Are the so-called “Higher” Degrees actually Symbolic? or Sorcery? Part 2 of a series

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Patrick Dey

In the first part to this essay, we looked at what symbols are from a philosophical point of view, largely relying on Jean Baudrillard’s conception of them as a simulacrum, a distortion that conceals reality, because symbols deny that reality can ever be faithfully expressed and thus must generate a signifier that stands in owing to this absence. I personally favor Baudrillard’s conception of what symbols are, and I find his system of the four orders of simulacra to be helpful in understanding Symbolic Craft Masonry as it transitions into the so-called “higher” degrees.

As was discussed in the conclusion of Part I, we looked at how we as Free and Accepted Masons are symbolic craftsmen, symbolic stonemasons building symbolic temples, which at once conceals the reality of the stonemason guild heritage we have inherited and denies that the reality of the stonemasons of old can be fully expressed as a reflection in ourselves. But the so-called higher degrees in Masonry — Scottish Rite, York Rite, Shrine, et cetera — are a different problem. Royal Arch Masons are not a real thing. Nor are Select Masters, or the Order of the Red Cross, or the Knight of the East, or the Knight of the Sword, et cetera. These never existed. These are not real things. The only degrees of the appendant bodies that is based on something real are the Order of Malta and the Order of the Temple — the Knights Hospitallers and the Knights Templar. Sure, there are some things based on real orders, such as Saint Thomas of Acon. Then there are some weird ones, like the Masonic Rosicrucians, which did not really exist, but rather was a sort of literary fiction of millenarianism and a call for a greater reformation that the Protestant Reformation failed to achieve. Rosicrucians were believed to have been real for a long time, but today we know historically they did not actually exist.

This is no longer symbolic in the way the Blue Lodge Degrees are symbolic. In fact, they fall specifically into what Baudrillard designates as the third order of simulacra, one that “masks the absence of a profound reality.” He calls this order the “order of sorcery,” as it merely “plays being an appearance.” It conjures a reality that never actually existed.

This is exactly what these higher degrees are: they conjure something that never even existed, be it a Knight of the East and West or a Most Excellent Master, and claims we are now the symbolic manifestation of this title. The symbolic has to be based on something real, something that will yield a sign that may be utilized. A symbol has meaning — in fact, it has many meanings; it is a plethora. It is so much a plethora of meanings that it cannot claim to faithfully represent everything, and that the symbol must stand in for a reality that is inexpressible. Not so with sorcery. It makes up a reality. It conjures appearances like the sorcerer conjures spirits and shades of the dead. The sorcerer does not call upon a real person and they show up in the flesh, but rather calls up the shadowy image of someone who no longer is, or something that never existed, like a demon or an angel (note: Baudrillard is a Post Structuralist philosopher, an atheist, and in particular Nietzschean in that he follows the principle that God is dead).

This is the trap hidden within the higher degrees of Masonry: that these degrees are symbolic or based on something that actually existed, when in fact we know deep down there was never any such thing as a Perfect Master or Master of the Symbolic Lodge — I mean that Scottish Rite Degree right there fully embodies this very simulacrum: there could not have been a real Master of the Symbolic Lodge because the Symbolic Lodge is by its name symbolic of an actual real lodge, and the Master of such cannot be based on anything real. One becomes a symbolic Master of the Symbolic Lodge is simply ridiculous. It does not need a reality to pretend that it is real.

Much the same can be said about offices and titles within the Masonic bodies themselves.

I suppose since we’re here, we might as well discuss the fourth order simulacrum, in which this is something that does not even need reality, it does not care if there is a reality, it is pure simulation. It neither needs to reflect, conceal, or deny reality, it is what is now real. It is “hyperreal.” It produces without regard for reality whatsoever. The best way I can describe this is in “content creation” on social media platforms. You may have found videos on YouTube that make you start to lose your sense of direction as to what this video even accomplishes: something like a reaction video to a critique video of an analysis video of a movie that is loosely based on historical events. Sometimes you find reaction videos to reaction videos to… you get it. What is even happening here? Are we creating videos just to create videos? Looking for any excuse to upload content to generate views and reactions and comments so advertisements have a place to sell us stuff we don’t need? And what do we call these people? “Content creators.” It is not about creating something visionary or artistic or original or to explore something meaningful, but to simply create content for the sake of creating content. This dives into what Baudrillard calls “hyperreal,” “hyperproduction,” and such terms.

If I had to designate anything in Masonry that meets this hyperreality of the fourth order of simulacra, it would be the endless proliferation of more Masonic bodies, more offices, more committees, more degrees, more dues cards, more, more, more. We all know these kinds of Masons. It is not about what they can contribute to Masonry, what they get out of Masonry, or even what they enjoy about Masonry, but the accumulation of titles and offices for the sake of accumulating titles and offices. We have lost any semblance of the origins of Freemasonry, and in fact, we no longer care. We have lost any vestige of what it means to be a Mason, and what makes a man and Mason, and who we are supposed to be as Masons, and really we no longer care. The real value, the most precious meaning that underlines all of the Masonic institution, it no longer makes a difference. It is the endless accumulation of as mabt accolades as possible just so we can have them, and any regard for the real value that makes Masonry what it is, it simply is not regarded.

