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intellect and symbolism


part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

Symbolism is a unique characteristic of the human intellect.


Intellect, intelligence and reason


To appreciate the interrelationship between intellect and symbolism, it is desirable to recognise the difference between intellect and intelligence and to reflect on how they interact, through the process of reasoning, to initiate an activity or other response. Intellect comprises all of those faculties and rational powers of the mind and the soul that enable human beings to know, understand and reason, but it does not include the faculties of sensation and imagination. Intellect is derived from the Latin intellectus, which signifies perception, discernment, understanding and comprehension. It is the function of the intellect to perceive similarities and to disclose differences, either choosing or rejecting concepts of different kinds that are presented to it. Although the human psyche can only comprehend the outcomes of intellectual processes through mental awareness, nevertheless the intellect primarily operates on the spiritual plane. Intellect is instinctively drawn towards the ideal, enabling the individual’s ego to evolve and ultimately to achieve perfection. In contrast, the faculties of sensation and imagination are closely related to feeling and will, which clearly distinguishes them from the fundamental powers of thought and comprehension.


Intelligence is derived from the Latin intelligentia, which literally signifies knowledge, taste, the capacity to understand or the abi1ity to choose. When compared with intellect, intelligence primarily operates on the mental plane and is the emotional and sensual counterpart of intellect. Intelligence is more than the straightforward ability to perceive and to understand that is implied by intellect because, being aided by intuition, it also has regard to feeling and will, as well as to any relevant external influences, thus enabling rational choices to be made. Reason is derived from the Latin ratio, which signifies a reckoning, an account, a consideration or a calculation. The process of reasoning is the interactive use of intellect with intelligence, which enables thoughts to be adapted to produce actions that will achieve a relevant objective. Reason or rationality is the faculty of making judgements and inferences, which is the guiding principle of the human mind in the process of logical thought.


René Descartes (1596-1650), a French philosopher, mathematician and scientist, was often called the father of modern philosophy. He said that human reason is universal, by which he meant that a being having reason is not limited to a fixed collection of responses, but is able to devise a suitable response for a new set of parameters. Descartes also connected the faculty of reason with the ability to use language. Many experiments have been carried out on a diverse group of animals, ranging from monkeys through dogs and octopuses to dolphins, in an endeavour to find out whether they have the facility of mental perception and the capacity to make rational decisions equivalent to those capabilities possessed by human beings. These experiments have clearly demonstrated that animals have a capacity to seek out food and to avoid danger in unusual situations, as well as to locate their own kind or to return to their previous habitats under exceptional circumstances, but they have not established that these capacities are anything more than innate hereditary responses. Such responses would have developed as a direct result of environmental influences over many thousands of years, which is in accord with Charles Darwin’s theory for “the survival of the fittest”. For this reason the possession of a superior intelligence, the capacity of intellect and the ability to reason are still considered to be the most important characteristics that differentiate human beings from all other members of the animal kingdom.




Language is the method of communication that uses spoken or written words in an agreed way to convey ideas from one person to another. Scholars of linguistics conceive language in various ways. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was a Swiss linguistics scholar who was one of the founders of modern linguistics, whose work was fundamental to the development of structuralism. Saussure regarded language as a system of arbitrary, though mutually dependent and interactive signs. He emphasised the importance of a diachronic or historical approach to the study of language, which sees it as a continually changing medium, rather than a purely synchronic or behavioural approach, which only considers language in the state that it is in at any particular time. In contrast to these approaches Avram Noam Chomsky (1928- ), an American professor of linguistics, considers language to be a set of rules and principles in the mind of the speaker. He developed the concept of a generative grammar, taking into account the surface or superficial meaning of a sentence and also its deep or underlying meaning. Language is central to the transmission of culture and it is essential for the communication of a society’s spiritual beliefs and sacred values, which can only be achieved through the medium of ritual speech and symbolism. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, by David Crystal, includes discussions on all aspects of language, its development and usage, its relationship with symbolism in human communications and also, for comparison, various methods of non-human communication. Those wishing to explore the important part that symbolism played in the development of language, as well as the evolution of symbolism as an instrument of communication, would probably find most of the information they require in this book.


