What Would Your Sentence Be?

What Would Your Sentence Be?

One dark, cold Winter night, in the pine forest near the foothills of the Rockies, a small rabbit runs across a snow-littered meadow. His small feet crunch the rocks as he makes a break for his warren. In the deep silence, a sudden flash and the night becomes day for a brief moment. Seconds tick by as the light rises and slowly fades, an eerie backdrop to the silence. Minutes later, a great tidal wave of energy flattens the forest, the rocks, the warrens, the sleeping life that will continue to sleep. Forever.

In the wake of this powerful destruction, debris falls from the sky, littering the once verdant land with the detritus of its previous inhabitants. Plastic, wood, ash – all drifting in the growing silence. A single white piece of paper, seemingly untouched by the devastation, floats down, swinging wide in the light wind until it reaches the ground. It has the scratches of some writing embedded in its fibers.

What does this writing say?

Feynman 1This is the question that Richard Feynman posed to his physics students on the first day of his new physics curriculum at CalTech in 1961. This question is highlighted in a recent Radiolab episode, entitled “The Cataclysm Sentence” as well as in his collected lectures, called “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.” Rather than teaching his students the history of physics, he wanted them to think critically, creatively, and for themselves.

He posited this question:

If, in some cataclysm, all of the scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence was passed onto the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

His own answer to that question is covered in both places; the twist that Radiolab put on this question was to ask writers, artists, musicians, and contemporary scientists –  what would your sentence say?

Feynman’s answer is at once interesting and a cultural legacy. Here is what he said:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

We could take time to unpack his response, or we could delve into our own. Or, we could wander around the purpose of such a sentence, and how might a Freemason answer.

What would the purpose of such a sentence be? What sort of creatures would pick it up? I imagine that this thinking was once applied to the study of Lemuria or Atlantis, and what their civilizations had left for us. From Plato, we learn of Atlantis, which existing approximately 11,000 years ago. It is considered a myth, a metaphor, a fact, and all things in between. In truth, we have no writings existent from Atlantis, and only Plato (and his character’s word) that it existed. Lemuria, an even fainter impression of a culture and continent, is said to have existed up to 52,000 years ago, in the Indian Ocean, and fell to ruin by Nature’s hand around 16,000 B.C.E.. In this case, the Tamil’s claim that this land, Kumari Kandam, was the “cradle of civilization” and that it was, like Atlantis, a thriving civilization but to theosophists, it was the place where humanity took form. Again, we have Tamil folklore and speculation by both theosophists and 19th C.E. anthropologists but we have nothing written directly from this civilization.

Colors of Freemasonry Part IIIn both cases, no such miracle sentence was imparted to us, no wisdom floating to us through the ages. We might imagine that Plato was telling us that Atlantis’ sentence was “Don’t get greedy.” From Lemuria, it might be “Experience everything as human,” or perhaps “Become.” As their worlds were ending, did any of them think of another race of humans? Would we?

Feynman’s question was specific in that he didn’t specify “humans,” but creatures. Creatures. This presupposes they would understand whatever language was written down or that they would understand the reference. In the Radiolab episode, the answers that artists and philosophers provided were at once strange, funny, serious, and deep. The idea here is that the sentence “jump starts” the next “human” race, or race of advanced creatures, whatever that might be.

CAITLIN DOUGHTY: For me, it’s something like you will die, and that’s the most important thing.

ESPERANZA SPALDING: …The willingness to respond creatively to fear, without trying to eradicate the source of the fear.

CORD JEFFERSON: “The only things you’re innately afraid of are falling and loud noises. The rest of your fears are learned and mostly negligible.”

MERRILL GARBUS: [singing] Evolving over millennia. We learn to fly. We’re nourished by the fruits of the Earth. Inspired by each other’s music. But we failed as a species. Injured the very hands that fed us, when we chose fear as our ruler. When we could not grasp being mere fractals in one collective being. In the end there was no “we.”

JENNY ODELL:  All of human effort is meaningless, as he puts it. So he says humanity knows nothing at all. There’s no intrinsic value in anything and every action is a futile, meaningless effort. (Speaking of a Japanese farmer who created “Do Nothing Farming.”


