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.