The concept of symbolism


Symbolism is as old as human beings themselves. Communication is one of the greatest assets of the human race, which was developed by means of symbolism. Before intelligible speech evolved, humans used grunts and gestures as symbols to draw attention to their needs and convey the emotions they were experiencing. As humans became articulate in speech, they sought to record their words for transmission to others at a distance, or to make permanent records of their thoughts. These desires naturally fostered the development of writing, originally by means of pictographs in which each picture or character was a symbol or combination of symbols. The hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt were the most advanced form of pictographic writing ever devised and were in use before 3250 BCE. The Sumerians of Baby1onia, now southern Iraq, were using a script in about 3200 BCE, in which tiny pictographs represented words, but we do not know when or where the script originated. The ideographic characters used in modern Chinese writing evolved from pictographs before 1000 BCE and even, as today, enabled intelligible written communications to be exchanged between peoples whose dialects were mutually incomprehensible.


Clay tablets found in the 1960s at Tartaria, in Transylvania, have been dated from about 4000 BCE. Their engravings include some pictographs similar to those found in megalithic markings in Britain, in the Linear A script found in Minoan Crete and also in inscriptions on Paleo-Elamite vases found in Persepolis, which suggests that some form of written communication must have occurred earlier than previously was believed. Structural changes in the earth’s crust, physiographical reshaping of the soil mantle, cyclical changes in climate and even the impact of extraterrestrial bodies on the earth since the last great Ice Age have all caused significant changes in topography, limiting the capacity of archaeological investigations. The relationships between the diverse groups of pictographs have not yet been discovered, nor has their influence on pictographic writing in Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, the Sumerian and Phoenician pictographs provide the first traces of our modern alphabet.


Hieroglyphs were the sacred language of ancient Egypt, but they continued in use until late in the third century CE. As the form and structure of the hieroglyphs were too clumsy for practical purposes in everyday use, a cursive form of script, written with a pen and called hieratic, was soon developed for trade purposes and accounting records. A simplified cursive form, called the demotic, was in general use by 700 BCE, but both cursive forms necessitated considerable professional training for proficient writing. Until quite recently it was believed that the earliest hieroglyphs had been based on Sumerian pictographs that the Egyptians had borrowed near the beginning of the First Dynasty, in about 3100 BCE. However, archaeological investigations carried out at Abydos and elsewhere in southern Egypt since 1988, prove that the Egyptians were using an advanced system of writing in 3250 BCE and probably much earlier, long before the pharaonic monarchy was founded when King Narmer completed the unification of the Kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt in about 3100 BCE. This new evidence indicates that the Egyptian hieroglyphs did not develop progressively from primitive pictographs. Some characters were always used as an alphabet and others as phonetic signs called determinatives, either in front of or after a picture sign, to indicate the precise interpretation or sound of the picture and hence its correct meaning. Thus literary expression came into being. Another useful characteristic of Egyptian hieroglyphs is that they can be written in any direction, to suit the requirements of the text and its location on the object being inscribed.


The earliest Sumerian pictographs represented objects. Later some pictographs came to be associated with sounds, especially the sounds of the initial consonants of the names assigned to the objects represented. In the course of time it was realised that pictographs could be used to represent the same sounds in other words, from which an alphabet evolved and spelling began. Originally the Sumerian pictographs had a vertical format and were inscribed in vertical columns commencing from the right of the tablet and reading downwards. Some time between 3000 BCE and 2500 BCE the pictographs changed to a horizontal format, when it was found more convenient to inscribe them in horizontal lines commencing from the top of the tablet and reading from left to right. Because the Sumerians found it difficult to inscribe curved lines on clay, they soon replaced their pictographs with characters comprising a series of short straight lines, which developed into the cuneiform script, from the Latin cuneus, which means a wedge. The script was called cuneiform because nearly all of the short lines used to form the characters were wedge shaped, having been made by the imprint of a square ended stylus on wet clay.


