Dear Unknown Friend,
Freemasonry is above all things an Initiatic Tradition, developed for the purpose of individual Illumination and dedicated to universal brotherhood.
We may append other organizations and meanings to this core nature of Freemasonry, and we may confuse ourselves, and lead society to believe a more convenient statement. None of those change the fact, that Freemasonry is an intense set of philosophical truths about the human condition, compelling us to approach the world with Faith and Reason (releasing us from Cartesian models), that we may join together as true servants of our fellowman.
It is difficult in these modern times to speak of Freemasonry as the most intense philosophic training available for a variety of reasons, but more so than any other because we, Freemasons, don’t choose to accept the simple truth of our heritage. Early generations of Masonic scholars threw open the doors of our heritage and history allowing a tide of erroneous speculation on the origin, and thus the meaning of Freemasonry, into our courts. To counter this tide of broad speculation we chose to bind ourselves to a world of facts. But we took this too far. We cost ourselves the truths of our Order [facts are always true, but truths are not necessarily facts]. We have thrown the baby out with the bath water.
History true and factual make the nature of Freemasonry self-evident. Freemasonry is an Initiatic Tradition. Like all Initiatic Traditions – excepting traditions born purely of fraternal organizations – we seek individual illumination, and universal brotherhood at the atomic level: the man. This is achieved through the transformative art of Initiation. Making good men better, is a contemporary way of saying this.
To know this, one needs only look at a Trestleboard, or Masonic altar. On it is found a square and compasses. Both of these have alchemical origins.
I must digress here, it bears stating that alchemy is a transformative art, perhaps the most perennial and thus the best exemplar, or pinnacle of transformative arts.
To reveal this Masonic-Alchemical connection, I will resort to the same trick as others and start with the Rebis. The Rebis is an alchemical image, from “Materia Prima” by Basilius Valentinus, published in Frankfurt, in 1613. It is a sort “trestleboard”, and I would draw your attention to the contents of the hands of the figure. Notice anything familiar? I thought you might.
The works of a classical alchemical provenance – pre-18th century – will readily prove the above statement. If you are interested I refer you to the works of Valentinus, Fludd, Paracelsus, Khunrath, Bohme, Maier, and the Sabians. You should find satisfactory proof contained therein. I note pre-18th century for you must come to a time when math, geometry, medicine and alchemy were all part of the same system of study. This is not to say that the 18th century is the demarcation line. I only mean to suggest that after the 18th century the distinctions came into a clearer focus. So I generalize and suggest a pre-18th century model, where symbols and tools of science, reason, alchemy and faith were not isolated to distinct disciplines as we know them today. Geometrical symbols were interchanged for alchemical ones, and vice versa.
Alchemy and Freemasonry are intermingled, and have been since the heady days of the late 18th century. They share the same goal – individual illumination and universal brotherhood through personal transformation.
Alchemy is the means of changing the gross individual into a truly spiritual being. Freemasonry shares this exact precept, and borrows alchemical symbols to demonstrate it. To students of alchemy this may seem a stretch. The Square and Compasses are not overtly alchemical, and thus the Masonic relationship seems incongruent until one asks what one draws with a square or a compass. With the square, one draws a square. With the compasses, one draws a circle. The circle and the square are alchemical symbols representing the soul (the circle) and the body (the square) of Man. All that would appear to be missing is the triangle, but any Mason surely knows where to find these in Lodge -“ and all Brothers exalted to the Royal Arch should be able to find them in abundance.
The assertion is complete. The Masonic Square and Compasses stem from alchemical notions on the composition of man, his purpose in the world, and how one achieves transformation (move from the Square to the Compasses). We have the square and compasses to because we share a philosophical and moral heritage with Alchemy.
However, the relationship extends further. The use of the Square and Compasses and the Triangle represent alchemical assumptions on the nature of man:
- Salt: body/corpus: will/wisdom, the Square.
- Sulphur: soul/animus: love/agape/caritas, the Compasses.
- Mercury: spirit/spiritus: mind, the Triangle.
The progress from the Blue Lodge (Square Work) to the Holy Royal Arch (Circular Work) is no mere coincidence, or a casual adoption of visually stimulating imagery. Freemasonry assumes three natures, or ages of the individual, progressively attained before reaching a threshold no “human” can cross – into a divine territory prepared for by a Masonic life. Alchemical philosophy and worldview shares this same ontology. The square, the circle, and the triangle are abundant in the Blue Lodge, and within the Lodge of Perfection of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, so are the associated alchemical meanings.
By this association I do not assert that Freemasonry is alchemy. Nor do I posit such notions as unbroken lineages of mystic practitioners from times immemorial in far off distant lands. I only suggest that somewhere in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, early Freemasons and late Alchemists conjoined their symbol and ontological systems to communicate truths both saw as perennial – truths common to all mankind throughout the ages: philosophia perennis.
Of those Truths, is the idea that mankind is a mutli-faceted creation, and one that over time wears against the obduracy of the material world and needs to be re-aligned. This truth persists in Freemasonry to this day as understood by the Square and Compasses. The Compasses representing our spiritual nature are subjugated by the material world (the Square). This is represented in the Initiation by the elevation of the square above the compasses. However, by the Master Mason degree the locations are reversed, emblematic of the crowning spiritual glory to which every Master Mason yearns. As the Master understands the compasses, and moves to arch and cryptic work, he finds that which is lost, a purified stone/ashlar/pure salt.
This transformation, indicative of the Initiatic Tradition of Freemasonry is our true and genuine object.
- The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century, 1590-1710 – David Stevenson
- The Art of Memory – Frances A. Yates
- The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, First Freemasons – Tobias Churton
- The Great Triad – Rene Guenon