Masonry is multi-layered, and it means different things to different people. It would probably be fairer to ask, what are the meanings of Masonry? This is because it reflects the fact that such a historically significant organization cannot be pinned down to a succinct, simplistic definition.
For those of us in the know, Masonry is an inclusive, vibrant organisation that encourages men around the world to lead better lives. The teachings of Masonry are built upon a foundational core of intrinsic values and beliefs articulated through allegorical plays and rituals conducted within Masonic lodges.
Much of the Masonic rituals take inspiration and meaning from the Holy Scriptures and are rich with theological, philosophical, and teleological significance. It is through a brother’s journey through Masonry that he discovers the true meanings of the fraternity.
In this post, we will look at some of Masonry’s fundamental meanings and understand why it is such an influential society in many different parts of the modern world.
The historical meaning of Masonry
Masonry is significant throughout modern, medieval, and even ancient history. Freemasonry and religious teachings are deeply interlinked, and many Masonic teachings are entrenched with spiritual meaning. However, this does not mean that Freemasonry is a religion, and this is a vital distinction.
Regardless, we can trace many of the Masonic secrets, or at least many of the core Masonic teachings, to the Holy Scriptures, particularly from some of the books in the Christian and Hebrew Bibles.
We can see the Holy Scriptures’ significance because, in every Masonic lodge, there is an altar that houses the Holy Bible. While Freemasonry is not a religion, the Bible takes pride of place in the center of each lodge.
We can also understand Masonry’s historical meaning through many of the fraternity’s important symbols and relics. The Eye of Providence, for example, can be traced back to the Eye of Horus that was a symbol of great significance in Ancient Egypt.
Many of the other symbols of Freemasonry can be traced back in history to the practices of the middle age stonemasons, the square and compasses, and the Masonic apron being prime examples of this.
As we know, much of the structure of modern-day Freemasonry stems from the lodges of the medieval stonemasons. This is reflected by the symbolic nature of many of the Masonic tools used in lodges across the world to teach important lessons.
As we can see from this brief overview, the historical meaning of Freemasonry is varied and diverse. It isn’t easy to compartmentalize Masonry’s historical significance to one particular time in history, as Freemasonry lends itself to many cultures and societies of times gone by.
When we think of Masonry’s historical meaning, we must do so from a holistic viewpoint and acknowledge and appreciate that many different cultures have helped shaped Freemasonry into the organization that we understand today.
The meaning of the Masonic values
Many brothers will tell you that Masonry’s true meaning can be understood in the core Masonic values that they learn throughout their life as a Mason. While a plethora of values interlink to influence the way that a Mason lives his life, there are four uniform values by which a Mason lives. They are:
Integrity – Masons focus on building themselves as individuals of great integrity, and membership of the fraternity allows them to achieve this goal.
Friendship – By definition, Freemasonry as a society brings people together around a common goal in order to meet people with whom they can build relationships and have a meaningful impact in their communities.
Respect – Masonic relationships are built upon respect, and Freemasonry is proud to be an inclusive society that welcomes men irrespective of their race, religion, or any other distinguishing feature that may ordinarily divide a community.
Charity – Perhaps the most commonly overlooked value by those on the outside, brothers spent a large proportion of their time within lodges devising ways in which they can raise money for some of the most pressing causes in their communities.
When these core values are brought together, we can begin to see Masonry’s real meaning and understand that the fraternity is about nourishing these values and enabling men to thrive and become better servants of their families and broader communities.
However, it’s important to note that Masons strive to live by other core values that enable them to search for the Absolute Truth of the universe. These core values allow for a shared understanding of what Masonry seeks to achieve, but they are not the only values that a Mason must abide by in order to live a meaningful life.
When viewed in tandem with the historical meaning of Freemasonry, we can begin to see how the overall meaning of Masonry is layered. Let’s move on to look at the philosophical significance of Masonry.
The philosophical & teleological meaning of Freemasonry
It would be fair to think about Masonry as a body of thought and a way of living. From a philosophical perspective, you could argue that Freemasonry lends itself to elements of Stoic philosophy, for example, mainly its focus on the present and the way in which brothers are encouraged to control their perceptions, direct their actions appropriately, and willingly accept what is outside of their control.
From a broader perspective, many people point to the teleological meaning of Freemasonry as a critical component of its actual value. As we know, brothers must profess faith in the Supreme Being before being welcomed into the fraternity.
This belief in the Grand Architect of the Universe is critical, as Masons are encouraged to question their existence and consider their position in the world in relation to the rest of humankind. In contrast, it is challenging to allocate Freemasonry to a particular theology, as brothers do not need to prescribe to a specific religion to be welcomed into the fraternity.
That being said, many Masons are religious, and therefore find meaning in many of the allegorical teachings that have their foundation in many of the Holy Scriptures. One such prominent example within Freemasonry is the story of King Solomon’s Temple and its primary architect, Hiram Abiff.
While the teaching’s crucial message is not a theological one, it certainly overlaps with Christian teachings somewhat, and it would be fair to consider it in such a way.
Overall, as we have learned from this section, we must pay close attention to Masonry’s philosophical and teleological meaning. For many brothers, the meaning derived from Masonry in these two particular areas enables them to live a productive and values-driven life. Therefore, it is imperative to consider when searching for the meaning of Masonry more generally.
The collective meaning of Masonry
When brought together, we can see that it would be appropriate to describe Masonry’s multiple meanings as a collective of ideas. When we think about what Masonry truly means, we must consider it from many perspectives and viewpoints.
If, for example, we don’t think about the historical significance of the fraternity, we are unable to see the importance of the core Masonic values that guide a Mason through life. From this perspective, each conceptualization of meaning is as important as the other, when searching for purpose within Freemasonry.
This brings us onto another important point; one that enables us to see subjective meaning within Masonry. Every brother brings different life experiences and learnings to their lodge and therefore interprets the Masonic lessons in different ways.
We must appreciate that there is no right or wrong way to garner meaning from any situation when it comes to meaning. Within Masonry, some brothers will take more meaning out of one element of the fraternity than another. This is just human nature and is to be expected, which is why we must consider so many viewpoints when searching for meaning.
Conclusion: Is it possible to define the exact meaning of Masonry?
While it could be possible, it may not be appropriate to define the exact meaning of Masonry. Don’t forget that the very purpose of Freemasonry is to help brothers search for meaning and truth throughout the entirety of their lives.
Because each person has a different understanding of reality and contrasting life experiences, there is no way that they can experience reality in the same way, and therefore they will extract opposite meaning from many Masonic experiences.
As we have explored in this post, you must look at the history, the values, the philosophy, the teleology, and then all of these elements combined, to begin to understand the holistic meaning of Masonry. It would be amiss to think about the meaning of Freemasonry through a narrow lens, as there is so much to consider, and each viewpoint is as worthy as the next.