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the nobility of labour


part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

In all religions labour is a symbol of spiritual endeavour.


Labour in myth and religion


In all the myths and ancient religions, as also in modern Judaism, Christianity and Islam, work or labour, the labourers themselves, their wages, their places of work, the works they perform and the results of their labours all are of symbolic significance. In the language of the myths and religions of the world, work or labour is a symbol of spiritual endeavour. In religious symbolism work represents the struggle of the soul to attain perfection and the labourers characterise those qualities of the soul through which those endeavours are put into effect. Wages represent the rewards that will be received for the progress made, or the punishment that will accrue for a lack of progress. Such symbolic payments are commensurate with the spiritual advancement achieved or a failure to advance, as expressed in the old saying that the wages of sin is death”. As masonic symbolism has been adapted from or is closely allied to the symbolism of myth and religion, it would be appropriate to trace through those sources how the concept of the nobility of labour” evolved.


Symbolism in the Judæo-Christian scriptures


There is a broad spectrum of the Judæo-Christian religious symbolism involving labour, which is illustrated in the following excerpts from the New English Bible. The excerpts are quoted as a continuing narrative in the sequence they occur in the bible, each identified by its biblical reference. The narrative shows how the various elements of religious symbolism concerning labour are interwoven and it brings out the close parallels with masonic symbolism.


"You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground; for from it you were taken. Dust you are, to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)    You have six days to labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God; that day you shall not do any work. (Exodus 20-9-10 & Deuteronomy 5:13-14))   Seventy years is the span of your life, eighty if your strength holds; the hurrying years are labour and sorrow, so quickly they pass and are forgotten. (Psalms 90:10)   When God makes the sun rise, they (the young lions) slink away and go to rest in their lairs; but man comes out to his work and to his labours until evening. (Psalms 104:22-23)   You shall eat the fruit of your own labours, you shall be happy and you shall prosper. (Psalms 128:2)   The good man's labour is his livelihood; the wicked man's earnings bring him to a bad end. Correction is the high road to life; neglect reproof and you miss the way. (Proverbs 10:16-17)   A lazy man is torn by appetite unsatisfied, but the diligent grow fat and prosperous. (Proverbs 13:4)   What does man gain from all his labour and toil here under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth endures forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4)   What profit does one who works get from all his labour? (Ecclesiastes 3:9)   God will judge the just man and the wicked equally; every activity and every purpose has its proper time. In dealing with men it is God's purpose to test them and to see what they truly are. (Ecclesiastes 3:17-18)   Whether they plant or water, it is all the same, though each will get his own pay for his own labour. (I Corinthians 3:8-9)   If anyone builds on that foundation with gold, silver and fine stone, or with wood, hay and straw, the work that each man does will at last be brought to light; the day of judgement will expose it. For that day dawns in fire and the fire will test the worth of each man's work. If a man's building stands, he will be rewarded; if it burns, he will have to bear the loss; and yet he will escape with his life, as one may escape from a fire. Surely you know that you are God’s temple, where the Spirit of God dwells. (I Corinthians 3:12-16)


There is a parable in the New Testament about a vineyard owner and his labourers, which brings into focus the essential elements that comprise the concept of the “nobility of labour”, including the justness of recompense. These elements are also emphasised in passages from the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita that are quoted to later. In the New English Bible, Matthew 20, the parable is given in the following words:


“The kingdom of Heaven is like this. There was once a landowner who went out early one morning to hire labourers for his vineyard; and after agreeing to pay them the usual day's wage (literally one denarius or a penny for the day) he sent them off to work. Going out three hours later he saw some more men standing idle in the market place. ‘Go and join the others in the vineyard’ he said ‘and I will pay you a fair wage’; so off they went. At midday he went out again and at three in the afternoon and made the same arrangement as before. An hour before sunset he went out and found another group standing there; so he said to them ‘Why are you standing about like this all day with nothing to do?’ ‘Because no one has hired us’ they replied; so he told them ‘Go and join the others in the vineyard.’ When evening fell, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward ‘Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with those who came last and ending with the first.’ Those who had started work an hour before sunset came forward and were paid the full day’s wage. When it was the turn of the men who had come first, they expected something extra, but were paid the same amount as the others. As they took it they grumbled to their employer: ‘These late-comers have only done one hour’s work, yet you have put them on a level with us, who have sweated the whole day long in the blazing sun!’ The owner turned to one of them and said ‘My friend, I am not being unfair to you. You agreed to the usual wage for the day, did you not? Take your pay and go home. I choose to pay the last man the same as you. Surely I am free to do what I like with my own money. Why be jealous when I am kind’ Thus will the last be first and the first last.”


