The following article comes from the book Alberta Workshop which is a compilation of the theme speeches of the first 25 years of the Masonic Spring Workshop held each April in the Mountains west of Calgary, Alberta. Bro. Tom Jackson (Pennsylvania) called this the best workshop available to rank and file Masons anywhere.


Bro. James S. Woods

My good friend Bro. Young pointed out to you last night that the so-called “permissive society” might really be called the “changing society”. He thereby pointed out the importance of being clear just what we do mean when we speak of a “permissive society”. It may mean different things at different times and to different people.

A simple example of this proposition is the Craft’s reaction to consumption of alcoholic beverages. In fact, this example affords evidence of differing views in both TIME and PLACE.

Most of you will remember in this jurisdiction when the thought of bringing alcohol to any lodge function taking place in a temple or lodge banquet rooms was shunned with the utmost abhorrence. Then pressure mounted to permit liquor at Masonic functions held off of the lodge premises and enterprising Junior Wardens braved the wrath of Past Masters and blazed a new trail to the gentle banquet halls of the province. And as you are aware, finally the last bastion was stormed and liquor was admitted to lodge premises.

Our English and Scottish brethren find prohibition of drinks at the fraternal festive board a mental aberration beyond their comprehension. On the other hand some Grand Jurisdictions in the United States not only absolutely prohibit alcohol on Masonic premises but deny petitions to anyone connected with the liquor trade, be it the driver of a brewery wagon or a waiter in a tavern. Are we not then “permissive”?

Most people are more impressed by what they can see than by concepts, generalizations, or anything that involves the hard task of thinking. To them, phrases like “the permissive society”, or “the new morality”, virtually come to mean a number of things which anyone with eyes and ears can’t help noticing — miniskirts, divorces, hippies, drug-taking, long hair, beat music. These are new things, things that some people don’t approve of, so we use phrases like “disregard of authority”, “permissiveness and son on.

A worthy Brother, known to many of you, supplied me with a perfect example of the triumph of prejudice over thought. He tells of attending a wedding in Wesley United Church and of being ushered to his seat by positively the most hirsute character he had ever met. The usher’s beard left nothing but a pair of beady eyes to be seen. Shortly after taking his seat the same usher deposited a genteel lady of advanced years next to my friend and she immediately turned to him as said “Have you ever seen such an awful scraggly looking beard in your life?” “Only there,” he said and pointed to a picture of John Wesley hanging above the pulpit.

There is certainly nothing new about dissentient groups — students, artist, radical thinkers — who dissent from generally accepted standards of behaviour, or from prevailing ideas, or from outmoded customs. Any application of the term “permissive” to activities such as these seems rather to undermine one of the foundations of a free society — the right of individuals to say or do as they like with regard to matters of personal behaviour that don’t contravene the law. We should not become too preoccupied with the negative aspects of present day morality — the so-called collapse of standards.

In fact it isn’t clear that ‘authority’ has less of a hold over us than it ever had, or that more things are “permitted”. There may be more licence in dress, sexual behaviour and freedom from censorship but consider the inevitable increased restrictions of a complex society — restrictions on such things as car-driving, house-building, schools, income tax, land use. We are no less obedient, we just obey in different areas of life, and perhaps we obey different people. Nor is it true that we are freer in the moral areas of life; dress is not a moral issue, whereas drunken driving is.

There is a great deal of evidence of a higher incidence of courage and thoughtfulness on the part of young people today than ever before in our time. Very many of them are honest and fearless in their self-examination and in their search for a scale of values and of objectives with which they can feel truly identified. Moral considerations do weigh strongly but must be related to situations and choices which have relevance in terms of their personal experience.

They are then faced with the very same dilemma with which Masonry and the mason are faced. There has been an important change — because of the very obvious things which we can see such as mini-skirts, and because of the changes in the kind of person we obey (Not so much our ministers as perhaps our civil servants) we have all, young and old alike, started to wonder what actually is right and wrong. As I have indicated thinking is always hard work and this kind of thinking is the hardest of all. Accordingly most of us don’t wonder very long or very constructively: either we cling to some old values and authority, or else we rebel, or we say the whole thing is a “matter of taste” and give up as a bad job.

Nevertheless the question has been raised and most people use phrases testifying to their belief (semi-conscious) that it ought to have an answer. To put it another way: at least some people today don’t want an answer, in the sense of a ready-made set of values. But they do want to know how to find an answer. And their real questions are “What is morality?” “What kind of reasoning and evidence should we use to settle moral issue?” These are tough questions.

Yes, they are tough questions and we as members of “the most moral human institution that ever existed” can no longer sidestep them. We must face them!

