Civility & Conscience
by Midnight Freemason Contributor
RWB Michael H. Shirley
At the most recent Annual Communication of the Grand Lodge of Illinois, A.F. & A.M., Brother Michael Swaney and I conducted the Wardens’ Leadership Seminar for about 200 Brethren. Given that Grand Master Tony Cracco’s has called for an emphasis on civility in person and (especially!) online, we decided that it would be good to use George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation as a teaching tool. Rules of Civility did not originate with Washington: most of them have been traced to a French etiquette manual written by Jesuits in 1595. Washington merely copied Francis Hawkins' 1640 translation as a handwriting exercise.
There are 110 rules, which is too many for a seminar, so we winnowed it down to those most applicable to Masonry. It’s the last one, number 110, that I want to talk about here: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” If anything matters to a Mason, it should be his conscience, for Masonry is the very act of putting our consciences to work in the world. We seek to be the best men we can be in all situations, to choose right over wrong whenever presented with the choice. Conscience tells us what’s right and wrong; if we don’t pay attention to it, we’ll stop being able to tell the difference, and that malformation will be visible in our conduct.
As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it, “Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows his true image.” Concern for correct behavior is not about outward appearances: it is about giving life to inner light. If our consciences are well formed by the principles of Freemasonry, our behavior will reflect those principles. Brother Washington, who lived his life according to his conscience, understood that. So may we all.