In this passage the kingdom of Heaven” signifies the consummation of a human being's earthly endeavours, which can only be attained through the acceptable completion of a life's work and is often referred to figuratively as that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”. The thoughts and actions of the landowner” represent Will, Wisdom and Action, the three divine aspects of humans as they labour in this earthly arena of life. The thoughts and actions of the labourers” symbolise those qualities of the soul with which a humans must work for their improvement while on earth, as well as the greed and jealousy inherent in human nature. The vineyard” represents the sphere of human spiritual wisdom, illustrating the broader aspects of human nature that must be developed to achieve a rewarding spiritual end. The work” symbolises the efforts that human souls should make towards the attainment of perfection, through their endeavours on earth. The “fair wage” not only symbolises those specific spiritual acquisitions that will reward human beings for the successful completion of their life's work, but also serves as a reminder that reward must not be the only objective of work.


The teachings of Muhammad


The correct name for the religion of the Prophet Muhammad is Islam, which is the infinitive of the Arabic verb meaning to submit. The followers of Islam understand this to mean submission to the will of Allah”, whence the expression inche Allah” is derived, meaning God willing”. The correct term for a follower of Islam is Muslim, which is the present participle of the same verb. To appreciate the Islamic concept of the nobility of labour, it is helpful to know something of the origins Islam and its principal beliefs. Islam is derived from the revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad, who was born at Mecca between 570 and 580. He was the posthumous son of a little known father and his mother died when he was about six years old. After his mother died he was brought up by his grandfather and later by his uncle Abu Talib. The Traditions tell us that when Muhammad was twelve years old he went to live with his uncle in Syria, where he met and received religious instruction from a Christian monk named Bahira. Although little of Muhammad's youthful life is known with certainty, there is no doubt that he was well versed in the scriptures of the Jews and the Christians, whom he referred to as the People of the Book”. The three most important doctrines of Islam are first that the one God, Allah, is the source of both good and evil. Second, that Allah's will is supreme, without any restriction from laws or principles. Third, that it is Allah alone who decides those who will be forgiven and those who will be punished.


Sir Norman Anderson (1908- ), a world-renowned expert on the law and practice of Islam, was appointed Professor of Oriental Laws at the University of London in 1954. Writing on Islam in The World's Religions, which Professor Anderson edited, he summed up the essence of Islamic belief in the following words:


"The Muslim God can best be understood in the desert. Its vastness, majesty, ruthlessness and mystery - and the resultant sense of the utter insignificance of man - call forth man's worship and submission, but scarcely prompt his love or suggest God's."


The practice of Islam concentrates on religious observance, central to which are the Five Pillars or the foundations of religion”, which are the recital of the creed, ritual prayer, fasting, almsgiving and the pilgrimage. Muslims believe that they can only attain paradise by a strict observance of the Five Pillars, coupled with an acknowledgement of the Unity and Transcendence of God, as distinct from salvation based on the life and works of the individual. Nevertheless the 'aqa'id, which are the "Articles of Faith" that are attributed by tradition to the Prophet Muhammad himself, require among other things that a Muslim must believe "in God, his Angels, his Books, his Messengers, in the Last Day . . . and in the Decree both of good and evil". Muhammad's upbringing undoubtedly shaped his early beliefs. Most of the important themes of the Judæo-Christian scriptures are reflected in the Qur'an or Koran. Despite Islam’s attitude to salvation, the Koran highlights the rewards for good works when discussing the transcendence and immanence of God in verses 35 to 40 of Sûrah XXIV – Light:


"Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. . . . Light upon light, Allah guides unto His light whom He will. And Allah speaks to mankind in allegories, for Allah is Knower of all things. . . . Men whom neither merchandise nor sale divert from remembrance of Allah and constancy in prayer and paying to the poor their due; who fear a day when hearts and eyes will be overturned; that Allah may reward them for the best of their works and increase the reward for them of His bounty. Allah gives blessings without stint to whom He will. As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are as a mirage in the desert. The thirsty one supposes it to be water until he comes to it and finds it naught; and finds in the place thereof, Allah, Who pays him his due; and Allah is swift at reckoning. . . . And he for whom Allah has assigned no light, for him there is no light."


