Whence came the Moral Law in Freemasonry?

Without a doubt at the foundation of Masonry is the idea of the Moral Law.  Anderson uses the phrase in his Constitution in 1723 without any explanation of what exactly he means in his phrasing of it.  And, increasingly, it is being used as a de facto totem of decision making in violation litigation and jurisdictional disputes.  But in the modern civic age where criminal, civil, federal, and state (and lets not even get into international) laws abound we have in many ways lost sight (if ever we had a clear one) of what exactly the ideas were behind the linking of the “Moral Laws” to the fraternity.  The source is ancient without a doubt, and most likely a challenge to come to any consensus over.  Is the Moral Law from a religious perspective, as in given to man by the Great Architect, or a man made law constructed with religious ideas but applied in a humanistic manner so as to apply to our interaction with one another.  And then, how does it apply to Masonry?  Is it a religious injunction or an instruction for how to behave?

At the root are the question then is what the Moral Law is and what is its purpose to be invoked in any decision making.

The first step to see it at the time when it was adopted by Freemasonry is to trace the idea though the ages, and its clear that the idea of a moral law has been around for some time.  Before we get to these first steps, however, perhaps we should explore what exactly the moral law is.

From Wikipedia, Natural Law is defined as:

Natural law or the law of nature (Latin: lex naturalis) has been described as a law whose content is set by nature and that therefore has validity everywhere. As classically used, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behavior. The phrase natural law is opposed to the positive law (meaning “man-made law”, not “good law”; cf. posit) of a given political community, society, or nation-state, and thus can function as a standard by which to criticize that law. In natural law jurisprudence, on the other hand, the content of positive law cannot be known without some reference to the natural law (or something like it). Used in this way, natural law can be invoked to criticize decisions about the statutes, but less so to criticize the law itself. Some use natural law synonymously with natural justice or natural right (Latin ius naturale), although most contemporary political and legal theorists separate the two.

It likens the essence of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to the ideas of the Natural Law, something any American reading should be intimately familiar with.

Thomas HobbesTo better encapsulate the idea of the Moral or Natural Law, we need to borrow from the ideas of Thomas Hobbes (a late philosopher who codified it into modern times) who says of the Natural Law that it is “a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or takes away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that by which he thinks it may best be preserved.” Hobbes breaks the Natural Law down to 19 points which he illustrated in his work Leviathan.

Those 19 Laws are:

  1. The first Law of nature is that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.
  2. The second Law of nature is that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.
  3. The third Law is that men perform their covenants made. In this law of nature consisteth the fountain and original of justice… when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust and the definition of injustice is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust is just.
  4. The fourth Law is that a man which receiveth benefit from another of mere grace, endeavour that he which giveth it, have no reasonable cause to repent him of his good will. Breach of this law is called ingratitude.
  5. The fifth Law is complaisance: that every man strive to accommodate himself to the rest. The observers of this law may be called sociable; the contrary, stubborn, insociable, froward, intractable.
  6. The sixth Law is that upon caution of the future time, a man ought to pardon the offences past of them that repenting, desire it.
  7. The seventh Law is that in revenges, men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow.
  8. The eighth Law is that no man by deed, word, countenance, or gesture, declare hatred or contempt of another. The breach of which law is commonly called contumely.
  9. The ninth Law is that every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature. The breach of this precept is pride.
  10. The tenth law is that at the entrance into the conditions of peace, no man require to reserve to himself any right, which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest. The breach of this precept is arrogance, and observers of the precept are called modest.
  11. The eleventh law is that if a man be trusted to judge between man and man, that he deal equally between them.
  12. The twelfth law is that such things as cannot be divided, be enjoyed in common, if it can be; and if the quantity of the thing permit, without stint; otherwise proportionably to the number of them that have right.
  13. The thirteenth law is the entire right, or else…the first possession (in the case of alternating use), of a thing that can neither be divided nor enjoyed in common should be determined by lottery.
  14. The fourteenth law is that those things which cannot be enjoyed in common, nor divided, ought to be adjudged to the first possessor; and in some cases to the first born, as acquired by lot.
  15. The fifteenth law is that all men that mediate peace be allowed safe conduct.
  16. The sixteenth law is that they that are at controversie, submit their Right to the judgement of an Arbitrator.
  17. The seventeenth law is that no man is a fit Arbitrator in his own cause.
  18. The eighteenth law is that no man should serve as a judge in a case if greater profit, or honour, or pleasure apparently ariseth [for him] out of the victory of one party, than of the other.
  19. The nineteenth law is that in a disagreement of fact, the judge should not give more weight to the testimony of one party than another, and absent other evidence, should give credit to the testimony of other witnesses.

