I almost always find myself lost for words when asked what Freemasonry is.
Sure I know the quick little one liners we all have been taught, but they seem to simple.
What of instead of saying "we make good men better men" we said "a progressive science with its roots in ancient religious thought and philosophy"? Which one would entice the better candidate or attract the most curious, or share the most amount of light?
Many today don't even realize Freemasonry is considered a science, and a progressive one at that.
"Our Freemasonry is undoubtedly a progressive science,"
~Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry
I find the quote above written by Brother MacKey rather informative and yet vague at the same time. First let us look at the two key words contained within that short paragraph, two words that may shed a little light on the deeper purpose of Freemasonry.
The first keyword being 'progressive', meaning; happening or developing gradually or in stages; proceeding step by step.
Synonyms: continuing, continuous, increasing, growing, developing, ongoing, accelerating, escalating, and then 'science', meaning; the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
At first glance it would be very easy to assume what Brother Mackey is referring to is the degree structure in Freemasonry where the initiate advances through in Freemasonry, yet when we add the keyword 'science' to this progression we find the degree system is probably not what our learned brother is talking about. Sure we are gradually exposed to more and more symbolism on our progression through the degrees but we still haven't been introduced to what science we are suppose to be immersing our self in.
One might also assume that Brother MacKey was talking about our progression to become a better individual morally, " a good man a better man". I tend to see this as one of the reasons you gained admission into Freemasonry in the first place, you were vetted by three and voted in, you were already deemed a good man.
If we look further to brother MacKey's definition of Freemasonry as a 'progressive science' we find him giving the following examples:
"Freemasons are now expected to be more learned than formerly in all that relates to the 'science' of the Order. Its origin, its history, its objects, are now considered worthy of the attentive consideration of its disciples. The rational explanation of its ceremonies and symbols, and their connection with ancient systems of religion and philosophy, are now considered as necessary topics of inquiry for all who desire to distinguish themselves as proficient in Masonic science."
Now that's some heady topics to be addressed, the origin of our Order, it's history, the various symbols and their connection to ancient comparative religious thought, and last but not least philosophy. In other words the Masonic journey is not just about dinner and business meetings, it has to be researched, studied, and in some esoteric cases implemented.
Let's look at each of those topics and see what we are up against and what may help us on our journey.
First the origin of the Order. This can actually be a fun ride through myth, pseudo fiction, and pure speculation. Part of the problem we have here is that we borrowed the title mason from operating masons that worked building temples in England.
Are we a byproduct of these hard working temple builders of old? No two historians seem to agree. Of course we borrowed many of their tools and projected meaning on them, and maybe we borrowed their technique for identifying as masons to prospective employers, but other than that everything else is the creation of very well researched minds.
What we do know for a fact is Freemasonry outed itself in the early seventeen hundreds during what has been called the Age of the Enlightenment. We also know for a fact that many of our early brothers during this time were very learned men, many belonging to the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.
If I were to begin my Masonic journey of understanding I would begin at this time, look to see what was happening historically in the world of science, philosophy, and religious thought.
It should also be mentioned that the rituals were created by Dr. James Anderson and John Desaguliers, both members of the Royal Society. It would probably be a mistake to assume the rituals developed by these two gentleman had any similarities with the rituals used by operative masons.
Returning to MacKey's suggestion to look towards the 'science of our Order' with a "rational explanation of its ceremonies and symbols, and their connection with ancient systems of religion and philosophy"
The 'Rational Scientific Method' is how intelligent beings can objectively and rationally explain phenomena and arrive at rational conclusions about reality. Using this method is how we can achieve an understanding of the world around us. This fits perfectly into the shift of thinking that occurred during the Enlightenment. The thinkers of the Enlightenment, influenced by the scientific revolutions of the previous century, believed in shedding the light of science and reason on the world, and in order to question traditional ideas and religious dogma.
"The characteristic Enlightenment suspicion of all allegedly authoritative claims the validity of which is obscure, which is directed first of all against religious dogmas, extends to the claims of metaphysics as well."...Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
During this time in history, in England, it was not uncommon for the natural philosophers to be theologians also, case in point Isaac Newton and his assist John Desaguliers. Over the years many have made note of Isaac Newton's devotion to biblical study, but few mention his anti-trinitarian position, his refusal to receive holy orders and his refusal, on his death bed, to receive the sacrament.
So what ever Brother MacKey was referred the brothers to the "ancient systems of religion and philosophy" it would have to able to be proven and superstition free and fit within the criteria of 'reason'.
Clues to what I believe what Brother MacKey is referring to when he says "ancient systems of religion and philosophy" are actually imbedded in the symbols, the language of the rituals, and in the layout of the lodge room.
The first place I would look is to an old Greek philosopher named Pythagoras and his divine harmony, the layout of the lodge room is a good example of Pythagorean harmony.
There also happens to be a very old, what some would call a religious tradition that had captured the attention of the many learned individuals of the Enlightenment, including Newton, Leibniz, Locke. Known as the Kabbalah we find essentially a Neoplatonic philosophy that parallels well the harmony of Pythagoras.
Neoplatonist's believe that the phenomenal world and the human soul were produced by a process of emanation from the highest level of Reality, the First Hypostasis, otherwise known as "The One'". This belief system includes practical techniques designed to enable an individual soul to retrace the path of emanation in reverse, literally an ascent, or return back to the original condition of being. Emanation is an ancient way of explaining how our physical world, which contains a chaotic diversity of entities, can have an underlying order and a connection with a single, unified source of all being, the 'point within the circle'.
Time for me to progress through the philosophy of Pythagoras and take a closer look at the Kabalah.
For now on if anybody asks me what Freemasonry is I'm going to reply by say "it is a progressive science".