Illustrated By Symbols
Why not Plain Language?

We all know the words that Freemasonry is;
“A System of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”

We understand what is meant by Morality. We also know that using Allegory to teach, is as old as human storytelling, but why is our system illustrated by Symbols? As a starting point, I ask; What is the most common form of symbolism? The answer is “language”. Professor Steven Pinker, Canadian-American Cognitive Scientist and MIT Psychologist says;

“You and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. That ability is Language. Simply by making sounds with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is.”

This remarkable ability drives our ritual. When a Brother tells us the traditional history, if we are listening, that story comes to life in our minds. So, language itself is a very effective symbol. So, why don't we simply illustrate our system of morality using plain statements of truth? Why not simply and completely define our "system of morality"?

Well, when you define something in words, you also place limits on it. Let's use a simple allegory to explain. All mathematics are written in symbols; our numbers are, in themselves, symbols for quantities. OK, that's simple enough, so now take algebra.

Algebra uses a symbol for a symbol, by expressing quantities as letters, instead of numbers. In the algebraic equation “a + b = c” any quantity may be assigned to any one, or any two of the letters and the equation can still be true. Thus for “a + b = 100” to be true, a can be any number from 1 to 100. But note that by replacing just one symbol with a known quantity, therefore defining it, we have already limited the equation.

Go a step further and replace a second symbol and we have two defined quantities. Lets say a = 1. This creates the expression 1 + b = 100 and the necessity for b as a symbol completely disappears; it can only equal 99. So you can see that definition of any symbol limits its scope, and therefore limits the scope of the system of symbols being used.

By using symbols, we are carrying on a long tradition of this teaching method. We use symbols in the same way the Mystery Schools of old used symbols, partly to conceal their teachings and partly to arouse curiosity to know their meaning.

The framers of our Masonic system were obviously very aware of all this and thus ensured that our symbols were not closely defined. Because of this, we are unable to place undue limits on their interpretation, thereby preventing the creation of a rigid Freemasonic Dogma. It is therefore possible for each Freemason to read his own concepts of truth into the symbols.

No matter what the background, culture, education or religion of a Freemason, each symbol can speak to him with great personal meaning. This is one reason that Freemasonry appeals to people from all over the globe.

The late Jacob Tatche, a noted Masonic historian wrote:

“Freemasonry permits each individual to interpret and apply the lessons of the Craft as he sees best. It is this unique spirit of tolerance and freedom which frequently confuses opponents of the Fraternity (and at times some of us within the fraternity too). One Mason places his interpretation upon a certain symbol or attribute of Freemasonry; another may take an entirely different view, and will cite evidence with which a third may be in entire variance; yet these three men can gather about our altars and labour together in perfect amity.”

Albert Pike expressed the same thought in a different way:

“Masonry follows the ancient manner of teaching. Her symbols are the instructions she gives; and the lectures are but often partial and insufficient one-sided endeavours to interpret those symbols. He who would become an accomplished Mason, must not be content merely to hear or even to understand the lectures, but must, aided by them, study, interpret and develop the symbols for himself.”

So now we can see that there is a very good reason for not closely defining our symbols. but this does not

really explain why Freemasonry veils in allegory and conceals in an object or picture a meaning quite different from its name. Why we express equality by using the level, immortality with acacia, or brotherly love with a trowel. But there is an explanation why this great system of truth, philosophy and ethics is hidden in symbols and why our ritual refers us to other symbols and suggests that they are important, and can help us to understand further or better.

To help explain it I quote Joseph Fort Newton who said;

“The old time Masons did not need to go to hidden teachers to learn mysticism. The lived and worked in the light of it. It shone in their symbols. It is the soul of symbolism that every emblem expresses a reality too great for words. Masonry is mystical, as music is mystical, like poetry, love, faith and prayer, and all else that makes it worth our time to live. But its mysticism is sweet, sane and natural, far from fantastic, in no wise eerie, unreal, or unbalanced. Of course, these words fail to describe as all words must, and it is therefore why Masonry uses symbols.”

Newton suggests that some things can not be expressed sufficiently using words; that there are other, less obvious ways of understanding. Masonry, by its very structure and content of the three craft degrees, suggests that humans have a triple nature.