We must face them in a time when there is a greater volume of literary and artistic expression beyond the bounds of any recognized conventions of any earlier period — at a time when there is a militant disdain for restraint — at a time when public institutions provide facilities of uninhibited sexual liaisons for the unmarried — at a time when prophylactic dispensers are placed in the women’s rest rooms in our universities — at a time when the law enforcement agencies struggle in the mass of a drug sub-culture — when pornography is accepted like lemonade. That time is now.

In a very important volume of masonic writing — The Masonic Addresses and Writings of Roscoe Pound — Pound reviews the philosophies of four great masonic philosophers: William Preston (1742-1818); Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781-1832); George Oliver (1782-1867) and Albert Pike (1809-1891). Pound sums these up as two intellectual systems: That of Preston whose key word is Knowledge and that of Krause whose key word is Morals; and two spiritual systems: that of Oliver whose key word is Tradition and that of Pike whose key word is Symbolism.

Look at those four. Knowledge! Morals! Tradition! Symbolism! Are we to be cribbed and confined by any one of them. Are they not all available to us. Masonry cannot be held to the confines of one philosophy, entrained for one destination. We say that the roof of the masonic lodge “is a canopy of diverse colours — even the heavens” and that it is of this vast extent to demonstrate “the universality of the science.”

Here may be the crux for if we are to be of all places for all places, of all men for all men then we must be of all time and for all time. The philosophy of no one time, of no one people and of no one man can be admitted as the final authority of masons or Masonry. As Pound so ably sums it up:

Hence it is no reproach to Masonry to have, along with lessons and tenets for all times, a special lesson and a special tenet for each time, which is not to be insisted on at other times. Truth, after all is relative. Vital truths to one time cannot be put into pellets or boluses to be administered to all times to come. If the Craft is to be perpetual, it must appeal to each time as well as to all times; it must have in its traditions something that today can use, although yesterday could not use it and tomorrow need not. We are a Craft of workmen. It is our glory to be engaged in useful service. Our rites and usages are not merely a proud possession to be treasured for their beauty and antiquity. They are instruments imparted to us to be used. Hence we may properly inquire, what can we make of this wonderful tradition of which we are the custodians that will serve the world of today?

What then can I say to you when you ask: As a Mason, what should I do about my nephew? son? daughter? who: Is smoking marijuana?

Taking unchaperoned weekend skiing trips?

Is “shacked up” at University?

Has moved in with a married man/woman?

Has “doctored” on his income tax return?

I have no answer for you, nor do I think Masonry has an answer for you.

What is the end of Masonry?

What is the place of Masonry in our society?

How does Masonry achieve its end?

To the first question I accept Pound’s answer: Our end, in common with all social institutions, is to preserve, to develop and to pass on to our successors the best that our fathers have wrought and passed on to us but I must add, tempered by changes brought about in the human condition.

The place of Masonry in human society today is what it has always been as an organization of human effort which selects those parts of human culture which are universal and worthy of preservation without resorting to the controls of caste or creed or being hindered by political or territorial limits. In short our place is with those universal elements in man that make for culture and civilization.

We achieve our end by the continued insistence of the solidarity of humanity, of its universality and by the preservation and transmission of that immemorial tradition of universality.

Dean Roscoe Pound aptly refers to the concept of universality in the context of this discussion:

Moreover, the idea of universality has a special message to the Mason for the good of Masonry. Every world-organization hitherto has been wrecked ultimately upon its dogmatism. It has taken the dogmas, the interpretations, the philosophy of its youth for a fixed order of nature. It has assumed that universality consisted in forcing these dogmas, these interpretations, this philosophy upon all times to come. While it has rested serene in the ruts made by its own prosperity, the world has marched by it unseen. We have a glorious body of tradition handed down to us from the past, which we owe it to transmit unimpaired to the future. But let us understand what in it is fundamental and eternal, and what is mere interpretation to make it of service to the past. Let us while we have it use it well to make it of service to the present. Yet let us fasten upon it nothing hard and fast that serves well enough to make it useful today, but may make it useless tomorrow. As the apprentice stands n the corner of the lodge, the working tools are put in his hands and he is taught their uses. But they are not his. They are the tools of the lodge. He is to use them that the Worshipful Master may have pleasure and the Craft profit. The Grand Master of the Universe has entrusted to us the principles of Masonry as working tools. They, too, are not our, they belong to the lodge of the world. We are to use them that He may have pleasure and the Craft of humanity that labours in this wide lodge of the world may profit thereby.

We are a Craft of workmen. The Craft has given you the tools, God has given you the intellect — Go and labour on the rough ashlars of your several questions.