The Truth About Esoteric Masonry and Traditional Observance

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Robert H. Johnson


Traveling around to different lodges in the summer of 2018 has been amazing. I’ve presented at lodges all around the country, on a multitude of topics which are obviously things I am passionate about. American history, old ritual practices and even how to effectively market our lodges. But one topic comes up time and time again. Esoterica.

Whether it’s referred to as “Esoteric”, “Esoterica”, “Esoterism”, or maybe you go with Albert Pike and spell it with a “K”--“Esoterika”, the subject matter is hotly debated. Before we dive into this, lets just define the concept quickly. Esoteric literally means, “intended for or only understood by a few.”

Freemasonry is an Esoteric society by definition. If not, than the general public would have the ability to gain our insights and teachings, apply them and go off on their merry way. There are of course Masons who hold that the historical is truly the only part of Masonry worth studying, citing our history and where we came from as the focal points. Others will speak to the application of Masonic values as they relate to the here and now as the place we should set our sites. And still others, although more rare, will talk about the esoteric. Each category births a variety of mixtures. Chuck Dunning, author of “Contemplative Masonry”, recently wrote a nice article on the types of “Esoteric Masons” that exist. It’s definitely worth a read. Check it out HERE. The fact remains that Freemasonry has a set of concepts which it delivers through our plays on morality. On the surface, they convey some stark realities and hopeful futures, but the sub-context, the marrow if you will, can be said to go much deeper.

Yes, sometimes a sign is just a sign, but this in majority is contested by many of Masonry’s most famous authors and scholars. Masonry has this unique ability to attract those interested in various pursuits which we tend to accumulate under our umbrella. Charity, fellowship and yes, philosophy. Masonry makes good men better, or at least this is the aim. Many arguments regarding this statement have been written. A complete list would take up many pages. It will be suffice to say, that Masonry makes good men better through education. That education in the philosophical is what leads a good man to become those other qualities we value, like being charitable.

The Craft today is seen by its own members as a service society, a charity and a place where men learn together. When we ask how they learn, the responses articulate that by working together or through lodge projects, by speaking, by delivering lectures, and even learning discipline through ritual and floor work, will make a good man better. But when we take a step back, these qualities are really nothing we can’t learn anywhere else. Boy Scouts, Toastmasters, Lions, Elk, Moose, Rotary, the military. The list goes on.

When I initially penned one of my first presentations called Esoterics 101, it was designed specifically for a lodge whose members had no clue about what the word [Esoteric] was or what it meant. It’s still hard for me to believe that we have members who are daft to the concept, members who don’t understand the spiritual underpinnings of what we do in ritual.

I am frequently contacted by younger members, usually those who have been Master Masons for a year or less and who’ve been elected or appointed to be a Lodge Education Officer. They’re very interested in the esoteric side of Masonry and want me to come out to present the Esoterics 101 keynote. The reason? So that the other members of their lodge will understand the concept or that my presentation will validate the new members interests on the topic.

At these presentations, typically what I see are members who’ve been in the lodge for years and who feel like all this education is just a fad for the new kids, there are exceptions of course. I’ll present and get no questions except for the few who wanted to have me out. Some even retire for coffee midway through the presentation. It doesn’t hurt my feelings, but I’ll tell you what it does do. It makes the guys who organized the education night feel like no one cares, like their fulfillment doesn't matter. Education is the reason Masonry exists. Full stop.

Reality check: Come down from the clouds, put the Eliphas Levi and Manly P. Hall books back on the shelf for just a moment and admit it, that there is no esoteric side to Masonry.

Masonry is completely esoteric, all sides. It was designed to be esoteric at its inception thanks to those renaissance and enlightenment thinkers. The vision unfortunately, was not protected and it did not last. It is no longer the reality.

If our forefathers from the renaissance, and later the enlightenment era hadn’t injected the money, power and influence into the guild system, we’d have no Freemasonry today. Not like it’s practiced anyway. You’d have a union. That’s it.

The more we critically analyze the state of the Craft today, the more we truly see it for what it is. We’ve made a significant departure from the secondary intent which begat the current organization. The lion’s share of lodges promise something that we don’t ever fully deliver. We gather, we take an oath, we eat together, we agree to take care of our widows and orphans. In this, we are by definition, more Traditional Observant of original Masonry than any lodge that bares the moniker today.

To be truly observant, to look, to practice and abide by standards of Traditional Masonry, would require us to practice as they did in antiquity. --as in the guild system. Traditional is defined as, “long established”. That original system is in fact much more long established than anything we propose to be in todays standards. And when we look at how we operate right now, it’s a modern equivalent.