REBECCA SUGAR: …And maybe the ultimate goal would be to just devote oneself fully to creating the life that feels the best on this world in the time that we have.

JAMES GLEICK: The moon revolves around the Earth, which is not the center of the universe, far from it. But just one of many objects, large and small, that revolve around the sun which in turn, is one of countless stars mostly so far away that they’re invisible, even on the clearest night. All traveling through space on paths obeying simple laws of nature that can be expressed in terms of mathematics. Oh and by the way, there is no God.

JARON LANIER: I would give them nothing….It’s redundant. Like, all of that kind of information is just the stuff that’s out there waiting to be discovered in nature anyway, so we don’t have to do anything. If people apply themselves they’ll rediscover all that stuff. So it’s not like we’re special. Letting them get it in their own good time might be better for them, so what have we actually added? Perhaps we’ve only taken away.

Since I listened to this episode and looked into Feynman’s life, and subsequently, delved into Physics and thought experiments, and the meaning of humanity, the answer on the piece of paper that I write has to be something that would be unique to the creature reading it. In this, I think Freemasonry, and really mystery schools overall, has the far view. If we’re working to the perfecting of humanity, we know we have a long, long road ahead, and possibly many lifetimes. Freemasonry looks to the soul of humanity itself, and works to ascertain its perfection. What would we leave to the next generation of souls to inhabit the universe? Maybe we can’t even say until we’re at the end of our own existence. My hope is that is farther away than closer.

nosceMy thoughts stray to what I learned from long-dead philosophers in Greece, precursors to modernity, leftovers from Atlantis. They didn’t know me, and their civilization has perished. What did they leave me, to provide me hope to carry on? My sentence would be “nosce te ipsum.” It transcends everything.

I’m curious to know – what would your sentence be?

The Four Elements: What Do They Mean in Freemasonry? [Part 1]

The Four Elements: What Do They Mean in Freemasonry? [Part 1]

Part of the journey of a Mason is to familiarize yourself with the concepts presented in lodge, and to discover their meaning for oneself. While there are, of course, interpretations shared and passed down through the generations between masons, part of what makes Masonry so unique among teachings and spiritual practices of the world is that the kernel of what is preserved is fundamentally symbolic, and ultimately each brother’s understanding of the symbols are his or her own. There is no explicit, concrete orthodox doctrine regarding the meaning of any particular symbols, and thus the craft is free to evolve and learn as a collective, while also preserving something ancient and unspoken, but embodied and felt.

Among the symbols of the lodge and masonic rituals are the elements, being the four classical elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Various Orders, Jurisdictions, and Lodges place more or less emphasis on the elements and discuss them in different ways. Without revealing any aspects of the rituals themselves, we can say that in spite of not being universally emphasized throughout all of Freemasonry, the elements are nevertheless important to any thorough study of esotericism and the mysteries. In fact, the more esoteric a particular branch of Freemasonry is, the more emphasis it is likely to place on them, which can perhaps explain why in Universal Co-Masonry, they are significant from the very beginning of one’s masonic journey.  So, how can we view the elements with a Masonic eye, and understand their significance for our lives and our Craft?

Elements as Symbols

four elements symbolsWhile the literal or scientific aspects of elements are a part of the puzzle, alone they are insufficient to understand why the elements are so important to Freemasonry. The significance of the elements in masonry are as symbols, and symbolism is a language of its own. This is also the language with which we interpret dreams or literature, it is the language of direct experience, the forms of experience, and how they represent to the unfolding of consciousness. 

