IN a recent conversation with a Brother, the question was asked of me, “How do you define evil?” This is a very loaded, deep, and profound question. It strikes on our religious, ethical, and moral doors, asking to join in a thousands-year-old conversation. What is evil? You might as well ask, “why does humanity exist?” Not for the off-the-cuff answer, right? Freemasonry delves into this moral dilemma, not only in symbol and allegory but also in ritual. These rituals come from not only the Mystery Schools of antiquity but also the philosophers through the ages. How have they informed the question of good and evil for the Freemason? Let’s dig.
In Ancient Egypt, good could not exist without evil; a dualism that shows up in many cultures. From Reflections on Osiris, “The sun-god Ra came from the primeval mound of creation only after he set his daughter Maat in place of isfet (chaos). Kings inherited the duty to ensure Maat remained in place, and they with Ra are said to “live on Maat”, with Akhenaten (r. 1372–1355 BCE) in particular emphasizing the concept to a degree that the king’s contemporaries viewed as intolerance and fanaticism.” Thus, Isfet was chaos, disharmony, and upheaval. It was the duty of the pharaoh to maintain Ma’at and remove chaos from his realm. Evil, it seems, was all that was disharmonious and chaotic. Kings were there to create Order out of Chaos. Good out of evil, in other words. The motto of Freemasonry is “Order out of Chaos,” with its counterpart, “Chaos out of Order.”
Socrates said, “There is only one good, knowledge. And there is only one evil, ignorance.” As Plato recounts in Protagoras his own views of Evil, through Socrates when discussing judgment. Socrates states that anyone with a well-formed judgment cannot do ‘evil;’ that an evil-doer is one who must not be thinking clearly. Virtue can be taught, and it is only in misinformation and “mal-education” that evil takes root. Correct the ignorance and you can correct the evil.
Marcus Aurelius said the same in meditations, taking it to more of a “modern” approach:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”– Marcus Aurelius
Knowledge is good; Ignorance is evil. For the Freemason, Education is key to creating a better human and a better world.
Christians didn’t always see evil as the personification of Satan, at least not until this was brought to the fore by the Christian fathers of the early Middle Ages in Europe. However, philosophically, after Plato, evil was generally seen as the absence of good. That is, anything that was called evil was in turn defined by its opposite, a positive outcome. If celibacy was good, sex was evil. If charity was good, greed was evil. Evil at this stage got mixed up with the word “bad” and became intertwined within Christian and Neo-Platonic philosophy. This became the tool for Western religious scholars to mold a moral philosophy into religious scripture, and begin to muddy the waters for all who were touched by it. God is good; anything Not-God is evil.
Freemasons are encouraged to find their personal religion and follow it to the best of their abilities. In fact, all regions are embraced and accepted within membership because they are, ostensibly, multiple facets of positive, divine morality. They do not look at good and bad as necessarily hard and fast rules but seek the deeper values that transcend God, thus transcending the simple of view God / Not-God.
For Buddhists, the human being can create negative actions and feelings which in turn give rise to evil. While the Buddhist might not believe that the human being is evil, these actions and emotions of anger, hate, and avarice lead to suffering which is evil. These emotions arise from the fact that the human being sees himself as separate from others.
By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another.– The Dhammapada, Chapter 12, Verse 165
Evil is not some external force, being, or spirit: evil to the Buddhist is an internal manifestation of not seeing oneself as part of the greater “body” of humanity. Unity and peace are good; separateness and suffering are evil. Freemasons strive to do their work to the perfecting of Humanity, to follow the Natural Law, and seek Truth. There is no segregation between race, creed, religion, and gender, especially in Co-Masonry. The ideal of Solidarity, not Charity, is the way the Freemason seeks to alleviate suffering.
Indeed, in our Postmodern age, we find that evil cannot be found. Moral Nihilists believe that there is neither good nor evil because it cannot be found in Nature. Morality per se is a fiction created by human beings, and thus, the terms and classifications of good and evil are irrelevant. To a strict moral nihilist, murder and rape are not evil – they are simply actions that one human took against another. A bear killing another bear (the classic definition of murder), regardless of whether he eats him or not, is just nature taking its course. While the Moral Relativist will see good and evil as applying to a local culture or set of mores, moral nihilists see no such distinction – good and evil do not exist. This is a tough aspect for the Freemason, I think, because Freemasons have accepted that there is a moral code they must follow. However, the Freemason must learn tolerance and accept that something that goes against their own moral compass might be acceptable in a culture other than their own.
It’s interesting how human existence has run the gamut of evil’s origin – external, internal, and now non-existent. While it might be easy to fall into any of these various thoughts noted above, I reflect back to the question asked of me, personally: “What is Evil to you?” I fall to Hegel and what I believe is where he was going (which may have later been misinterpreted by modern minds.) Hegel said, “Evil effectively occurs when ‘subjectivity declares itself absolute’.” That is, evil comes from the internal choice to either see oneself as part of a greater society (humanity) or see oneself as a closed system, sovereign only to our personal natures. It is the internal voice that divides rather than unites.
Evil is division, and Good is unification. This is not at the base physical level but at the level of humanity where the human form is irrelevant – the higher concept that we are a part of a natural world, far more vast than we know. When we divide ourselves from this, we create chaos, ignorance, suffering, and separateness. We create evil. For me, as a Freemason, I see the lessons of the degrees I have as all pointing to this one truth: In order for humanity to achieve its potential, we all need to work to erase that which divides and work to create a mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual state where we are all One.
Freemasons, I think, have a lot of work ahead of them.