THE FUNDAMENTALS OF MASONIC ANTROPOLOGY
by Giuliano Di Bernardo
Through philosophical anthropology, man, in asking the question, “what is man?” questions his nature, his place in the world and the meaning of his existence. Such questions are also answered by the empirical sciences, such as psychology, sociology, biology, economics and the like. How, then, does philosophical anthropology differ from these sciences? First, they can provide rigorous information on partial aspects of man but are incapable of expressing the total understanding of man. Such sciences make contributions to philosophical anthropology but cannot replace it, because it is the task of philosophical anthropology to grasp man in his totality. One might suppose that such totality could be given by the sum of all the results of scientific investigation of man. In that case, however, one would have to identify a unified principle capable of ordering a multiplicity of individual scientifically valid elements. But such a principle cannot be given a scientific justification, since it is philosophical in nature. And it is here that we grasp the fundamental difference between philosophical anthropology and empirical sciences investigating man: while the former exists to give a comprehensive answer to the question “what is man?”, the latter cannot even pose such a question since it transcends the limits of scientific inquiry itself. Therefore, while the empirical sciences deal with partial and bounded aspects of man, only philosophical anthropology is entitled to the total understanding of man. It goes without saying that, in order to express this totality, it also makes use of the results acquired by the empirical sciences, but compared to these, it retains its autonomy of investigation, since the goal it sets itself is unattainable scientifically. Philosophical anthropology constitutes the horizon of totality within which man understands and realizes himself.
Let us consider man as he is given in his relation to the world. Man is born and develops in a world consisting of other men and things, a world that, while on the one hand enriches him, on the other conditions him. His bodily-physical life is subject to the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, while his social life, which is expressed in his relations with other men whose customs, language and culture he shares, is shaped based on these laws.
Since man belongs to a pre-existing world (of men and things) and is conditioned by it, the contents of his growth derive, in the first place, from this world, which is introduced into his consciousness but is not reduced to it.
Man is not determined by the external world in a purely passive way: he is not only an object but also a subject of the world to which he belongs. Man is not pure mirroring of external reality but can make judgments and evaluations about it. Moreover, he intervenes in the world through his will and action. Based on the unity and totality of this dialectical relationship between man and the world, men’s external living conditions are related to their consciousness in a historical and contingent perspective. Of course, the many different manifestations of social, economic and political life influence his forms of thinking and his conception of life, but his attitudes toward the world do not depend on these alone. It is for this reason that a philosophical anthropology is not simply the result of what the individual empirical sciences of man can say, but it must consider man not only as an observer of reality (in his function of knowledge), but also as a subject endowed with free will and as a bearer of values with respect to which scientific knowledge is extraneous.
These are, in short, the general justifying lines of the notion of “philosophical anthropology.” Different anthropologies are proposed by philosophical schools, which can be classified by taking different criteria. For our purpose here, it is sufficient to make explicit three criteria: 1) that which distinguishes anthropologies into religious and secular, 2) that which distinguishes them into total and partial, and 3) that which distinguishes them into exclusivist and non-exclusivist.
An anthropology is religious if it postulates the existence of a deity understood ontologically (the Jewish, Christian and Islamic god); it is secular if it is inspired by a set of universal moral principles.
An anthropology is total if it reflects on man, life and the world, while it is partial if it considers only man’s practical conduct.
An anthropology is exclusivist if it is based on specific values, while it is non-exclusivist if it is based on common values that belong both to its own anthropology and to other anthropologies.
Religious anthropology is, by its very nature, exclusivist and total. It is exclusivist since the accepted values are only those that constitute the specifics of that religion. It is total since it deals with God, man and nature. From this it follows that there can be no reconcilability between one religious anthropology (characterized by a certain set of specific values) and another religious anthropology (characterized by other specific values).
In contrast, secular anthropology is, by its very nature, non-exclusivist (pluralist), since it is based on values common to different anthropologies. It is partial since its object is only man, his nature, and his ends.
Let us ask what is the anthropology that characterizes Freemasonry. The answer presupposes the definition of Freemasonry. Freemasonry is generally understood as “a particular system of morality, veiled with allegories and illustrated by symbols.” Translated into philosophical language, Freemasonry is “a conception of man that requires the pursuit of ethical ends oriented by transcendence in initiatory ways.” This definition places Freemasonry within practical thinking, which is, by its nature, partial and non-exclusivist. Indeed, Freemasonry is concerned with neither nature nor god except in relation to man. Man, and only man, is at the center of its interest.
