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The Speculative Science And The Operative Art


the symbolism of freemasonry
albert gallatin mackey

Header Chapter XI.

And now, let us apply this doctrine of symbolism to an investigation of the nature of a speculative science, as derived from an operative art; for the fact is familiar to every one that Freemasonry is of two kinds. We work, it is true, in speculative Masonry only, but our ancient brethren wrought in both operative and speculative; and it is now well understood that the two branches are widely apart in design and in character—the one a mere useful art, intended for the protection and convenience of man and the gratification of his physical wants, the other a profound science, entering into abstruse investigations of the soul and a future existence, and originating in the craving need of humanity to know something that is above and beyond the mere outward life that surrounds us with its gross atmosphere here below.44 Indeed, the only bond or link that unites speculative and operative Masonry is the symbolism that belongs altogether to the former, but which, throughout its whole extent, is derived from the latter.

Our first inquiry, then, will be into the nature of the symbolism which operative gives to speculative Masonry; and thoroughly to understand this—to know its origin, and its necessity, and its mode of application—we must begin with a reference to the condition of a long past period of time.

Thousands of years ago, this science of symbolism was adopted by the sagacious priesthood of Egypt to convey the lessons of worldly wisdom and religious knowledge, which they thus communicated to their disciples.45 Their science, their history, and their philosophy were thus concealed beneath an impenetrable veil from all the profane, and only the few who had passed through the severe ordeal of initiation were put in possession of the key which enabled them to decipher and read with ease those mystic lessons which we still see engraved upon the obelisks, the tombs, and the sarcophagi, which lie scattered, at this day, in endless profusion along the banks of the Nile.

From the Egyptians the same method of symbolic instruction was diffused among all the pagan nations of antiquity, and was used in all the ancient Mysteries46 as the medium of communicating to the initiated the esoteric and secret doctrines for whose preservation and promulgation these singular associations were formed.

Moses, who, as Holy Writ informs us, was skilled in all the learning of Egypt, brought with him, from that cradle of the sciences, a perfect knowledge of the science of symbolism, as it was taught by the priests of Isis and Osiris, and applied it to the ceremonies with which he invested the purer religion of the people for whom he had been appointed to legislate.47

Hence we learn, from the great Jewish historian, that, in the construction of the tabernacle, which gave the first model for the temple at Jerusalem, and afterwards for every masonic lodge, this principle of symbolism was applied to every part of it. Thus it was divided into three parts, to represent the three great elementary divisions of the universe—the land, the sea, and the air. The first two, or exterior portions, which were accessible to the priests and the people, were symbolic of the land and the sea, which all men might inhabit; while the third, or interior division,—the holy of holies,—whose threshold no mortal dared to cross, and which was peculiarly consecrated to GOD, was emblematic of heaven, his dwelling-place. The veils, too, according to Josephus, were intended for symbolic instruction in their color and their materials. Collectively, they represented the four elements of the universe; and, in passing, it may be observed that this notion of symbolizing the universe characterized all the ancient systems, both the true and the false, and that the remains of the principle are to be found everywhere, even at this day, pervading Masonry, which is but a development of these systems. In the four veils of the tabernacle, the white or fine linen signified the earth, from which flax was produced; the scarlet signified fire, appropriately represented by its flaming color; the purple typified the sea, in allusion to the shell-fish murex, from which the tint was obtained; and the blue, the color of the firmament, was emblematic of air.48

It is not necessary to enter into a detail of the whole system of religious symbolism, as developed in the Mosaic ritual. It was but an application of the same principles of instruction, that pervaded all the surrounding Gentile nations, to the inculcation of truth. The very idea of the ark itself49 was borrowed, as the discoveries of the modern Egyptologists have shown us, from the banks of the Nile; and the breastplate of the high priest, with its Urim and Thummim,50 was indebted for its origin to a similar ornament worn by the Egyptian judge. The system was the same; in its application, only, did it differ.

With the tabernacle of Moses the temple of King Solomon is closely connected: the one was the archetype of the other. Now, it is at the building of that temple that we must place the origin of Freemasonry in its present organization: not that the system did not exist before, but that the union of its operative and speculative character, and the mutual dependence of one upon the other, were there first established.

At the construction of this stupendous edifice—stupendous, not in magnitude, for many a parish church has since excelled it in size,51 but stupendous in the wealth and magnificence of its ornaments—the wise king of Israel, with all that sagacity for which he was so eminently distinguished, and aided and counselled by the Gentile experience of the king of Tyre, and that immortal architect who superintended his workmen, saw at once the excellence and beauty of this method of inculcating moral and religious truth, and gave, therefore, the impulse to that symbolic reference of material things to a spiritual sense, which has ever since distinguished the institution of which he was the founder.

If I deemed it necessary to substantiate the truth of the assertion that the mind of King Solomon was eminently symbolic in its propensities, I might easily refer to his writings, filled as they are to profusion with tropes and figures. Passing over the Book of Canticles,—that great lyrical drama, whose abstruse symbolism has not yet been fully evolved or explained, notwithstanding the vast number of commentators who have labored at the task,—I might simply refer to that beautiful passage in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes, so familiar to every Mason as being appropriated, in the ritual, to the ceremonies of the third degree, and in which a dilapidated building is metaphorically made to represent the decays and infirmities of old age in the human body. This brief but eloquent description is itself an embodiment of much of our masonic symbolism, both as to the mode and the subject matter.

