Every Mason has a personal idea of what Freemasonry is. The ancient documents of the Craft describe it as "a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols". This morality is further summed up as "brotherly love, relief, and truth", or in modern English "compassion, charity, and truth". It is "peculiar" in its original sense of "unique", not because the morality is unusual, but because the system of teaching is unique. It's morality is that which civilisations have always found to promote a fair and happy society.
To really understand the aim of Freemasonry, one must understand something of the history by which it assumed its present form. The beginnings of the transformation of English masonry from an operative focus to a speculative one must be viewed in the light of the intellectual changes happening in England and Europe around the end of the sixteenth century.
As the 1500s were coming to an end, many great minds began to break away from the rigid dogmas of the church. Unlike the dissenters of earlier times who tended to be persecuted religious sects, these new minds were individuals of high intellectual ability. Although not all came into direct conflict with the church, they bravely pursued a course of intellectual freedom at a time when heretics were routinely tortured and killed.
In England, the tolerance, intelligence, and wide reading of Queen Elizabeth was a significant protection. The well known occultist Dr John Dee was in danger of being arrested for heresy in Europe, but in England, he was a valued advisor to the Queen. Cambridge educated, Dee was a brilliant mathematician, an expert on cyphers and navigation, and an accomplished spy for the Queen in his travels.
During the late Elizabethan, there was a resurgence of interest in Hermetic philosophy and the hidden mysteries of nature and science. This outbreak of free thought inspired many great minds in England and abroad, in particular the following.
Dr John Dee (1527-1608) Mathematician, occultist, secret agent, cypher expert.
Queen Elizabeth (b 1533 r 1558-1603) Ruler who valued tolerance and harmony, genuinely cared about the people.
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) Monk philosopher, believed that stars were other Suns with their own planets revolving around them, science has proved him right. He was burned in Rome for his views.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) Science philosopher, studied maths and cyphers under Dr Dee. Wrote New Atlantis, about a society which valued truth, and science based on observation rather than dogma.
Galileo Galilaei (1564-1642) Scientist astronomer, laid the foundations of the study of motion. Forced to recant his support of the Copernican theory under threat of torture.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) One of the greatest writers of all time. His work contains a wealth of esoteric truth.
Johannes Keppler (1571-1630) Inspired by the Copernican theory and the Pythagorean geometrical solids, discovered the true elliptical motion of the planets. He communicated many times with Galileo.
Robert Fludd (1574-1637) Renaissance man. Rosicrucian philosopher.
The difference between these great minds and those of earlier renaissance times, was that they dared to make their views known, inspiring each other, and others, to question and to seek further truth. Their efforts and risks forever broke the shackles of ignorance which religious dogma had placed upon science.
It is against this background that we see speculative lodges arising in the early 1600s. After the death of Elizabeth, thinkers were forced to be more discreet and the secrecy of the lodges offered a safe haven from the authorities under the less tolerant King James (r 1603-1625). The influence of the great minds of the time on Freemasonry was significant to the extent that later writers seeing this influence, have argued that Bacon and Shakespeare were directly involved in the Craft.
Another development in the Elizabethan and early 1600s was a proliferation of copies of Old Charges, the moral and historical documents of the Medieval stone masons. These manuscripts were not usually copied word for word but were often paraphrased, modernised, and embellished in the process. The earliest versions, Regius (1390) & Cooke (1420).
Meanwhile in Scotland, we have a more complete picture of the transition to speculative craft with the earliest lodge minutes, the earliest use of the word "lodge" in the modern sense, earliest non-operatives, and the earliest mention of the "mason word". Lodge records there start as early as the 1590s, making its detailed masonic history a century longer than in England.
In 1583 William Schaw was appointed Master of Works for all Royal building projects for King James VI (later to become James I of England). Thoughout the 1590s Schaw set about reorganising the mason craft in Scotland, and in 1598 issued the Schaw Statutes which organised the craft on a national basis, independent of local burgh councils. This was to have a great influence on the way Freemasonry was to be organised in England in the following century.
