Freemasonry can be and is many things to many people. Some see it as a conspiracy to take over the world; others, an ancient method to guide and improve humanity; yet others still, an old boys club with funny rituals and charitable activities. Following on the perspective theme of last week’s blog Is Freemasonry Dying or Evolving?, I’m going to explore yet another lens on Masonry: the possibility that it may be a kind of time capsule.
This may seem an odd take on our proud tradition at first glance, but bear with me. Without a doubt, Freemasonry is an institution passing down rituals often believed to be ancient in origin, with layers of meaning which are revealed as one progresses through the degrees. Great emphasis is placed on the idea that Masonic Ritual is passed on with regularity, with major changes typically requiring approval through the hierarchy.
This is not to say that Masonry never changes, nor that there are never outliers in terms of individual Lodges deviating from the norm, but rather that the ratio of tradition preservation to novel permutation is relatively high. So, if Freemasonry can be seen as a time capsule, what is it preserving?
As always, this post is not representative of the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but is simply the reflections of one Co-Mason.
Some debate goes on both within and outside of Masonic circles over the true age and origins of Masonic Ritual. More conservative and scholarly historians have settled on the Middle Ages as the coming together of operative masonry (builder’s guild) with it’s Speculative components (philosophy and esotericism), and the Renaissance founding of the Grand Lodge in England in 1717 demarcates the official culmination point of modern Freemasonry into what it is today. However, it’s possible that this is merely when Freemasonry came into its modern form, and began leaving a neat paper trail.
On the other hand, more speculative Brothers have traced its origins to the ancient mystery traditions of old, supposing it to trace back as far as ancient Israel, Egypt, even Atlantis. Certainly the Speculative Masonic elements which joined and transformed Masonry from an architectural guild into the modern spiritual tradition it is today were inspired by, if not actually directly descended from, those ancient mystical traditions.
In a way, the question we’re asking is two-fold, because it depends on what we’re referring to when we say “Freemasonry.” If, by that term, we mean the unified Fraternity we know today, under the auspices of Grand Lodges, combining the symbolism of Masonic Builders with the teachings of the ancient Mysteries, then the conservative historians are probably correct. On the other hand, if we are referring to the origin of the Mysteries it preserves, which are the Speculative elements that have made it significant enough to be preserved when all other such organizations from medieval times faded away, then we must look much further back into the past.
What is a time capsule? It is a container in which is placed one or more items of significance which one wishes to preserve through the process of time. If those same items had not been placed in the capsule, they would likely have succumb to the inevitable forces of entropy and change. They would have been thrown away, fallen apart, or given away and forgotten about. The central intention of creating a time capsule is to preserve something so that it may be rediscovered at a later time.
You might be thinking that the comparison of Freemasonry to a time capsule seems a bit of a stretch, and in some ways, I’m inclined to agree. It is not merely a time capsule; but can we think of that as one of the purposes it serves?
Freemasonry in its modern form comes to us from a time when certain freedoms such as democratic government, open philosophical discourse, and personal spirituality had all but been eradicated from the Western world by means of despotism, mass psychological manipulation, torture, and genocide. Is it any wonder that those passing along these ancient virtues converged and found an adequate container in which to place them? Operative masonry, with its democratic hierarchical structure, secret terminology and tokens, and international nomadic mode of existence particularly lent itself to being an ideal container for these timeless Truths, to preserve them against decay and tyranny.
That being said, Freemasonry is also different from a time capsule in many ways. It does not simply sit there, buried somewhere, to be found at a later time; it lives on and raises men and women to higher stages of their own evolution, contributes to the world charitably, and attempts to steer humanity towards freedom and enlightenment. Yet, it would not be capable of doing so if it weren’t maintaining the ancient Mysteries within the container of symbolism and fraternal organization.
What do you think? Do you find this to be a useful perspective of the Craft?