I am certain that if Baudrillard were alive today, he would shake his head and say “Patrick, please stop doing this to my work.” And I am probably stretching his philosophy to match some criticism I have of Masonry that he would hate me for. Yet, it is exactly what I saw myself falling into as I continued to move forward in Masonry. I originally wanted to only do esoteric research and writing when I became a Mason. I wanted to know what the Masons knew so that it may further my studies. And as the years went on, I found myself more and more concerned with being in officer lines, and accepting any invitation to a Masonic body that came my way. I found myself driving everywhere across the State of Colorado every night doing something, and none of it was fun. Most of it was boring, and furthermore, I only ever seemed to complain about everything I had to go to. Then the Covid lockdown happened and suddenly I had an opportunity to reassess why I was doing any of this anyway. Then I was married, and then I became a father, and that happened within a very short period. I realize that none of this was what I wanted to do when I became a Mason. I was so far away from what gave me joy, that I became a miserable person chasing titles and offices. That was when I started to revisit things I enjoyed: reading, writing, studying, research, philosophy, mysticism, et cetera. I revisited Baudrillard’s work, because — well, firstly, because I was doing research on Douglas Darden, and I wanted to get a better idea of how Baudrillard influenced his architectural designs — but secondly, because something about Baudrillard resonated with how I was feeling. There was something “unreal” or even “hyperreal” about chasing titles and offices.

This essay has been an attempt (essay) at describing the dangers I feel are inherent in the so-called higher degrees, and especially in the chasing of titles and offices. Is that why you became a Mason? It is not why I became a Mason, and it took becoming miserable for me to realize that. For me, it started with something symbolic.

The symbolic is not dangerous unto itself, so long as we recognize it for what it is: a concealment of a reality that cannot be fully expressed, and so it must deny reality and create an image that substitutes the reality that is not expressible. There is joy in the symbolic, because symbols are useful. That is the power of Masonic symbolism: they are useful to us, and we should always be endeavoring to further explore and utilize the power they hold. But beyond the symbolic, what value is there? Is there a value to chasing degrees that are based on nothing that ever existed? Do they even serve a purpose or have utility? Or is their only utility the obtaining of those degree titles? Is that what Masonry is about? Does that even serve the individual Mason, or does it even serve the fraternity itself?

Some of these Masons I have known, and I have asked them: “Why do you do this?” And I have heard quite a few respond with: “It is the only way I will matter.” With that, I want to hang my head and sob.

Me personally, it does not matter, and that is why I resigned from a number of officer lines, including a Grand Line, and turned down other appointments to other lines, and demitted from several bodies, and turned down invitations to other bodies. I love the symbolic. It is what brought me into Masonry, and anything beyond the symbolic is probably not for me. I suppose there are Masons who just enjoy helping and being a part of things, and so any opportunity to participate and help, they say “yes!” Don’t get me wrong, because I love the “yes! Masons.”

All I advise is to assess why you became a Mason. You do not have to keep the same goals you had when you became a Mason. Everyone grows and changes over the years, and that is wonderful. But are you being true to yourself as a Mason? The value and meaning in these things are all that matters. Truly. And if you lose sight of what is real and meaningful to you as an individual. If being a title-seeker is the only way to make your life meaningful, then something was missed along the way.

I do not want to blame Masonry for the fault of people. Masonry did not create the problem of title-seeking and abandoning many men in the desert of the real. People do that in everything, be it Masonry, YouTube videos, politics, yoga, church, bridge clubs, Google Earth photo-locations, Wikipedia entries, name it. This happens in everything. Seriously, did you know that if you upload enough photos and locate them in Google Earth, you get invited to a secret Google club? I know a former Mason who became infatuated with this. I digress. Masonry did prove to be fertile grounds for this kind of phenomenon to occur.

Without a conductor to follow and put our trust in, sometimes, many times, this Masonic journey becomes uncertain. O Mother Lodge, how far we’ve wandered. From that blindfolded interim where we had no way of conducting ourselves, uncertain of our future, we had to trust someone else, and now we are our own conductors, and I personally feel too many good men and Masons have fallen into a trap that is neither meaningful to themselves or Masonry.

To conclude, I will simply say: never lose sight of what you believe in. It is the difference between a trap into a meaningless desert and what provides you with a meaningful existence.


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. He currently serves as the Exponent (Suffragan) of Colorado College, SRICF of which he is VIII Grade (Magister). He 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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