Freemasonry is not an all-encompassing philosophical conception. It does not, in fact, claim to provide an answer to questions concerning the totality of the fields with which philosophy has traditionally dealt. Rather, Freemasonry provides a precise practical philosophy concerning man, his nature and purpose. In outlining its image of man, Freemasonry has purposely refrained from investigating all possible aspects of man, limiting itself to considering only those that concern his ethical perfecting. This does not mean that the other aspects have no value for Masonic thought, but that they are secondary and subordinate to the ethical ones. Precisely because Freemasonry accentuates the study of a particular aspect of man, its anthropology is, by definition, partial.
Having confined Masonic anthropology to simple ethical refinement may give rise to the suspicion that Masonic thought is marked by a materialistic immanentism. It is precisely to avoid such a misunderstanding that the idea of “transcendence,” represented in Freemasonry by the Great Architect of the Universe, is introduced, which performs the precise function of guaranteeing the objectivity of shared values, from which the very idea of ethical refinement of the Mason derives.
The idea of the “Great Architect of the Universe” constitutes, within Masonic thought, a central point of reference. It is at the root of the Masonic conception of ethics. A treatment of the ethical problem cannot, therefore, be separated from a thorough analysis regarding the nature of the Great Architect of the Universe and the various interpretations that, throughout Masonic history, have been given to it. On such an important point, there have been misunderstandings and misinterpretations, which have created considerable difficulties in understanding the authentic relationship between Freemasonry and religion.
To clarify this relationship definitively, it is necessary to determine whether Freemasonry is a religion. Freemasonry is a religion if, and only if, there is a Masonic god different from all other expressions of divinity. ln all other cases, Freemasonry is not a religion.
Assuming this definition, let us examine the different meanings of the Great Architect of the Universe in the history of Freemasonry.
(a) Operative Freemasonry. The God of operative Freemasons is the Christian God understood ontologically. Freemasonry, therefore, has a religion which is, precisely, the Christian religion. By the given definition, Freemasonry is not a religion but has a religion.
(b) Speculative Freemasonry (the origins). The situation changes radically when we enter the phase of speculative Freemasonry, which coincides with its modern origins. The admission into the Lodges of the “accepted,” that is, men not dedicated to the material construction of cathedrals, expresses the need to universalize Freemasonry. This need is embodied in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, through which the process of de-Christianization of Freemasonry is initiated, which, however, should not be understood as a rejection of religion, but, rather, as openness to all religions. Freemasonry, therefore, is open not only to Christians but also to all men who profess different religious faiths. In Anderson’s first Duty is, infact, contained the expression “yet it is now thought best to oblige them [Freemasons] only to that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to them.” On the philosophical level, this requirement finds expression in “deism.” Deism essentially stands for a natural religion based on reason, resulting from the intersection of all religions. The resulting god is the deistic god. Anderson, therefore, replaces the Christian religion, an expression of a particular faith, with the universal religion of deism. He merely replaces one religion with another religion, both of which are to be understood in their ontological meaning. Since the deistic god is not identified with any religion, by the above definition, it is the Masonic god. Freemasonry, therefore, not only has a religion but is itself a religion.
(c) Speculative Freemasonry (the current situation). The de-Christianization of Freemasonry, initiated by Anderson’s Constitutions, is understood by many Masons as a renunciation of religiosity. To avoid controversy on this point, the Grand Lodge of London, which had issued the Constitutions, forbids discussions of religion and politics in the Lodge, following the example of the Royal Society. But it fails to avoid a deep rift in English Freemasonry, with the result that the Moderns are opposed by the Antients and, alongside the Grand Lodge of London, the Grand Lodge of England arises. At the root of this rift among English Freemasons is, therefore, also deism, that is, a way of conceiving religion not shared by all. The Act of Union between the two Grand Lodges of 1811, from which the United Grand Lodge of the Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of England originated, marks, among other things, the overcoming of deism and the beginning of reflections that lead to the affirmation that Freemasonry is not a religion, as is clearly attested by the Declaration on Freemasonry and Religion, issued by the United Grand Lodge of England in 1985, which is the subject of the analyses that follow. Since this Declaration is essential to understanding the relationship between Freemasonry and religion, I will present it in the following full translation.
Following recent comments on Freemasonry and religion and the investigations made by some Churches into the compatibility of Freemasonry with Christianity, the Board has decided to make public the following Declaration in addition to that originally approved by the United Grand Lodge of England in September 1962 and confirmed in December 1981.
Freemasonry is not a religion nor is it a substitute for religion. It demands of its members a belief in a Supreme Being but provides no system of faith of its own.
Freemasonry is open to men of all religious faiths. The discussion of religion at its meetings is forbidden.
The Supreme Being
The names used for the Supreme Being enable men of different faiths to join in prayer (to God as each sees Him), without the terms of the prayer causing dissention among them.
There is no separate Masonic God; a Freemason’s God remains the God of the religion he professes.
