A book review by Wor. Bro. Frederic L. Milliken
Coach John Nagy has written a most important book for the Fellow Craft, Building Athens – Uncommon Catechism for Uncommon Masonic Education – Volume 3. It is about the winding staircase with emphasis on the 7 Liberal Arts and Sciences. In case you have forgotten (heaven forbid), the 7 Liberal Arts and Sciences are Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.
The first three are categorized as the Trivium, the latter four labeled the Quadrivium. The Trivium, Nagy tells us: “ …is to convey to students an understanding of how Words are used as Symbols. Study of such matters includes the eventual ability to decode and encode meaning and intent using Words as a base.” The Quadrivium “… is to convey to the student and understanding of how Numbers are used as Symbols. Study of such matters includes the eventual ability to decode and encode meaning and intent using Numbers as a base.”
But the larger question I am sure you are asking by now is why is the book titled Building Athens? What does Athens have to do with the 7 Liberal Arts and Sciences?
Nagy tells us:
Masons unfamiliar with the legacy of Athens hamper their Masonic progress. To participate in Masonry at the Fellow Craft Level without having knowledge of Athens’ most famous citizens and, more specifically, their Works is to see and experience Ritual as a shadow show likened to that depicted in Plato’s Cave.
Most of us know about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras. But how many of us have heard of Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides and Democritus, to name a few?
Actually, when Nagy first envisioned this book it was going to be more of an explanation of the rich symbolism in the Second Degree but the end result took a turn when reality dawned on the Coach.
First, in observing other Masonic writers he noted how some produced the unfolding of layers of symbolism.
“Through this insight, I realized that these Brothers had constructed writings that hid things in plain view through Symbolic Layering. They Masterfully conveyed Light without hiding it. They shared it knowing that Brothers would see Light that profanes couldn’t. Trained Brothers knew what was conveyed.”
Symbolic Layering is one fascinating aspect of this book and one which the reader must discover on his or her own. That led Nagy to his conclusion that Trained Minds are so important to understanding Symbolic Layering and the meaning of Masonry.
I quickly realized that a Mason’s mind must be first ‘readied’ to receive such information before he can benefit from it. I also realized that no matter how I might go about my initial focus, without a ‘readied mind’, my actions would be equivalent to discussing colors with a blind person. No such sharing would have relatable significance.
But how is this done? How are Freemasons readied to receive this information?
“Fellow Craft Masons that diligently invest in the education pointed toward by Ritual physically reshape their ‘Ashlars’, a.k.a. ‘brains’, toward what is required by the Builder. They furthermore reinforce natural affinities that their brains already have and cultivate interconnections that change how reality is experienced. This training transforms each mind’s ability to sort, uncover, discriminate, differentiate, distinguish, decide, detect, project, create, evaluate and a host of other mental talents that would otherwise lay dormant or poorly used if not otherwise nurtured.”
Once again Nagy emphasizes Trained Minds in Trained Masons.
“Information challenged individuals, unable to deal effectively with information overload, become lost within information. Trained Masons know what is pertinent. They furthermore know how to see through illusions offered up as a fact to see Truths hidden within and fallacies veiled in truth.”
So in Catechism form Coach Nagy sets out to retrain our minds in order that we may separate the chaff from the wheat, see the layering of symbolism and discover the meanings of Masonry and its application to our daily lives.
Nagy talks about the great Greek philosophers and their contribution to symbolic thought and the 7 Liberal Arts and Sciences.
In regards to Plato, Nagy tells us that,
Plato was influenced by Socrates, along with Pythagoras, Aristophanes, Protagoras, Homer, Hesiod, Parmenides. Aesop, Heraditus, and Orphism
As we start into the specifics Nagy tells us,
Masonry is a training ground for Symbolic understanding. Without an intimate knowledge of Symbols, Masons become malnourished by the inability to absorb what is presented.
Nagy talks a lot in the book about Shibboleths which he defines as “a word, phrase, motto, slogan, or saying used by adherents of a party, group, sect, organization, or belief, also a widely held belief, truism or platitude which can be a linguistic tool that allows for identification of a specific group based upon pronunciation of specific words.”
The subsequent chapters of the book take each of the 7 Liberal Arts and Sciences in detail.
“Grammar is many things. It is the Strength aspect of the study of Symbols as words. It is a fingerprint, identifying sources with such pinpoint accuracy that no masking can obscure it. It tells its observer the history, culture and attitude of its source. It develops the left Temporal, Occipital and Parietal lobes of the brain thus providing pattern recognition skills to those developed. As a Mason, I recognize that Grammar knowledge allows Masons to Travel in directions that hold back illiterate men.”
“Rhetoric is the Beauty aspect of the study of Symbols as words. Moreover, as only things of Beauty can do, it invites those affected to experience its Beauty by merely taking in what is offered. Any Persuasion that occurs is not forced though; it is not put upon those so invited. It is put forth to partake in and its recipients are wholly responsible for what they do with it.”
