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Studies on Traditional Freemasonry

By: Fabio Venzi

 

Here is a most useful examination of the origins of the Craft with the expected references to Carr, Ward and Hamill and the postulation of the Authentic School which argues for a definite distinction between operative and speculative Masons. Transition Theory given credence by Stephenson after his examination of the records of the Dundee Lodge where he held that Speculative Freemasonry originated in Scotland, also persists as a persuasive theory. Seal Coon’s Theory of Conspiracy to Fellowship is cited as well as Naudon’s theory of the Templar involvement in the control of the building trades and their supposed effect upon the Guilds of Normandy and England prior to the reformation. Those Guilds are said to have been the inheritors of intiatic content from Rosicrucian and Hermetic sources and when they began to be Speculative rather than operative their traditions were carried on by English Freemasonry. Sandbach and Ward’s theories are discussed with the author very much in favour of Ward’s view of Free Masons being freed from the bonds of the London Company of Masons ... but at double the price for Acception!

 

Venzi proceeds to suggest that the Masonic school and its symbolism are not derived from the influence of the Enlightenment. Had this been so it would have produced a Grand Orient style of Freemasonry promoting a ‘… desolating banality and a dull moralism ...’. The Enlightenment tended to propagate a philosophic system characterized by the Newtonian mechanical Universe and a shying away from metaphysics. If Freemasonry were a child of an initiatic tradition it needs must look to a process of continual development involving a hidden Truth and personal revelation. Freemasonry born of Enlightenment principals tends toward Relativism and thereby earns the disapproval of the Catholic Church. Deism is also given short shrift since in it, there can be no place for a relationship between God and Man. The author sees an initiatic Freemasonry overlaid with Illuminist ideas as transforming itself into a ‘Lay Religion’ and being the loser thereby. Traditional Freemasonry should, in his opinion, operate as an initiatic organisation with ambitions to act neither on a social nor an historic plane but rather, by its own example, be a light to a humanity in darkness.

 

The Board of General Purposes of the United Grand Lodge of England claims that Freemasonry is one of the world’s oldest secular fraternal societies yet the initiatic and esoteric aspects found in the ritual would seem to counter this assertion. Freemasonry claims not to be a religion but the author parades various definitions of such which would seem to deny this. Reducing the arguments to a common denominator he shows that tradition embraces the ‘sacred’ which is effectively the opposite of the ‘profane’ — literally ‘outside the temple’. Inside, the Freemason embarks upon a journey which conditions him to absorb intuitive knowledge in the accommodation of truth and the search for the divine, not least by the exhortation formerly seen over the temple at Delphi— ‘KnowThyself’.

 

Venzi avers that there is no documented proof of a direct line of descent between Freemasonry and Mystery Societies and that to suggest a link would be pure guesswork yet examples are given of the putting off of shoes, the use of gloves — both symbolic of holiness and purity and both presumably derived from similar early concepts. Our attention is drawn to the use of passwords which admit the holder to a new transforming knowledge which would previously have been ‘secret’ and which employ the same dynamic and aim as that in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Another parallel can be seen in the death and rebirth familiar to every Master Mason.

 

Should Freemasonry then be considered a philosophy or an ethical and moral code of conduct? Operative masonry as exemplified in the Old Charges reveals no particular emphasis on either philosophical or esoteric dimensions. Such considerations only begin to reveal themselves with the growth of Speculative Freemasonry whose adherence to a traditional form of ethics and morals so reflected the outlook of the Neoplatonist Cambridge School that it resulted in a rejection of the scientific rationalism of the age. Thus the emphasis was on the development of the individual and a furtherance of his knowledge rather than the Illuminist outlook which tended toward a separation of man from the traditions of religion and a relationship with the sacred.

 

There are freemasons who believe that their society is solely one of mutual assistance combined with ethical and moral considerations yet share the same lodge with others who consider it as an initiatic. philosophy, which the author describes as:

 

‘… neither a religion nor a surrogate for religion, being rather an initiatic tool to aid individuals to embark on a journey towards personal improvement and spiritual perfection.’

 

Venzi believes the two views are not mutually exclusive, holding that to be so, the members must be bound by Masonic Landmarks which, unfortunately, are nowhere defined in English Freemasonry. The purpose of these unspecified boundaries is simply to maintain the character and principles of the Craft. The esoteric element of Freemasonry has undoubtedly been diminished by the secularising of society. If it is not recovered then the Craft may merely become a parody of its former self. Freemasonry is concerned with the transmutation of Man. Newton, Boyle and other early members of the Royal Society practised alchemy, hand in hand with the development of empirical science but were nevertheless concerned with a search for a ‘Truth’ which could be integrated into the new Natural Philosophy lest it descend into ‘atheistic mechanism’ as feared by the Cambridge Neoplatonists.

 

If at the conclusion of this work the reader may still be uncertain which of the many suggested origins of Freemasonry is espoused by Venzi, then surely the choice of Burne-Jones’ The Doom Fulfilled for his front cover suggests where his heart truly lies — Perseus slays the evil dragon, wins Andromeda; good triumphs over evil; the freemason pursues his mythic journey as a process of continual transition.

 

For a book of this scope it seems a shame that it has no index although if it eventually appears as an eBook then that will no longer be a problem. In the meantime, despite the considerable quantity of philosophical technical terms it deserves a place in every thinking freemason’s bookshelves. It certainly has a place in mine.

 

Peter Currie

 

Publisher: Lewis Masonic

Price: £14.99

ISBN: 9780853184461

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