Freemasons meet in common respect for the Supreme Being, but he remains Supreme in their individual religions, and is no part of Freemasonry to attempt to join religions together. There is therefore no composite Masonic God.
Volume of the Sacred Law
The Bible, referred to by Freemasons as the Volume of Sacred Law, is always open at every Masonic meeting.
The Obligation of Freemasons
The Obligations taken by Freemasons are sworn or involve the Volume of the Sacred Law, or the book held sacred by those concerned. They are undertakings nor to disclose a Freemason’s means of recognition, and to follow the principles of Freemasonry.
The physical penalties, which are purely symbolic, do not form part of an Obligation. The commitment to follow the principles of Freemasonry is, however, deep.
Freemasonry compared with religion
Freemasonry lacks the basic elements of religion:
(a) It has no theological doctrine, and by forbidden religious discussions at its meetings will not allow a Masonic theological doctrine to develop.
(b) It offers no sacraments.
(c) It does not claim to lead to salvation by works, by hidden knowledge or by any other means.
Freemasonry support religion
Freemasonry is far from indifferent to religion. Without interfering in religious practices, it expects each member to follow his own faith, and to place his duty to God (by whatever name He is known) above all other duties. Its moral teachings are acceptable to all religions.
This Declaration is issued by the United Grand Lodge of England, which, in the formation of Masonic thought, is the most authoritative source. It assumes, therefore, the importance of a founding act that is binding on all Masonic Communions recognized by the United Grand Lodge of England. For this reason, it should be examined carefully.
First, the Introduction, in referring to “recent comments” and “investigations made by some Churches into the compatibility of Freemasonry with Christianity,” expresses concern that innovations and discussions on the relationship between Freemasonry and religion may alter and confuse the authentic principles of the Masonic tradition. Out of this concern, arose the need to issue a fundamental statement to clarify and reiterate the views of the United Grand Lodge of England on religion.
The document contains the following sentences, “Freemasonry is not a religion, nor a substitute for religion,” “it is no task of Freemasonry to attempt to join religions together: therefore, there is no composite Masonic god,” after stating that “there is no separate Masonic god.”
The same concepts are reiterated when the Declaration of the United Grand Lodge of England specifies that the Mason is required “to believe in a Supreme Being but provides no system of faith of its own”. That of “Supreme Being” is, therefore, a notion that represents neither the god of a particular religion, nor the composite god arising from the intersection of religions, nor the god of any religion. However, the Grand Lodge Board believes that there is no irreconcilability between belonging to Freemasonry and professing a religious faith. It maintains, in fact, that “Freemasonry is open to men of all religious faiths,” that “Freemason’s God remains the God of the religion he professes.” And it should be noted that, in the Western world, a declared case of irreconcilability, in principle, between Freemasonry and religion concerns the Catholic Church, but this is by unilateral decision of the Catholic Church itself. For its part, Freemasonry, although it has historically had to suffer the consequences of such irreconcilability, has always been willing to welcome among the columns of its Lodges men professing a religious faith. In Freemasonry, that is, both men who have different religious faiths and men who have no specific religious faith can coexist: the only condition required is that both believe in a Supreme Being, the regulating principle and, at the same time, the end and justification of the Mason’s initiatory process of perfection. The common point that characterizes them is given by the Supreme Being, which represents the minimal condition of belonging to Freemasonry, without excluding, however, that the Supreme Being comes to coincide, for Masons professing a specific religious faith, with the divinity of their religion.
This open character of Freemasonry toward individual religions is further confirmed by the United Grand Lodge of England’s stance on the Volume of Sacred Law. “The Bible, referred to by Freemasons as the Volume of Sacred Law, is always open at every Masonic meeting.” This expression tends to reiterate the close connection between Freemasonry and religion, but not in the sense of Freemasons being subservient to religion but, rather, as an act of respect owed by them to religion. The attempt to see, in this statement, a stronger commitment is certainly erroneous. In fact, the book is simply opened and not internalized through the reading of some of its passages. Moreover, it is made clear, in confirmation of this, that for Christians, the Volume of Sacred Law is the Bible, while for Masons of other faiths it is “the book they held sacred.” Freemasonry’s tolerance of all religions is again reaffirmed.
The Declaration of the United Grand Lodge of England continues with its treatment of the subject of oaths and initiatory secrecy. It states that “the Obligations taken by Freemasons are sworn or involve the Volume of the Sacred Law, or the book held sacred by those concerned,” and that such oaths “are undertakings nor to disclose a Freemason’s means of recognition, and to follow the principles of Freemasonry.” With such propositions, it is intended to recall the importance of the oath, the object of which are the principles of Freemasonry that all must follow. The oath is a solemn act, which characterizes the moment of initiation and passage to higher degrees. In addition, the oath concerns initiatory secrecy.
