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Reflections on the Second Degree

That purely material gains can never represent the final goal in the progress and development of mankind must have been recognised as fundamental truth ever since primitive man first began to turn his thoughts from such considerations as food, shelter and physical comfort generally to that limitless and fruitful field of speculative thought which Freemasonry names the hidden mysteries of nature and science.

Yet, after thousands of years of such speculation, notwithstanding the founding of schools of thought in great variety, the establish¬ment of temples and churches, and all kinds of moral and religious institutions, we still find the world in our time engaged in the relentless struggle for material gains which, throughout the whole of history has destroyed the happiness of men, broken their bodies in slavery, and diverted their minds from the contemplation of the divine purpose of life.

Material considerations, and the false standards of value which a materialistic conception of life create, still dominate and control almost every sphere of human activity, determining the conduct and shaping the ideas of the great mass of men.

Slow indeed has been the march of man towards emancipation from the miseries and sufferings which his abysmal ignorance have brought upon him; he has been on the move for tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, yet his collective progress is comparable with a yard in a thousand miles. When, therefore, deluded by the great achievements of science, we are tempted to boast of the wonders of our allegedly enlightened civilisation, we should look downward over the short path we have travelled, and upward where our aspirations bid us climb, so that we may establish that correct sense of proportion which enables us to realise that the world is yet in its spiritual infancy.

When, having recognised this important truth, we grow impatient and complain that the spiritual goal of the human race appears to us, in this generation, to be as far off as it seemed to be in the days of the Pharaohs, we should remember that our conceptions of time are as limited, as our efforts to attain happiness by material means, are futile.

We should remind ourselves that the allotted 70-year span of man’s life is like the passing of a second, compared with the 8,000 to 10,000 years which have elapsed since our existing civilisation was cradled in the valleys of the Euphrates and the Nile; that this 10,000-year period is but a short space when considered in relation to the 300,000 to half a million years said to be the period of man’s tenancy of the earth, and, further, we might endeavour to have our minds encompass the thought that half a million years is only a flash in geological time.

These reflections constitute a necessary angle of approach to the study of the 2nd Degree since they widen our vision and adjust our ideas to an extent that should enable us to comprehend, if only in an elementary way, the magnitude of the planned evolution laid down by the G. G. of T. U. That there is such a plan only a fool will doubt; that the human race is surely, if slowly moving onward to its predestined goal, every thinker must realise; that the only real progress is spiritual, and that the rate of progress is determined by the rate of growth and development of the faculty of thought, must be the conclusion of every student of the history of mankind.

Thought is the great propelling force which keeps the human army on the march, and enables it to overcome its obstacles and determine its line of direction. Together with its vehicle of expression, language, it has given man supremacy over all other forms of life; it is the light, feeble perhaps, as yet, which radiates from the Divine spark in man, a spark destined to grow in brilliance until the un-revealed purpose of the G. G, in giving man the place he occupies in the scheme of nature is finally consummated. The beautiful laws of harmony, order and symmetry manifested everywhere in nature, this little world in which we live, the great solar system of which it forms a part, the whole known universe which dwarfs our solar system and is itself probably dwarfed by greater ones, were all created by thought – by the ordered, infallible and purposeful thought of the Great Architect.

The chaotic, turbulent, strife-ridden conditions of human life were also created by thought – by the disorderly, aimless and greed-begotten thought of man. There was a time in history (not a very long time ago) when man thought God was a bloodthirsty savage who required of his subjects human sacrifices to appease his wrath or augment his generosity, so our ancient forbears dragged the shrieking victims to the alters feeling they were performing a most solemn and necessary religious rite. At a later stage they modified their ideas, and the God of David’s time had to be satisfied with sacrificed lambs and other quadrupeds. A further forward step was taken when someone, probably a king by divine right, devised the idea of erecting temples wherein to worship the god who had treated him so kindly by giving him dominion over men. That the temples were built by the aid of whip-driven slaves was a trifling consideration. Apparently God had no interest in slaves.

