The question of What is Freemasonry has been one I’ve tried to answer myself for many years. In a recent column, Tim Bryce took a stab at the elusive answer in a very astute and concise fashion coming to the ultimate conclusion that Freemasonry is a fraternity as “… an environment of companionship dedicated to the social development of its members.” While I don’t think his conclusion is to far from the mark, how he got there bares some consideration.
Did his conclusions go far enough?
In his conclusion, Tim says that Freemasonry is, at its core, a fraternity – debunking the notion of it being a club, philanthropy, religion or a corporation. So, allow me to begin by considering what exactly a fraternity is.
The word fraternity has it’s origins in Old French, fraternité , with even older use from Latin, fraternitatem, which was defined as brotherhood. Rightly so, the notion of the word frater, as Tim says, was the Latin equivalent of the word brother, a term still used in some esoteric groups in present day.
The notion of the term fraternity has even older origins dating back to antiquity in the notion of the mystery cults of Rome (such as the Mithraic rites) evolving through the centuries to the trade guilds later to be embodied in American Culture through open organizations of association, at least so the Encyclopedic entry in Wikipedia would suggest. That same article says that the American social enterprise that became Democracy was essentially an outgrowth of this notion of fraternity in that religious freedom gave cause for ideological association giving rise to a “nation of joiners” that Alexis de Tocqueville (1830) and Arthur M. Schlesinger (1944) saw fit to characterize American as.
But, that exploration may take us to far afield. I will say that the de Tocqueville and Schlesinger’s conclusion has been challenged in more recent scholarship not as outgrowths of democracy but as institutionalization’s of civil society and the need for public engagement – an idea that turns the no religion or politics onto its head given the depth to which both are, today, the main focus of our present society.
As a fraternity, Tim’s conclusion is that while not a club, philanthropy, religion or political action committee, Freemasonry is a place where, and I’m paraphrasing here, moral men meet on common ground to act rightly to one another. He concludes saying that men gathered like this for no more reason than to associate so.
While I can’t find a disagreement on that conclusion, one has to ask gather to for what end? Personally, that conclusion has the taste of a mutual appreciation society, where members merely gather to congratulate one another on rank promotion and fine regalia acquisitions while debating on the cost of linen cleaning and the use of pasta sauce. This might sound glib, but if that were the case, why include the initiatic trappings to make an individual a Mason in the first place? It is in that rituals, and the ideas behind them, that I see the difference in there mere aspect of being a fraternity of self congratulators.
But, let’s take some time to analyze the elements Tim suggests the fraternity is not. To do this, I we need to invoke an old Hindu parable on avoiding dogmatism.
In the parable on how to define an elephant we might find a good approach to how to define this conundrum of what Freemasonry is by describing its parts, or more precisely, the elements that Tim says Freemasonry is not. The Hindu telling of the parable goes something along these lines:
A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: ‘It is like a pillar.’ This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently. In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.
– Ramakrishna, an Indian mystic of the 19th-century
The conclusion of the parable is that no one individual is capable of defining the elephant by merely describing its parts. That only in the summations of their totality was any consensus possible as to what, exactly, the elephant was, and even then a deaf man could still draw other conclusions rendering even further definitions. Ultimately, the moral is that while we seek to define something, the only way to do so is by adequately and completely describing its parts.
In his piece, Tim gives us several of components saying that Freemasonry has variously been defined as a club, a corporation, a religion, a political action committee, and philanthropy. To each of these he says that they miss the mark in defining the institution coming to the conclusion that it is merely a fraternity of association where these elements may, or may not, take place. I argue that, to the contrary, Masonry is all of these things at various levels and at the same time while cloaked in the old fraternal notion of a fraternal society of common cause.
While a seeming antiquated notion today, at one point in the 20th century clubs were about as diffuse as the subjects they gathered to associate about. Garden clubs, chess clubs, book clubs, motorcycle clubs, car clubs, hunting clubs, gun clubs, card clubs… the list could go on and on. DMOZ, the open source directory, lists 132,542 clubs and more than 10,000 organizations. In some respects, Freemasonry is one just another one of these affinity clubs.
The U.S. Small Business Association defines a corporation as “an independent legal entity owned by shareholders which means that “the corporation itself, not the shareholders that own it, is held legally liable for the actions and debts the business incurs.” In Tim’s piece, he rightly states that a corporation is profitable in nature, which is the argument he makes for why Freemasonry is not a corporation. Yet, without some profit, the organization cannot grow or anticipate any developments that might necessitate some capital investment (a new lodge, educational materials, new jewels, and so on). At some level, even as a non-profit organization Freemasonry should function as a 501(c)10, which the IRS describes as:
A domestic fraternal society, order, or association must meet the following requirements:
- It must have a fraternal purpose. An organization has a fraternal purpose if membership is based on a common tie or the pursuit of a common object. The organization must also have a substantial program of fraternal activities.
- It must operate under the lodge system. Operating under the lodge system requires, at a minimum, two active entities: (i) a parent organization; and (ii) a subordinate organization (called a lodge, branch, or the like) chartered by the parent and largely self-governing.
- It must not provide for the payment of life, sick, accident, or other benefits to its members. The organization may arrange with insurance companies to provide optional insurance to its members without jeopardizing its exempt status.
- It must devote its net earnings exclusively to religious, charitable, scientific, literary, educational, and fraternal purposes.
- It must be a domestic organization, that is, it must be organized in the United States.