The picture offered by the Declaration ofthe United Grand Lodge of England on the relationship between Freemasonry and religion is unequivocal. In making its pronouncement in this document, however, it was not the intention of the Board to present a complete philosophical view of the subject matter. It was limited only to the statement of some basic principles and did not go into the merits of their justification or foundation. It is my intention to go back to that theoretical framework of philosophical foundation, starting from the utterances of the Declaration.
Regarding the nature of the G.A.d.U., the position of the United Grand Lodge of England can be summarized in four basic propositions: 1) Freemasonry is not a religion; 2) Freemasonry is not an expression of theological syncretism (there is no Masonic god); 3) Freemasons share a common respect for the Supreme Being; and 4) Freemasonry is open to men of all faiths. The thesis I propose to argue consists in the assertion that, in order to hold firm all four of the above propositions, the G.A.d.U. must be understood as a regulative ideal in a non-exclusive sense. I shall call this thesis “non-exclusive regulativism.” It can, therefore, be said that non-exclusive regulativism distinguishes the Masonic conception of G.A.d.U.
Now is the time to clarify, in a definitive way, what I intend to propose with this thesis. Freemasonry posits the G.A.d.U., understood as a regulative ideal, as a minimal condition for every Freemason, but it does not conceive of it as exclusive of the fact that Freemasons can ascribe to it the characteristics that the various religions bestow on divinity. The minimum required of a Freemason is that he believe in the regulative ideal. It is not excluded, however, that the regulative ideal in which the Mason believes may refer to the same god in which that Mason believes not as such but, for example, as a Christian. In that case, the condition of the regulative ideal always remains, even if it is absorbed into the stronger condition of belief in the god of religion.
It seems to me that such a conception of the G.A.d.U. ensures the satisfiability of all four propositions summarizing the thinking of the United Grand Lodge of England on the nature of the G.A.d.U. First, it follows that Freemasonry is not a religion. Indeed, typical of any religion is to assume the objective and real existence of divinity. On the contrary, Freemasonry requires only, as a minimal condition, the acceptance of the regulative valence of the Supreme Being. Secondly, since it is not necessary for a regulative ideal to be determined in all respects, Freemasonry is not compelled, as in the case of deism, to take a position of theological syncretism, thus avoiding the positing of a Masonic god. On the other hand, among the conditions of membership in Freemasonry is the condition of belief in the G.A.d.U., at least as a regulative principle. It follows that every Mason has in common with others a respect for the Supreme Being. Finally, by virtue of the condition of non-exclusion, Freemasonry can be declared open to men of all faiths. In conclusion, a position such as non-exclusive regulativism offers the great advantage of true tolerance.
From the reflections so far, some important consequences follow. First, the distinction between Freemasonry understood as a conception of man (anthropology) and Freemasonry understood as a society of men should be noted. The definition of Freemasonry as a “conception of man” concerns the ideal plane and means that Masonic anthropology is defined by non-exclusive regulativism, that is, the minimal requirement of membership in Freemasonry. The definition of it as a “society of men,” on the other hand, concerns the real plane and means that Freemasonry is divisible into two subsets: that of regulativist Freemasons and that of religious Freemasons (who integrate the regulativist viewpoint with the faith of any religion).
From the above premises, some consequences follow.
Consequence 1: If regulativist Masons, in the presence of at least one religious Mason, claim that Freemasonry is purely regulative (i.e., exclusive of the possibility of adding any religious faith to the minimal requirement), then a form of fundamentalism would be expressed and the principle of tolerance, which is, by definition, the negation of all forms of fundamentalism, would be violated.
Consequence 2: If religious Masons, in the presence of at least one regulativist Mason, claim that Freemasonry is a religion, then a form of fundamentalism would be expressed, and the principle of tolerance would be violated.
Consequence 3: The principle of tolerance, preventing the rise of any form of fundamentalism, governs the authentic relationship between regulativist Masons and religious Masons.
In conclusion, the thesis of non-exclusive regulativism is the philosophical justification of two propositions (“Freemasonry is not a religion” and “the individual Freemason can have a religious faith”), which, apparently, seem to contradict each other but, in fact, express the most valid foundation of Masonic thought.
