The Different Schools of Philosophy in Freemasonry
An Essay By Brother Jim Tressner
In Oklahoma, where I live, move, and have my being, we take chili and barbecue seriously-not as seriously as football (which has the status of a religion), but seriously. Life-long friendships have been terminated over the question of whether chili should contain beans. In Texas, which takes these things even more seriously, there are reputed to be counties in which it is a hanging offense to barbecue with hickory rather than mesquite.
No one seems to be willing to say, "Some people like chili with beans, some do not, and that's fine." Or, "Barbecue according to the inclinations of your own heart." I'm reminded of that when I contemplate the various "schools" of Masonic thought. King Louis XVI of France would not have been more haughty toward and contemptuous of a pox-ridden peasant than some adherents of one school are of another.
But Masonry is multiplex. One of the things we most often hear is that a man will find in Masonry what he chooses to seek. That is, perhaps, the greatest strength of the organization. It has many facets; it is not a single path but an interlocking series, rather like a circuit board. It may be helpful, especially for the new Mason, to review these schools, with their various approaches to the study of Masonry. No value judgements are intended in what follows, and those which may appear are unconscious. The whole point of the article is that a school of thought or study is valid for those who follow it. Each Mason has the absolute right to follow the one(s) he wishes or to create a new one for himself. And no one has the right to sneer, to carp, to criticize, or to hold him up to ridicule for his choice.
The Authentic School: This group is sometimes called the historic or scientific school. It is recent, being about 100 years old. The purpose of this approach to the study of Masonry is to separate historic fact from legend and myth. Using the tools of the historian, Masons of this school attempt to create as accurate and unbiased a picture as possible of the actual events in Masonry's past. Generally, students of this school are not interested in the meanings of the symbols of Masonry, but concentrate on that which can be proven and documented. It could fairly be described as a "hard-edged" approach to Masonry.
The Textual Criticism School: Devoted to the study of printed materials, Masons of this school are generally most interested in the ritual and its evolution. They deal with such questions as, "When did changes come into the ritual? Who introduced the changes? Did the changes spread, or did they remain localized?" Given that what little has been written down appears to have been written after it was already in use by word of mouth, their job is especially difficult. To illustrate this approach, one student of this school is trying to discover if a common phrase in the Blue Lodge ritual, usually thought of as "rights, lights, and benefits," was intended to be "rites, lights, and benefits."
The Anthropological School: If the focus of the Authentic School is history, the focus of the Anthropological School is man, especially his long path of spiritual and intellectual development. If the Authentic School regards myth as detritus to be swept away, the Anthropological School regards myth as a primary source of information about humanity and human culture. Masons of this school frequently speak of the "ancient origins of Masonry." This is not intended to suggest that Adam, upon becoming aware of his nakedness, rapped a gavel and said "Brethren, be clothed," nor that King Solomon was, in fact, a Grand Master of a Grand Lodge. Rather it suggests that many of the symbols and great themes of Masonry can also be found in the most ancient myths and spiritual expressions. "What," a student of this school would ask, "does this tell us about humanity? Does it reflect some fundamental truth about mankind? Does it speak of some profound intellectual or spiritual need or awareness which is common to all people?" When a Mason of this school speaks of the relationships between Masonry and the ancient Mysteries, he usually is not trying to suggest they were handed down in an unbroken line, but that similar ideas or images can be found. Masons of this school usually are involved with the symbols of Masonry and their meanings. For them, the symbols, like myths, are markers on the map of self-development for humanity and the individual.
The Mystical School: I wish I had a different word to use here, simply because "mystical" has developed a bad reputation it doesn't deserve. Throughout the recorded history of thought, "mystical" has referred to a search for a sense of union with the Deity-not the sort of "lunatic fringe" association some people give the word today. The follower of this school usually works very hard to avoid cynicism and skepticism. The Mason of this school seeks self-development and enlightenment, and usually he seeks it through his faith as well as Freemasonry. He has a strong sense of the sacred and is moved to the contemplation of God by such things as a beautiful sunset or a powerful work of art. By contemplating the rituals, the symbols and the teachings of Masonry, he is led to a sense of closeness to his Creator and a sense of the unity of all creation.
The Aesthetics School: This school focuses primarily on the products of Masonry, both written and tangible. Thousands of artifacts have been produced over the years, from vast buildings to pocket watches to firing glasses to painted aprons to carved furniture to commemorative china to jewelry to costumes. Then there are plays, short stories, songs, operas, and instrumental or choral works. Masons interested in this school include collectors, those who study the influence of Masonry on the popular culture of the day, those who try to understand how the teachings of the Fraternity are reflected in what it produces, and those interested in the ways in which Masonic design differs from the designs and motifs of other organizations.
The Rhapsodial School: Rhapsodes were men in ancient Greece who specialized in memorizing and reciting the great epic poems. They placed a special emphasis on accuracy of memory and transmitted the great stories down from generation to generation until they were finally committed to writing. Masons of the Rhapsodial School function in the same great tradition. Their pleasure is to learn the ritual, perform it, and teach it to others.
The Fraternal School: Masons of this approach find their greatest satisfaction simply in being Masons. They enjoy being together, as Brothers, and require little else. They are especially concerned, perhaps, with the obligations of Masonry, and many of them are the most committed to charity. But, more than esoteric conundrums, they want the fellow feeling which comes from association with good, like-minded men. And power be unto them!
As I said initially, Masonry is multiplex. There are other approaches, other "schools," and each person is entitled to choose or create as he pleases. Surely we are obligated to be as tolerant of each other's search in Masonry as we are of each other's political party or religious faith. Surely the quest is more important than the path. Chili can be enjoyed with or without beans. And I even know good men who prefer pecan wood to either hickory or mesquite for barbecue.
Jim Tresner, 33, Grand Cross
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