So then, in this configuration, essentially, Freemasonry, under the Grand Lodge system, is a Corporation that does not take a profit, dedicating its net earnings exclusively to religious, charitable, scientific, literary, educational, and fraternal purposes. This may not apply at the lodge level, but I would suspect that most TempleBoards function as corporations to manage the infrastructure investment of the lodge building. Does this make Freemasonry a corporation? I would say yes and no in that while not a “corporate body” with the many denominations of Freemasonry, at its management level, it is a corporation where the lodges annually elected leaders (Worshipful Masters) to vote at shareholder meetings annually in the Grand Lodge communications electing new corporate leadership.
Tim makes another point in his piece that Freemasonry is not a religion, and while nearly every tract written, published and produced repeats this mantra (right down into the very landmarks of the institution) it does promote a religious lifestyle. Further, it embraces a wide acceptance of religious thought (empirically) seeing all faiths as equal by 1) acknowledging all faiths and 2) embracing them in common cause in the lodge.
Interestingly, the early Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing (d.October, 1842) would say that “there is but one thing essential in religion and this is the doing of God’s will” but in doing so in communion, in the same sermon he says:
It is not with the voice only that man communicates with man Nothing is so eloquent as the deep silence of a crowd A sigh a low breathing sometimes pours into us our neighbour’s soul more than a volume of words There is a communication more subtle than freemasonry between those who feel alike How contagious is holy feeling.
The point of making this reference is that while Freemasonry does not espouse a religious practice, it certainly exudes a devout religious timbre that its religious tolerance allows to resonate through its many parts.
A Political Action Committee
This was an interesting inclusion and one that I had not considered before in conjunction to Freemasonry. The purpose of a PAC, says Opensecrets.org, is the “raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates” representing “business, labor or ideological interests.”
While no Masonic PAC exists (you can check yourself by consulting PACRONYMS, which is an alphabetical list of acronyms, abbreviations, initials, and common names of federal political action committees (PACs) identifying committees when their full names are not disclosed on campaign finance reports. My search yielded no Masonic named organizations)
What is interesting is what defines a PAC. At the Federal Level, a PAC is an organization that receives or spends more than $1,000 for the purpose of influencing a federal election. Politics is that flip side of the coin to religion as taboo topics to discuss in lodge, a point Tim makes succinctly. But another point that Tim makes is that while Freemasonry believes (and actively promotes) patriotism, citizenship, and good government, its history also boasts a healthy degree of civic activism, especially in it’s fraternal political patriarchs in the likes of Famous Freemasons George Washington and nine of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. Even the Boston Tea party, while unverifiable, was planned in a ‘community center’ that sported a square and compass above its door.
Does that make Freemasonry a Political Action Committee? Probably not, but what it does suggest to me is that the gathering of like minded individuals given to common cause of idealism and faith, could still organize an activity of a political nature outside of the regular opening and closing of a lodge room in the same way they could plan a fishing trip together or organize a lodge movie night.
Tim makes a good point here in saying that Masons help others within their capacity to do so, without mandate, and peripheral goal. While I see this as fundamentally correct, I think he equates the notion of philanthropy as holding weekly cupcake sales or canned food drives. While I don’t mean this as a slight to Tim, I think when you look at the many charities that Masonry in some way started, influenced, or contributed to; one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the idea of just how much philanthropy is at work behind the scenes. Remember, too, one of the chief articles of incorporation is to give to charitable causes, a task often instituted at the Grand Lodge level. But some other past examples of tremendous Masonic philanthropy include the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, built with millions of contributions,subscriptions and donations, in an era of much higher income disparity, to the present day Shrine Hospitals for Children and Scottish Rite Speech and Language programs.
While institutionally, neither of these two examples predicates the reason for being as an organization, both are examples of a deeply invested attribute of Freemasonry, namely brotherly love, which, by its Latin name, is Charity. So while masonry itself may not be philanthropic, its does encompass the notion of a love towards mankind in its expression of brotherly love (hence the maxim brotherly love, relief, truth). In some sense, philanthropy is the very thing that Masonry is trying to instill in those who seek out that common cause.
So what is Freemasonry?
This brings us back to the ultimate conclusion then of what the fraternity is to those who have sought it out. Is it the sum of its parts or the individual definitions of its pieces? How can it be none of the things Tim described when, in its operation and its roots it is, essentially, all of those things? To quote from Tim’s piece:
Freemasonry, therefore, is not a club, philanthropy, a religion, or a PAC. Using symbols from ancient operative Masonry, Freemasonry is a place where men meet “on the level” (to promote equality), act “by the plumb” (rectitude of conduct), and part upon “the square” (to practice morality).
To the contrary, I would suggest that Masonry is a club that, ultimately, promotes philanthropy and religion in the same way a PAC or a corporation functions to grow and promote its own prosperity and agenda. That, the ideas of the fraternity do go back centuries, but go well past the common vernacular of the 17th century to their more ancient usage in antiquity to the mystery cults of association by common cause. The only difference is in how we choose to see ourselves – as the individual that the corporate body represents, or as the incorporation of the idea itself in the individual?
Can Freemasonry, like the elephant, be defined in its totality based upon the descriptions of its parts? Or is it a philosophical idea merely codified in its organization for its conduct? I think Tim got it partially right, but I don’t think you can sum the totality of Freemasonry without rightly considering its parts.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts on What Freemasonry is in the comments below.