“To Master influences such as these, Masons must know what persuades. Rhetorical study cultivates understanding, insight and planning into this. It also requires Craftsmen to know what future such Work shapes. With such training Masters duly Craft its ends. As Centers of Influence, their Work creates Spheres of Influence.”
“Logic is essential in Building anything having Integrity. Non-reason condemns people to unnecessary, damaging and life-threatening conclusions. Ritual informs Masons that Logic is important. Masons must apply Logic in their Work to assure that what they have wrought is both sound and viable in supporting their aims. Sadly, Masons receive only a shadow of what is required Logically to Raise them Above the norm.”
“Logic is the Wisdom aspect of the study of Symbols as Words. Logical abilities allow Masons to discern Truth from fallacy. The power of right reasoning is deemed essential to Masons. Without Logic, Masons cannot comprehend their rights and duties. Without Logical faculty, men are considered insane; viewed as madmen and idiots; and denied admission into the Masonic Order. Lack of Logic also limits Travel.”
“Arithmetic lets Masons see the world in such dramatic detail that they appear to be sighted to the blind untrained. It requires foundational understandings of how Numbers manifest and what can be done with them. Arithmetic is the Strength aspect of the study of Symbols as Numbers. Through Arithmetic, the world becomes a familiar place.”
“How does this happen? Arithmetic study develops the abilities of Masons to recognize relationships and reveal patterns. Its study also forces Masons to understand, confront and deal effectively with concepts related to zero and infinity. Through its Strength, Arithmetic enables Masons to have real impact through development of analogy.”
“Geometry is one of two Wisdom aspects of the study of Symbols as Numbers. Geometry puts dimension to those concepts revealed and accepted during Arithmetic study. It also facilitates dealing with irrational quantities. Geometry trains the mind to imagine things that exist, things that may exist and things that will never exist. It’s amazing how much Geometry is part of our world.”
“Masons studying Geometry bring ordered thinking to their physical world. It also hones their critical thinking; sharpness portable to other disciplines such as Music and Astronomy. Of all the aspects of Masons developed by such study, the one applied toward the measure of man may very well be its most important.”
“Music is intimately dependent upon Arithmetic and Geometry. There is Logic behind its construction. Music has both a Grammar of its own and it is itself the Grammar of sound! Most importantly, its purpose is identical to that of words when employed as Rhetoric, through its use, it persuades. Lastly, understanding of Music supports a Mason’s understanding of Astronomy.”
“Music relates to internal and external motion and requires a firm understanding of how motion Works under certain conditions. Builders who know these basics can then both evaluate and devise systems that employ such motion.”
“Ultimately, the capstone of Liberal Art and Science studies opens up a Mason’s ability to seriously study of Theology and Philosophy. Astronomical information is often times conveyed within such texts and it takes a trained individual to identify when such information is present. This requires all the skills developed by Liberal Art and Science study.”
These are only the chapter headings – a tease. Where you mind really gets challenged is in the catechism of each chapter. There is where the general becomes the specific; there is where the learning takes place; there is where the mind is expanded; there is where you must commit much time and energy.
Once you have completed this expansion of the mind an overview of the big picture illustrates the importance of such study. Nagy tells us:
“To look deeply without toward what constitutes the makeup of your world is to put forth an effort to see and seed the possibility of knowing the very essence of Creation. Of all the actions that Masons can take, except for ‘sincere and searching self-reflection’, this action has the deepest impact. It permeates everything thereafter done.”
Finally, we are told:
“Next to the Entered Apprentice Degree, no more demanding Work in all of Masonry can ever match what is ordered upon Masons within the Fellow Craft Degree. It’s most unfortunate that the Work specified as important to Masons within the Fellow Craft ritual is ‘skipped over’ by far too many Masons as they pursue the title of that ‘next’ degree. Mentoring Master Masons would do well in tempering the enthusiasm of those Fellow Crafts desiring the next level, as well as their own, especially if they have yet to earn the title.”
Leaping over this specific Work has damaging consequences for the Mason, the Brothers who have to deal with that Mason, the Fraternity as a whole and future Masons who Enter and expect proper guidance from Brothers.
Building Athens is not just an information book but a challenge. I consider myself reasonably well informed, no Rhodes scholar mind you, but time and time again I felt a need to consult further research on some of the points Coach Nagy was making and some of the references he alluded to. This is the kind of book you might want to read twice. Once you mind has been expanded it makes much more sense the second time around and you will “get it” finally.
The only question left: ARE YOU READY TO RETRAIN YOUR BRAIN?
You can find John Nagy’s book, Building Athens – Uncommon Catechism for Uncommon Masonic Education – Volume 3, on Amazon and on his website.