The uniqueness of the relationship between Freemasonry and religion becomes apparent, clearly and distinctly, if one attempts to make a direct comparison between the fundamental notions of Masonic anthropology and the essential elements of Christian anthropology. As I will explain below, Masonic anthropology can be traced back to the five notions of the quintuple <Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Transcendence, Initiatory Secret>. I believe that Christian anthropology can be characterized by the concepts of the triple: <Freedom, Transcendence (in the ontological sense), Salvation>. Usually, the number of concepts is not very significant. Here, however, it seems to me that the presence in Christian anthropology of only three elements is highly significant. If one reflects, in fact, on the qualitative nature of Masonic concepts, it is easy to see that they are exclusively functional concepts for man’s ethical life: the concept of transcendence itself, insofar as it coincides with the regulative ideal, is seen in its function as the inspirational center of ethical life. Even the initiatory secret is essentially ordered to the Mason’s process of ethical refinement. In the triple of Christian anthropology, on the other hand, everything is in function of man’s salvation: freedom is conceived as the ability to decide for or against God’s offer of salvation to man, while salvation is man’s liberation from all forms of evil and the result of the intervention of the Christian God (transcendent, real and personal) in man’s history.
One may ask whether, given the centrality of the concept of salvation in Christian anthropology, religion lacks the ethical dimension so important to the Masonic conception of man. The answer is decidedly negative, since ethical principles are a natural consequence of the plan of salvation that God proposes to man. Man cannot save himself without an ethical commitment. However, ethical commitment is not enough: decisive help from God through his grace is needed. Hence the function of the sacraments as effective signs of divine grace. As can be seen, Christian anthropology is inclusive, at the level of fundamental or derived notions, of all aspects concerning man as such. It is logical, consequently, that there is also a formal difference between the Masonic quintuple and the Christian triple. Since the content of the latter is more inclusive than that of the former and since the Masonic quintuple is circumscribed within a context of pure ethical consideration of man, the ethical counterpart of Christian anthropology will come to be encoded in derivative notions and not in the fundamental ones belonging to the original triple. The ethical notions of Masonic anthropology will, on the other hand, all be fundamental, which is why they appear in the original quintuple.
From the reflections thus far, the following conclusions can be drawn. In the Masonic conception, it is required that the Supreme Being be conceived at least as an expression of the Masonic ethical ideal (the regulative function of the G.A.d.U.). Therefore, from the Masonic point of view, it is not essential to make a distinction between man’s ideal of perfection and transcendence. Such a distinction is, on the other hand, essential in the Christian conception in which God is the foundation of man’s possibility of salvation (his highest perfection of realization), but, at the same time, is distinct from that state of perfection. This finds its justification in the fact that, for the Christian, God has an actual personal reality: it is he who proposes his plan of salvation to man, and it is up to man to accept or reject it. This, on the other hand, is not given in the Masonic conception of the transcendent, with whom no personal relationship is required.
The consequences of this are remarkable. The relationship of personal intimacy with God (prayer relationship, etc.) has special significance for the Christian, but is not essential for the Mason, who may see in the G.A.d.U. exclusively a regulative ideal to which he can conform his ethical activity. The practice of the sacraments has an equally special significance for the Christian, as effective signs of grace in which the real intervention of God in human history is expressed. This does not apply, however, to Masonic ritual, which performs an exclusive function within the Masonic project of moral perfection (which is purely human in nature) and which man alone proposes to himself. The idea of Masonic perfection is necessarily connected only with an ideal of man’s improvement from an essentially ethical point of view (without ethical improvement one does not even have social, political, etc.) and limited only to the realm of human possibilities. For this reason, the Christian idea of perfection does not coincide with the Masonic one, differing from the latter in its comprehensiveness of values that are not exclusively ethical. This, it seems to me, is the main reason why we speak of salvation and not simply of man’s perfection.
Another important consequence flowing from the reflections thus far concerns Masonic Rituals. The initiatory foundation of Freemasonry, represented by the fifth element of the anthropological quintuple, finds its deepest expression in Rituals. If initiation is, for Freemasonry, the mode by which man’s ethical perfecting is achieved, Ritual is the instrument based on which such perfecting is accomplished, gradually and continuously. The Ritual teaches how to “smooth the rough stone.” Its importance, therefore, is fundamental. Nevertheless, Rituals have almost always been a source of misunderstanding and ambiguity. One cause of this perhaps lies in the difficulty of relating the Rituals to Masonic anthropology, that is, to the image of man according to Freemasonry. Indeed, there is no doubt that the Rituals must be the symbolic and allegorical expression of Masonic anthropology.
So far, I have talked about Masonic anthropology and highlighted its basic features. Now it is time to present the elements that constitute it.
First, it is necessary to distinguish the concepts of Freemasonry into initiatory and profane. Initiatory are those concepts whose meaning is known only to Masons, while profane are those concepts whose meaning is understandable even to non-Masons.