What is the purpose of looking at the elements symbolically? The first clue we may find here is that the elements are, by definition, what make up the World, and also us. This is traditionally why the elements are regarded as significant, in the first place. Therefore, we can look at the elements as essential components of the World, and since World and Self are ultimately one, essential components of the human experience, as well. Just as we can also think of the elements as corresponding to different states of matter, in chemistry/physics the states of solid (Earth), liquid (Water), gas (Air), and energy (Fire), we can also think of them as representing states of experience, mind, or consciousness.


four elements earthThe element Earth is the most solid and stable of the four, with the least dynamic or changeable qualities. Rather than being a source of energy, or particularly subject to energetic changes, it tends to absorb energy, and diffuse it without much actual change to the element itself. A great example is the grounding of a lightning rod; although an enormous amount of energy is going into the Earth, the energy is quickly diffused, without much change to the Earth itself. Fire is another example, because while water is often the most effective method of extinguishing a fire, due to its other qualities which make it easy to blast from a hose, technically pouring Earth on Fire would always be the most effective method of extinguishing the Fire’s dynamic energetic consumption. Unlike the water, the Earth is also not evaporated by the Fire.  

In terms of form and change, Earth has the highest degree of inertia, it is the least susceptible or slowest to change. It also has the greatest structural integrity, as buildings constructed from stones, a type of Earth, can last for centuries or even millenia. It also literally forms the ground upon which we stand, and upon which all structures are built, so in that sense Earth is also the archetypal essence of basis, foundation, stability. As such, we may see the corresponding aspects of consciousness, mind, and experience to be those which share these qualities: survival, stability, being grounded in physical reality, in bodily experience; also any state of mind which involves a high degree of inertia, whether that is viewed as a positive, as in mental and emotional stability, or a negative, as in stubbornness.


four elements waterThe element Water is a bit less solid and stable than Earth, but still less dynamic and changing than Air or Fire. Unlike Air, it is more obviously bound by gravity, and unlike Fire, it does not emit energy. Water is an element which flows, always finds the path of least resistance, and takes on the form of whatever container or environment it comes into. Because it is more susceptible to the changing influence of energy than Earth, it is able to be evaporated, from the lowest and warmest places, and then to be placed down again, especially in the highest or coolest places. Because of this dynamic, as we all know, it creates a cycle which flows over and nourishes the Earth, and makes Life possible. If Water were a bit more inert, it would simply stay in the ocean and be a giant pool; if it were a bit less inert, it would stay above the Earth in the form of clouds, and never come back down. As such, water holds a special place among the elements, as it touches and travels between all of them, as is in alignment with its essential quality of flow.

In terms of symbolism, we typically view Water as representing emotion, but why? Again, as with Earth, its mostly because of the experiential similarity of water’s essential qualities to those of our emotions. Like Water, our emotions simply flow through us, based on whatever occurs in our experience, in relation to the relative energetic dynamism of change. For instance, an excess of Fire or energetic change in our lives will heat our Water, which we usually experience as anger or passion. In such cases, we may say that things are getting “steamy,” or we were “piping hot” with anger. On the other hand, if there is a relative lack of dynamic, energetic change, our emotions may become totally solid, like ice, and people in such a state we refer to as cold, or frigid, because their emotion/Water has stopped flowing, has become like Earth. When our emotions are in their normal liquid state of flow, we experience them as simply coming of their own accord, not particularly within our control, and they “wash over” us, or hit us “like waves.” Hence, Water generally represents emotion.

The Inert Half of the Elemental Spectrum

elements earth and water

As we examine the first two elements, it becomes obvious that they represent different points along a spectrum. What is the nature of that spectrum, what is the primary variable? The spectrum seems to range from the most inert elements, which is also to say those most bound by the force of gravity or inertia, and least susceptible to the force of energetic change and motion, or perhaps freedom of motion. In astrology, these would correspond to the qualities of being mutable or fixed. Just as we view the elements as representing aspects of one’s self, they are also seen to be parts or states of mind and experience which are more or less susceptible to inertia and change, stillness and dynamism, and perhaps, Order and Chaos

Within these two elements alone, we can see this spectrum begin to emerge, as Earth is most bound and least susceptible to energetic change, and Water a bit less so, with its ability to change, become like solid Earth or gaseous Air temporarily, while its most essential quality is to flow between them. Herein lie many clues to the mystery of the elements, and as we continue our journey in the next post, we will see even more meaning, and gain a greater understanding of what the elements are within ourselves.

To Be Continued…

Universal Freemasonry



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