All those one-time common practices, which appear, when judged by our present standards, to be barbaric and absurd, were to the people of those times, the embodiment of truth and wisdom. These things are mentioned to show that the real observable facts of life take place according to thought, and what is true of mankind in the mass is true also of the individual. All our unhappiness is caused by ill-conceived and badly directed thoughts, but, fortunately, as Masonry tells us, we have the power to improve our thought processes, and so add to our own individual happiness, and, by virtue of this improvement, perform “in our day and generation” a service to mankind by disseminating our better thoughts among our fellows. Masonry is the result of somebody’s very profound thought, and in the Second Degree we are taught why we should think, how we should think, and what we should think about, this being a most valuable privilege of craft membership which we should appreciate by making Masonic Lodges places of real labour directed towards the continued improvement of the mind, rather than regard them as places to welcome newcomers, perform ceremonies and gather at the festive board.

The newly passed F. C. F. M. is told that he should make a special study of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences; that he must also acquire a knowledge of the five noble orders of Architecture, especially the three most celebrated, the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian and, finally, before he becomes eligible for advancement, he is made to realise that the peculiar objects of research in 2nd Degree are the hidden mysteries of nature and science. When ultimately he becomes the possessor of a copy of the ritual, the craftsman might read that he was passed to the Second Degree for the sake of Geometry.

We shall first concentrate attention on the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences and endeavour to ascertain why we, as Masons should especially study them.

The first is Grammar or the science of the right use of language. We cannot divorce language from thought for, as we have already observed, language is the means of thought expression. Both faculties developed side by side. When man’s thoughts were primitive and simple, his language was simple also. As his mode of life grew more complex, and his thought range, therefore, wider, he coined new words in which to express himself. And so through the ages, this marvellous force for good or evil, according to the manner and object of use, was gradually developed, improved and systematised, until in modern times, it has become a science which few students master.

So many words are there now that one cannot imagine two people expressing the same idea in precisely similar language, and it is this variety of choice that gives to literature its place of prominence amongst the arts. Humanity would have been deprived of the wisdom of the great thinkers of history if they, or their translators, had been incapable of winging their thoughts with words capable of carrying them to the farthest corners of the earth. Many have thought as Shakespeare thought, but few have presented their ideas in language so beautiful that the passage of time cannot tarnish its grandeur. When sublime thought and sublime language meet in the same mind, mankind receives those divinely inspired messages of hope and encouragement which not only serve to lighten the burden of those in whose generation they come, but live on for the use and benefit of succeeding generations of men.

If we would have our ideas work for us and for our fellows, we must clothe them in words appropriate to the subject and of sufficient power and beauty to arrest and hold the attention of those who hear or read them. If the V.S.L. were written in commonplace language, we could not return to it again and again to refresh, invigorate and inspire our minds. It is the poetic beauty of its allegorical thought forms that make it the most remarkable pieces of literature in the English tongue. Let us make one comparison to indicate the difference in power between two methods of expression, the one commonplace, the other sublime.

We observe in ordinary language that Death, in an instant, changes man from a corruptible mortal to an incorruptible spiritual being. Therefore we should not fear death.

Compare this with the same idea expressed by St. Paul, and translated from the Greek by the authors of the revised version of the English Bible.

Chaplain reads: St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, ¬Ch.15 verses 51 to 55.

No. 2

This comparison demonstrates the power of sublime language and indicates that ordinary speech fails to adequately express a great sentiment. Always, the language should fit the theme.

We are given our faculties to use in the construction of the temple within us; to exercise them for progressive self-improvement, and to apply them to the service of mankind. No matter how deeply and to what purpose we think, our duty is not complete until we bring our constructive ideas to others. If we find only one in a hundred who is receptive to them we shall not have laboured in vain. There can be but little doubt that every generation has produced thinkers whose ideas would have been of great value to the human race if they had been able to record them in memorable speech. Many men have gone to their graves undelivered of their wisdom because they have lacked courage to voice their convictions or because they were denied the opportunity of acquiring what we now regard as an ordinary education. It was this fact which inspired Grey, when, surveying the graves in a country churchyard he wrote:¬

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire,

Hands that the rod of Empire might have swayed

Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll

Chill penury repressed their noble rage

And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen

And waste it’s sweetness in the desert air.

Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his field withstood;

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

Every Mason possesses, by virtue of the teachings of the Second Degree, the opportunities not afforded to the “rude forefathers of the hamlet” of whom Grey wrote in language of unfading beauty.

Although few Miltons or Shakespeares will be produced, every man is capable of improving his knowledge of language and expanding his thought range.