The initiatory concept par excellence is that of “initiatory secret,” while the fundamental secular concepts are those of “freedom,” “tolerance,” “brotherhood,” and “transcendence.” From them descend all other concepts, initiatory and profane, such as those of “love,” “benevolence,” “charity,” “respect,” “solidarity,” “improvement,” “oath,” “equality” and the like.
Let us examine the four basic secular concepts, starting with the concept of “freedom.” Freedom is an irrepressible and irrefutable fact of our life experiences. We know that we are free, and we find ourselves having to choose between two or more alternatives in a personal and responsible way. The experience of freedom is mainly expressed in moral decisions, that is, in decisions for or against a moral value. It is precisely here that human freedom reaches its most authentic meaning. Although in theory we can deny freedom, in real life we can only act in the presupposition of it: values such as those of good and evil, justice and injustice, reward and punishment would be meaningless if at their basis there is no experience of freedom. Thus, we always presuppose our own freedom and that of others.
After pointing out that freedom is an irrefutable experience of human life, I examine some basic meanings of it. According to a certain definition of freedom, man is free if, and only if, he can adhere to an objective set of values and if he can share it subjectively. This means that man finds, in the society in which he lives, a set of values that are objective because they exist before him and can also be shared by other men. However, he, in order to be able to act, must choose and share some values among all those given in society. In this way, objective values are made subjective.
This definition of freedom is constitutive of man, in the sense that man is man if, and only if, he is free. If man were not free, then he would not be man. This is essential to understanding the constitutive nature of freedom. We can chain a man to a rock and thus deprive him of all his material freedoms, but we cannot prevent him from thinking freedom by conceiving of worlds in which he feels free. If we wanted to deprive him even of the ability to think freedom, we would have to kill him.
At this point, we can address one of the most important aspects of freedom, namely, its relation to morality. Freedom is the first fundamental condition of morality. Morality is possible only based on freedom: if freedom is not given, there is no morality. Wherever freedom is denied, there is no room left for the authentic understanding of morality.
This justifies Masonic thought’s choice of freedom as a fundamental concept. Indeed, Freemasonry conceives of a subjectively shared moral order as the highest realization of initiatory perfection in the immanent. It is natural, therefore, that freedom, being the original source of man’s ethical life, is assumed, in the Masonic conception of man, as the fundamental concept.
Closely related to the theme of freedom is the principle of “tolerance.” The concept of “tolerance” can take on two basic meanings:
1. Tolerance is a principle by which, in the presence of one’s own conception of man, one recognizes the existence of other conceptions and assumes, toward them, an attitude of respect.
2. Tolerance is a principle by which, in the absence of one’s own conception of man, one assumes an attitude of indifference to all other conceptions.
Given the two definitions of “tolerance,” it should be made clear that only the former is inherent to Freemasonry, while the latter is completely foreign to its thinking. In fact, Freemasonry has its own philosophy that gives rise to a precise philosophical anthropology, that is, a given conception of man according to the Masonic point of view.
The concept of tolerance, unlike that of equality, allows us to grasp not only the common foundation but also the differences that exist among men. Men are equal with respect to rights, but different with respect to the subjective characteristics (of intelligence, sensitivity, etc.) with which they face the problems of life and society. This is the reason why I have placed, among the fundamental concepts, that of tolerance and not that of equality.
The two concepts examined so far are both fundamental to constituting Freemasonry. The concept of freedom, however, takes on an original significance.
The third profane fundamental concept that characterizes Freemasonry is that of “brotherhood.” The ideal of brotherhood makes its appearance in human history in very ancient times. It can be assumed that the first bond that bound one man to another was that of blood, and that it was later extended to the tribe and the community. It reappears with the Christian message by which all men are in a relationship of common dependence on the creative act of God: all men, therefore, are children of God and therefore brothers. Compared with the secular conception of life, the relationship with the father comes to take on a quite particular characterization: the father is no longer god but a set of shared moral principles. In any case, brotherhood is nothing more than an attitude in which man believes that other men are his mirror image and that his rights are the same as the rights of others.
Brotherhood is closely connected with tolerance: when I admit that other men may also profess ideas different from my own, I predispose myself toward them in such a way as to regard them as worthy in the same way as I do, and, in doing so, I regard them as brothers. Thus, we have that brotherhood relates to tolerance, while tolerance relates to freedom. The concept of freedom, therefore, takes priority over those of tolerance and brotherhood. It is the pivotal concept of man’s immanent life. But can man acquire the deepest sense of his perfection while remaining in the realms of immanence? Can the Mason proceed in the polishing of his rough stone apart from a transcendent principle? The answer is definitely no. The reasons for that answer lead us to investigate the fourth profane fundamental concept of Freemasonry, that of “transcendence.”
The concept of “transcendence” takes on two profoundly different meanings: 1) transcendence is an ontological reality, 2) transcendence is a regulative ideal.