In attempting any investigation into the symbolism of Freemasonry, the first thing that should engage our attention is the general purport of the institution, and the mode in which its symbolism is developed. Let us first examine it as a whole, before we investigate its parts, just as we would first view, as critics, the general effect of a building, before we began to inquire into its architectural details.

Looking, then, in this way, at the institution—coming down to us, as it has, from a remote age—having passed unaltered and unscathed through a thousand revolutions of nations—and engaging, as disciples in its school of mental labor, the intellectual of all times—the first thing that must naturally arrest the attention is the singular combination that it presents of an operative with a speculative organization—an art with a science—the technical terms and language of a mechanical profession with the abstruse teachings of a profound philosophy.

Here it is before us—a venerable school, discoursing of the deepest subjects of wisdom, in which sages might alone find themselves appropriately employed, and yet having its birth and deriving its first life from a society of artisans, whose only object was, apparently, the construction of material edifices of stone and mortar.

The nature, then, of this operative and speculative combination, is the first problem to be solved, and the symbolism which depends upon it is the first feature of the institution which is to be developed.

Freemasonry, in its character as an operative art, is familiar to every one. As such, it is engaged in the application of the rules and principles of architecture to the construction of edifices for private and public use—houses for the dwelling-place of man, and temples for the worship of Deity. It abounds, like every other art, in the use of technical terms, and employs, in practice, an abundance of implements and materials which are peculiar to itself.

Now, if the ends of operative Masonry had here ceased,—if this technical dialect and these technical implements had never been used for any other purpose, nor appropriated to any other object, than that of enabling its disciples to pursue their artistic labors with greater convenience to themselves,—Freemasonry would never have existed. The same principles might, and in all probability would, have been developed in some other way; but the organization, the name, the mode of instruction, would all have most materially differed.

But the operative Masons, who founded the order, were not content with the mere material and manual part of their profession: they adjoined to it, under the wise instructions of their leaders, a correlative branch of study.

And hence, to the Freemason, this operative art has been symbolized in that intellectual deduction from it, which has been correctly called Speculative Masonry. At one time, each was an integrant part of one undivided system. Not that the period ever existed when every operative mason was acquainted with, or initiated into, the speculative science. Even now, there are thousands of skilful artisans who know as little of that as they do of the Hebrew language which was spoken by its founder. But operative Masonry was, in the inception of our history, and is, in some measure, even now, the skeleton upon which was strung the living muscles, and tendons, and nerves of the speculative system. It was the block of marble—rude and unpolished it may have been—from which was sculptured the life-breathing statue.52

Speculative Masonry (which is but another name for Freemasonary in its modern acceptation) may be briefly defined as the scientific application and the religious consecration of the rules and principles, the language, the implements and materials of operative Masonry to the veneration of God, the purification of the heart, and the inculcation of the dogmas of a religious philosophy.


44. "By speculative Masonry we learn to subdue our passions, to act upon the square, to keep a tongue of good report, to maintain secrecy, and practise charity."—Lect. of Fel. Craft. But this is a very meagre definition, unworthy of the place it occupies in the lecture of the second degree.

45. "Animal worship among the Egyptians was the natural and unavoidable consequence of the misconception, by the vulgar, of those emblematical figures invented by the priests to record their own philosophical conception of absurd ideas. As the pictures and effigies suspended in early Christian churches, to commemorate a person or an event, became in time objects of worship to the vulgar, so, in Egypt, the esoteric or spiritual meaning of the emblems was lost in the gross materialism of the beholder. This esoteric and allegorical meaning was, however, preserved by the priests, and communicated in the mysteries alone to the initiated, while the uninstructed retained only the grosser conception."—GLIDDON, Otia Aegyptiaca, p. 94.

46. "To perpetuate the esoteric signification of these symbols to the initiated, there were established the Mysteries, of which institution we have still a trace in Freemasonry."—GLIDDON, Otia Aegyp. p. 95.

47. Philo Judaeus says, that "Moses had been initiated by the Egyptians into the philosophy of symbols and hieroglyphics, as well as into the ritual of the holy animals." And Hengstenberg, in his learned work on "Egypt and the Books of Moses," conclusively shows, by numerous examples, how direct were the Egyptian references of the Pentateuch; in which fact, indeed, he recognizes "one of the most powerful arguments for its credibility and for its composition by Moses."—HENGSTENBERG, p. 239, Robbins's trans.

48. Josephus, Antiq. book iii. ch. 7.

49. The ark, or sacred boat, of the Egyptians frequently occurs on the walls of the temples. It was carried in great pomp by the priests on the occasion of the "procession of the shrines," by means of staves passed through metal rings in its side. It was thus conducted into the temple, and deposited on a stand. The representations we have of it bear a striking resemblance to the Jewish ark, of which it is now admitted to have been the prototype.

50. "The Egyptian reference in the Urim and Thummim is especially distinct and incontrovertible."—HENGSTENBERG, p. 158.

51. According to the estimate of Bishop Cumberland, it was only one hundred and nine feet in length, thirty-six in breadth, and fifty-four in height.

52. "Thus did our wise Grand Master contrive a plan, by mechanical and practical allusions, to instruct the craftsmen in principles of the most sublime speculative philosophy, tending to the glory of God, and to secure to them temporal blessings here and eternal life hereafter, as well as to unite the speculative and operative Masons, thereby forming a twofold advantage, from the principles of geometry and architecture on the one part, and the precepts of wisdom and ethics on the other."—CALCOTT, Candid Disquisition, p. 31, ed. 1769.

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