by Midnight Freemason Contributor
There are two philosophical concepts Masons like to debate from time to time: is Freemasonry a religion? and is Freemasonry a secret society? Both of these depend on how you define religion and a secret society. While both are interesting things to debate, I would like to pose a different, yet related question: is Freemasonry sacred? Well, once again, the answer will depend upon how we define the term “sacred.”
I think the knee-jerk answer would be: yes. However, that may be a result of conceiving the term “sacred” as meaning really important or something equivalent. Historically we philosophically conceive of the sacred in conjunction with or in opposition to the profane. This is certainly the way Mircea Eliade conceives of the sacred. Eliade’s definition of the sacred is a bit simplistic, but it is useful in most cases. In his The Sacred and the Profane (1957), Eliade would define “sacred” as that which is “set apart from the profane.” Émile Durkheim would say much the same thing earlier in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). Thus, the profane is that which is related to human society: politics, civics, economics, sex, cooking dinner, bar fights, going to work, taking care of one’s family, et cetera. These are not sacred things… more or less. We may see something sacred in, say, sex or caring for loved ones, and we will get to that because Eliade’s definition has limits.
What is interesting about Eliade’s definition is that he defines the sacred as that which is “set apart,” and this is the key phrase. The sacred is not just that which is not profane, but that which has been set apart from the profane. We set apart some land within the city to build a church or a mosque or whatever, and thus this structure is sacred. The activities within the church or mosque are sacred because they are set apart from civic activities. We set apart some livestock to slaughter and burn upon an altar for the gods, and thus this sacrifice is sacred. The magician will set apart some parchment that has never been used before (i.e. is not a palimpsest, or never had its previous ink scraped off and reused), which ensures it has never had any profane purpose previous to its magical uses. Et cetera.
There are limits to Eliade’s definition of the sacred. For one, nature, the untamed wilderness, God’s original creation. Who would dare say that raw nature is profane? None. Yet, nature is not “set apart” from the profane. The wilderness is a priori to civilization. If anything, civilization sets itself apart from nature, not vice versa.
Nature is of course an extreme case, but extremes are still important, as they illustrate where our definitions break down. But nature is such an important case when it comes to the sacred that it cannot be ignored. Eliade would attempt to reconcile this in his own way, generating conceptions like “mythic time” and “mythic history,” but these are vague and weak when tackling such a monumental notion as nature in contemplating the sacred.
The philosopher — though he would deny that he was a philosopher — who I think best tackles this issue is Georges Bataille. Bataille was quite the character, and in his approach to generating any definition is to start at the extremes and work his way back to the middle. He would describe it as taking the principle to its “logical conclusion.” When Bataille contemplates the sacred, it is not something that is “set apart” from society, but rather that human civilization has set itself apart from nature — nature, which is the original sacred. Civilization is established by-laws, codes of conduct, ethics, social contracts, taboos, et cetera. Thus, the taboo is what sets civilization apart from the primordial sacred (i.e. nature). So, for Bataille, to engage the sacred is to transgress, to commit an act of transgression against the taboos of society.
That seems like a huge leap to make, but let us follow Bataille’s logic. Bataille outlines these ideas in his seminal work Eroticism: Death and Sensuality (1957). We as “discontinuous” beings have a limited amount of energy we can exert in a given day. At the end of the workday, if we are exhausted and have no more energy, we go to sleep and pride ourselves on being successful members contributing to society. If we have leftover energy, we waste it, we sacrifice it on non-productive activities. We may drink, make love, play video games, go to church, argue with people online, et merda. If we have a surplus of anything, it must be wasted, because our energy cannot be stored, it must be expended. Sacrifice and waste are at the heart of much of Bataille’s philosophy, especially in his theory of general economy (The Accursed Share, Vol. 1). The sun produces an exorbitant amount of energy every second than this tiny blue marble can harness. If we consume more sustenance than our bodies need to maintain themselves, the excess is excreted. If we have excess money than needed to survive, we waste it on things like gambling and launching cars into space. Such examples of unproductive waste is an exercise in exerting power: we could use these resources to benefit society, but we will waste it, and thus we demonstrate that we hold power.
These things have no utilitarian purpose. If energy is not exerted for any other purpose than “work,” if it is not “productive” to society, it is a waste and a transgression of the societal taboo against being unproductive. Sex for any purpose other than making babies — babies that will one day become workers themselves and pay taxes — is a transgression (i.e. erotic), because it serves no utilitarian purpose. Sacrificing animals is sacred because those animals provide nourishment or can be used for labor, but once they are killed and burned completely and absolutely, the animal moves into the sacred, because there is no way to use it for any productive purpose ever again.
To transgress society’s taboos is to crossover into the sacred, to transgress back into nature — nature, which civilization set itself apart from. That’s Bataille’s philosophy. While extreme, it is more useful than Eliade or Durkheim’s definitions, because Bataille’s definition is all-encompassing.
With that in mind, is Freemasonry sacred? From Eliade’s definition, yes — yes, it is. The Lodge sets itself apart from society, purging outsiders (the profane) from the room, and establishing a space separate from politics, economy, sex, race, religion, et al; a space for Masons to do Masonic stuff. Freemasonry very perfectly fits within Eliade’s definition of the sacred, and Freemasonry gets mentioned here and there in much of Eliade’s work (and before you ask, no he was not a Mason). But from Bataille’s definition of the sacred, Freemasonry is… well… hmmm… may be sacred?
