Is Freemasonry occult or rational and scientific? How do these relate to spirituality today more generally? This is what I will be exploring here, but first some comments on Freemasonry by others:
“Freemasonry,” says Jeff Peace at Freemasonry 101, “has been credited as the organization that paved the way for the Age of Enlightenment,” while another recent article published on Disinfo dot com claims, similarly, that the fraternity is a “scientific inference” (whatever that means) which describes various allegories that “don’t fall within the realm of occult.” On this matter, Peace is even more emphatic, saying “Redefining Freemasonry as a form of occult alchemical mysticism steals its glorious heritage of science and enlightenment philosophy from it.”
Such claims aren’t entirely unusual. However, I’m not sure whether those making them are entirely clear about the nature of Freemasonry, or, perhaps, the nature of the Enlightenment. Yes, it is true, of course, that some Freemasons — such as Benjamin Franklin — and perhaps some Masonic Lodges of the 18th century were interested in, or were, in some way, practitioners of science, etc., but, likewise, there were Freemasons — such as Joseph de Masitre — and Lodges who were opponents of the Enlightenment, and that didn’t believe that “reason” or rational thinking was the high point of humanity. Moreover, we know for certain that numerous Masonic Lodges, jurisdictions (such as the Egytian Rite), and related societies did practice such things as rituals of Christian occultism, and healing and longevity, etc.
The Enlightenment wasn’t just the beginning of modernity. It was a movement that was fundamentally opposed to the non-rational. Hence, late-Enlightenment philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831) could complain, “This is so in freemasonry, in which everything is concealed to those outside and also to many people within, and where nothing remarkable is possessed in learning or in science, and least of all in Philosophy.”
The important words here are “science” and “Philosophy.” The latter unveiling all truth through reason alone, in Hegel’s view, is absolutely opposite of Freemasonry, with its secrets, rituals, and symbols. Hegel understood what the Enlightenment was, what it stood for, and what it was against.
While Christianity was attacked as oppressive and outmoded by those on the side of rationalism, it was not so much its values that was opposed, but its hierarchy, ritualism, symbolism, etc., that were deemed anti-rational and anti-Enlightenment. And it was those things that Freemasonry developed at a rapid rate during the Enlightenment era. (Notably, the “higher degrees” were often more expressly religious, and hierarchical — claiming to confer Christian knighthood, etc.?) Why?
While we can acknowledge the presence, in the Masonic fraternity, of men who believed in science, reason, and even revolution, so we should acknowledge that the overall ethos of Freemasonry, and its growing interests, were absolutely counter-Enlightenment. Freemasonry, in my view, exploded in popularity at least partly in reaction, and in opposition, to the Enlightenment, which stripped mystery, the supernatural, and God from existence.
Freemasonry, Hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism:
On the matter of “Redefining Freemasonry as a form of occult alchemical mysticism,” this isn’t new. While the fraternity is rooted in the stonemasons guild of Britain — with texts describing a mythology of geometry, etc., owned by stonemasons’ lodges dating back to the beginning of the 1400s AD — after it became a distinct society in 1717 (and developed the rituals of Craft Freemasonry based on stonemasonry, geometry, the Bible, natural law theory, etc., at the beginning of the 18th century) it spread to Europe, where it was soon wildly popular. There the symbolism and rituals of the fraternity were reinterpreted. New theories about it’s origin, such as the Crusaders and Hermeticism, were proposed.
While such theories may have been wrong, they are important for two reasons. One, as noted, they demonstrate that at the time of the Enlightenment (and even through the French Revolution), which promoted the idea of “reason” over religion, faith, and so on, the Masonic Rites and rituals that were being created that presented the opposite as true: i.e., that mystery, symbolism, and religious truth were what was truly important to man. And, two, some of those rituals were later incorporated into “regular” Freemasonry.
Hence, for example, the Rose Croix degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. With its symbolism of the pelican, the rosy cross, and black and red, it is a fusion of Hermeticism and Catholicism (it was originally described as “all of Catholicism in a degree”), and emerges out of the general Masonic-Rosicrucian milieu. It does not teach science, we should be clear, but the transformation of man through Jesus and, by inference, through the Hermetic or spiritual-alchemical process. Likewise, the Knight of the Sun degree has also taught Hermetic symbolism. The Royal Arch degree in England teaches about the Platonic solids, also not considered a valid scientific explanation, either at the time of its creation or today. Other degrees, such as the Order of the Temple, initiate the Freemason into what might be described as an esoteric, mystic, ascetic, personal Christianity.
Even more concretely within the Western esoteric tradition is the Societas Rosicruciana, a society, founded during the 19th century, that is open only to Master Masons, and nominally Christian. It’s degree structure was derived from the German Order of the Golden Rosicrucians (sometimes called The Gold and Rosy Cross), which claimed to teach alchemy, the elixir of life, and to be able to evoke spirits to physical appearance.
The purpose of the Societas Rosicrucians, however, is to explore the history and symbolism of Freemasonry and various religious and esoteric traditions, alchemy and Hermeticism, included. Notably, founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and William Wynn Westcott were both among the highest-ranking members of the day. Theodor Reuss, one of the two founders of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), was also a member of the Societas Rosicruciana. (The OTO was intended to function as a kind of Masonic college, though never receiving recognition from “regular” Masonic jurisdictions, it later became an Order unconnected to Freemasonry. It initiates women, and teaches the secrets of sexual magick.)
That Westcott believed the Societas Rosicruciana to be in some sense occult is more than suggested by his comment, in an address to the English branch, that, “The Star of Rosicrucianism is now once more in the ascendant and our Society has made rapid strides in the past ten years. It is curious to note that waves of interest in occult and mystical subjects, seem to sweep over a nation at intervals; periods of Rosicrucian enlightenment alternate with other periods of materialistic dogmatism.” Perhaps, for some interested in the fraternity, the latter is far preferable.
Spirituality, Reason, and the Non-Rational
It is certainly true that many pro-occult Freemasons, see, very wrongly, occultism everywhere in the rituals and symbolism of the fraternity. They do a disservice not only to its long history, but to our understanding of ritual, symbolism, and fraternalism, more broadly. Not every ritual is occult. During Freemasonry’s emergence, there were other guilds with similar mythologies and rituals, such as the Compagnonnage in France. They were influenced by Freemasonry eventually, and it is possible that its more Catholic rituals influenced Freemasonry’s growing ritualism.
Similarly, the pro-science camp of Freemasonry must intentionally overlook the demonstrably clear influence of alchemy, Hermeticism, Platonism, Christianity, etc., on the “higher degrees,” and must ignore such rites as Memphis and Misraim and such societies as the Golden Rosicrucians and the Societas Rosicruciana altogether. That’s a large portion of Masonic history and practice.
It is troubling, too, because reason, though necessary, is only one facet of man — or of man and woman. It cannot give us poetry, or art, or love of any kind. The whole person is developed largely through the non-rational (not irrational, note), i.e., through developing human relationships, through art, meditation, through the contemplation of things beyond the rational (such as family, culture, Divinity); through pushing beyond one’s limits physically, doing what is daring, and so on.
Freemasonry, like spirituality more broadly, is an engagement with the non-rational, the mysterious; with what is eternal and greater than man. It involves danger.