In truth, the TO, or Traditional Observant Lodges that speckle the landscape of Masonry are affinity lodges. These are lodges that practice the idealized version of Masonry many are or were looking for. Lodges that ask it’s members to have standards of practice, dress, mandatory attendance, higher dues in order to be solvent in today’s economy and above all, provide a meaningful Masonic experience. For by in large part, these are lodges that have been designed to be fulfilling for a specific kind of member, many of whom are what we would label esoteric.

Again, looking at Masonry today and from afar, we see a single color. A swatch of beige. It’s a social organization with charities and fellowship, unified by a belief (in most cases) in deity and who’ve all experienced (for all intents and purposes) the same thing. In practice, the overwhelming majority of lodges operate without true education--without esoteric understanding. When we read articles that state, as I have above, that Masonry is esoteric, we might do some real thinking. Looking at the landscape of Masonry today, we reflect on the reality of the situation and that I would consider a hard-to-swallow fact. Saying that Masonry is esoteric is false quip, because it doesn’t reflect reality.

As it exists Masonry is not Esoteric. It is a wonderful club which brings together members who, because of common interests, sometimes form additional groups or even lodges which focus on a topic of interest. Thus we have appendant bodies or Craft affinity lodges: Traditional Observant, Past Master, Military, pick a flavor.

The varied styles of Masonry which exist are actually a danger to it’s very survival. Not only does it prove to make the Masonic fraternity bland, it puts the Craft in a rather precarious place, one of comfort, safety and complacency. I once wrote about the old greasy spoon restaurants that we tend to find in our towns. Places that have everything on the menu, but nothing great. It’s the place you go when you’re looking for something good, cheap and to be honest, what you’d expect--a safety blanket of sorts. No surprises. No variety. No growth.

What Masonry needs is the challenge, to get rid of the old axiom, “Masonry is many things to many people”. Masonry is one thing, it is education. We need to embrace this at all costs. By picking one thing to focus on, our skill in it becomes greater and by proxy, so does the caliber of it’s men.

Many of us are in the quarries today, building, cutting measuring--trying to make the craft better, to raise it to the lofty heights we were told it sat. Is it so bad that we want it to be what we expected it to be? To be a place where there is equal emphasis on the education, fellowship and charity? The sad truth is of course, that while we all work for the change, we likely won’t see the true impact of what we’ve done. Our children’s children might, but we won’t.

One of my best friends and Brothers, is a luthier. That’s a violin maker, restorer, repairman. He makes wonderful pieces of art, pieces that sing like nothing you could imagine. I asked him once, “What you do is so amazing. It takes both skill, craftsmanship and yet, is somehow still artistic. How do you get on top and be the best? How do you become the luthier that people talk about?”
Spencer, took a breath and said, “Well, that’s the thing. You don’t. Every piece I work on has a mark. Long after I’m dead, maybe people will see my works and rave about them the way people rave about the 300 year old violins today. I can only leave a mark in the industry. Small influences. People might not know or care about the work today, but in 100 years or more, they’ll know my name.”

And so it will be for us, brothers. As we work in the Craft today, we make the small marks. Every time we make something a little more meaningful. Everytime we operate within our rules but add value to some part of the degree experience, we raise the bar. Everytime we set a standard, we raise the expectation. Everytime we do something that’s impressive in the presence of a new Entered Apprentice, it will impress upon them that what they just witnessed is the standard. The above and beyond efforts of today become the standards of tomorrow. Just think about the Masonry in 200 years. If we decide to go in a singular direction, we’ll make that difference. If the status quo is maintained, you’ll find yourself on a horse galloping down the beach, and George, you might not like what you find.




~RHJ

RWB, Robert Johnson is the Managing Editor of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He is a Freemason out of the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. He currently serves as the Secretary of Waukegan Lodge No. 78 where he is a Past Master. He is also a Past District Deputy for the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. Brother Johnson currently produces and hosts weekly Podcasts (internet radio programs) Whence Came You? & Masonic Radio Theatre which focus on topics relating to Freemasonry. He is also a co-host of The Masonic Roundtable, a Masonic talk show. He is a husband and father of four, works full time in the executive medical industry and is also an avid home brewer. He is the co-author of "It's Business Time - Adapting a Corporate Path for Freemasonry" and is currently working on a book of Masonic essays and one on Occult Anatomy to be released soon.

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