Vol. XLI No. 9 — September 1963

A Progressive Science

Conrad Hahn

“Masonry is a progressive science.” That definition is used so frequently that it has become trite and hackneyed, almost to the point of being meaningless.

To modern members who merely hear words and without reflection permit them to suggest images of contemporary activities, that definition probably sounds bombastic. The labors of a Masonic lodge have very little resemblance to a science, as that term is used today. Where are the gleaming instruments, the dramatic experiments, or the laborious research of men at drawing boards or test tubes that we immediately associate in our minds with the word “science”?

Freemasonry uses that word in a philosophical sense — or to use a good Masonic term — in a universal sense. The science of Masonry is not the accumulated facts and knowledge about one area of the physical world, like geology, biology, or nuclear physics. It is science in the original meaning of the word: accumulated knowledge systematized for the purpose of discovering general truths. For Freemasonry, those general truths are the laws of moral and ethical behavior. These are summed up in the principal tenets of the Fraternity: brotherly love, relief, and truth.

Progressive may also create difficulties for the modern Mason, if that word merely suggests “up-to-date,” “brand new,” “the latest thing,” or “avant garde.” The science of Freemasonry is progressive only as the individual Mason applies his knowledge of moral and spiritual principles to his own life and that of his community — only as his character becomes “more effective by successive stages.” Masonry is a progressive science only as individual brethren make it so.

Instead of classifying and codifying knowledge of morality and ethics in voluminous textbooks and shelves of encyclopedias that only scholarly minds would find challenging, Freemasonry has epitomized the science or “know-how” of a purposeful moral life in the image of the builders’ art. Every one of the mason’s tools and implements is a vivid symbol of a universal moral principle. It is a whole treatise in a picture! And it is this graphic simplification of the “science” of right living that has always been one of the chief attractions to the men who call themselves Masons.

Consider the truths in the Masonic teaching about the symbolic uses of the square and compasses. Of the trowel. Of the twenty-four inch gauge and common gavel. Of the level, plumb, and line. These ideas are applicable to every man’s life. They are so universal in their significance that they are necessary for every individual’s progress, regardless of “country, sect, or opinion.” (Practically every one of these symbols has been explained in greater detail in some previous Short Talk Bulletin. They have furnished many a chapter for outstanding books on Masonic symbolism, like Charles C. Hunt’s Masonic Symbolism, Oliver Day Street’s Symbolism of the Three Degrees, and Harry L. Haywood’s Symbolical Masonry.)

The universal application of these symbolic tools is responsible for two other principles that are basic to the progressive science of Freemasonry. “Speculative” knowledge can only be taught to individuals. It can never be authoritatively required or imposed on groups or masses of men. If an individual is prepared “in his heart,” he will recognize truth when it is revealed to him and act in accordance with it. To enforce his acceptance of a truth would make it dogma — but if Masonic truths are universally meaningful, they cannot be imposed by authority or by a majority. They must be true because the individual has experienced their reality. And this is one of the greatest effects of Masonic ritual and symbolism; it dramatically helps the individual to acquire that experience.

Every operative apprentice was taught to use the common gavel to break off the excrescences of the stone he was preparing for the edifice under construction. He was also taught the uses of other gavels, like the setting maul, for various steps in the construction of a building. But he had to learn from personal experience just how to strike his blows to suit the material he was working on. Sandstone could not be handled like marble. He had to adjust the force of his strokes, the angle of his blows, and the number of them for different kinds of ashlars.

A Speculative Mason is taught the uses of the symbolic gavel, but only he can apply it in the actual situations of his own life. Only the individual can determine what are the “vices and superfluities” which he must knock off his own existence, since only he can truly determine what attitudes and behavior patterns are preventing him from “polishing” the symbolic ashlar that is the self. To perfect his skill, he is admonished to consult with “well-informed brethren,” but it is doubtful that this device for self-improvement and progress in the science of Masonry is used by many Masons today.

Yet it is one of the most important learning situations by which a speculative craftsman can improve himself in Masonry, i.e., in promoting the universal ideals of a universal brotherhood. The situation in reverse is also recommended to every newly-made Master Mason, “to whisper good counsel in the ear of an erring brother”; but it is doubtful that modern Masons take this instruction as seriously as it deserves. We live in an age that regards well-meant advice as an intrusion into the individual’s privacy. Our “ancient brethren,” however, were not so sensitive, although it cannot be said that they always reminded a brother of his faults in the most tender manner.

These facts, however, underline one of the most important beliefs of Freemasonry. It’s the individual who counts. It is the individual who must be taught “the secrets” and tenets of the Craft. Only the individual can learn, since the object of all instruction in “the science of Freemasonry" is to make an individual wiser and consequently happier. Only an individual can make progress in character building by making his moral actions “more effective by successive stages.”

Freemasonry has no more important goal than to inspire each individual who knocks on its door “of his own free will and accord” to become a determined and vigorous moral builder, who is convinced that brotherly love, benevolence, and reverence for the truth (all truth, not merely one’s own) are the necessary means to a complete knowledge of the progressive science of Freemasonry.