When we speak of transcendence, we allude to a foundation of reality that transcends, essentially exceeds, the limited horizon of what we can experience. The concept of transcendence is opposed to the alternative concept of immanence, which encloses the foundation of things in the totality of our experiences. Transcendence, however, can be conceived in two senses: in an ontological sense or in a regulative sense. Transcendence is understood in the first sense if the foundation transcending the horizon of experience is conceived as something really existing, even if it falls beyond our capacity for experience. Transcendence, on the other hand, is understood in the regulative sense if, although it does not recognize the foundation of things as having a real existence, it is worthwhile for us to consider, Kantianly, the world as depending on the being of the respective transcendent foundation. To share, then, a regulative idea of transcendence is not to hold that the transcendent is real but to set the stage for us to behave ethically as if it were.
Such a transcendent principle, used in Freemasonry to characterize the Great Architect of the Universe (the Supreme Being), should not be thought of as an actual reality, as this would come to express attributes that qualify and specify him as the god of a religion. In fact, all religions conceive transcendence as something really existing, that is, in the ontological sense. For this reason, God can be expressed through the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience and the like. The Great Architect of the Universe, vice versa, can only be a regulative transcendence, for only in this way is it possible to avoid the risk of giving it a religious qualification and, at the same time, to speak of it as the “ultimate end” toward which the Mason tends in his initiatory refinement. Admitting, in Freemasonry, a transcendent principle, albeit a regulative one, means, moreover, excluding the existence of conceptions openly based on atheistic materialism. Finally, the Freemason is prevented from pronouncing on divinity.
In attempting to characterize the Great Architect of the Universe in Freemasonry, we can make use of Aristotelian philosophy even though it has substantial differences from Kantian philosophy. Aristotle, in fact, in defining the notion of “god,” states that he is the Supreme Intelligence that perfectly intends itself and only itself, since to know the other than itself would debase its perfection. He is also Supreme Good to which the whole universe aspires and on which the whole order of the universe itself depends. The eternal substance, the pure act that he calls “god” is only the final cause of the world and not its creator.
Within certain limits, there is similarity between Aristotle’s Supreme Intelligence and the Great Architect of the Universe in Freemasonry. Neither can create, though for different reasons: the god of Aristotle would become imperfect, while the Great Architect of the Universe would turn Freemasonry into religion. Both, however, represent the ultimate goal: of the world in Aristotle, of man in Freemasonry. Both play the role of justifying: Aristotle’s god the world, the Great Architect of the Universe morality.
To say that the Freemason must have respect for the Great Architect of the Universe is to say that he must admit a transcendent principle toward which he must strive in his perfecting. Nothing else is required of the Freemason. The Great Architect of the Universe should only be acknowledged to perform the above two functions (that of representing the ultimate goal and that of justifying morality), for any further specification would liken him to the god of a religion and Freemasonry would therefore become a religion.
To understand this distinction correctly, let us examine it with respect to the Christian and Masonic conceptions of man.
According to Christian anthropology, man is in a state of destitution due to the failure to realize certain of his fundamental aspirations. The meaning of man’s life is given by a horizon of definitive validity of his free activity. The Christian believes that this definiteness is matched by an objective meaning and that, to the objective meaning, corresponds an ontological way of understanding the transcendent. In fact, the Christian believes that he can, in the transcendent, realize himself to the fullest and bring all its components back to unity. In the Christian conception, therefore, the transcendent has an ontological value: it represents a world that is truly accessible to man. Such accessibility is made possible not so much by the possibilities of which man is capable but, rather, by the specific salvific intervention of Christ. Reaching the transcendent is a real possibility granted by God to man.
Also, according to the Masonic conception, man is in a state of destitution, but the Mason does not believe in the need for finality and the objective meaning that corresponds to it. For the Mason, the state of destitution relates to a transcendent that has a regulative value. He, therefore, does not give the transcendent an ontological valence, such as one would have if man were given the real possibility of attaining it. Conversely, he conceives of it only as a limit, truly inaccessible, toward which he must strive, by gradual approximation, to improve himself. The regulative ideal, which finds its foundation in the conditions intrinsic to man and not in the salvific intervention of Christ, is given by a set of contents that one would like to realize in the immanent: the transcendent directs the immanent without being reduced to it.
Another difference, which exists between Masonic anthropology and Christian anthropology (in general, all anthropologies that descend from a religion), concerns the notion of “truth.”
For the Christian, truth is absolute, eternal and unchanging. It is revealed directly from God. Man has only to accept it and assume it as the general principle that guides his actions in the world. Acceptance of truth corresponds to adherence to a religious worldview based on dogma.
