I graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Minor in Philosophy in 1995. As a philosophy student, I was particularly drawn to Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus and Kierkegaard. At the time, I was also wrestling with my ideas of faith, and belief in God. Ultimately, I made what Kierkegaard calls, The Leap of Faith. You can see my recent article on Atheism for what caused my leap HERE
The reason I bring all of this up is due to an article I read today regarding Camus and his seminal philosophical work, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. In it, Camus deals with the question of the absurd. The absurd, philosophically, is the conflict between the human tendency to seek value and meaning in life and the inability to find any. What struck me reading the article today is that how much of what Camus struggles with is addressed in Freemasonry, and how while Sisyphus might be posited as the Absurd Hero by Camus, I see him as a Masonic allegory. I’ll get to this in a second.
For those of you who don’t know, Sisyphus was according to Homer, one of the wisest and most prudent of mortals. Sisyphus asks his wife that upon his death, that she cast his unburied body into the town square. Sisyphus dies and wakes up in the underworld to find out that she has indeed fulfilled his request. He is angered that she did not bury him with love to his memory but rather followed his word. He asks Hades to return him to the world of the living so that he can scold his wife for her choice. Sisyphus decides upon his return to the mortal world that he does not want to go back to the underworld. He falls in love with the natural world. He disobeys Hades and does not return. Hermes captures him and returns him to the underworld. He is sentenced to carrying or pushing a massive boulder up a mountain. Once he reached the top of the mountain, the boulder would roll back down the mountain. Sisyphus would then march down the mountain to start the task again. This would happen for all of eternity.
In order to understand Camus, we have to understand what he was interested in. In his own words, he is cited by Michel Onfray in L'Ordre libertaire:La vie philosophique d'Albert Camus as saying: “I am not a philosopher. I do not believe enough in reason to believe in any system. What interests me is how a man can carry on when he doesn’t have faith in God or in reason.” For Camus, there is only one question in Philosophy that matters, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." For him, suicide amounts to a confession that life is not worth living. This confession leads to the “feeling of absurdity”. The feeling of absurdity is his realization as defined above, the human tendency to seek meaning in life and the inability to find any. Ultimately, Camus associates the feeling with absurdity with the feeling of exile. He wonders how we can exist when there is really no reason to continue to exist. He suggests that we have two possible outcomes to this question, hope or suicide. But that there are plenty of contradictions between people’s answer to the question and their actions. There are people that commit suicide because they feel that there is no meaning to life, or that their life is too painful for them to be able to continue living it. There are also people that kill because they feel there is no meaning to life, or that their life is too painful and they want to make other’s life painful as well. Hope nullifies the belief that there is no meaning to life, by means of blind faith.
Camus is interested in trying to find a third alternative, somewhere outside of rational philosophy which he rejects. He also discusses how philosophers in general try to transcend or refute the idea of the absurdity of life. When they do this, he argues that they commit ‘Philosophical Suicide’. Camus goes on to identify a concept of an absurd man. The absurd man acknowledges that there are three consequences of trying to live with the absurd: revolt, freedom, and passion. He suggests that in order to deal with the absurd, that we live life to its fullest, remaining aware that we are by birth condemned to die. His idea of revolt, is that we must with every breath deny the notion that we must die. He also defines his idea of freedom. He discusses how our idea of freedom, that we are free to make our own decisions and define ourselves by our actions, is wrong. He argues that by doing so, we confine ourselves to living out certain roles. That if we see ourselves as the Good Father, employee, citizen, that our actions will be guided by this self-image. This idea of freedom is a metaphysical one: it claims that the universe allows us to choose our own destiny. For Camus, the absurd man can only experience freedom by taking each moment of life as it comes, free of the trappings of a preconception of what our role should be. The absurd man also abandons any notion of values. If there is no meaning to anything we do, there is no reason to make one choice over another. Since we eliminate the idea of the quality of our experiences, we have to apply a standard of quantity. This quantity is what he calls passion. A person that is aware of every passing moment will have a greater depth of experience than someone who is otherwise living to perform a role.
Camus then goes into some case studies regarding the Absurd Man and how to be creative in an absurd world. They are basically illustrations of the points above, so in order to move on to his ideas regarding the Myth of Sisyphus, I will skip them. However, if you want to see how the ideas play out, I’d suggest picking up a copy of The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus identifies Sisyphus as the absurd hero, because of his behavior on earth and for his punishment in the underworld. What Camus is most interested in is Sisyphus’s thoughts at the moment when the rock rolls down the mountain. As he marches back down the mountain, he his conscious of the absurdity of his fate. He understands that his fate is tragic as he understands it and that there will be no parole. He is heroic, according to Camus, because of the lucidity of this understanding. He thinks that Sisyphus might also have joy in approaching this task. He only would have moments of sorrow when he reflects on the material world. When Sisyphus accepts his fate, the feelings of sorrow vanish. Camus thinks that by acknowledging his hopeless fate, he renders it less hopeless. Camus states that “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn”. Happiness and the absurd are linked by the acknowledgement that our world and our fate is our own, that there is no hope and our life is what we make of it. He concludes that as Sisyphus makes his descent, one must imagine Sisyphus as being happy.