If we have the time, money, and energy to go to Lodge, then yes; we have excess energy at the end of the day and we sacrifice it to Masonry. And if we don’t have the energy, then we don’t go to Lodge. Going to Lodge becomes a sacred activity because it has no utilitarian purpose. Kind of, because lodges do stuff. We conduct business, read minutes, pay bills, donate to charities, we help each other out, and so forth. So, Freemasonry is not so sacred, because Freemasons do productive things for society. To aid our fellow creatures is an essential part of Freemasonry.
This is what Durkheim would term a “conspiracy society,” that is, a secret society that has utilitarian purposes (i.e. conspire, to agree or do things together). Bataille would found his own secret society, which he sought to make completely and totally sacred. It was called Acéphale (“Headless”), and it was very short-lived, mostly because the members didn’t understand what they were supposed to do or what purpose the society served. That was kind of the point. Bataille didn’t want a conspiracy society, he wanted what he termed an “existential society,” a secret society that exists for the sole purpose of existing. Bataille actually wanted to kick off Acéphale with a human sacrifice, and he even offered himself as the sacrifice, as did others, but no one wanted to be the executioner. (I told you he was a character).
Acéphale was actually partly based on Freemasonry. Well, kind of. It was inspired by Honoré Balzac’s The Thirteen (and Balzac was a Mason), as well as the Society of the Tower in Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (Goethe was also a Mason), but Acéphale was also partly based on the secret societies in the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, Juliette, and 120 Days of Sodom, which were largely exercises in “sovereignty” rather than “conspiracy” (and no, the Divine Marquis was not a Mason, thank God)… so, not exactly the same thing. Still, Acéphale conducted their rites in the Forest of Marly outside of Paris. One site they met at, or at least frequented, was the Désert de Retz, which has long been believed to have held Masonic symbolic significance (e.g. la Colonne Détruite, a house in the shape of a broken column, and other curious structures). Acéphale, in a way, was Bataille’s vision of what Freemasonry should be according to his conception of Freemasonry as it is represented in conspiracy theories (“a filthy parody”).
Acéphale is more like a “putty club.” The term putty club comes from the Hungarian children’s novel The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnár, in which the boys have a secret club called “Putty Club.” The members of the Putty Club scrape putty out of windows, chew the putty, and add it to a big ball of putty they keep. They have a president, secretary, and treasurer; they keep minutes, have bylaws, have a banner… Putty Club is definitely a parody of fraternal organizations. The purpose of Putty Club is to accumulate more putty. Thus, the term has become a Hungarian idiom for an organization that exists for the sole purpose of conducting pointless rituals. And that’s how Acéphale functioned or didn’t function: it was meant to be pointless, purely sacred, and that was also why it was so short-lived, lasting for almost three years. Its members simply did not understand what the point of Acéphale was.
Freemasonry is not quite a putty club, but also not quite totally utilitarian. Consider for a moment Plato’s Hippias Major, in which Socrates and Hippias debate the definition of beauty. They use the example of a golden ladle, which is beautiful because it is made of gold. But to use the ladle, to place it into hot soup, will heat the ladle’s handle and make it too hot to hold in your hand. Whereas a wooden ladle, though made of a lesser material than gold, is more useful than the golden ladle, because wood will not heat up the way gold does, and therefore has greater utility. Is the golden ladle beautiful (sacred) because it is made of gold or because it is less useful than the wooden ladle? A fork would be useless in dispensing soup, but the golden ladle is certainly less useful than the wooden ladle as well as more useful than the fork. Freemasonry is a bit like that: it’s a golden ladle. It is not purely utilitarian like the wood ladle, but it isn’t completely useless like a fork.
So is Freemasonry sacred? Depends on the definition of “sacred” you use. However, I agree with Bataille’s definition, as it is the most accurate, or at least the most inclusive of extremes. So, I would say that Freemasonry is a sacred activity for Masons, but operates in a very profane way. It is not exactly profane, nor absolutely sacred. This challenges the way we treat the term “sacred” and “profane” as extremes, i.e. it is not either profane or sacred and nothing in between. The sacred is a gradient, grayscale, Order of Rank (Nietzsche), nuanced, and flexible. Would Freemasonry be totally sacred, it would dissolve like Acéphale did. And would it be totally utilitarian, it would just be politics. It lies on a spectrum of sacrality. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being City Council and 10 being Putty Club, Freemasonry is probably a 6.5.
Patrick M. Dey is a Past Master of Nevada Lodge No. 4 in the ghost town of Nevadaville, Colorado, and currently serves as their Secretary, and is also a Past Master of Research Lodge of Colorado. He is a Past High Priest of Keystone Chapter No. 8, Past Illustrious Master of Hiram Council No. 7, Past Commander of Flatirons Commandery No. 7, and serves as the Secretary-Recorder of all three. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister), and is a member of Gofannin Council No. 315 AMD and Kincora Council No. 8 Knight Masons. He is a facilitator for the Masonic Legacy Society, is the Editor of the Rocky Mountain Mason magazine, serves on the Board of Directors of the Grand Lodge of Colorado’s Library and Museum Association, and is the Deputy Grand Bartender of the Grand Lodge of Colorado (an ad hoc, joke position he is very proud to hold). He holds a Masters of Architecture degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, and works in the field of architecture in Denver, where he resides with wife and son.
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