brotherhood in his relations with others.

Nor do we think that all that is required is an intellectual assent to the fact of God in the universe. It must be a faith that is an acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God over all fife; an acknowledgment of the priority of the claim of God upon all life; an acknowledgment of our duty to do the will of God in all life. This is the second of the universal truths taught in the first degree.


The third of the universal truths in this degree is expressed in the one word, obligation. It is interesting to note that this word comes from the Latin word, obligate, which means to bind. An obligation is that which binds us to something. What is symbolized in this degree is that no life can be without obligation. The man who says that he has no obligation to any person or anything is fooling himself. Follow him for awhile and you will discover that there are some things, good or bad, to which he is bound. He may insist that he has never taken an obligation to serve those things; but he is bound to them, nevertheless, and serves them as though under obligation to do so. Man cannot get away from obligation. It is therefore of vital importance that the obligations he takes are to the highest, and of equal importance to realize the implications of those obligations.

Up until the time a man takes an obligation, he is free to decide such questions as come up, as habit or caprice or expediency or selfish interest dictates. But once having taken an obligation, then every question must be decided in the light of the demands made by the obligation. He is no longer free to decide as he chooses. Once having taken a Masonic obligation, no man is free to live among his fellows as one who says that “it is every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” He must live as the ideals of Freemasonry dictate, for he may no longer live unto himself alone. He must live in the interest of the four millions of Masons in this country, and the hundreds of thousands outside this country. The obligation binds him to the lives of others. This too is a universal truth.


Did you every stop to think that no government ever makes a law without attaching a penalty to it? Freemasonry goes farther than this, and proclaims the universal truth that there are no broken obligations without penalties. The way this differs from the penalties attached to laws is that with governments the man who breaks the law suffers the penalty. But in broken obligations it is not always the person who breaks the obligation who suffers the penalty.

But make no mistake about it, someone suffers when an obligation is broken. In fifty years of dealing with people I have seen a lot of misery. In some cases a person has had to suffer the penalty of his own broken obligation, but in more cases the penalty of his broken obligation was suffered by others. I have tried to comfort the broken-hearted whose bitter tears witnessed the hurt they suffered from the broken obligations of others.

We look over the world with the limited liberties of those behind the Iron Curtain, and the sub-standard conditions under which others live who are always hungry, and whether we realize it or not, we are seeing the penalties of broken obligations on the part of nations. These words we have repeated are not just words; they are symbols of the universal truth that there never can be, anywhere, any time, broken obligations without penalties.

Charity — That Is, Brotherhood

As we come towards the end of ritual of the first degree, and as we attempt to characterize and summarize that which has been exemplified, we discover that it is like a fabric with a single strand of gold running through it. Sometimes it is very plainly seen, and at other times hidden. But nevertheless it is part of the warp that holds the fabric together. In other words, there is one basic emphasis that we cannot miss. It is the emphasis upon others.

We are dependent upon others. We owe an obligation to others. It is in the rite of destitution and the statement of the dimensions of the lodges that this emphasis comes to a climax. The memory of our own destitution will prompt us to be charitable to others, so far as we can without injury to ourself or family. A man’s brotherhood must begin at home. If a man cannot practice the principles of brotherhood, with all of their implications, in his own home, then Freemasonry has taught him nothing; and regardless of the number of degrees taken or his proficiency in the ritual, he is no Mason.

I suspect that some Masons go out into the world after they have taken the degrees with the idea that they must now practice the principles of brotherhood -with Masons only. If so, they have missed one of the distinctive teachings of the Craft. For it is in this same first degree that we learn that the dimensions of a lodge are the dimensions of the universe, and that a Masons charity, or brotherhood, should be equally extensive.

We have been told that the first place to practice the principles of brotherhood is in the home. That is, there is a place to start the practice of the principles of brotherhood, but there is no place to stop.

When one of our hospital visitors in The Masonic Service Association comes to a hospitalized veteran, he does not say to him: "Are you a Mason? Because if you are, we can help you.”

He says, "What is your need, whoever you are, and how can we help you?”

Here again is what I said at the beginning about our ritual containing universal truth. When the world lives as we teach, then there will be peace and security. For Freemasonry is the seed-plot of brotherhood, that by the grace of God will one day come to fruition by the establishment of the collective life of mankind in brotherhood. It is our declaration of the fact that mankind is one and indivisible; and we must learn to live together if we are going to live at all.

This fundamental unity has been beautifully expressed by John Donne who wrote: “No man is an island entire in itself. Every man is a piece of the main, a part of the continent. If a clod be washed away by the sea Europe is the less. Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. Therefore, never send to see for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Here is the unequivocal statement that nothing can happen to another without having an effect upon me.

I am sure that Donne intended a wider application. Never send to see who is at war when the soldiers begin to march and the guns begin to roar anywhere in the world; you are at war. Never send to see whose house is in danger when fire enters the community; your house is in danger. Never send to see whose fife is threatened when plague enters the community; your life is in jeopardy. We belong together.

The race that is on today is not a race between capitalism and communism; it is not a race between democracy and totalitarianism. It is a race between brotherhood and destruction. Every war-threatened acre on our earth cries out to us today to live by the principles of brotherhood or accept the destruction that our refusal so to live will make inevitable.

A man is asked what his philosophy of fife is, and he replies that it is very simple, just “live and let live.” And it is an old philosophy of life. But it is not good enough for Masons. For Edwin Markham, homespun poet and New York Mason, calls us higher when he writes:

“Live and let live!” was the call of the old —
The call of the world when the world was cold —
The call of men when they pulled apart —
The call of the race with a chill on the heart.
But “Live and help live!” is the cry of the new —
The cry of the world with the Dream shining through—
The cry of the Brother-world rising to birth —
The cry of our God for a Comrade-like earth.

The Masonic Service Association of North America