FREEMASONRY AND STOICISM
One of the first impressions I had of Freemasonry shortly after being initiated and doing some research was that Freemasonry means different things to different people: for some it is merely a fraternal, social club for others a charity, for some a social and political platform, for others an esoteric pursuit linked to the Western Mystery tradition and yet for others a spiritual and / or philosophical athenaeum. The fact that Freemasonry lacks any dogmas and operates through the realm of the symbol means that it possesses a fluidity that allows for multiple interpretations. Whereas I respect and appreciate the social and charitable aspects of Freemasonry my main interest in the topic is spiritual and philosophical as well as esoteric. I am extremely interested in Freemasonry’s interaction, as an institution, with many other ideas and narratives such as its relationship with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French and American Revolutions, the social reforms of the 19thC, the British empire and, of course, with the Western Mystery tradition and the occult. It has been recently though, that I have found what in my opinion is one of the most practical and fascinating approaches to Freemasonry, namely seeing Freemasonry as the heir of Stoic philosophy. But before I proceed, I must make a quick proviso: I am referring to Stoic philosophy as the school of philosophy practised, among many others, by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epitectus and not to the more common and mainstream understanding of the word ‘stoical’ usually interpreted as exhibiting a stiff upper lip and avoiding the display of emotion.
So, what is Stoicism? In a nutshell it is a philosophical school which concerns itself with self mastery and practical wisdom. Stoic philosophy trains those who practise it to face adversity and control their reactions to what life throws up at them in the pursuit of living in accordance with the logos or universal reason. In the Stoic system, Logic therefore encompasses Ethics which in turn encompasses Physics.
It could be argued that Stoicism started in 304 BC when a trader called Zeno was shipwrecked and lost all his possessions. He met Crates the Cynic philosopher and in turn created what is now known as stoicism (the word derives from the stoa poikile which was a painted porch under which Zeno and his students would congregate and debate). Zeno’s ideas were followed by men of the calibre of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epitectus as mentioned above. One of the common ideas to all three main Stoic philosophers is the fact that our reaction to a problem is often worse than the problem itself and that we aggravate the latter by not being able to control the former. This is, by the way, one of the keystones of contemporary cognitive behavioural therapy which has been heavily influenced by Stoicism.
The Stoics also posit that we must concern ourselves only with those things which are under our sphere of influence, that we must love our fate (amor fati) because this is all we have and that we must also remember that life is short and that death awaits us all (memento mori). For the Stoics virtue is the highest achievement and the only real evil is moral evil.
The similarities with Freemasonry are striking: we are taught, as freemasons, to live within the boundaries of the compass and to act virtuously on the Square. We strive to transform the rough ashlar into the perfect cubic stone by use of the working tools. And like the Stoics we too believe in one God, transcendence or ordered cosmos (I dare say that atheist Freemasons are probably quite attracted to the Stoic ideal of universal reason). Furthermore, our third degree concerns itself with the topic of death as well as the afterlife depending on individual interpretations.
It all comes together in the Four Cardinal Virtues: in Stoicism these are Wisdom, Temperance, Courage and Justice. In Freemasonry there is a slight variation: Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance and Justice. Maybe one is being too simplistic but we could equate Prudence with Wisdom and Courage with Fortitude in this context.
Questions and answers from a Masonic lecture in Lancashire, England, dating to the end of the 18th century included the following:
Q: What do you furnish it with? A: The four Cardinal Virtues.
Q: What are they? A: Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude.
Q: How do you place them? A: justice in the East, Prudence in the West, Temperance in the South and Fortitude in the North.`
Justice, therefore, belongs to the East, to King Solomon’s Chair and the office of the Right Worshipful Master who presides over the ritual and the officers and represents the highest office in the lodge being closest to wisdom and knowledge of the divine. In Stoicism, Justice exemplifies the universal reason or Logos which permeates the Cosmos. Prudence (Wisdom in Stoicism) belongs to the West corner of the Masonic lodge and to the office of the Senior Warden who represents the column of Strength which resonates with Stoic teachings in that wisdom and not brute force represents real strength. Temperance is linked to the Junior Warden who sits in the south corner of the lodge representing the column of Beauty. For the Stoics, Temperance is the virtue of doing things in their right measure and I think we can agree that balance is one of the elements that characterise Beauty. The Secretary and Treasurer of the lodge typically sit in the North and there is no doubt that there is a great deal of Fortitude required to carry out these offices which require dedication and consistency but perhaps more importantly in the context of this essay it is the initiate who sits in the North East corner of the lodge after being initiated into the secrets and mysteries of Ancient Freemasonry. Fortitude according to the Stoics is the strengthening of the mind and will. In the words of Epitectus:
“He who is making progress, having learned from philosophers that desire means the desire of good things, and aversion means aversion from bad things; having learned too that happiness and tranquility are not attainable by man otherwise than by not failing to obtain what he desires, and not falling into that which he would avoid; such a man takes from himself desire altogether and defers it, but he employs his aversion only on things which are dependent on his will.”
Epictetus, Discourses, 1-4
To conclude, in my view, Freemasonry is therefore and among many other things a practical and contemporary system of Stoicism. It encourages order, balance and virtue. The Masonic motto of the 33rd Degree of the AASR, Ordo ab Chao can also be understood in Stoic terms as the perennial and endless search for order of man in the world.
Darren Lorente-Bull, Lodge Human Duty 6
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