Finding the Middle Path: Esoteric and Non-Esoteric Freemasonry

Finding the Middle Path: Esoteric and Non-Esoteric Freemasonry

There are two groups in Freemasonry, the so-called “Esoterics” and “Non-Esoterics,” who too often do not get along. They should. After all, they need each other.

This, to my mind, is best illustrated by an image I have observed floating around the Internet for a decade. It’s the High Priestess card in the Rider Waite tarot deck with the Kabbalistic “Eitz haChayim” (עץ החיים) or, in English, The Tree of Life, superimposed upon it.

My own version of it is pictured above, along with a box of cigars. Because, as in the statement often is attributed to famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It does not really matter if Freud ever said or wrote that. The point is that things are not always metaphors or symbols for something else.

That said, I think it’s equally possible for them to be and not to be – all at the same time.

My observation of the High Priestess Card and Tree of Life pairing is that individuals, especially those esoterically inclined, who see the connection for the first time, generally experience a kōan moment. That is to say that their minds are completely blown. There is a good deal to be gained in such a moment, i.e. when the mind is absolutely blank. That seems to be the aim of a good portion of esoteric study, inside Freemasonry and out. The aim being to assist the neophyte in unraveling hidden or higher truths deep within themselves and stretching outward to farthest reaches of the Universe.

The image itself supposedly originated with an unknown individual, possibly the late Paul Foster Case, who noted that if you draw circles around the pomegranates on the card and then draw lines between them the image drawn resembles the Tree of Life. The problem is that the tree of life cannot actually be constructed through the process. As is the case with many of these studies, this exercise breaks down under non-esoteric scrutiny.

There are no pomegranates on the card to represent the lower Sephirot, namely Yesod and Malkuth. Thus, the High Priestess’ knees and toes, along with one end of the crescent moon, must be pressed into service. A circle around the cross at the center of her chest also is required. Without those pomegranate-free circles, there is no Tree of Life on the card. The decision to accept any part of the picture, in an exercise to connect an image, leaves us open to circles, squares, and other doodles on the card.

Tree of Life

The Kabbalistic Tree of Life

In my observation, the esoterically inclined Brother may declare that, simply by making that perfectly reasonable observation, the non-esoterically inclined Brother is just not open to the experience and not worthy of the special knowledge imparted. The non-esoterically inclined Brother may reply that the whole thing is nonsense and then try to turn the subject toward something practical, such as an upcoming fundraiser.

That, in turn, frustrates the esoterically inclined Brother, who sees the upcoming fundraiser as meaningless compared to the exploration in search of answers about life, the universe, etc. The Brothers with opposing viewpoints might even start squabbling at this point, each implying that the other should be more like themselves.

That argument generally leaves those individuals in the middle thinking both of the original points is valid and worth considering. They may wonder why those on either side cannot get along.

To be clear, as a historian in Freemasonry I have endured my own share of being annoyed with esoterically inclined writers who, to my mind, flippantly make up historical events to bolster their own writings. Quite recently, I heard an operative alchemist claim that medieval architecture originated with the Templars, stating it as a fact without supporting documentation, something more academically minded Templar scholars would have no trouble refuting.

Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight, who were big deals when I came into Freemasonry about a decade ago, have been seen by some to invent things to bolster the message and lessons they want to get across.

Which, I think, is the point. For esoteric writers, the focus is on the message or lesson they are trying to teach not necessarily about the complete historical accuracy of the facts underlying their arguments.  They may ignore some historical data or information if it is seen as cumbersome, irrelevant, or diminishing to their argument. 

Non-esoteric writers may prefer to establish their messages and lessons in well-documented and verifiable historical analysis. To do otherwise, may seem to these writers as “making up history.” They also might express a certain irritation that esoteric books far outsell non-esoteric tomes.

Both points of view are valid, but both sides also often also forget to take a hard look at themselves.

I suppose it might be helpful, even this late in the blog, to define the term “esoteric”, which is no easy thing. Merriam-Webster lists the popularity of the word “esotericism“as being in the bottom 30 percent of popular words and defines it as “the quality or state of being esoteric.”

Spheres Dante

The Concentric Spheres of “The Key to Dante’s Divine Comedy,” by Augustus Knapp

The same source defines “esoteric” as pursuing something “designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone” (my emphasis) or “requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group.”

To be “non-esoteric,” in Freemasonry and without, would be not to be part of that specially initiated group or to not have that knowledge restricted to the small group. Or, I suppose, to reject all that.

Brothers on both sides live in the same place. They really do, but they fail to recognize the concentric spheres spheres that share the same center – which make up that place. In Freemasonry, there are those who labor in the Inner Order, they who keep the Light; and those who labor in the Outer Order, they who keep the lights on.

There is no point in making sure the power bill is paid to keep the lights on if there is no Light to keep; and the Light cannot very well be kept if the power bill is not paid to keep the lights on.

There are Brothers who prefer the Outer Order. They enjoy the sumptuous banquets, the social functions, and getting out into the world to show how good Freemasons can be. The Outer Order excels at financial planning, in setting aside trusts for the future, for that is where the Outer Order lives. They are careful to remember the past and plan for the future.

The Brothers of the Inner Order live in the Now. They see Freemasonry as a body of individual seekers of Light, an heir to the ancient mystery schools, and a system to impart morality, ethics, and the benefits of mutual service. The Inner Order tends to dismiss the past as unimportant and reckons the future will take care of itself. For them, clarity and correctness about the past and future is a secondary concern to the now.

Ancient Mysteries

Ancient Mystery School Symbolism

Then there are those achingly tolerant Brethren, “hybrids,” who can pass between the spheres and see value in both. They historically have been in the minority in Freemasonry but, in my observation, their numbers are increasing. I see them as Brothers deeply rooted in the center. I wish there were more of them.

I am not the first to observe this disharmony between the spheres. Bro. Robert Davis, in his 2010 paper “The Path of the Esotericists Among Us,” pointed out that “no sincere adept’ would force truth on someone not prepared to contemplate it. “We all know Masons who believe with all their heart there is nothing spiritual about the rituals of Masonry,” Bro. Davis wrote. 

There are those who claim there is nothing to learn beyond the ritual words. There are even more who are appalled when it is suggested that Kabbalistic, Alchemical, or Hermetic associations might be made from a study of the Degrees of Masonry. Never mind that every aspirant is told before he receives the very first Degree that Masonry is a course of hieroglyphic instruction taught by allegories. Oh well. As obvious as this may seem to the esoteric minded among us, there is little to be gained by arguing with those who aren’t listening.

I would add to Davis’ point that there *is* a middle path. It is worth seeking, and Esoterics and Non-Esoterics need to tolerate, if not respect, each other.

Until we can all be there, I continue to hope that Brothers of the Inner and Outer orders will learn to respect and tolerate each other. I hope that they will try – please try – not to encroach too much into the opposite sphere. At least not until they are ready to do so harmoniously and fully recognizing that the Brother in the opposite sphere who does not get you and who is not open to your experience is the Brother who makes sure that you do and are.