The second Schaw Statutes 1599 specifically recommend the "Art of Memory". This was a Hermetic technique based on classical methods first published by Giordano Bruno in Paris in 1584, shortly before Schaw's visit to that city. Bruno also lived in England in 1583-85, and published another book there. In 1584, a Scotsman living in London, Alexander Dickson, published a book on the Hermetic Art of Memory. By 1592 Dickson was at the Scottish court and it is very likely that he discussed the Art of Memory with Schaw.
This subject would not be complete without mention of Sir Robert Moray, the first recorded masonic initiation in England. By the time of his initiation in 1641 the ideas of the Elizabethan Renaissance thinkers were well established in Freemasonry. In 1645 the Invisible College was formed, mostly of Freemasons who wanted to study the "hidden mysteries of nature and science" without interference from religious authorities.
Sir Robert Moray, in 1660, obtained a Royal Charter with which the Invisible College gained protection and respectability in 1663 as the Royal Society, the first modern scientific think tank. Its philosophy was based on Bacon's experimentalism, taking the motto "Nullius in verba", "Nothing by mere authority", or "Take no-one's word for it". Members such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton laid the foundations of modern physics, while the philosophy of John Locke paved the way toward modern ideas of human rights and freedom of thought.
Freemasonry played an important role in the establishment of the intellectual force for reason which rapidly grew to be known as "The Enlightenment", which formed the foundation for most of the advantages, both technological and social, that we take for granted as essential to modern civilisation.
All Masons would do well to remember the part Freemasonry has played in securing the comforts we all enjoy, and to remember also those whom tyranny has robbed of those comforts. An Example. Masons have always spoken out against injustice and intolerance, I have here added my small contribution.
While Freemasonry's contribution to civilisation so far has been immense, its work is by no means over. The pace of change has accelerated hugely in the last century. People and organisations have had to adapt to ever increasing changes, both social and technological. The way society will adapt is the theme of countless science fiction novels. Some paint a picture of a high tech utopia, others depict a future of grey conformity and slavery to our technology.
Whether progress brings us freedom or bondage, the choice of our future depends on our efforts. If we do nothing, we put ourselves into the hands of opportunism and greed. If we participate in the in the development of our future, we can work toward a more fair and pleasant world. This is what the early Freemasons saw, and set up a brilliant and timeless system with which to encode the principles of civilisation building.
Being well educated, they drew from the classical world, the society of Pythagoras and the Mysteries of Eleusis. The ancient traditions had given initiation to good people, and a vision of a better world. Spiritual and social values were taught, and initiates were expected to be examples to the general population. Initiation itself was valued as a great privilege and inspired initiates to pursue a good and balanced life.
Our technology will usher in great changes. Masons were well represented as leaders in the frontiers of science, social change, and the new colonies which changed the world three centuries ago. Masons should be just as involved in the current expansion into cyberspace and outer space. The next great nation may well be born as a colony on Mars. We have the technology to do this now, and it will almost certainly start within the lifetime of many of us.
It is to be hoped that the new colonies will have the benefit of "the Builders" as did the colonies which were to become Australia and the United States, based on Masonic foundations. The principles of tolerance and truth will be just as necessary.
Asimov, I., Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Pan, 1975
Fort Newton, J., The Builders, Allen & Unwin, 1914
Carr, H., Freemasonry Before Grand Lodge, Grand Lodge 1717-1967, Oxford University, 1967
Carr, H., The Freemason at Work, Burgess & Son, London, 1976
Stevenson, D,. The Origins of Freemasonry, Cambridge University, 1988
Other societies in which I am active in order to further pursue the aims of Freemasonry:
Australasian Society for Human
Biology, a society for the interdisciplinary study of the Human Biological
The Internet Society of Australia, National chapter of an international network of societies for the fair and free development of the Internet.
National Space Society of Australia, National chapter of an international network of societies for the advancement of space science & colonisation.
Mensa, an international high IQ society.