by Christopher Hodapp
A new book about Freemasonry is getting a lot of positive coverage in the press. The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World by John Dickie was published several weeks ago in the United Kingdom, and was just officially released in the U.S. this week. My copy just hit the doorstep on Thursday. This is not a book review, because I haven't had a chance to read beyond the second chapter yet. But the press coverage of the book has been both curious and encouraging.
To answer a question that several brethren have asked, no, Mr. Dickie is not a Mason — his grandfather was, but he is not a Mason himself. He is a University College of London Professor of Italian studies, and the author of several books about the Italian Mafia, most notably, The Cosa Nostra (2005) and Blood Brotherhoods (2014). And from what I've read of The Craft so far, it is an ambitious history and survey of the fraternity around the world, told in an informal manner, with the author telling his own first-person experiences and thoughts throughout. It feels like a very personal book.
The English edition of The Craft got the far more eye-catching cover
In the English press, stories about Freemasons and the fraternity are all too frequently told from a sneering point of view, laden with giggly references to 'dodgy handshakes and rolled-up trouser legs', usually coupled with accusations of improper (and sometimes criminal) activities and beliefs, and almost always including an unrelated, lurid anti-Masonic accusation from the past, just to add 'background.' The word 'sinister' is almost a requirement. The fraternity is uniformly treated as both comically useless AND darkly nefarious and powerful, which is a tough balancing act to make a case for. In other words, finding a dispassionate or even respectful article about the Masons in an English newspaper or TV news network is like stumbling across a unicorn grazing in your garden with a leprechaun on his back. That was why UGLE Grand Secretary David Staples started the #EnoughIsEnough campaign last year, to combat the problem.
Consequently, Professor John Dickie's new book has been almost uniformly greeted there with what seems like astonishment by English reviewers that the author found the fraternity to be both honorable and worthy of respect.
"The Craft is a superb book that often reads like an adventure novel. It’s informative, fascinating and often very funny. Dickie, a professor of Italian studies at University College London, recounts the history of freemasonry by breaking it down into beautifully written stories rooted in places crucial to the organisation. The depth of research is awe-inspiring, but what really makes this book is the author’s visceral understanding of what constitutes a good story..."The Times also had a separate review by Dominic Sandbrook:
"Despite being a Cowan, as masons call non-members, I enjoyed this book enormously. Dickie’s gaze is both wide and penetrating; he is just as good on black American Freemasons, whose ranks include the basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, as he is on the intricacies of French or Italian masonry. He makes a persuasive case for masonry’s historic importance, from its Enlightenment origins to its influence on the mafia, Mormonism and the Ku Klux Klan, all of which copied its rituals. He treats the conspiracy theories about masonic influence in the British police with commendably withering scorn, lamenting that “such stories regularly make it past the bullshit detectors of reputable newspapers”. And, most refreshingly, he makes masonry sound like an entirely sane, reasonable way to spend your time.
"For all the jokes about handshakes and rolled-up trouser legs, masonic rituals are no stranger than the traditions of the football crowd. And at the heart of the Craft, Dickie thinks, lies something much more powerful than orgies or devil worship: community."Reviewer Dominic Greene in The Spectator likewise greeted the book with accolades:
"The Craft is a shadow history of modernity. Though more sober than most lodge meetings, it is, like its subject, ingenious and frequently bizarre. Freemasonry, John Dickie argues, is one of Britain’s ‘most successful exports’, along with other club activities such as tennis, soccer and golf. It is ‘a fellowship of men, and men alone, who are bound by oaths to a method of self-betterment’. If this ideal of tolerant fraternity sounds modern — the absence of women aside — it is because it is."He goes into much greater detail about the book's contents (DeGroot's seems more like he skimmed the book and relied on the press release for his, but I've since been told that his was severely edited down for publication). Greene's final take on it is:
"The Craft is well-crafted and sensible, making good use of English archives which have only recently been opened. By offering a new way of socialising, freemasonry laid the foundation of our commercial society, providing a sense of purpose to its practitioners — but also to its enemies, who confuse it with their own fantasies of power. ‘I am utterly opposed to it and to the influence of other secret organisations, because I believe them to be deeply corrupting,’ a Labour backbencher told the Commons in 1988. Who was that brave speaker of truth to power? Jeremy Corbyn."Dickie himself was given a substantial space to write about the Masons and his book in the Daily Express. And in the BBC History Magazine, Dickie was interviewed by Ellie Cawthorne, and he addresses the problem of lurid press coverage.
“In Britain, I think there are two competing stories that dominate discussions of Freemasonry. On the one hand, they appear in the public imagination as a shady organization with something to hide. And this is what fuels the newspaper coverage they get—outlandish stories in which they are responsible for cover-ups of the sinking of the Titanic, or the Hillsborough disaster. People put two Freemasons in a row and make a conspiracy. Counter to that runs the Freemasons’ own narrative of their history, one of a noble, honorable tradition of brotherhood and altruism. This, admittedly, is much more dull. But somewhere in between these two stories is a vast, untapped world of extraordinary tales about what Freemasonry has meant to people, about the things it has got involved in and the paranoia that Freemasons have generated throughout their history, and also how Freemasonry has been hugely historically important.”On this side of the Atlantic, he was also featured in Time Magazine last week, writing 'What the Freemasons Taught the World About Secrecy.' And now that the U.S. release has officially kicked off, he just received a positive review by Alex Beam in the Wall Street Journal today.
I gotta get the number of this guy's publicist.
Any time there is positive buzz about the fraternity on a large scale, there are opportunities for us to tell our own story and answer the queries of the public. So I'm reading his book as quickly as I can.
Also in my stack of summer books is History of Esoteric and Anagogic Doctrines by Turkish Freemason Cihangir Gener. Brother Kenan Kolday was kind enough to drop a copy by the house a couple of months ago, and I have been remiss in getting to it before now. If you regard yourself as a more esoteric-minded Mason, interested in philosophy, ritual, symbolism, the origin of ideas and the merging of the physical with the spiritual, this book will provide you with much to absorb and ponder.
Brother Gener has written an extremely thoughtful and complex work that examines common esoteric threads of monotheistic beliefs and religions and how those concepts enhance - not conflict - with rational thought and the Age of Reason. That's the simplistic summary. The book is religious, mythological, historical, philosophical, scientific. It is partially encyclopedic, partially speculative, and all thought-provoking. Gener himself says that he set out to frame the theory of quantum physics among thousands of years of esoteric doctrine.
My thumbnail sketch does not do such a complicated and detailed work justice. I am still slowly working through it, but I wanted to mention it here because I haven't been timely about it. My understanding is that this book is used as a text in several Turkish universities, and it has been published and revised several times there. This is a new English translation of the book, and it is available from Amazon.