In Byblos, which was the Gebal of Canaan mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, pictographic impressions first appeared on seals from about 3100 BCE and seem to have been the first steps in the growth of Phoenician writing. The cuneiform script was fully developed in Akkadia, or northern Iraq, by about 2800 BCE, from whence it spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. Signs from Byblos, dating from about 2500 BCE, are in a script similar to that which was then being used in Syria. The Akkadian cuneiform script, which had become the language of trade and diplomacy that was in use between Syria and Egypt before 1400 BCE, is considered to be the forerunner of the Phoenician alphabet and our modern alphabets. The clay tablets on which the cuneiform script was inscribed varied in size according to the amount of text, ranging from small tags to tiles as large as 30 centimetres by 45 centimetres. However the longer historical and commemorative inscriptions were often written on large clay prisms or cylinders. By the fifth century BCE, the simplified Phoenician and Aramaic scripts had supplanted the cuneiform script in most areas, although cuneiform script continued to be used for temple documents in Babylon until about 75 CE. Pottery and other objects from Byblos and Sidon, during the period from 2100 BCE to 1700 BCE, show that a linear script called pseudo-hieroglyphics was then in use. Variously called Canaanite, Sinaitic or proto-Phoenician, this script was one of the earliest forms of a non-Egyptian alphabetical script. Archaeological studies testify that the use of this script rapidly became so widespread in the Middle East that an alphabet, usually called the Phoenician alphabet, was in general use by 1500 BCE. This alphabet progressively replaced the cumbersome cuneiform scripts of Babylonia and Assyria and the more complex hieroglyphic writing of Egypt. It has been shown that he ancient Hebrew alphabet is linked to the hieroglyphs of Egypt through the Sinaitic script. Early samples of the script have been found in the region of Sinai, where the Hebrew scriptures record that Moses was instructed to write the Tables of the Law, probably in about 1280 BCE.


As in the Sinaitic script and the basic hieroglyphic pictographs from which that script was derived, each letter in the Hebrew alphabet originally represented an object and hence conveyed a specific meaning. Over time the meaning amplified through thought processes to represent additional associated meanings. For example aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, represents the head of a bull, derived directly from the Egyptian hieroglyph representing the animal. In the Hebrew system of characters aleph also has the numerical value of 1. Because the people had worshipped the bull in antiquity, Hebrew priests in ancient times used aleph to represent the deity. In later times the yod became the symbol of God, because it is the initial character of the Tetragrammaton and also of Jah, the two-letter name of God revered by the Hebrews. Aleph is the equivalent of alpha in the Greek alphabet. In the Sinaitic script, the equivalent of the Hebrew aleph looks very much like the Greek alpha, which in fact was derived from it. Depending upon the era of the Sinaitic script, its equivalents of aleph also bear a close resemblance to either the capital A or the small a of our modern Roman characters, all of which evolved from the alpha of the Greek alphabet. Such progressive developments of the alphabet aptly illustrate the fertile imagination of the human mind when using symbols.


Another example that deserves special mention is the eye used in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. This Egyptian character was carried forward into the Sinaitic script in a similar, though more rounded form, whence it was adopted in a modified form as a Hebrew character. In Hebrew the equivalent character is called ayin, which means an eye. However, it was also used to signify a well or spring of water. It is of particular interest to note that the English word for the physical organ also is eye, which is pronounced almost exactly the same as the Hebrew word and its equivalent in other languages of the Near East. The shape of ayin in the present formal Hebrew script is very different from the teardrop shape of its prototypes in the Sinaitic script and the Hebrew script of 700 BCE and earlier. Although ayin now looks more like a small y in the Roman alphabet, nevertheless the original shape was round, in the form that it was carried forward into the Greek alphabet as omicron, which is similar to the capital O and small o of our modern Roman alphabet. It is interesting to note that the equivalent eye in the Egyptian hieroglyphs was also used to depict the "all-seeing eye of God" in the Egyptian texts, in exactly the same sense as it is used in Psalm 33:18, which says that "the eye of the Lord is upon thee", signifying God's watchful care over humanity. There are many similar threads of interest that have their origins in the Egyptian hieroglyphs and continue through the Sinaitic script into the Hebrew characters, thence into the Greek alphabet and ultimately into our modern Roman alphabet. This proves beyond doubt that symbolism is an integral part of our nature and our language, without which all communication would be barren.


Symbolism in the scriptures


The scriptural texts of all religions are copiously illustrated with symbolic references. Frequently those references are simple figurative statements, although emphasis may be given by expanding the theme into a short metaphorical passage or even as lengthy parable. Symbol comes through the Latin symbolum from the Greek sumbolon, a derivative of sumballien meaning to throw. The Greek sumbolon means to put together or to compare in ordinary usage, but it also is used to signify a token. This is analogous to the Latin use of symbolum to indicate a mark or sign as a means of recognition. Metaphor is derived from the Greek metaphora, meaning transfer or transportation, but in Greek usage the word is also used to signify a figure of speech, in the way as it is used in English to indicate that a quality usually attached to one kind of object is transferred to another. Parable also comes from the Greek language, in which parabole literally means putting things side by side. It is somewhat similar in meaning to allegory, from the Greek allegoria meaning to say things in a different way. This brief outline of the background to our language reveals its extraordinary capacity to communicate abstract thoughts by symbols.