We have a physical body, and senses which bring us into contact with, and translate the meanings of, the physical world of earth, air, fire and water which is all around us. We have a brain and mind through which we can reason and understand the physical matters of which our senses inform us. And we have Something Beyond. You may call it soul, heart, imagination, personal unconscious, inner being, true self, spirit, or any other name that feels right for you. It is something which is allied to, but not really a part of, our reason. It is connected with the physical side of life directly, and only through our sensory contacts.

This true self comprehends a language which the reason of the brain does not comprehend. The keenest of minds of history have striven without success to make this mystic language plain to reason.

When you hear music which brings tears to your eyes, grief or joy to your heart, or a shiver down your spine, you are responding to a language your brain does not understand and cannot explain. It is not with your brain that you love your child or your wife; and the language with which that love is understood is not the language of the tongue.

A symbol is a word in that language. Words appeal to the rational mind; but with a little instruction and practice we gradually understand that symbols appeal directly to the true self. If you translate that symbol into words which appeal only to the mind, then the full deeper meaning of the symbol is lost.

That which can be set down in words on a page cannot express the full or true spirit of our fraternity. If we depend on words alone Freemasonry would not have such a universal appeal. Freemasonry expresses truths which are universal; it expresses them in a symbolic language, universally understood by all men without words. That language is the language of the symbol, and the symbol is universally understood because it is the direct means of communication between spirits, souls, hearts, true selves.

Freemasonry employs symbols to speak directly to our imagination, or our true self. We appeal to the imagination when communicating a truth which is neither mental or physical, and the symbol is the means by which one imagination speaks to another. Nothing else seems to be as effective; no words can do it (unless they are themselves symbols); no teachings expressed in spoken or written language can be as easily learned and absorbed as those which come via the symbol.

If you only hear or read the words of Freemasonry, you miss the true meaning entirely. This is the difficulty for the profane, or the uninitiated. Unless one has been immersed in our symbols through the experience of our rituals, and not just watching, but performing them, they appear to have little meaning at all. This is why the symbols seem to mean more and more to each of us as we progress in Masonry. The more contact we have with our symbols, the more we practice, the more we try to explain them to our brothers following the path behind us, the more they speak to us. When I became a JW and had to learn the Working Tools Lecture for each degree, a whole new layer of meanings for these symbols spoke to me, and so it continues.

Most symbols have many layers of interpretation which do not contradict but rather amplify each other. The square is a symbol of perfection, of rectitude of conduct, of honour, of honesty, of good work. These are all different, and yet allied. The square is never a symbol of wrong, or evil, or meanness or dishonour. Ten different men may read ten different meanings into a square, and yet each meaning fits with, and works with the other meanings, and each will be right for him.

Different men have different imaginations and different abilities to comprehend. So each takes from a symbol what he can, and using his imagination, he translates to his soul as much of that truth as he is able to make a part of him. This we cannot do with truths expressed in words. Freemasonry uses symbols because only by them can the Craft speak and teach in the language of the soul. Symbols form the only language which is elastic, and the only one by which soul can be directly touched. Freemasonry without symbols would not be Freemasonry.

Almost all Masonic symbols have more than one recognized meaning, but as a rule only one (often the simplest) is described in any one part of the ritual. Each brother is encouraged to discover other, perhaps deeper meanings, by studying the hidden mysteries and making a daily advance in his Masonic knowledge. An undefined and therefore unlimited truth results from the slow growth in meaning and understanding of a symbol not tied down by confining words. Thus the reason for illustrating our “system of morality” by symbols may be summed up as follows.

The well defined symbol has a truth that is as broad as the words used to define it.
The undefined symbol is as broad in meaning as the mind and heart can understand or imagine.

You are invited to bear in mind that all meanings attributed to symbols are, to some extent, personal to the one who first defined it or the group to which it had a specific meaning. A particular explanation or meaning may resonate to some brothers, but perhaps not to others. Over time we all see and hear different meanings attributed to our symbols, and a Freemason who understands the true nature of his craft would not allow himself to reject out-of-hand the meaning or explanation assigned by any group, society or Brother, but look at that meaning to see if there is something in it for him; perhaps different, perhaps modified, but meaningful for him.

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