From The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry – The Root-Matter of the alleged Hermetic Connection. By A. E. Waite – 1911
Of Alchemy in Masonry – I
I must not say that one follows devious and hopeless paths more especially in Masonic Rites and literatures than in some other divisions of formulated secret thought, and yet several keen disappointments may await the zealous seeker on side issues of my subject, even if he has brought to it a certain canon of criticism on his own part, to act as a touchstone for possibilities which at a distance may seem alluring. Such ordeals notwithstanding, I believe that if this work should deserve well of its readers, it must not be its least title that I shall have done what lies within me to advise them in which direction it is idle to look for light. The Masonic aspects of Alchemy will prove disillusionary enough when it is a question only of two or three groups of Rituals, but there is another side of the subject on which I must dwell lightly, because a speculation upon origin is involved.
It is impossible to indicate in a printed book the exact lines of consanguinity which subsist between the central thesis of Craft Masonry and Zoharic literature, with its antecedents and derivations. The quest is the same quest, with due respect to the enormous variation of the external side of doctrine and symbolical fable. Craft Masonry is the home of a single legend, but there are many sides to Zoharic allegory. Among the things which they possess in common there is the gift of spiritual building, and there is also the haunting sense of a loss that has not been repaired through the ages; but this notwithstanding, there is on both sides the certain expectation which causes the quest to continue. Here, and in such phantasmal outline, is sufficient to show (a) that the phase of Hermetic interference which took place in Masonry, if indeed it was Hermetic at all in any rigorous sense of that term, was deeply tinctured with Kabbalism, or such interference is a dream; and (b) that its alchemical part was not practiced on any plane of physics. Now this conclusion is notable, because, in the first place, it would seem to put out of court once and for all every Hermetic Grade which deals with the material side of the magnum opus that is to say, the transmutation of metals; and thus, in the second place, we are put in possession beforehand of a casual canon of criticism which will simplify our research into this branch at once so important antecedently and so involved of Masonic ceremonial literature.
Some attention has been paid of recent years by Masonic writers of ability, and of large experience along the lines of their proper research, to the possibility of Hermetic intervention in the evolution of Symbolical Masonry. After exhausting all fields, there remains, or there has arisen, a feeling of instability as to the old notion of such an identical connection between the trade and the emblematic mystery that the one could have arisen from the other without an interference of some and indeed of a very specific kind. Because it does not appear with plainness, I do not know exactly what is understood by these writers regarding the horizon and content of the Hermetic schools ; it is in no spirit of adverse criticism if I say that it is perhaps only in a secondary sense that they can be said to have acquaintance therewith, and more especially with the tradition therein. We might have several reserves to establish if I were entering on a serious consideration of the question ; but passing over these, and speaking in a general sense only, I believe that the view has arisen through the coincidence of Elias Ashmole’s membership with the period to which the transformation is attributed. Ashmole appears chiefly as an informed amateur of that branch of Hermetic philosophy or science which is connected with the name of Alchemy, and there is evidence of his presence in a London Lodge at the very period when a confessedly speculative branch of Masonry was in session at the same place that is to say, in 1682.
Whether or not this represents the entire content of the feeling that has actuated the trend of thought, the hand of the Hermetic Schools in Early Symbolical Freemasonry has come to be regarded with sufferance, though it sets aside tacitly the particular importance which Mr. R. F. Gould has attached to the Regius MS. He himself is one of the tolerating parties, and I confess that I do not see how he harmonizes the possible Hermetic intervention which could be early only between the limits of the seventeenth century, with the supposed testimony of the fourteenth century manuscript to a speculative art into which the Hermetic motive never entered. Setting this also aside, the first question that arises is, as I have just intimated, the precise significance which would be attached to the term Hermetic in the minds of those who have used it, seeing that they would disclaim any special acquaintance with the schools, their horizon or their term. At the period under notice I mean in the seventeenth century it is, I think, exact to say that the word had reference to Alchemy and to nothing else. It is that which it signified for Elias Ashmole, since it was one of his especial dedications, and he is likely to be remembered by his introduction to the Musaeum Hermeticum Britannicum long after the history of the Order of the Garter has passed from the minds of men. Ashmole had certain intimations moving in his mind that the field of Hermetic science was not covered by a simple form of experimental research regarding the transmutation of metals, but the fact had no consequence for himself apparently, and none certainly for his period. If I may assume, therefore, that the possibility of Hermetic interference in Masonry signifies for those who have mentioned it an interposition on the part of alchemists, then the hypothesis or disposition will seem at first sight to derive a certain colour from the fact that the High Degrees were developed in one direction along alchemical lines.