A key objective in the use of parables and allegories is to present interesting illustrations, from which moral or religious truths are easily deduced. The value of teaching in this way is twofold, because assimilation is easier and retention is improved when the recipients draw their own conclusions from the illustrations presented. In modern usage a parable is a short descriptive story intended to convey a single truth, whereas an allegory usually is a more elaborate exposition in which the details present several comparisons. A good example of a parable, or simple figurative statement in the scriptures, is found in Psalm 23:1 -

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want".

Another well known example of a parable is the Old Testament prophecy that is said to foretell the birth, death and resurrection of the Messiah, which is recorded in Psalm 118:22 in the following words:

"The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner-stone".

A typical example of a short metaphorical passage relates to the latter part of the reign of Jeroboam II, in about 750 BCE, which was a period of economic boom when the living conditions were luxurious, moral corruption was rampant and idolatry was prevalent. The impending judgment of Israel was foretold by the prophet Amos, in Amos 7:8-9, when he quoted the Lord's words as:


"I am setting a plumb line to the heart of my people Israel; never again will I pass them by. The hill-shrines of Isaac shall be desolated and the sanctuaries of Israel laid waste; I will rise, sword in hand, against the house of Jeroboam."


This prophesy was fulfilled during the reign of Hezekiah's son Menasseh, in about 650 BCE, when the Lord found the people to be irremediably warped by sin and declared an irrevocable sentence of destruction upon them, which is graphically recorded in II Kings 21:13-14 by the words:


"I will mark down every stone of Jerusalem with the plumb-line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab; I will wipe away Jerusalem as when a man wipes his plate and turns it upside down."


A representative parable, in Matthew 20:1-16, tells the story of labourers in the vineyard to illustrate the fairness of God. It shows how God deals with men graciously, though not necessarily in strict accordance with their merits. The landowner engaged various labourers and agreed their day's wages with them, then set them to work at different times of the day. When paid at the end of the day some labourers complained that their pay was not fair, but the landowner said that it was his prerogative to set the wages and theirs to accept them. In the fourth chapter of Mark is an interesting series of parables readily understood by the peasant farmers of the day, concerning the vicissitudes of sowing seed, how seed grows secretly at night and how a minute mustard seed can grow into a tree. Many dramatic allegories are found in the scriptures. Those in Ecclesiastes are not divine revelations, but an exposition of how ordinary humans reason, reminding us that all "under the sun" is complete emptiness, except that which comes from above in the form of God's revelation and salvation. Two passages in Ecclesiastes deserving special attention are in Chapter 11, which exhorts “youthful diligence” and in Chapter 12, which reminds us of our “inevitable destiny”.


Symbolism in speculative freemasonry


The initiate is informed that freemasonry is a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. In this respect the system of instruction in freemasonry closely parallels that used in the scriptures. The basic symbols of freemasonry are drawn directly from a consideration of the implements used by operative masons, supplemented by the characteristics of the various building stones, the methods used to prepare and test the stones, the erection of the building and even the building itself. The ways in which these implements, methods and materials are applied in operative freemasonry are used to demonstrate basic truths and to inculcate analogous actions on the part of the individual. The purpose is to stimulate intellectual comparisons and to promote an intelligent consideration of courses of action and their outcomes, thereby inducing the individual to discover, by the process of rational reasoning, the moral lessons inculcated by the symbols. These visible symbols of freemasonry have greatly enriched our language by introducing such descriptive epithets as "square conduct", "upright intentions", "on the level" and a host of other expressions now in everyday use.


The esoteric teachings of speculative freemasonry are incorporated in the ceremonial in which the candidate plays an active part, including the apparently exoteric components of preparation and introduction. They are essential elements of the ceremonials, which by their nature are intended to create an enduring impression on the candidate's mind. The various ceremonials include journeys and other relevant activities in a dramatic and allegorical form, which are intended to create a lasting impression. These instructions are supplemented and amplified by appropriate addresses and allegorical lectures. In addition to the moral instruction that is communicated through exoteric symbols, the system of instruction is intended to stimulate contemplation, thereby helping the individual to formulate personal answers to the following three fundamental questions:


"What are we and from whence did we come?"

"What is our purpose on earth and in life?"

"What is our ultimate destiny?"


These questions are intimately related to the three elements of human existence, the body, the mind and the soul. Each in turn is reflected in the ceremonials of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason, which allegorically relate to birth, life and death and provide symbolic instruction that is intended to assist candidates to find their own answers to these three fundamental questions.

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