A Mason is a man who believes that he must change himself, as an operative stonemason changed the rough stone from the quarry to add to the beauty of a building. A Mason is a man who believes that his life must make a difference in the moral quality of life around him — in his family, in his place of employment, in his community, not just in a lodge room.

The great hope of the Fraternity is that ultimately all men everywhere will be “prepared in their hearts” — whether they become Masons or not is less important than the idealized outcome — to change their lives in accordance with the tenets of brotherly love, benevolence, and reverence for truth. But no man can be coerced or forcefully persuaded; he must do it of his own free will and accord. Otherwise, he is not a free man, and only a free man can become a truly moral man.

This is the fundamental test that Freemasonry should apply to itself when it evaluates its achievements or progress. The most important question should never be, “How many members have we gained or lost?” We really should ask, “How many Masons are making a real difference in their communities because of their benevolent spirit, their moral courage, their truthfulness?”

This is the kind of information that only the individual lodge can furnish, and even then, it can never be more than partial. But this suggests one of the most neglected areas in Masonic education and information: the meaning and application of moral principles to commonplace everyday situations. If Freemasonry’s business is the moral growth of individuals, it makes progress by encouraging individuals to think seriously about the moral problems of our times. Let there be light.

One of the commonest assumptions by new members is the idea that they became Master Masons when they completed the Third Degree. Technically, of course, they did. But even the language of the ritual suggests that this is “jumping to conclusions,” that it requires “progress by successive stages” to become a true Speculative Builder. In the charge of that degree, every initiate is told that his future conduct alone will determine whether he really deserves the title with which he has been invested.

In another degree the candidate is charged to undertake the study of geometry. An operative mason had to know geometry to become a master builder. But how many modern craftsmen have pursued the suggested study of geometry in order to develop their understanding of Masonry and its ethical principles? That, too, is taken for granted. In fact, much of the ritual teaching of Freemasonry is taken for granted, as if there were no question about every initiate’s complete grasp of every idea he heard during his initiatory experiences.

Even devoted and hard-working ritualists sometimes take it for granted that the admonition to the newly-made Master Mason, to permit no deviation from established usages, refers only to the language and the forms of the ritual. The charge specifically mentions the Ancient Landmarks, which deal much more with the fundamental moral and spiritual tenets of Freemasonry than with its ceremonial forms. So the ritual becomes an end in itself, not the means to an end — the individual’s character becoming progressively “more effective by successive stages.”

To these assumptions can be traced much of the lack of progress with which some observers charge the Fraternity. When a new member regards himself as “having run the course,” as “belonging” completely and finally, as having fulfilled all the requirements for mastership, he naturally feels no compulsion to make himself a true Master Mason — yet nobody else can! Those parts of the ritual that emphasized the necessity of more experience in Masonry, more learning about the Craft, and especially real growth in the exemplification of moral and spiritual ideals have escaped him — and left him helpless to make Freemasonry a progressive science for himself.

A preoccupation with the quantitative influence of Freemasonry is responsible for much of the recent weeping and wailing about poor attendance and declining memberships. Some brethren are more concerned about numbers than about the moral growth of individual Masons. The decline in the percentage of men who are Masons in relation to the total population is viewed with alarm. This “quantitative analysis” leads to such complaints as “our Fraternity is not getting its share of the candidate market.” Masonry, “pure and undefiled,” can have no such “market”!

A somewhat similar attitude leads others to look back to “a golden age” — like the period of the American Revolution. Since Anderson’s history of Freemasonry, no more extravagant claims or legends have been propagated in the Fraternity than the numerical superiority of Masons among Revolutionary patriots.

Even if only two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had been Masons, the Craft would have been represented by a percentage far in excess of its actual membership in relation to the total population at that time. But it was not the number of Masons that made them so influential in the founding of this nation. It was the moral convictions that they had acquired in their Masonic labors and the zeal with which they sought to have some of those principles incorporated into the edifice of a new institution.

Brother Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography has revealed the deep interest that he and others of his age had in the progressive moral development of the individual. His club seriously discussed problems of morality and ethics, and it was this kind of activity that attracted him to the Masons. They had, he believed, a superior interest in a “science” of morality that the purposeful craftsman could attain by successive stages. What eighteenth century Freemasons learned in their lodges was moral principles. When they engaged in politics, they tried to adapt those principles to the conditions of life around them. This was the real source of their influence — not their numbers, but a demonstrated faith in a rational “science” of morality that individuals could use to teach society how to live in harmony and peace.

If modern Freemasonry is to remain “a progressive science,” it must measure its influence and achievements by the standards of its own teachings. Are individual Masons growing in the moral power that they exercise? Are individual craftsmen changing their lives to demonstrate the moral truths that this “science” has been teaching them? Are they showing to the world more understanding and appreciation, more benevolent attitudes, more brotherly love? Are they growing in the ability to distinguish between their own prejudices and universal truth? Are individual Masons taking a courageous stand against the forces of immorality, such as hate, or greed, or intolerance?

Freemasonry is a progressive science when individual Masons apply their knowledge of moral and spiritual principles to the building of bridges of understanding, of symbolic courts of justice, and of temples of harmony and peace.

The Masonic Service Association of North America