The teachings in Hinduism


Hinduism is one of the oldest living religions in the world. It did not have a single founder, but originated in the ancient pre-Aryan civilisations of India. Its concepts and practices evolved gradually over five thousand years or more, assimilating all of the diverse cultural and religious movements in India. Although there are some obvious affinities between Islam and the bhakti or devotional sects of Hinduism, especially the nirgunam form, which stresses an imageless and formless God, the doctrines of Hinduism are in stark contrast with those of Islam. This is because Hinduism places much more emphasis on the conduct of life, than it does on the strict forms of religion required by Islam. The central tenet of Hinduism is the law of karma, which is the principle of moral action and reaction applied to both good and evil behaviour, whence it is said that as a man sows, so shall he reap”. Hinduism seeks the fundamental truths that are behind all manifestations, without any of the sharp distinctions that have developed between religion and culture in western civilisations. Hinduism is still an evolutionary faith, absorbing the ideals and ethics of Christianity and other modern religions, but it is not creedal like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hindus call their religion sanatana dharma, which means the eternal religion” having neither beginning nor ending, but coeval with life itself. All religious truths are considered to be manifestations of the One Truth, or the Ultimate Reality. In the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Song of the Lord”, Krishna declares:

“Howsoever men approach me, even so do I accept them; for on all sides, whatever path they choose is mine.”

The knowledge and ultimate acceptance of this profound truth is an inner mystical experience which the Hindu expresses in this familiar prayer:

“From delusion lead me to truth. From darkness lead me to light. From death lead me to immortality.”

The sacred law that is set out in the many Hindu scriptures, as well as the basic assumptions of the faith, are called the dharma. The dharma is not merely a religious belief, but a total way of life and conduct directed towards the search for Brahman, who is the Eternal Being” or Reality”, to which the law of karma is central. Karma is action or doing, which is expressed as a moral interpretation of the natural law of causation. Karma says that every action is the effect of a cause, which in its turn is the cause of an effect. It operates as an inexorable law of retributive justice, so that bad actions reap suffering and bondage, whereas good actions lead to freedom. An essential adjunct to karma is a belief in the transmigration of the soul, which is called samsara. In Hinduism the soul is believed to be eternal and shares the very essence of Reality. Good and evil are considered to be a function of the extent to which the soul is either attached to or detached from the Individual Self, so that when the soul reaches its True Self morality is transcended and the soul is released from the wheel of rebirth and from the bondage of karma, thus achieving salvation. In the Hindu scriptures the war in the Mahabharata is an earthly war, whereas the war in the Bhagavad Gita is symbolic. The importance placed on unselfish work in Hinduism is emphasised in Juan Mascaró’s translation from the Sanskrit of the Bhagavad Gita, 2. 47-50, when Krishna as the charioteer of the soul addresses Arjuna as the soul of man:


“Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work. Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and free from selfish desires; be not moved in success or failure. Yoga is evenness of mind – a peace that is ever the same. For work done for a reward is much lower than work done in the Yoga of wisdom. Seek salvation in the wisdom of reason. How poor those who work for reward! In this wisdom a man goes beyond what is well done and what is not well done. Go thou therefore in wisdom: Yoga is wisdom in work.”


The teachings of Buddhism


Buddhism is an offspring of Hinduism that came into existence almost six hundred years before Christ and about twelve hundred years before Islam. Although a wide variety of doctrines and customs are practised in Buddhism, they are all derived from the Four Truths of Siddhartha Gautama's enlightenment. Gautama was given the title of Buddha, which signifies the Enlightened One” or the Awakened One”, whence the name of the religion is derived. The Four Truths deal with suffering; with the cause of suffering; with the concept that suffering ceases when desire ceases; and finally with the Eightfold Path which leads to the cessation of suffering. The steps in the Eightfold Path are right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right mode of livelihood, right effort, right awareness and right concentration. Two of these steps in particular, namely right mode of livelihood and right effort, involve karma in a sense very similar to that as it is understood in Hinduism, insofar as a man's future existence is always considered to be affected substantially by his present actions. Buddhism teaches that everything that exists passes through an ever-continuing cycle of birth, growth, decay and death, but that in reality there is no such thing as death. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is Nirvana, a Sanskrit word literally meaning extinction, but in this instance referring only to tangible existence. Nirvana is an ethical state in which karma comes to an end and all future rebirth is eliminated, all craving is extinguished and there is a final release from all suffering.