Since we speak the English tongue, we have a wealth of literature at our command, but, as in one lifetime, we cannot read everything we should like, we would find it spiritually profitable to follow the finger posts of masonry, follow them just as far as we can, for the road which they indicate is endless – like thought.

We have seen that grammar treats generally of the construction, appropriateness and propriety of language, but Rhetoric, the second of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, identifies that particular type of composition which is designed to influence the judgment and feelings of those to whom the language is addressed, either through the medium of speech or of writing. The practice of the art of persuasive eloquence has at all times greatly influenced conduct and moulded character.

Used wisely, and by men whose motives being directed towards the spiritual upliftment of mankind, rhetoric has, in every period, been one of the greatest unifying forces in life, but misused by those who were actuated by selfish and material considerations, it has been an equally great force of social disintegration. To appreciate the truth of this contention, we must recognise the fact that the great majority of human beings rarely make use of the faculty of thought and are, consequently, incapable of making sound judgments on any matter outside the narrow circle of their own experience. The multitude has therefore always been, and still is, a plastic mass in the hands of those gifted with rhetorical command over language. The spiritually constructive, socially cohesive influences of rhetoricians whose thought dwelt upon the good, the pure and the beautiful, is evidenced in every stage of development since the dawn of history, and just as their influence is felt today in all walks of life, so will it continue to be felt while men remain in need of leadership and guidance. But the greatest bar to progress, the most potent force of obstruction, is the eloquent and persuasive presentation of false ideas and material ideals. Men bankrupt of spirituality, but rich in eloquence, ruled by sincere but erroneous convictions begotten of shallow thought, have been unwittingly responsible for a great amount of human misery, but the leading players in life’s drama are those who, setting aside all ethical considerations have wrought havoc and destruction amongst men in order to further their own material ends or satisfy that lust for power which is ever the distinguishing mark of perverted intellect. It would be indiscreet to turn to modern history to illustrate the manifestation of this evil force in the affairs of men. We can leave the generations of the future to judge us, as we, from a safe distance, judge those who have gone before, but we can say than every plundering military leader, every greedy monarch, every rapacious statesman, in fact every individual who has sought material prosperity regardless of the sacrifice of humans, or of human happiness, has borne the brand of Cain upon his brow.

Ability to penetrate the veil of hypocrisy, to distinguish the true from the false, the real from the unreal, is the great and primary need of men, and until they do acquire this ability and also learn to rely upon their own powers of perception and analysis, they will never be free of the baneful influences to which we have so briefly referred.

The study of Logic, in combination, be it marked with the other Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, is essential to those who seek for truth and strive to equip themselves with power to recognise that which is false.

If we isolate logic from its six Masonic associations, separate the part from the whole, it becomes merely a means of improving and training the thought processes, regardless of the material of thought or of the thought objective. Expressed in another, and, perhaps, clearer way, formal logic takes no account of things reasoned about, it merely treats the thought processes as a series of planned mechanical operations devised to ensure the thinker reaching sound conclusions from the premises on which his thought is based. Whether these premises are rooted in truth or in falsity is immaterial so long as the reasoning follows a prescribed line of thought progression. That is the academic definition of logic, but it is not the Masonic interpretation. Let us realise that the raw materials of thought are the impressions we absorb from external things and sources. Thought itself is the shaping process, logic the implement by which we test the reliability of the process, and the idea (or completed picture) is the finished article, ready to be framed in appropriate language and presented to our brethren.

Will our ideal picture be worth a frame if the raw materials we use are poor, the shaping process faulty, the implementation of test, defective. Unless we first acknowledge the Great Designer, recognise the grandeur and perfection of His plan, the infallibility and harmony of the universal laws of cohesion and unity; unless we realise that these laws can, and ultimately will, be made applicable to the relationships between men; that the aim of all thought should be the greater happiness and continual spiritual advancement of mankind, our impressions will remain blurred and obscure, our thoughts clouded, our logic of no avail, and our finished work fit only for the scrap heap.

Before proceeding to consider the four remaining departments of knowledge that, together with the three already touched upon, constitute the group of Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, it is necessary that we have a proper appreciation of the fact that, as Speculative Masons, we are not concerned with the purely technical aspect of any art or science.

Our function is to perceive the end of knowledge, namely, the greater happiness of mankind, and our thoughts should be directed to the ways and means of applying to life, knowledge acquired by the specialist investigator.