Although in very brief summary, we shall see in the next few sections how curiously the Hermetic preoccupation so understood intervenes in the highways and byways of Masonic history. It is out of all expectation in respect of the broad roads, but it is indubitable, apart from these; and it took shape in specific Rites which were collections of considerable magnitude. The illustrious RITE OF THE PHILALETHES is an important case in point as a casual centre of the interest.
Amidst the cloud of reveries and false seeming, this institution came into existence with an express resolution to separate the wheat from the chaff in the matter of historical, philosophical and symbolical Masonry, and during more than a decade of years it sought to perform, within the circle of the Lodge and its connections, what was attempted in 1782 by the memorable Convention of Wilhelmsbad, a kind of oecumenical Council of Masonry. I cannot say that the alchemical predisposition predominated, but it certainly was in evidence, so far as membership was concerned and that rather conspicuously. The Rite reached no term, and the Revolution, which devoured so much and gave back so little, swallowed it up entirely.
It will serve a more general purpose to dwell, however, for a moment on an experiment which was brilliant during its brief period, and under happier circumstances might have had, as it deserved assuredly, a more permanent lease of life. The question of dates is as usual somewhat doubtful, but a Loge des Amis Reunis seems to have been founded at Paris early in 1771 for the express purpose of investigating the basis of Masonry, and the value, comparative and absolute, of its various Rites and systems. In the year 1775 the work had so far matured that it had selected from the vast concourse of Grades a certain number which were regarded as suited to its intention and had added thereto four others, previously unknown, which represented the plenary development of the Masonic subject within the horizon of the Lodge. It was thus in working possession of the LESSER MYSTERIES as follows:
- Scottish Master
- Knight of the East ; and of the GREATER MYSTERIES
- Rose Croix
- Knight of the Temple
- Unknown Philosopher
- Sublime Philosopher
- Philalethes, or Searcher after Truth and Master of all Grades.
In respect of the first seven Degrees, the order and titles are identical with those of the modern French Rite, as professed by the Grand Orient. The eighth Grade is reminiscent of the Strict Observance, to which, however, there seems good authority for saying that the system was in some sense opposed in respect of the Templar claim. Herein it was following in part the trend of the time, but more especially the leading of the RITE OF ELECT COHENS. We come therefore to the ninth Grade, which was that of Unknown Philosopher, in which we can trace at once the influence of Martines de Pasqually, exercised not by himself, for he was then no longer in Europe or the world, but by the Loge de Eienfaisance at Lyons through its representative in chief, J. B. Willermoz, a member of the RITE OF PHILALETHES practically from the beginning of its activity. Of the last three Grades I can speak by report only. The first is included by name in the modern ORDER OF MIZRAIM, but the correspondence may be titular only ; the second and third have not been co-opted to other interests. The report is that they were Grades concerned with the perfection of man, his return towards the centre from which he came forth at the beginning ; his regeneration, his reintegration in a state of primitive innocence and the restoration of the rights and privileges which were lost by the averse mystery of the Fall. It is, in a word, a reduction into ritual form of Pasqually’s plan of redemption established in his TraitS de la ^-integration des ,tres, as we shall find in a later section.