Although Camus would think that Freemasonry would be a way of dealing with the idea of the absurdity of life by means of blind faith, I still see some parallels that can be drawn regarding Sisyphus and Freemasonry. First and foremost, I find the idea that Sisyphus is essentially a worker with stone, albeit in the underworld and for all eternity fascinating. Essentially, the boulder that Sisyphus pushes uphill can be thought of as being a rough ashlar. The boulder being in its rude and natural state. However, over eternity, by the mere work of friction, one would think that the boulder would transform into a smooth boulder, which is more easily pushed uphill (and roll downhill). The perfect ashlar, is that state of perfection that we as Masons hope to arrive by a virtuous education, our own endeavors and the blessing of God. However, as Camus imagines Sisyphus happy by the scorning and acknowledgement of his fate, I imagine Sisyphus as the perfect metaphor for one’s life as a Mason. Only through hard work and determination, can a Mason transform the rough ashlar into a perfect one.
In operative Masonry, the rough ashlar is only made into the perfect one by the use of one of the working tools, the gavel. The gavel is used by Freemasons of divesting our hearts and consciences of the vices and superfluities of life. We use it fit our minds, as living stones, for the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. How do we then transform our minds? By Masonic Education. But what is Masonic Education? There seem to be many definitions, and none of them seem to agree with one another.
Some older members of the fraternity would seem to think that Masonic Education only consists of floor work and ritual. Masonic Education is anything outside of the realm of Instruction, although traditionally it would mean the teaching of the exoteric and esoteric meanings of our Symbols, Philosophy, History and its Objectives. I would argue that while important, the floor work and ritual are taught at Schools of Instruction. There is a semantic different between instruction and education. Instruction is to teach, while education is to educate. My argument being, that when you are instructed to do something, you make it a habit. To use the metaphor of Sisyphus, it can be thought of as the time during which he is rolling the boulder up hill. Instruction is a one way street, directions are given to you, and you are expected to follow those directions. Education, however is a dialogue. It may be an internal or external dialogue, but there is information that is given, processed and digested. IE: when Sisyphus is walking back down the hill, engaged in his debate with himself regarding his fate.
I take the broad view of Masonic Education. As we state our purpose is to take good men and make them better, I see anything that helps in that process as being Masonic Education. One of the Lodges that I belong to, Homer Lodge #199 Illinois AF&AM, has taken this view of Education to heart. In the past six months, alone we’ve had the following Education:
1. The Mayor of Homer, Ray Cunningham, has been to North Korea several times. He shared his experiences and his pictures at our May Stated Meeting.
2. At our April Stated Meeting, we had the local daughters of the American Revolution chapter do a flag presentation, where the members and guest learned about the History of some of the historic American and State of Illinois flags.
3. At our March Stated Meeting, fellow Midnight Freemason Greg Knott, gave a presentation about Arlington National Cemetery and the Masonic connections there.
4. At our February Stated Meeting, I gave a presentation about the Masonic and Boy Scout connections regarding the Fleur De Lis.
5. At our January Stated Meeting, Midnight Freemason Founder Todd E. Creason gave a presentation called Freemasonry: The next three hundred years.
6. At our December Stated Meeting, RWB Raymond Cummings gave a presentation regarding Roslyn Chapel, sharing his experiences and pictures of his visit there.
One of the things that we do at Homer is that we allow guests in (by going to refreshment) after our opening, and then go back to Labor after the education takes place. When there are no guests, but only Masons in attendance, we open and go directly to our education. By making Education the focus of our meetings, we’ve made our meetings more interesting for our members. We’ve also been able to recruit some members along the way. By taking the focus away from the business aspects of our meetings, we have changed the way that our members view Education. Of course it helps to have two other midnight freemasons in the lodge with me. Our lodge is so well regarded in terms of Education that I recently was appointed to the Officer of District Education Officer for the 7thEastern District in Illinois, and Todd E. Creason is soon to be Area Education Officer for the Eastern Area. (He may already have his appointment).
My point is that Education shouldn’t be thought of like Sisyphus’s toil uphill with the boulder. It should be viewed as that respite during which Sisyphus travels downhill. Education can be anything you want it to be. As the incoming Worshipful Master of Homer #199, I plan on continuing our legacy of educational excellence. It’s not that hard to become like Homer. Talk to your Lodge, District or Area Education Officer if you’re finding it to be an uphill battle. It really shouldn’t be. If you’re ever at a loss for Masonic educational pieces, I would suggest looking on Youtube at the Masonic Minute series put together by fellow Midnight Freemason Steve Harrison. These pieces are perfect educational pieces for a busy lodge and short attention spans. But that is just one suggestion. All I’m saying is that when you implement Masonic Education, even Camus might imagine you as happy, which is high praise coming from him.