Interestingly, we can turn to a religious perspective, coming specifically from a Catholic perspective; where the Natural/Moral Law is applied when the exterior actions of the actor reflect their interior motives as their source.  It links the theological virtues to the Law citing Thomas Aquinas in saying that lacking the Cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude and the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, that a moral choice is impossible. (See Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica)

From Wikipedia:

According to Aquinas, to lack any of these virtues is to lack the ability to make a moral choice. For example, consider a man who possesses the virtues of justice, prudence, and fortitude, yet lacks temperance. Due to his lack of self control and desire for pleasure, despite his good intentions, he will find himself swaying from the moral path.

To fully appreciate this, we must first look to Romans 2:14 when Paul of Tarsis, speaking of the Gentiles says: Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. Interesting to note, this  is something Pike picks up on in his exploration of the 10th degree of Scottish Rite Masonry as he points to the tenants of the “old primitive faiths.”

One has to wonder how this foundational statement from the church became the basis of the Moral Law in Masonry.  It does seem a natural fit – the Cardinal and Theological virtues in conjunction to the other ideas beginning to take shape, but it seems that they were naturally woven in as reasons for being, rather than the basis of the Natural Law.

Anderson in his Constitutions of 1723, says in item I:

A Mason is oblig’d by his Tenure, to obey the moral law; and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine.  is speaking to something else, which I suggest is towards John Locke’s idea of the Moral Law.

A statement, you’ll note, devoid of linkage to the Cardinal and Theological Virtues.  Anderson’s idea of a Moral Law came from somewhere, but where?

Perhaps it can be traced back to the time of the Roman Philosopher Cicero whose contribution to the idea was to suggest that:

“…natural law obliges us to contribute to the general good of the larger society.  The purpose of positive laws is to provide for “the safety of citizens, the preservation of states, and the tranquility and happiness of human life.” In this view, “wicked and unjust statutes” are “anything but ‘laws,” because “in the very definition of the term ‘law’ there inheres the idea and principle of choosing what is just and true.” Further that “the virtues which we ought to cultivate, always tend to our own happiness, and that the best means of promoting them consists in living with men in that perfect union and charity which are cemented by mutual benefits.”

But, to see the Moral Law in a contemporary context, we must look to John Locke, for several reasons, and not just his ideas philosophy.

Locke’s point of the Moral Law was to say “the nature of the world is governed by laws and so too is man’s conduct, and that without moral laws, men would not have society; without moral law, trust between men would collapse.”

Locke’s concept of the Moral Law was a re-working of Hobbes ideas, saying instead that people could justifiably overthrow the existing state and create a new one if the ruler went against natural law.

Though in a constituted commonwealth, standing upon its own basis, and acting according to its own nature, that is, acting for the preservation of the community, there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate; yet the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still “in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative,” when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them: for all power given with trust for the attaining an end, being limited by that end: whenever that end is manifestly neglected or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited, and the power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says of Locke’s idea:

“…sense experience proclaims the existence of a supreme law maker, a wise creator or the world, which has made man for a purpose. Man thus has purposes – to contemplate and to procure and preserve his life. Yet the moral law cannot be garnered from consent – from mass or democratic agreement, for the voice of the people is as likely to lead to fallacies and evil. Men’s actual morality may be highly relative, but differences do not undermine the existence of commonalties in the law, hence we should not obey (or follow) others blindly. Nonetheless, the conservative Locke continues to argue that we ought to obey our lawmakers as possessing rightful power over creation, but our obedience should not just be out of fear for the lawmaker’s power, but conscientiously too: we ought to obey it because the magistrate should request morally right action.”

Locke, formerly a firm believer in the Platonic idea of a good captain steering the ship, came to the idea of leadership having a limit to the extent that he perceived as authority’s reach which we can see when he says “…it cannot be supposed the people should give any one or more of their fellow men an authority over them for any other purpose than their own preservation, or extend the limits of their jurisdiction beyond the limits of this life.”

This is important in that Its been posited that Locke was a Freemason, and that perhaps it was his ideas of the Moral Law, especially as they pertained to governance and leadership, pertained to Freemasonry too.

In a paper presented by by W.Bro. Ronald Paul Ng titled THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT AND FREEMASONRY, Br. Ng asks and then answers:

“Was Locke a mason? The answer is probably yes. There is an entry on the “Leland Manuscript” in Albert Mackey’s “Encyclopedia of Freemasonry” in which he quoted a passage by the famous Dr. Oliver in the Freemasons’ Quart. Review, 1840, p 10, where Dr. Oliver said, “… this great philosopher [Locke] was actually residing at Oates, the country-seat of Sir Francis Masham, at the time when the paper [Leland Manuscript] is dated; and shortly afterwards he went up to town, where he was initiated into Masonry. These facts are fully proved by Locke’s Letters to Mr. Molyneux, dated March 30 and July2, 1696”.

In his essay, Br. Ng talks on several levels about how Locke’s ideas may have permeated into the Freemasons, including religious toleration and the process of learning by experience.  But, in this context, did Locke’s ides of a Moral Law follow him also into the Lodge, if not in letter then in spirit?