The G.G. of T.U. has divided the labour of men; to some he has given special mental equipment for use in scientific research; to others the capacity for perceiving His Divine aims and conveying His messages to mankind; and to others has been given the power of organizing and co-ordinating knowledge so that the whole human family might benefit from it. Life would be utterly impossible without this division of labour, and we must reward it as a law just as definite and unchangeable as that which regulates the rising and setting of the sun. In fact, we could go further and say that it is the great basic law of organic life, for the human body, itself, is the best conceivable example of the division of labour. So obvious is such an example, that elaboration of the point would be superfluous.

The recognition of this law obliges us to realize that the long line of astronomers, mathematicians, physicists, and chemists, were destined to investigate the special branches of science for which they were equipped; that the great philosophers, poets and teachers, were lovers of wisdom and bearers of light because the G. G. gave then the powers of discernment, imagination and expression which enabled them to transmit His messages to the human race.

There is another important inference to be drawn from our belief in the law of division of labour, namely, that our duty lies in determining, by trial and test, what our qualifications are, so that we may follow to the maximum extent of our abilities, the path of usefulness for which we are best fitted, observing the while the results of the work of our brother labourers in other spheres.

The knowledge now possessed of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy took thousands of years to accumulate and it is the result of the work of men of great intellectual capacity. Therefore, it must be obvious to all that the Masonic instruction to study the science named cannot be interpreted to mean all that Masons must, in order to fulfil their duties and obligations as such, become thoroughly familiar with the intricacies of branches of learning which only some few minds can comprehend. But whilst we cannot comprehend the parts we can envisage the whole. We can know the use of water without being aware of its chemical composition; we can admire the picture of a master artist and read its message without being able to execute the work; we can know the laws of health without being skilled in medical science, and, similarly, we can recognize and accept the truths discovered by our scientific brethren without spending our lives in the laboratory or observatory.

No. 3 The work of philosophy is to relate all knowledge to life and to the end of human happiness, and for this purpose the Masonic system of philosophy was established. It is founded on three principles, B. L., R & T., the first two indicative of the fact that, individually, we must serve and worship God through mankind, the last expressive of the need for that independence of mind and freedom of thought which enables doctrinal beliefs which may or may not be true.

We must, of course, know something about the knowledge groups that made human progress possible; we cannot regard language as a jumble of sounds; arithmetic as a puzzling series of numbers; geometry as a mixture of triangles, squares, and circles; music a pleasant or unpleasant noise, and astronomy as something vaguely connected with stars.

We are to regard each of these several subjects as the names we give to the means by which man has uncovered nature’s hidden mysteries.

We have, perhaps, to a very limited and inadequate extent, established our sense of the value of language, and related the use of the faculties of speech to human needs and to our belief in the existence of a Supreme Intelligence.

We shall now attempt to define, philosophically, the value of the other subjects that are recommended to our study in the final charge of the second degree.

Arithmetic, the science of numbers is a form of thought expression, and, like language, it grew more complex as the need for greater variety for idea symbols developed in keeping with man’s expansion of thought activity. There are some truths of nature, which, having been perceived by the senses and shaped by the thought processes, are not communicable by the word symbols used to convey ideas having no specific relationship to numbers and quantities. Therefore, when these truths were discovered, the specially-equipped investigators devised new symbols to record their findings and render their thoughts of numbers, parts, and properties communicable to other independent workers so that each might use the result of another’s labour. To the symbols so devised we give the name “numbers” and to the whole group of knowledge concerned with numbers we give the name “Arithmetic”.

Arithmetical science is the parent of the great sciences of physics and chemistry and the twin brother of geometry, the three agencies through which light has entered the human mind. The fear that is born of ignorance inspired the religions observed and practised in the days when man believed in demoniacal Gods and thoughts that certain forces of nature were specially devised to torment him, but all types of fear-inspired beliefs have disappeared or are rapidly disappearing as a result of the work of the physicists and the chemists, who observed the principles of wisdom, strength and beauty underlying the behaviour, structure and composition of matter, has given man a much higher conception of the deity than be could possibly possess when he lacked understanding of natural laws and forces.

