Iowa Freemasonry is a personal journal of a Freemason in central Iowa. This blog documents my Masonic research interests, experiences, and reflections. Welcome!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Simplistic View

Here is another of the ten interpretations from my paper on the symbolism of the Rough and the Perfect Ashlar.

II Simplistic View
This symbolic understanding considers the Rough Ashlar as representing the Entered Apprentice, new to the Craft and deficient in both knowledge and experience; the Perfect Ashlar represents the Master Mason with years in the Fraternity. I categorize this view as simplistic to the extent that the criterion used to measure the transformation of a man’s mental and spiritual nature is the quantity of years he has been a Mason rather than the quality of his Masonic life.

In some states, Lodges display stones to represent visually a Rough and a Perfect Ashlar. While meditation on these stones would assist the comprehension of an individual's transformation, the simplistic view merely sees it this way: that’s the candidate when he comes in and this is what he should look like when he’s finished.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bowling Alone?

This is another part of the paper I'm writing on the symbolism of the Rough and Perfect Ashlars:

IV Individual or Group
Speculative Masonry utilizes the tools and materials of Operative Masons to teach a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. The fourth interpretation of the Rough and the Perfect Ashlar draws on the operative use of these stones. In building a wall, common practice involved fabricating two adjacent walls and bonding them together for superior strength. Special stones ran lengthwise through the width of both walls bonding the two separate structures together. Dr. John S. Nagy describes these bond stones:

It’s a Building term used by Stonemasons to describe Perfect Ashlars used to connect the Inner and Outer layers of walls that create Buildings. Stone walls are usually built with two layers of Perfect Ashlar, an inner and an outer, and may or may not have rubble sandwiched between them. Either way, these two walls require connecter Stones to stabilize the Structure thus Built. Perpend Stones are those Stones whose lengths allow them to extend from the outside of the outer wall to the inside of the inner wall thus showing their smooth faces on the construct’s inner and outer surfaces.

These bond stones are Perfect Ashlars. The original form of the term “Perfect Ashlar” provides additional support for this analysis. Brother Edmund H. Dring studied the morphology of Perfect Ashlar and published his research in the Transactions of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076. Dring concluded that the word “perpendashlar” was the original form of the term perfect ashlar. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “per” originates from Latin meaning “through” and “pannus,” the original form of “pend” according to Dring, also originates from Latin meaning “cloth or wall.” In supporting his claims, Dring cites data from architectural dictionaries from the Middle Ages and other language reference works. Later Masonic scholars concur with Dring’s argument saying “…he was the first to put forward what is, in all probability, the correct explanation of the term “Perfect Ashlar.”

Dring’s work reinforces the function served by the individual Freemason in strengthening the Craft. As a Rough Ashlar, a Freemason is merely an individual component of a wall, but as a Perfect Ashlar, he fortifies the Fraternity. The Perfect Ashlar passes entirely through both walls as a “binder for other stones,” as Charles C. Hunt put it. Speculative Masonry provides the tools for an individual man to improve himself, with the blessings of the Great Architect of the Universe, and thus enhance the spiritual and moral structures of today’s society. He is no longer just an individual; taking the form of a Perfect Ashlar he serves a fundamental mission within the group.

There is a relationship between the Rough and Perfect Ashlars in the stone wall built by an Operative Mason: the integrity of the wall is partially based on the connections between the stones, with the Perfect Ashlars providing a binding force. An analogous form is seen in a social network. The individual nodes within the network inherently draw value depending on the relationships between one another. Social scientists use the term social capital to describe this value. Robert Putnam, a professor of political science at Harvard University, described the decline of social capital in a 1995 article in the Journal of Democracy. At its most basic level, social capital simply means that relationships matter. Putnam proposes that face-to-face social interactions build the trust necessary for a strong community. He writes:

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

Putnam goes on to claim that declining membership in civic organizations, like Freemasonry, reduces our social interactions and threatens to impact political institutions.

Masonry provides us with a wide range of opportunities for social discourse with a diverse group of men. Moreover, the principles of our Fraternity focus on many of the concerns highlighted in Putnam’s research: lack of civic engagement, social isolation, and declining support for government institutions. As a man progresses in Masonry and participates in all that our Brotherhood offers, he transforms himself from an isolated member of society into a binding force: he becomes a Perfect Ashlar and enriches the civic life of our nation.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Albert Pike and Ashlar Symbolism

Pike’s Analysis of the Ashlar as State

Albert Pike developed a unique interpretation of the Rough and Perfect Ashlars, especially from my personal perspective as an American Government teacher. He argues that the Rough Ashlar represents the people: a mass- disorganized and rude. The Perfect Ashlar, according to Pike, represents the State and the key characteristics which support it. In Pike’s analysis, the Ashlar takes the form of a cube.

As one looks at a cube, three faces are visible and three are hidden. The three visible faces of the cube, or Perfect Ashlar, represent the three departments of state, better known today as the three branches of government found in the first three Articles of the U.S. Constitution: the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches. The three faces of the cube which are not visible represent liberty, equality, and fraternity. In his book Morals and Dogma, Pike refers to the invisible faces as the “threefold soul of the state- its vitality, spirit, and intellect.”

Pike theorizes that a stable cube, and a stable state, require all six of these concepts. Moreover, it is the Mason’s duty, as a citizen, to apply his tools to the Ashlar in order to improve the state.

