Freemasonry (often simplified to “Masonry”) enhances and strengthens the character of the individual man by providing opportunities for fellowship, charity, education, and leadership based on the three ancient Masonic tenets: Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. We strive to “make good men better.”
The real object of Freemasonry, in a philosophical and religious sense, is the search for truth. This truth is, therefore, symbolized by the Word. From the first entrance of the Apprentice into the Lodge, until his reception of the highest degree, this search is continued. It is not always found and a substitute must sometimes be provided. Yet whatever be the labors he performs, whatever the ceremonies through which he passes, whatever the symbols in which he may be instructed, whatever the final reward he may obtain, the true end of all is the attainment of Truth.
This idea of truth is not the same as that expressed in the lecture of the First Degree, where Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth are there said to be the “three great tenets of a Mason’s profession.” In that connection, Truth, which is called a “Divine Attribute, the foundation of every virtue,” is synonymous with Sincerity, honesty of expression, and plain dealing. The higher idea of truth which pervades the whole Masonic system, and which is symbolized by the Word, is that which is properly expressed to a knowledge of God.
The first lesson we are taught in Freemasonry is to be good and true. For the stonemasons of old, it was necessary that the stones used in the building be made good and true. The stones had to be perfectly cut and polished so that they would fit together with precision and strength. If the stones were not good and true, the building would crumble and fall.
The rough ashlar is the stone as taken from the quarry in its rude and natural state. The fellowcraft or journeyman Mason used his working tools to square off the edges of the rough ashlar so that it would be a true perfect ashlar that would fit well with the other stones and support the building’s superstructure. The workmen had to complete “good work and true work” in order to receive their wages in the Middle Chamber.
Freemasons today are not engaged in building castles and cathedrals. They are engaged in building their own minds and characters, guided by the morals and ethics taught by the Craft. Men who are truthful, sincere, and honest in their dealings with other men are like the “good and true” stones—they provide the strength and integrity that brings harmony to everyday life.
The hypocrisy, cheating, and deceit we see today in political campaigns, government officials, corporation executives, among teachers and students, and even in our family lives have developed in our society in the last 40 years or so. There is a lack of trust in modern society. You can all think of examples from the mass media. The virtue of telling the truth and dealing honestly and openly with others should not be limited to our Brothers in the Craft. It is one of those great moral duties inculcated in the Lodge that we should practice out of the Lodge. We should always think twice before acting, so that our actions in life can measure up to our Masonic standards and we can be “good and true” men.
The meaning of Truth for Freemasons is not limited to being truthful. It also means that we should be searching for the Truth. Searching for the Truth is a journey; the destination of absolute Truth is always receding in the distance.
Man has searched for truth throughout the ages. Freedom and liberty for the individual, as embodied in the democratic and Masonic concepts of life, accelerate the great search today in this unsettled period of terrorism and political and social change.
Among the valiant champions of free and open discussion as an instrument for gaining truth has been John Stuart Mill, the 19th century English thinker and economist. He strongly defended the individual’s right to think and act for himself.
Now is a good time to examine Mill’s words. We live in a time when the safest course for many appears to be “security through conformity” and many people believe that our liberties are being threatened by large corporations or the government.
Mill avidly supported free and open debate. He believed that we should nothing for granted or at face value. He noted that all societies had traditions and stories full of general observations on what life is and how we should conduct ourselves in life. Everyone knows and repeats these observations. When we hear them spoken, we simply accept them uncritically. These ideas are never discussed because they are the “accepted” opinion of mankind. Today, we would call this “conventional wisdom.” On the whole, we do not challenge the conventional wisdom even when we do not understand it.
Mill wrote that the “fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors.” Mill believes that we would understand more about what we believe to be true, and therefore make better decisions on how to act, if we were able to hear the “conventional wisdom” argued pro and con by people who do understand the issues involved.
As Freemasons and seekers of truth, we should always be prepared to seek further and more complete information on such issues as the Public Schools than what we read in the mass media or on the Internet. Just because something appears in print or on the World Wide Web does not make it true. We should always be ready to seek further Light when making decisions that affect our families, our communities, and ourselves.
Well-informed Freemasons are well-informed citizens. We are charged to be exemplary in the discharge of our civil duties. Because we Freemasons are taught to challenge the “conventional wisdom,” and most people are not, a Freemason seeking truth can have great influence for good in the world by applying what he has learned in the Craft to his job, his family, and to how he evaluates issues and candidates when he goes the polls.
Mill was also concerned about the quality of debate and public discussion. In our era of negative political advertising, talk radio, and attack journalism, we could take many lessons from what Mill described as the real morality of public discussion.
Mill believed that the outcome of a discussion should be determined by the circumstances of the individual case. We should not deliberately misrepresent the views of the other side. We should condemn all participants in a discussion, no matter what side they are on, who use half-truths, falsehoods, and accusations of bigotry and intolerance to attack the other side. These tactics only cloud the issues and confuse both the debaters and their listeners. In fact, we should have the calmness to see and the honesty to state what our opponents’ opinions really are. We should not exaggerate their opinions to their discredit. And in fairness and courtesy, we should not withhold information that might support our opponents’ position.
These are the ground rules for a proper and civilized discussion. When these rules are followed in the “marketplace of ideas,” the only result can be further Light, as we come closer to Truth. These rules can be applied in the Halls of Congress, at City Council meetings, or even at a Lodge’s Stated Meeting! How many arguments and divisions in our Lodges could be avoided simply by a courteous and fair-minded search for the truth? Just think about the many State and local propositions we had to consider at the last election, and the political campaigns seeking to convince us how to vote. Try to imagine how different the campaigns and speeches would have been if the advocates on all sides had gone by Mill’s standard.
Our ritual teaches us that when guided by Truth, “hypocrisy and deceit are unknown among us, sincerity and plain-dealing distinguish us, and with heart and tongue we join in promoting each other’s welfare and rejoice in each other’s prosperity.” In other words, in a society governed by truthfulness, integrity, and civility in the search for Truth, individuals will come together to work to improve the quality of life for each other and their children. And they will be glad to see the success and achievements of each other as well, because the community is improved by each person’s individual success.
Truth creates harmony; Deceit creates discord and confusion. As Freemasons we have the responsibility to practice truth among ourselves, and with those in the society at large. Men join Masonry because of a favorable opinion conceived of the institution. It is up to us to set the example by how we act in our own dealings with family, friends, and strangers.