"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Friday, December 30, 2016

Art de Hoyos: Is Freemasonry Esoteric?

My friend, Illus. Arturo de Hoyos, posted a thought-provoking message on the subject of esotericism in Freemasonry on his Facebook page last January. As the year winds to a close, I think it deserves a little more circulation in a place that doesn't just vanish the way that service's posts notoriously do. Things tend to come and go in the torrential flood of daily clutter on Facebook, never to be found again, and that is a damn shame because it has sadly replaced far more accessible and organized platforms. I only re-stumbled into this particular message by complete accident.

So, here is Art's post:

“Esotericism is a Matter of Degrees” by Art de Hoyos

Is Freemasonry esoteric, or not? The short answer is “Yes, no, maybe.” Esotericism is any topic “intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.” This certainly applies to Masonry. But on a deeper level, and in a Masonic context, it’s usually taken to mean that our ceremonies and rituals allude to realities and/or truths not generally understood, or which may have a spiritual component to them.

The term is tainted to some people, and acceptable to others; hence, it may not be easy to wholly accept or discard the term ‘esoteric Masonry.’ Like an onion, each ‘esoteric’ layer successively builds upon the other. We can all agree that Masonry is intended to be understood by few, and that it’s a kind of specialized knowledge.

But the question is what kind of specialized knowledge, and are they real “secrets?” Depending upon one’s inclinations, the Master Mason Degree has been interpreted in a variety of different ways by different persons. For some, it’s a story of fidelity; for others, it teaches hope in the immortality of the soul; for still others, it’s a lesson in alchemy; and yet for still others, it alludes to the discovery of entheogens. Some see it as multi-faceted, or a combination of various things. But, as I wrote in my post “The Private Epiphany,” we should avoid trying to enshrine our interpretations as the “true” one.

Since 1717 there have been over 1000 ‘Masonic’ degrees created. The most popular survived and are included in many of the Rites, Orders, Systems we know today. Like a meal, each degree is only as good as its creator. The recipe may include many of the same ingredients as other meals, yet taste completely different. By analogy, we may see many of the same “ingredients” (features) in a number of degrees which teach completely different things. The predilections of a degree’s author affect the content as much as the taste-buds of a chef. The ‘flavor’ of the foundational Craft Degrees in various rites, orders and systems (Webb working, Scottish Rite, York Rite, Swedish Rite, R.E.R., etc.), differs immensely, and in the ‘higher degrees,’ the differences are even more dramatic and pronounced: some are philosophical, others practical; some present allegory, and others offer discourses on symbolism or (quasi-)historical themes. In something like the Scottish Rite, the same degree may have dramatically different rituals, depending upon the jurisdiction (compare, for example the 20th degree in the SJ and NMJ – they are *nothing* alike).

But, when someone describes himself as an ‘esoteric Mason,’ it quite often means someone who sees, and embraces, what appears to be aspects of the ‘Western Esoteric Tradition’ in our rituals; i.e., some affinity to the symbolism of Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, etc.

Freemasonry is an eclectic organization and, at various times, we have borrowed the language and symbols of these and other traditions. The question is, do our rituals really teach these things as ‘realities’ or we use them to stimulate thought—or both? We are repeatedly told not to mistake a symbol for the thing symbolized. In some cases, I believe that is what has happened, while in others, I believe we do indeed have vestiges of other traditions. But even when they are there, they may be only one layer thick on our Masonic onion.

The problem is twofold: some deny any esoteric influences at all (or assert they are just used symbolically), while others claim it’s the main part of the onion. If the matter is open to interpretation (not defined by the ritual itself), who has the “right” to decide?
This much we know: many of Freemasonry’s symbols were used before the modern fraternity existed (1717), and appeared in a variety of books. Some were educational and philosophical (such as the “Choice Emblems”), others were indeed Hermetic (such as Alchemical texts). As I said, we’re an eclectic organization. How many times have you seen the Square and Compasses or All-Seeing Eye used and abused in Hollywood and elsewhere because it looks ‘cool’? Well, I’m willing to bet that at least some of our symbols migrated into the fraternity the same way. An unknown degree maker, in the 1700’s, saw something that looked cool, and dropped it into the ritual. Not necessarily bad, but 225 years later his personal predilection turns into a debate.

Certainly, there are clear examples of “borrowings” from “esoteric” texts. For example, I am aware of an older version (early 1800s) of a Scottish Rite degree which includes a large portion extracted from Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia (1531-33). If asked if that degree was ‘esoteric’ I would say ‘yes,’ while to its counterpart in a later version or in another Supreme Council, I would say, “no.”

My point is to quit quibbling over such things, and find the common ground where we “can best work and best agree.” If esotericism interests you, that’s fine; if not, that’s also fine. My personal library is well-stocked with enough material on both sides to make anyone think and in favor of, or against, any position.

The important thing is to be well-educated, and understand what we know first. Before you reach for the stars, make sure your feet are firmly planted on the ground. Make yourself into someone who can be taken seriously. Learn the facts about our origins based upon what we know.

