We are taught in Masonry that a symbol is a word for something which arouses in us thoughts, feelings and connections that exist beyond the symbol itself. It is always a thing which makes us think of something else. We use symbols to compress a lot of meaning into a small space of time. Masonic symbols allow us to generalize subjects that are very complex. They provide access to information, and enable us to convey ideas which are otherwise difficult to express.
In fact, people regularly use symbols in their daily lives, even though they are often not conscious of the process. For example, any time we speak, we speak in symbols. Words themselves are symbols, and we use them easily in conversations and reading. Thus, symbols are central to our thinking, speculations and philosophy; and they pass by us so quickly we hardly notice. In Masonry, we discover that almost every aspect of life can be symbolized. If this were not so, archetypes would have little meaning to us; and our allegories would be worthless.
The reality is that symbols are pervasive in any culture. And visual symbols are particularly important. For example, people often relate their perception about corporations to a company logo. Businesses know their logos serve as memory triggers for their benefit. A logo not only directs our consciousness to a company name, it also connects our mind with the idea that the company itself is an icon of national or international stability. Who would not recognize the cursive font and red and white swirls of the Coca-Colo logo as representing the world’s largest soft drink company? Who would not think of Mercedez Benz whenever he sees the distinctive metallic grey three sided star enclosed within an orbit?
This, then, begs the question: If the general public is so dependent on the use of symbols in interpreting the funtioning of life, then why doesn’t Freemasonry, whose central theme is symbol interpretation, enjoy a more common place in the public’s interest?
I’m not sure I have an answer, but I suspect it has to do with the fact the public is far more interested in assigning a brand to their cultural icons than in connecting moral symbols with objective meaning. Morals are an entirely different package than sodas and automobiles. All modern theories of value tend to share the premise that moral values are always subjective and therefore have no independent meaning and existence. Our contemporary values are often nothing more than projections of our desires and feelings.
But this was not the way values were seen in the 19th century. As difficult as it may be for the public today to equate the Square and Compasses with values, I believe that is precisely what our forefathers intended for it to do.
Our modern culture is a funny culture. On the one hand, we say we want freedom of thought, individuality and creativity; yet it is everywhere obvious that we really don’t want to have to think about things very deeply. The problem with thinking is that it complicates our lives. It takes time. And it interferes with our desire to take action in the moment, even when that action is misdirected. It often leads to a confrontation between our own subjective values and the view of others whom we don’t fully understand or appreciate.
Yet Freemasons know that moral, physical and spiritual transformations occur in people through symbol interaction. This is the reason why Masonry’s greatest potential to effect both personal and social transformation is in the relationships we form with each other and with the profane world. Since we are not offering courses in symbols and symbol interpretation, we are constrained to communicate with the public in a more open sphere. Perhaps what we do and represent to our society is the key to becoming better integrated with its symbolic cravings.
If such a symbolic connection could be made, our identity and image could be vastly improved. We may well be able to move from being seen as “quaint” and out of touch to becoming respected as “traditional” in the public’s eye. This is particularly important at a time when younger men in our culture are becoming increasingly fascinated with the “retro” look and image of manhood. One needs only to discover the popularity of Brett McKay’s website, The Art of Manliness, to get a glimpse at how important “traditional” is becoming.
Even if most of our members do not understand Masonry’s complex symbol system well enough to communicate it to the outer world, we can still convey how it works in a simple and traditional context. We need only to understand that is it the structure of our organization itself which brings order and status to society. Our public ceremonies are the means by which our values get branded onto the public’s inherent need for symbolism in their lives.
A ceremonial role is always a group role. It is an expression of rank within the group just as any institutional ceremony is an expression of rank within the community. This was Masonry’s foundational motivation for cornerstone laying and public dedications. These ceremonies are based on a profound sociological insight. In ceremonial drama people watch for indications of rak and honor. It doesn’t matter if it is military, academic, political, religious or fraternal, we watch the dress, the staging, and the action of the players to discover what determines rank and honor in our lives.
Each traditional institution in our society may have its own brand of honor and dignity, but it derives these from social principles which are accepted by the community as a whole. Thus, the institution, thorugh the ceremonies it performs, becomes final and transcendent in the minds of the observers.
Here is how this works. and Carlyle said it very well: He who puts on a public gown must put off a private person. The formal dress of the Masons in their public ceremonies gives them a social role that has deep meaning. When we play our part in institutional and public ceremonies with dignity, we demonstrate the aura of social status and office. The public has no way of competently judging our competence as an institution. But in the majesty of our dress, our regalia, and our ceremonial forms, we put on the insignia of rank. And all who see us symbolically bow before us.
They are not bowing to us, but to the social status we fill as gentlemen and as guardians of tradition and order in society.
This is the reason we should always be conscious of the integrity we communicate when we are presenting ourselves in the public’s eye. In our cornerstones and dedications, our memorial services and community partnerships, we appeal to how the public perceives status in its institutions. As a group, if we could just understand that our task as an institution is symbolically to communicate status; then we would grasp the importance of the formality of our ceremonies.
When the public sees dignity and status in what Freemasonry does and how Freemasons dress, it also becomes possible for it to connect our fraternity with tradition and stability. We become of of the “retro” incons of importance now emerging into the public’s consciousness of “favored-man” status. When the public sees us in this role, everything changes.
Because everyone desires an elevation in status.