The system was thus theosophical, as other records have stated, and it was also in some sense alchemical, which, however, is rather a reference to the predispositions of certain members than to the complexion of its acknowledged Grades. The Archives Mytho-Hermetiques emanated from this source, as we shall also see. The Roll of the Rite included Court de Gebelin, a celebrated archaeologist of his period ; Duchanteau, to whom occultists owe the largest and most erudite of all Calendars of Magic ; the alchemist Clavieres, who was also a minister of finance ; the Baron de Gleichen, author of a Treatise on Metaphysical Heresies ; Jacques Cazotte, better remembered than any by his story of Le Diable Amoureux ; in fine, astrologers, physiognomists, cartomancists, Kabalists and all the choir illuminated of the secret sciences and arts. The Convention of Lyons, held in 1778, may have led to the formulation of the four final Degrees, and in this case that Templar chivalry which they included may have approximated to the Knights Beneficent of the Holy City of Jerusalem. The RITE OF THE PHILALETHES itself held two Conventions at Paris in 1785 and 1787. As the founder of EGYPTIAN MASONRY, Cagliostro was summoned to the first, but demanded the destruction of the valuable archives possessed by the Rite as the price of his attendance, and the proposal therefore fell through. The deliberations attained no satisfactory term, and there is hence no reason for the consideration of that which they proposed. Its Hermetic and theosophical tendencies and its reflections from early Martinism are the justification of this brief notice of the Rite. They were part of the hunger and thirst which filled the instructed hearts in all Masonry at the period and led them in a world without religion to seek more wisely than they knew for the religion which is concealed in all.
The comparative byways of Rites and collections will prove more to our purpose than this eclectic experiment, including as they did many Grades and Degrees which were invented or compiled by alchemists to illustrate the Hermetic connections of Masonry for the use of alchemists, who were thus brought into the Fraternity, and for the use of Masons, who might thus be brought into Alchemy.
We shall find, however, much to disappoint even if there is something to encourage us in exploring Hermetic Freemasonry, for in the first place it incorporated a good deal that was extrinsic to its own subject, and gave very little colour to the assumption of real knowledge even in its proper department. I mean to say that obviously and almost only it was dedicated to the physical work ; but there is not the least reason to infer that any maker of alchemical Grades in Masonry had attained to the term of his art, while of its higher aspects, or of the mystical side, there was no light in his consciousness. Ex hypothesi mystical Alchemy was the experience of the Divine Union, and it delineated all the processes leading thereto, from that mystery of the black state which corresponds to some part of the Candidate’s experience in Craft Masonry. The end in the terminology of the subject was the mystic marriage of the Sun and Moon. On the other hand, and also by the hypothesis, the term of Kabalism was entrance into nuptial joys like those of Rabbi Simeon. The experience of mystical death and resurrection is not less clear in Alchemy than in the Instituted Mysteries like Masonry, but it is anything rather than clear even on the high side of Kabalism; the great transition therein is from the life of this world, through physical death, to the reward of the just man and the true Sons of the Doctrine in the world to come. I omit what it may perpetuate regarding material resurrection, which is only a burden to the tradition and has no prominent part in the system. That which appears at first sight to be a difficulty, tends, however, to dissolve in the light of one canon of interpretation; the theosophy of Israel was rooted in things visible, things tangible and material, and on these it worked strange processes of transfiguration, by which they seemed to dissolve and take their part and place in the things that are eternal. After this manner the death which was physical became a mystical death : the resurrection of Rabbi Simeon really took place when he was received into the celestial school. Our triad in this manner is not actually in a state of separation, on the understanding that the traditional schools are for such reason the more distinct as schools and did not derive from one another. But if we suppose for a moment that they did, then the nearest progenitor of Masonry, on the inward side as otherwise on that which I must term in a sense historical, would be Kabalism and not Alchemy. It is not, however, Kabalism on the debased or magical side, and this is one reason why most magical Grades which are in masks under the name of Masonry are little better than abortions. Fortunately they are for the most part so obscure that their very names are almost unknown, and it may well be a matter of surprise that I have unearthed such considerations concerning them as will appear in some later sections.
I am dealing for the moment, however, with the Hermetic school in Masonry, and as it was in France rather than elsewhere that alchemical Rites rose up, it seems desirable to put on record the mode of regarding the subject which obtained in that country. It is more important for the Secret Tradition than for Masonry as generally understood, but the one reflects on the other, and the question as it so happens has some intrinsic interest of its own.