For the Mason, on the other hand, truth is an ideal reference point toward which to strive in the process of initiatory refinement. Truth is a borderline case to which he may gradually approach but never reach. No Mason, therefore, can claim to possess the truth. If he did, then he would confer on the notion of truth the content of revelation and, consequently, reduce Freemasonry to a religion. But Freemasonry is not a religion.
How does the concept of transcendence stand in relation to the concepts of freedom, tolerance and brotherhood? We will say that freedom, tolerance and brotherhood express properties of man, who is projected into a process of self-realization that is, in turn, oriented by transcendence. Transcendence regulates the immanent, while the immanent tends toward transcendence: this is a continuous process in which the immanent does not engulf the transcendent but realizes in itself the maximum of transcendence.
The fundamental secular concepts of Freemasonry (freedom, tolerance, brotherhood, transcendence) are essential elements of Masonic philosophical anthropology, that is, the model of man as conceived by Freemasonry. To use a technical expression, we say that they represent a set of four elements which we call “quadruple” and which we denote as follows: <Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Transcendence>.
A first question in this regard is this: do these concepts define the whole of all the constituent elements of Masonic anthropology or do they define only a part of it? In order to have the set of all the constituent elements of Masonic anthropology, it is necessary to add to the four we already know, the element expressed by the initiatory secret (fundamental initiatory concept). This yields the quintuple <Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Transcendence, Initiatory Secret>, representative of Masonic anthropology. It is important to make explicit an important aspect of the distinction between Masonic anthropology built based on the first four elements and Masonic anthropology tout court. The elements of the quadruple <Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Transcendence> are objective values, of which even non-Masons can be bearers. This means that these values, comprehensively understood, do not represent the specifics of Freemasonry, but express, so to speak, the secular counterpart of it, which contributes only partially to the constitution of Masonic anthropology. The transition to Masonic anthropology tout court is achieved by adding, to the elements of the quadruple, also that concerning initiatory secrecy. But what does this mean? It means that the global sense of Masonic anthropology is acquired only through initiation, that is, by becoming a Mason. In this lies a profound and fundamental difference between initiatory society and any other society: while the conception of man in an uninitiated society is knowable by all (think of the Christian view), the conception of man in Freemasonry is fully graspable only by Masons. The initiatory secret, which makes it possible to achieve such cognitive fullness, takes on the significance of illuminating the quadruple <Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Transcendence> with a “new light,” which gives it a deeper meaning.
The elements of the quintuple <Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Transcendence, Initiatory Secret> must be understood globally. This means that if only one of them is lacking, one no longer has this anthropology. Those who would deprive Masonic anthropology of freedom, or tolerance, or brotherhood, or transcendence, or initiatory secret would not achieve the result of weakening or limiting the scope of its validity, but, rather, the annulment of Freemasonry itself. From such Masonic anthropology, there emerges a man who can perfect himself if, and only if, he realizes, in a unique and personal way, all the conditions that constitute him, namely, freedom, tolerance, brotherhood, transcendence, and the initiatory secret.
Let us ask, at this point, whether the analysis carried out around Masonic anthropology is sufficient to characterize the requirements that the Mason must fulfill as a member of Freemasonry understood as a society of men. The answer is decidedly no. The model of man advocated by Freemasonry must be supplemented with a set of rules to which the Freemason submits when he joins Freemasonry. These rules will also have to contain the obligation to adhere to the Masonic conception of man, but they cannot be exhausted in it. The fact is that while for Masonic anthropology it is a matter of explicating the properties constituting the model of man according to Masonic thought, here it is a matter of explicating those rules that constitute a human subject belonging to the practical social context that is given by Masonic society.
The Mason’s constitutive rules, as belonging to the practical social context of Freemasonry as an initiatory society, are summarized in the following requirements: (1) a constituent authority; (2) acceptance of Masonic anthropology; and (3) an oath on initiatory secrecy. These three requirements are jointly fulfilled during initiation. In fact, through initiation, the profane is constituted a Mason. In it, the authority (requirement 1) is represented by the Worshipful Master, while the initiate, freely and spontaneously, in the presence of the G.A.d.U., accepts the principles advocated by Freemasonry (requirement 2) and swears not to reveal the initiatory secret (requirement 3). After the oath, the Worshipful Master recites the ritual formula, “I constitute you an Apprentice Freemason.” From that very instant, that individual profane becomes a Mason. The Worshipful Master’s act of constitution gives him a dimension that he did not have before and that only death can undo. This means that he will always carry with him the Masonic dimension that he can never reject: a Mason can never become a non-Mason, but simply a Mason “in sleep.” After the initiatory rite, the neophyte joins the community of Freemasons throughout the world, cooperating with them in building the ideal Temple of human brotherhood.