Other eastern religions


Sikhism is a monotheistic sect of northern India that was founded by Nanak (1469-1538), who sought to harmonise Islam and Hinduism, but could not overcome the essential differences in the doctrines. The Punjabi word sikh is derived from the Sanskrit siksya which means a learner or a disciple. Salvation is seen as a mystical union with the Formless One, primarily through the power of bhakti or devotion, coupled with jnana or knowledge and karma or action. The sacred scriptures of Sikhism are the Adi-Granth, which is the sole authority. Sikhism is the only bhakti sect that has separated itself from the fold of Hinduism. Taoism and Confucianism are the ancient native religions of China and Shinto embraces the traditional religious practices that originated in Japan. Taoist mysticism contrasts with Confucian pragmatism, but both are ethical systems for the regulation of conduct in the earthly sphere, without any great emphasis on God or an after-life. Shinto has never developed a systematic doctrine, but is an amalgam of attitudes, ideas and ways of doing things, depending upon a personal faith in the kami. Although kami cannot be defined precisely, it involves the concepts of above and superior.


In ancient times kami was referred to anything that was awe-inspiring. Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto do not have sacred scriptures similar to those of other religions, from which their beliefs concerning labour and its rewards can be ascertained and compared. However, some aspects of these religions are of interest. One of the most important tenets of Chinese philosophy is a belief that the cosmos is governed by two opposing forces, the yin and the yang. The yin is the feminine force, which represents the earth, coldness, darkness and death. The yang is the masculine force, which represents heaven, warmth, light and life. The word Tao, from which Taoism derives its name, signifies both the Word” and the Way”, which have identical meanings to those of the same words when used in the New English Bible translation of the gospel according to John:


“When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God and what God was the Word was.” (John 1:1)    “I am the way; I am the truth and I am life.” (John 14:6)


In the mysticism of Taoism, the Tao is conceived as the first principle that even precedes God and is the universal cosmic energy underlying the order of nature. In the pragmatism of Confucianism, the importance of virtue, propriety and correct ritual is emphasised. Confucius is the Latin rendering of K'ung Fu-tsu, or the Master K'ung whose name was K'ung Ch'iu and who probably was born in 552 BCE. Much of Buddhism has been absorbed into Taoism and Confucianism over the last thousand years or so. The origins of Shinto are hidden in the prehistory of Japan, but it received its present name in the sixth century from two Chinese characters, shen, meaning divine being” and tao, meaning the way”.


Labour in masonic symbolism


Thousands of the adherents of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism, as well as Christians, are freemasons who find the tenets of the fraternity to be in accord with their personal religious beliefs. Many Muslims also have been freemasons and some still are, although the more extreme sects of Islam consider that freemasonry belongs only to the infidel. Nevertheless, from the foregoing outline of religions established on a worldwide basis, it is obvious that the principles and tenets of freemasonry are not in conflict with the beliefs of those religions. Furthermore it is evident, from the scriptural texts quoted, that masonic symbolism relating to the concept of the nobility of labour” is in close accord with religious symbolism concerning labour and its rewards. It is only natural that freemasonry should have many symbols illustrated by practical aspects of operative freemasonry, but many symbols in the scriptures also aptly relate to the operative art. The scriptural texts quoted and the religious beliefs outlined above leave us in no doubt that labour is more than the lot of man”. It is not only a necessity, but also a noble virtue. The monks of old taught, although they did not always practise, the wise precept that laborare est orare, which signify labour is prayer”, although it is often quoted as labour is worship”. Freemasonry teaches that the object and chief aim of all mankind is to labour well and truly, with honesty and persistence, for the good and ultimate salvation of humanity.


In the Bulletin du Grand Orient de France, December 1868, there is an address given by Brother Troue to the brethren of St Peter's Lodge in Martinico, which includes the following explanation that aptly illustrates how closely the principles and tenets of freemasonry relate to the concept of the nobility of labour”:


“Our name of Freemason and our emblems distinctly announce that our object is the elevation of labour.


We do not, as Freemasons, consider labour as a punishment inflicted on man; but on the contrary, we elevate it in our thoughts to the height of a religious act, which is the most acceptable to God because it is the most useful to man and to society.


We decorate ourselves with the emblems of labour to affirm that our doctrine is an incessant protest against the stigma branded on the law of labour, which an error of apprehension, proceeding from the ignorance of men in primitive times has erected into a dogma; an error that has resulted in the production of this anti-social phenomenon which we meet with every day; namely, that the degradation of the workman is the greater as his labour is more severe, whereas the elevation of the idler is higher as his idleness is more complete.


But the study of the laws which maintain order in nature, released from the fetters of preconceived ideas, has led the Freemasons to that doctrine, far more moral than the contrary belief, that labour is not an expiation, but a law of harmony from the subjection to which man cannot be released without impairing his own happiness and deranging the order of creation.


The design of Freemasons is the rehabilitation of labour, which is indicated by the apron we wear and the gavel, the trowel and the level which are found among our symbols.”

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