Pike’s interpretation corresponds with the historical and the conceptual nature of Freemasonry in eighteenth century America. Members of the Craft were leaders and active participants in early American political institutions. According to Allen E. Roberts, Freemasons include thirteen of the men who debated, wrote, and signed the U.S. Constitution, nine who signed the Declaration of Independence, and ten who drafted and signed the Articles of Confederation. The Continental Congress served as our first government from 1774 through 1789; four of its Presidents were Freemasons. Steven Bullock writes in his book, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the transformation of the American Social Order , 1730 - 1840, that " least 42 percent of the generals commissioned by the Continental Congress were or would become Freemasons." Bullock continues:

The impact of military Masonry, however, went beyond the officers' individual sensations. Fraternal ties among the officers helped create and sustain the sense of common purpose necessary for the survival of the Continental army- and thus the winning of the war.

Moreover, at a conceptual level, Freemasonry demands of its members civic involvement, dedication to community, and commitment to democratic government. Pike’s understanding of the Ashlar solidifies the relationship between our Fraternity and our responsibilities as citizens.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Symbolism of the Ashlars: Standard Interpretation

I’m working on a Masonic paper on the symbolism of the Rough and Perfect Ashlars, the first part of which is below. I'll review ten interpretations of these basic symbols including Albert Pike's view of the people and the State, the Ashlars and Robert Putnam's concept of social capital, numerology, and even a prediction of co-masonry! The first view is what I’ve labeled the standard interpretation. Comments are welcome!

The Ashlars represent the spiritual transformation of a man from his beginning in Masonry as an uneducated Entered Apprentice to a Master Mason who has lived a life consistent with the teachings of Masonry. Dr. Joseph Fort Newton, a minister, brother, and Iowan, explains that Rough Ashlars become Perfect Ashlars through the practices and principles of freemasonry. The comparison is between the stages of development unique to an individual Mason; Rough and Perfect are not relative terms distinguishing one man from another.

How does this individual transformation occur? William Preston in his Lectures writes that the change is bought about by a virtuous education, our own endeavors, and the blessing of God. Again, the emphasis is on the individual Mason improving himself rather than on a comparison to others. The Mason figuratively chips away at the rough edges of his moral character through the practices and principles of Masonry.

While this standard interpretation considers the Rough Ashlar to be man in a “rude and imperfect state by nature,” according to Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia, it’s important not to take such a figurative reference too far. Lawrence reminds us that “we do not admit absolutely rough and unhewn material into our lodges. Our working tools are not the pickaxe and drill.” A candidate must meet certain standards prior to his initiation. Stephen Dafoe in The Masonic Dictionary describes the Rough Ashlar:

It represents the candidate for membership in a Masonic Lodge. Such an applicant is not in his rude or natural state, neither ignorant, uncultivated or vicious. Masonry does not accept men of such qualifications. The applicant by education and perseverance has fitted himself as a respectable man in his community, assuming full responsibility as a citizen, a churchman and a member of his family.

This is significant because it reminds us that the candidate has inherent standards he brings with him to the Fraternity. To some extent, previous life experiences shape the candidate in the same way an operative mason in a quarry shapes a stone prior to its removal. The Rough Ashlar coming from the quarry must meet certain prerequisites or it is destined for the rubble pile.

The symbolism of the Perfect Ashlar may be similarly misunderstood. Brother Newton clarifies that the reference is not to a man without flaw, but rather to “...a finished Mason, a man who’s thought and conduct is upright, virtuous, and honest.” This requires perseverance, effort, and daily application of the principles of Masonry throughout a man’s life. The Fellow Craft degree introduces us to the seven liberal arts and sciences, which are mechanisms of both individual endeavor and virtuous education. The Iowa Systematic Enlightenment Course explains:

The Fellow Craft degree symbolizes the prime years of manhood and your attendant responsibility during your life on earth. During these years, you acquire knowledge and apply this knowledge to the building of your character and to improving the society in which you live. In the Ritual of the degree you, as Fellow Craft, are urged to advance your education in the liberal arts and sciences.

The study of the seven liberal arts and sciences is one way to develop a mind and spirit appropriate to the transformation from Rough to Perfect Ashlar. However, there are no academic prerequisites for the type of virtuous education one can experience in Freemasonry. Reading Greek is not required. H. L. Haywood, former editor for the National Masonic Research Society, writes about the importance of knowledge to a Mason:

How a man finds knowledge is a matter of comparative indifference; he may learn from books or he may never read a page; he may attend school or not; he may gain information by himself or from a master. That is for the man’s own choosing, and Masonry offers no recipe for an education. But enlightenment is a thing every Mason stands pledged to seek, and seek it he must if he is to be a Mason in fact as well as in name.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Christmas lists?

Chris Hodapp has a great story about book reviews over on his Freemasons for Dummies web page. James T. Tresner II discusses several excellent reading selections in the Scottish Rite Journal; the title of the article is Book Reviews: Enlightening Strikes and you can read the article on-line.

The list of suggested books comes from recommendations of Masonic Librarians around the country. I was pleased to find the suggestions of our own Librarian of the Library of the Grand Lodge of Iowa, Brother Bill Krueger. I was fortunate enough to spend some time in this library over the summer and Brother Krueger was welcoming and extremely helpful in guiding me.