It is recorded that the ancient Ionian philosophers were the first thinkers to realize that objects which appeared to be units were really aggregations of infinitely numerous and infinitesimally small atoms. Since the time, 2500 years ago, when this theory was propounded, the chemists have been busy analysing matter and the physicists engaged in studying the laws of motion and the phenomena of heat, light and magnetism. Finally they discovered that the laws and principles which govern the movement and keep in their tracks the inconceivably enormous stars, control, also, the smallest particle of matter which the scientific brain can comprehend. The ancient philosophers knew that there was a unity of plan in nature, that nothing happened without a cause, that there must be one, and only one Master Intelligence behind all things. All the work done since Anaxagoras thought of the atomic theory, has confirmed the beliefs, the expression of which caused Anaxagoras to be banished for life from the country that bore him.

It is not to be wondered at that Masonry gives Arithmetic a place of honour in its system, since Arithmetic symbolizes things of such vast importance to the world of speculative thought.

Geometry is, of course, a branch of mathematical science, and what has been said of Arithmetic can also be said of Geometry. Thales, the first of the Ionian philosophers, whose wisdom we might talk of when we deal with the five orders of architecture, is credited with establishing Geometry as a department of science.

However, the historical aspect of the subject is, relatively, of little importance to us. All we need to know is that Geometry has given us a conception of the cosmos that we could not obtain without it. It is a science that expresses the Architectural principles of the structure of the universe. That is the reason why Masonic symbolism is based upon it, to indicate that the foundations of Masonry are set upon the rock of eternal truth. The door of astronomical knowledge could not have been opened until Geometry provided the key. In fact, the two sciences are so closely related that it is impossible to consider them separately.

Astronomy is probably the oldest science, for records exist which supply proof of the observation of stellar movements in the ancient Chinese, Hindu, Chaldean and Egyptian civilizations, but until geometry had developed to a particular point of practical efficiency, the investigations of the heavens must have been confined to the recording of the appearance of comets, eclipses of the sun, and the times of rising and setting of the heavenly bodies.

To Masonry, astronomy is important, because it tells of the law, order and balance of nature, the immeasurable length of time, the magnitude of space, and the vastness and beauty of the whole plan of creation and evolution.

The stars have ever been a source of inspiration and have formed the basis of many ancient religious systems. They have guided the mariner across the sea, formed our time standards, and in many other ways have influenced the thought and lives of men.. The study of the history of astronomy is full of interest and any brother who has not already done so would be well advised to give a little time to it occasionally, for, apart from the attraction of the science itself, it throws many remarkable sidelights upon mankind’s uphill fight against intolerance, prejudice, and established ecclesiastical authority; also a few elementary facts concerning the weights, dimensions, and distances of separation of the heavenly bodies will begin to make the inquirer wonder where he came from, why he is here, and where he is going to. When he begins to think of these things, he begins to know what wisdom is, and his higher spiritual progress will be commenced.

There is one thing in nature so indefinite and so imperfectly understood that all the art of the rhetorician cannot interpret it.

A special language that we call music, has been evolved to give it expression, and the power which this language contains is nothing short of marvellous. It can exalt or depress thought; move men to tears of laughter; inspire deeds of reckless bravery; bring peace and tranquillity to a troubled mind. There is not one human emotion that music cannot stimulate, and scarcely any human being is denied the faculty of music appreciation in some degree. Moreover, mankind has not monopolized musical expression, as anyone knows who has listened to the song of the birds on a sunny spring morning.

The birds are always in harmony with their environment and, invariably, sing one song, a song of joy, inspired no doubt by the sheer joy of living. Man, however, has used the language of music to express both grief and joy, and both sentiments have formed the subject of immortal compositions, telling us as no other language can, the diverse and chequered nature of man’s experience and feelings.

Masonry uses music as a symbol of harmony to impress upon our minds that there is one universal law of harmony and cohesion, a law that in some inexplicable way music seems to interpret. A proper understanding of Masonic allegory, or rather of the truth which that allegory covers, will give the craftsman a conception of things which make life appear as a great adventure and a great opportunity. As Wor. Bro. Watch once remarked in his lecture, ignorance of the law will not absolve us from the consequences of its non-observance.

The Second Degree is the degree of life and endeavours wherein we are given the opportunities to become acquainted with the law. The logical interpretations of our symbols will establish in our minds a great and sustaining faith that challenges the doubt of immortality; a faith that ready-made dogmatic beliefs can never give us; a faith that deeper and more accurate thoughts will serve to strengthen rather than destroy.

by RW Bro Oliver Williams