It seems that in a combination stroke of both the religious and humanist application, one which at the time they were adopted they were likely blurred lines of between, the two were combined into the ideals and principals of Freemasonry.  The Cardinal Virtues and the Theological Virtues tempered into the ideals of a Moral Law to give a fairness in action and faith.  Both the application of How to be Good Men, and in the principals of getting along in a society, come into play now in issues of recognition, jurisprudence, and internal governance and the source of the Moral Law has to be of consideration in some way when acting in a way that invokes a Moral Law as the basis of the decision.  Is it as Hobbes set down, remodeled by Locke, or is it in the manner of Paul of Tarsis in speaking of the faith of the Gentiles?  Or, is it in a more oblique Catholic manner in applying the Cardinal and Theological virtues, something unmistakable to every Mason in his perception.  Further still, is it something older and less tangible like the ideas of Cicero in that the Natural Laws are laws that cannot in fact be laws, because to be so, they invalidate there very natural state if looked at as such?

What stands out in greatest resonance with Masonry is Cicero’s remark “the virtues which we ought to cultivate, always tend to our own happiness, and that the best means of promoting them consists in living with men in that perfect union and charity which are cemented by mutual benefits.” which seem to best build the foundation of Hobbes and Locke to identify the Moral Law in Freemasonry and giving us a place to then make decisions from – perfect union and charity…cemented by mutual benefits.

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About Masonic Traveler

An artist by nature and vocation, Greg pursued the sublime degrees of Freemasonry in 1994. A 3rd degree Master and a 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason, Greg is the author of the ebook What is Freemasonry and the print book Masonic Traveler.

Read more about Greg Stewart.

Comments

  1. When Freemasonry decided to not talk politics or religion within the Lodge room, and Royalty where in the positions of authority within the Craft, there can be no moral law. Pontiffs and Elite have always acting in their own best interests, not for the common man. For Ages these groups have abused Laws and Priviledges, so why would it stop today? This Fraternity has not been checked in over 200 years of existence, steam rolling over any individual attempting to shed Light on Injustices and Ineqhuality within an Org that claims these are it’s tenets. It’s a joke. Halcyon guys checked their GL, but most masons blindly wanted to defend the GL and slander the young masons crying foul. Whether in Ohio, NJ, ark, Ga or Ca, it is going on and lemmings keep the Elite in their places with no accountability. Enjoy the freefall that is starting to happen. GL’s losing money so trying to get Temple Companies to fold and hand over money’s and properties to the GL so they can have hospitality rooms for the ever important communications!

  2. Tubulcain is right-on.

  3. Excellent article, however, its curious how it might generate comments about the abusive powers of Grand Lodges. I believe your article asks what does Freemasonry teach us about how we should behave as individuals, not how organizations like Grand Lodges, State Legislatures, National Governments, or the like should behave.

  4. Bo, I agree. When you dig into Locke, it does take on a degree of personal responsibility, and an acknowledgment of some form of leadership (hence the Platonic ships captain). Otherwise, we all vie to take our turn at playing captain with never taking the time to learn the tools and practices of the trade.

  5. I find it both amusing and disconcerting that for want of a valid philosopher this treatise falls flat upon its face.

    A Philosopher in the Law Natural is an innovative producer of that scripture by which things may be dispassionately measured by men of good character, despite differences of language and local. As such, the writer has produced no true Philosophers for the consideration of the reader. He has chosen to highlight mere opinionists who never removed themselves from concepts of base slavery. True Philosophers provide proofs, not rhetoric. As an example…Descartes was (by the old and proper standard) a true Philosopher.

    Moreover, the choice of opinionists itself is illustrative of a rather ‘roman’ view of the world. A view whereby a privileged few install themselves in perpetuity in positions of dominance over their fellow man, rather than in a position as stewards, educators, and guardians of their brothers weal.

    This age has yet to live up to the base principle of Ahimsa, let alone more complex principles. Until it does, speaking to any conception of Morality in Law generally, and Justice in Law specifically, as if either even exists…is a farce.

  6. benjamin s. toe junior. says:

    according to the historicity account of mine life,i have not seen a profound institution like the freemasonry.today i am happy to know great men of this political would were members of the freemason.the would shall know the important of this profound institution that is here to stay and to protect it people.until it does so,all human will know how important it is for human to know moral law of freemasonry.it is not a mistake but a benefit to man kind.

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  1. […] is that homosexuality goes against the moral law, but as I’ve pointed out in the past, which Moral Law?  As a Mason, I have to say, their argument does not wash and any man who is a just and upright […]

  2. […] we need to understand how masonry sees the Moral Law, which is something I explored in 2010 in Whence came the Moral Law in Freemasonry?  In that piece, the question asked was “Is the Moral Law from a religious perspective, as in […]

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