Leon Zeldis, FPS 

Let me begin by repeating this categorical assertion. Dear reader, Freemasonry is a waste of time. But wait a moment, before you press the Delete key. Before doing that, I invite you to consider the meaning of what I just wrote.

What does it mean to waste time? At first sight, it appears to be a simple proposition. What do you think?

In order not to extend this little essay, I'll propose a possible definition: to waste time is to spend it doing something useless, or doing nothing. In other words, killing time. William James, the Psychologist, said that killing time is not murder, but a suicide.

Coming back to the definition I just proposed, evidently the second possibility is not applicable to us. We are doing something, although I am not sure what, but we are not gathering dust. The first possibility, then, is the only one applicable to us: we are doing something… useless.

But then another question comes up. What does ‘useless’ mean?  Or, to put it in other words, when is an activity useful?

Here we are entering the minefield of philosophy. But fear not, I will not follow the advice of Bertrand Russell, who wrote that for a philosopher, being intelligible is suicide.

I mentioned suicide, and since we do not encourage self-immolation, we should try to decide right away what is useful, and as a start let us take a look at the doctrine which considers utility as the basis of all philosophy: Utilitarianism.

Let us see what a dictionary of philosophy says about Utilitarianism:

"Utilitarianism is the doctrine that maintains the primacy of the value of utility above all other values or which even holds that only it is a proper value." That is to say, there is nothing valuable if it is not useful.

Later, the dictionary explains that basically, Utilitarianism maintains that everything in nature is either advantageous or detrimental.

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham made a nimble somersault and replaced Pleasure for Utility. That is, useful is what gives us pleasure, or prevents pain. His follower John Stuart Mill, another Englishman, perhaps the most famous among the Utilitarian camp, maintains that there are various degrees of pleasure, and comes to the conclusion that intellectual and affective pleasures are superior to the physical ones. The pleasure of listening to good music, or finding the answer to a problem, he says, is higher than that of eating a delicacy, or taking to bed a young woman. I won't continue this line of thought, but I believe that Mill wrote this when he was 55 years old, which in his time was an advanced age, when amorous adventures perhaps exceeded his capacity.

All this is rather abstract. Let us come back to earth. When we say that something is useful for us, it means that we gain something from it. The profit may be material, like earning more, for instance, or taking a medicine to get well, or it may be immaterial, like having good friends.

From this perspective, let us see if it is useful to come to Lodge, sitting down to listen a lecture, perform a ceremony, put some coins into the charity bag, eat a less than sumptuous meal and return home.

Where is the profit in all this?

In Lodge we do not earn money, do business, or take advantage from one another and, I dare say, sitting a couple of hours on hard chairs does not provide great pleasure.

Would it not be more pleasant to remain comfortably seated on the armchair in front of the TV or the computer, have a drink, listen to good music, read a detective story or something more serious?

That, without question, would be pleasant, that is, useful.

However, I think we start to discern signs that not everything is lost.

Let us see. What is the stated purpose of our institution? Masonry – we say – pretends to take good men and make them better, and through them improve human society to reach the ideal of a wise, illustrated and tolerant humanity, where fraternity becomes the universal bond among all human beings.

Are these objectives useful? We must assume they are, even if unachievable at a certain time and in a given environment.

Here, let us return to the subject of Utilitarianism. There can be no doubt that hatred, war, conflicts, terrorism, cannot give pleasure. Only sick minds can find satisfaction in murdering children. Normal people do not draw enjoyment from the pain of others.

Consequently, everything that leads to smoothing the rough spots between people, that is, to increase fraternity, must be positive and useful.

I am contradicting my initial assertion. Dangerous. But let's move forward.

Let us examine some other activities of daily life. For instance, is it useful to go to the stadium to witness a game of baseball? Not only it gives us no material profit – we earn nothing – but on the contrary, we have the pay for the ticket. What is the profit in that? Something immaterial: the pleasure of seeing our team win, or the opportunity for sending the other one to hell if it wins.

Remember that when we win, it's because we deserved it, but if the other side wins, it was pure luck.

Let us see other activities. Reading a good book or watching television, to what extent is it useful? We must conclude, only so far as they give us pleasure, satisfaction, which means that we are confirming Bentham's proposition I mentioned earlier.

But if this is so, there are a number of comparable activities, like going to the movies, to the theatre, the opera, a concert, shopping, the church or, finally, going to the cemetery. Somebody said that he attended the funerals of all his friends; otherwise they would not come to his.

In all these occasions I just mentioned, we can affirm that we are wasting time, unless we accept the equivalence of useful equals pleasurable.

Nevertheless, there are actions, like knotting a tie, going to the barber, shining one's shoes, which even under this perspective cannot be considered useful. There is no moral obligation to cut the hair, and I do not believe it gives pleasure. Nevertheless, we do it, wasting time.

Time, dear brethren, is the only irreplaceable asset; and yet we spend it wastefully day by day, hour after hour, and minute by minute.

Let us come back to the Lodge. Probably you have already noticed that my argument has a basic flaw, a crucial lacuna. I have been talking all the time from the individual's point of view, and I ignored, for the time being, the rest of the world, family, the human environment in which we live, the society to which we belong.

Enlarging the scope, doing "zoom out", the problem is more complicated; some acts may not be useful for the individual, but are so for the community. A simple example is that of the soldier who risks his life to protect the country. There is no pleasure in patrolling the border or in sitting inside a tank, and yet, we do it, because it is useful for the country, and the country includes our family, and the family includes us. So here we have an example of something useful that is not pleasurable.

Returning to our lodge, I wonder whether performing well a ceremony, an initiation, for example, produces pleasure. I believe it does. It's the same pleasure of fulfilling well a duty, of carrying out a task well done. It is the same pleasure of the artist who completes his work, the musician who is satisfied of having played perfectly.

But there is more. We read articles – not this, of course – and we learn something. A philosopher said that when the mind stretches to include a new idea, it never returns to its previous size. Widening our mental horizon we can touch the edge of the unknown. This is philosophy, my Brethren; as Bertrand Russell said, science is what one knows; philosophy is what one doesn't know.

If we consider only material wealth, in Masonry we are really wasting time, but if dealing with mental wealth, I dare say, spiritual wealth, we are indeed getting rich. Rich in ideas, in friends, in opportunities to contribute to the welfare of society and the progress of our country. So I confess that I was mistaken in the title of my work. Perhaps it was not unintentional.

I come to the end of my paper. Somebody said that if you cannot say what you wanted to say within twenty minutes, better write a book.

The message I wanted to convey with this paper is very simple: whether we waste time in Masonry or not, depends only on us. Let us all, every one of us, do whatever is necessary in order that we may never feel that we had wasted our time.




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