I sometimes speak about “historical records” versus “hysterical documents.” Before you buy into such fantasies as “Freemasonry descended from the ancient Egyptians,” get a quick education. Here are three books to give you a reality check: 

Harry Carr, World of Freemasonry
Bernard E. Jones, Freemasons Guide and Compendium 
David Stevenson, The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century 1590–1710 

When you can speak intelligently about the Old Charges (Gothic Consitutions), early Freemasonry in Scotland, the formation of the first Grand Lodge, and how and when the degrees developed, people may be inclined to listen to you, when you start to talk about more exotic things.

Educate yourself well enough to argue both sides of the argument.

Take due notice thereof and govern yourselves accordingly.


  1. As Stevenson implies, our thoughts on the esoteric core of Freemasonry must focus on what Schaw meant by the "Art of Memory". If there are answers, they are probably buried in key elements of our ritual, which we are pledged never to divulge. For a mason and historian, it's a dilemma.

  2. Freemasonry is definitely Esoteric. I would argue that for a Mason to say "all men are brothers" and really try to live that realization is 100% esoteric. It sounds simple on the surface but try applying it to all outside the confines of the Lodge.

    I am not against Traditional Observance (T.O) Lodges or Co-Masonic Lodges but I do think the T.O. movement in the U.S. And regular Masons changing their Masonic allegiance to join Co-Masonic Lodges is/was partly the result of a growing number of Masons who were disappointed with the esoteric interest, or lack thereof, found within their Craft Blue Lodges.

    Common complaints were long boring business meetings, gossip, too much emphasis on titles/office progression, too much emphasis on public charity events, and stale donuts served with terrible coffee.

    Esoteric Freemasonry starts in the Craft Blue Lodge with the realization that "all men are brothers" and within the Holy Royal Arch on the nature of Deity. All Master Masons go through an esoteric process but not all Masons become (or want to become) esoteric students.

    The way to overcome the above complaints is for Craft Blue Lodges to place more emphasis on Masonic education and for Craft leadership to really ENGAGE their membership. Find out what your individual members are interested in and familiarize yourselves with some of the main esoteric concepts related to Freemasonry. A good place to start is by reading the book, "Know Thyself: using the symbols of Freemasonry to improve your life", by Brother Michael Schiavello.

  3. If initiatory organizations have infrastructure, they have tradition. A community is created with single mindless and yet vast diversity. We only belief whst we know through the limited view of the senses. And yet, the inner self seems to exist as a vast repository of knowledge. Can we tap into its potential. If so, is the guidance given truth and correct? Regardless of esoteric fact, we are going to create ourself as a unique Mason. Perhaps the discussion is more about how we become better with tradition application of a symbol. Like all tools,they are helpful to ultimately building the finished product. I have found masonry accomplishes the initiatory task, regardless.

  4. I think the notion of esotericism can really be explored well through education. But the key is in finding how to introduce it and teach it.

    I'm currently the Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Council of Royal & Select Masters of South Carolina, and I've been pondering my focus as I take the helm in the Spring. I'm feeling very passionate about forgoing the traditional rhetoric of "bringing in new members, chatting NPDs, and promoting the charities", and instead really emphasizing the need to improve the meeting experience in order to excite and increase the interest of existing members.

    What really is the point of a meeting where all you do is open, read minutes, pay bills, and close. The problem really isn't in our numbers, but in participation. 200 members on the roll, and not enough show up to legally open a meeting--that's the problem I want to try to address.

  5. Having been on an esoteric learning path, and becoming a Rosicrucian and Theosophist, I can point to parts of our rituals, and symbols, that are included in the Mystery systems. For me this is undeniable evidence that the geniuses that composed the ritual were certainly learned in that area. I think they wanted the seekers of truth to find more knowledge regarding these. Excuse me if I punt my book here but it has answers to what I have just mentioned which, when read, may change many people's outlook on the craft. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1530667917/sr=1-14/qid=1460998849/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me=&qid=1460998849&sr=1-14

  6. Brother Arturo as always, speaks eruditely and with measured, yet humble authority. The (artificial) polarization and false dichotomy, that I've witnessed within the Craft since 2006, is astounding given our ethos. Those in their "missile-chipped, pock-marked ramparts" decry one extreme or another. They are seemingly incapable of considering that nothing is more esoteric than to serve others by submitting one's own ego in support of one's fellow man or Brethren for a greater cause, whether that be washing dishes after a fish-fry or dressing up like a clown to bring smiles to the faces of disease-racked children. Nor on the other end of the spectrum, admit that without the mystical and philosophical trappings, Masonry would just be another Lion's club. It would seem logical (if one has any amount of experience in the oft-lauded mystical traditions alleged to be the fount of Masonic ritual) that a life of service and philosophy put int actual practice is the ultimate expression of spiritual attainment and enlightenment. How obtuse are those with the hubris to sneer at those who find fulfillment in the "dull" business meetings and charitable events, when if they really read and understood the multitude of books (shown proudly in their private libraries, and on display via social media), that "before one reaches enlightenment they must toil in the rock quarries, and after enlightenment must likewise earn their wages."


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