The Square and Compasses are explained in our ritual, but their relationship to each other is not. Why are they so prominent in our identity? They make up two of the three "Great Lights" and yet are explained less than many of our symbols and tools. This combination predates speculative Masonry and are found in other traditions, such as the Order of Free Gardeners, as explained in a recent article by Bro. Cory Missimore.
The ritual tells us the Square relates to our actions and the Compasses to our desires. This pairs the physical or external things we can see with the psychic or internal processes we cannot. Throughout our initiatory journey, values and virtues, along with education of the intellect, are called to our attention. Yet, it is our actions that are ultimately visible and can be measured and judged. Which emanates from which? Our actions are clearly the result of our desires and the ability to subdue our passions. Be it Qabalah or Lao Tze; metaphysics describes physical existence as emanating from spiritual or archetypal forms. As individuated beings, we are simply playing out one of the endless examples of this relationship.
Would operative voices agree? The Square will more often be found in the quarry or workshop than the drafting table, whereas compasses are primarily a drafting instrument and are applied much more to the conceptual model than the physical form or product. Using a compass with a string as a chalk line (skirret) and a pencil -- a distinct set of working tools described in English ritual -- one can create a bisected line and, therefore, the form of a square. From this, the Square can be used in three dimensions to create a level, and so forth. Eventually, you end up with cell phones and Martian rovers, but all physical inventions trace back to machines made by tools that ultimately trace back to these drafting processes. Therefore, the compass is an instrument of the abstract form by which the physical is conceived and laid out in the mind before being measured in the worksite. Once the plan becomes a stone or edifice, it can only then judged by the Square and its cornerstone-dedicating partners, the level and plumb.
Changes in the points of the compass in relation to the Square may give us more to consider. As beginning laborers, we only perceive the physical in its measurable aspect, Beauty. The conceptualizations on which it is based are hidden from us. Later we are exposed to the language-- Geometry -- by which the Divine promulgates that order throughout creation. This gives us the ability to move beyond superficial aesthetics to consider the physical strength of a construction. The object of our work no longer evokes merely subjective opinions, but measurable dimensions. Wisdom is sight by which the fullness of this emanation from thought-form to creation is revealed, transcending the duality of subject and object. Only then can we realize the perfect forms which all physical things must reflect. It is in that final configuration upon our Altar where the Square cannot be employed without first taking the compasses in hand.
This is all esoterically stimulating if you are into that sort of thing, but what does this all mean in everyday life? History offers us an answer in a roundabout way. There has always been one debate or another over the comparative value of intellectual work and skill versus psychical labor. A lot of class animosity surrounds this. While some see physical labor as less desirable or having less worth, we also see a backlash of anti-intellectualism, making fun of people with Liberal Arts degrees who can't fix their own sink or are able to personally give their wife what all women desire--shelving. One's lack of knowledge of literature and art, and the other's practical helplessness, are unhelpful (and often untrue) stereotypes. But what of these endeavors themselves? Our most basic survival and quality of life depend on the trades; our culture and progress as a civilization depend on numerous intellectual fields of study. Without the former, we cannot exist; without the latter, we cannot live. The parable about the different parts of the same body comes to mind.
Masonry isn't about the politics of class and economy, so why bring any of this up? Because there is a certain dualism between physical and intellectual efforts in our Craft, guiding all of us rather than dividing us. We don't go from concrete-mixing to accounting, milking cows to curing cancer, but we can attempt a comparable inner transformation.
One of my favorite philosophers from the 20th Century, Hannah Arendt, makes the distinction between labor and work as dealing with immediate physical need versus "build and maintain a world fit for human use." It's not quite the same as trades versus intellectual and artistic pursuits, but a bit closer to what we're going for. If you ask two stonemasons at a worksite what they are doing, one may respond, "I am laying stones." Another may say, "I'm helping build a Cathedral." Likewise, a hospital janitor may see themselves as a mop-pusher or as a vital part of the environmental hygiene necessary for bettering people's health. Is it really the same activity, or is one labor while the other is work? Perhaps it is this shift in perspective that is the real transformation between our degrees and the unbreakable pairing of the Square and Compasses.
Hermeticism calls such spiritual progress "The Great Work." It is not merely production, but creation. Sure, stones are laid hour after hour, day after day, but it all follows a conceived purpose and design. It is not the transcendence above physical efforts but an element imbued into it from above. Perhaps this is why I have always felt a nobility in all work (or labors by Arendt's thinking. Some of the exoteric and profane activities we do, like pancake breakfasts and maintaining temporal edifices, do not need to be a distraction inflated by our desire for the esoteric and spiritual. Likewise, our ritual need not be labor, done as a required necessity, but a work that "humbly reflect[s] that order and beauty which reign forever before Thy throne."
I would suggest the Square and Compasses connects us not merely to each other as a common symbol, but as a whole person, physical and spiritual. It shows us how to live in the world yet not belong to it. We can choose higher paths above, yet keep our feet humbly on the ground until that time such tools shall fall from our hands. In the meantime, we need each other, workmen and laborers, and be willing to best work and best agree with both instruments at our command.