I will focus on the degree of Apprentice as it gives the most direct tools of understanding this feeling of dread and interpreting it through a stoic mindset. The first part of this is not often used in many jurisdictions, but its importance cannot be overstated--the chamber of reflection. This tradition arose in German lodges for existential meditations. The focal point for the chamber of reflection, as well as many other higher degrees and orders, is the skull, a reminder of the fragility of life. It is a reminder of the fact that our existence is limited in time. Through death, we are reminded of why life is so precious. Because we too, like everything else in life, must pass. There is no escape nor avoidance. We will die.
To the uninitiated, this bleak dread can turn one to fill that void with a hedonistic lifestyle, seeking a consumerist satisfaction, or ruthless service to one’s sense of superiority. But like many at home right now, all the Netflix, Amazon deliveries and angry political posting won’t distract you from the genuine fact that your experience will end. Even worse, others turn to nihilism, finding no purpose in their experience. This is where Masonic truths give relief because the lessons of the Apprentice are connected to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.
Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue is based on knowledge devised from reason; the wise live in harmony with the divine Providence--the divine force that governs nature and the fate of all men. Stoicism teaches one to be indifferent to the vicissitudes of pleasure and pain. The Stoics claim many influential philosophers, including Epictetus, Seneca, and even Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics viewed death as a natural succession to life that cannot be denied. But it can be utilized as a great motivator in life. Stoics believed that through our actions, we are given the opportunity to live what the Stoics referred to as a virtuous life.
The Stoics defined virtue within four characteristics, known as the Four Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism. Sound familiar? It should because Stoicism alongside Aristotelian ethics are the major founding approaches to Western virtue ethics. Prudence, the innate wisdom we possess. Justice, our ability to be moral in our actions. Temperance, our self-control over our actions, and Fortitude, being courageous in the face of life’s adversities. We need to embody all these virtues in every perception of life, and in all our actions. To the Stoics, this is the only life worth living—a life of meaning in which you positively impact the world. The Stoics knew that there was no point in arguing or fighting against the aspects of life for which we have no control. They knew all we can do is to control how we perceive the adversity, and what our actions are in response to it. In his moral letters to Lucilius, Seneca explains death is the unifying act that brings all humanity together.
“The act of dying is equal in all… Death has no degrees of greater or less; for it has the same limit in all instances, the finishing of life.” - Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Letter LXVIDeath is the inevitable adversity we all face regardless of race, belief, or lifestyle. It is the great uniting force of all men. It is a universal truth. We have no control over death, but we do have control over our lives, the direction we wish to go forth in. Every day that we wake is another opportunity to take steps on the path of virtue, but with every day, we inch closer to death. Time is our most precious resource because it is finite. It is a resource we must utilize to find virtue. The Apprentice is taught to make use of his time by the use of the 24-inch gauge. Eight hours to our vocation to bring stability in our lives, eight hours to rest to bring stability to our body and mind, and eight hours to the service of God to bring virtue into our lives. But what is the service of God? Surely it’s not just charity work and prayer. To the Stoic, it’s taking action to do things that create a purpose for our lives. It could be as simple as reaching out to someone in need, expressing gratitude to the ones we love, or as noble as curing cancer. It is through our actions and how we live our lives that we provide value, not through our job title, our summer home, or our baser urges. Everything we do reverberates throughout time with a compounding effect. So strive to impact the world in a way that leaves it a better place than what we found it, strive to be the perfect ashlar of the self, which is a life worth living. In book nine of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself:
“Think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favor; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations IX.3This is the existential dilemma that humanity will come to face with soon. When this pandemic is over many of us will either have lost someone we love or would have known someone who has lost someone they love. We will all be soon very aware of the fragility of our physical condition. It is human nature to flee from danger, or flight of fight reflect. So we are programmed to fear our own demise. But it is an inevitability so when we come face to face with death. Face it with Fortitude.
“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.” Seneca. On the Shortness of Life
Yes our time is finite, but our virtue is not. If only you had today what would you do to leave an impression on the world? You still have time to live a virtuous life, to make that impact you want to make, to bring appreciation to others, and joy into this world. “…look to the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. IV.53No matter the time left in your life, take charge of your experience. In this time of pandemic, there is no better time to be there for others, to make a difference. To relieve fear and inspire action. The world is in desperate need of leadership, and as Freemasons, we have a plethora of wisdom to call upon to strengthen us to rise to the challenge. Be a stoic apprentice in the face of this pandemic. Follow your sense of prudence, and act justly in all your experiences. Have temperance in all your desires, and in the face of adversity and inevitable decay, show Fortitude and dignity. To keep us motivated in our endeavors, I leave you with a piece of wisdom from the great Marcus Aurelius.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” Marcus Aurelius. Meditations VII.56~J.E. Frey