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TRADITION AND HISTORY IN MASONRY
by Albert G. Mackey
Excerpt from The History of Freemasonry
In the study of Freemasonry there are two kinds of statements which are presented to the mind of the inquiring scholar, which are sometimes concurrent, but much oftener conflicting, in their character.
These are the historical and the traditional,each of which appertains to Freemasonry as we may consider it in a different aspect.
The historical statement relates to the Institution as we look at it from an exoteric or public point of view ; the traditional refers only to its esoteric or secret character.
So long as its traditional legends are confined to the ritual of the Order, they are not appropriate subjects of historical inquiry. They have been invented by the makers of the rituals for symbolic purposes connected with the forms of initiation. Out of these myths of Speculative Masonry its philosophy has been developed ; and, as they are really to be considered as merely the expansion of a philosophic or speculative idea, they can not properly be posited in the category of historical narratives.
But in the published works of those who have written on the origin and progress of Masonry, from its beginning to the present time, the legendary or traditional has too much been mingled with the historical element. The effect of this course has been, on adversely prejudiced minds, to weaken all claims of the Institution to an historical existence. The doctrine of "false in one thing, false in all," has been rigidly applied, and those statements of the Masonic historian which are really authentic have been doubted or rejected, because in other portions of his narrative he has been too credulous.
Borrowing the technical language of archaeology, I should say that the history of Masonry' may be divided into two periods-the prehistoric and the historic. The former is traditional, the latter documentary. Each of these divisions must, in any historical inquiry, be clearly defined. There is also another division, into esoteric and exoteric history. The first is exclusively within the arcana of the Order, and can not, as I have said, be the subject of historical investigation. The second properly comes within the sphere of historical study, and is subjected to all the laws of historical criticism.
When we are treating of Freemasonry as one of the social organizations of the world-as one of those institutions which are the results of civilization, and which have sprung up in the progress of society ; and, finally, when we are considering what are the influences that the varying conditions of that society have produced upon it, and what influences it has reciprocally produced upon these varying conditions-we are then engaged in the solution of a historical problem, and we must pursue the inquiry in a historical method and not otherwise. We must discard all speculation, because history deals only with facts.
If we were treating the history of a nation, we should assert nothing of it as historical that could not be traced to and be verified by its written records. All that is conjectured of the events that may have occurred in the earlier period of such a nation, of . which there is no record in contemporaneous or immediately subsequent times, is properly thrown into the dim era of the prehistoric age. It forms no part of the authentic history of the nation, and can be dignified, at its highest value, with the title of historical speculation only, which claims no other credence than that which its plausibility or its probability commands.
Now, the possibility or the probability that a certain event may have occurred in the early days of a nation's existence, but of which event there is no record, will be great or little, as dependent on certain other events which bear upon it, and which come within the era of its records. The event may have been possible, but not probable, and then but very little or no importance would be imputed to it, and it would at once be relegated to the category of myths. Or it may have been both possible and highly probable, and we may be then permitted to speculate upon it as something that had exerted an influence upon the primitive character or the subsequent progress of the nation. But, even then, it would not altogether lose its mythical character. Whatever we might predicate of it would only be a plausible speculation. It would not be history, for that deals not in what may have been, but only in that which actually has been.
The progress in these latter days of what are called the exact sciences has led, by the force of example and analogy, to a more critical examination of the facts, or, rather, the so-called facts, of history.
Voltaire said, in his Life of Charles XII1 of Sweden, that " incredulity is the foundation of history." Years passed before the axiom in all its force was accepted by the learned. But at length it has been adopted as the rule of all historical criticism. To be credulous is now to be unphilosophical, and scholars accept nothing as history that can not be demonstrated with almost mathematical certainty.
Niebuhr began by shattering all faith in the story of Rhea Sylvia, of Romulus and Remus, and of the maternal wolf, which, with many other incidents of the early Roman annals, were consigned by him to the region of the mythical.
In later times, the patriotic heart of Switzerland has been made to mourn by the discovery that the story of William Tell, and of the apple which he shot from the head of his son, is nothing but a mediaeval fable which was to be found in a great many other countries, and the circumstances of which, everywhere varying in details, still point to a common origin in some early symbolic myth. It is thus that many narratives, once accepted as veracious, have been, by careful criticism, eliminated from the domain of history ;_ and such works as Goldsmith's Histories of Greece and Rome are no longer deemed fitting text-books for schools, where nothing but truth should be taught.
The same rules of critical analysis which are pursued in the separation of what is true from what is false in the history of a nation should be applied to the determination of the character of all statements in Masonic history. This course, however, has, unhappily, not been generally pursued. Many of its legends are unquestionably founded, as I shall endeavor hereafter to show, on a historical basis ; but quite as many, if not more, are made up out of a mixture of truth and fiction, the distinctive boundaries of which it is difficult to define ; while a still greater number are altogether mythical, with no appreciable element of truth in their composition. And yet, for nearly two centuries, all of these three classes of Masonic legendary lore have been accepted by the great body of the Fraternity, without any discrimination, as faithful narratives of undoubted truthfulness.
It is this liberal acceptation of the false for the true, and this ready recognition of fables as authentic narratives whereby imaginative writers have been encouraged to plunge into the realms of absurdity instead of confining themselves to the domain of legitimate history, that have cast an air of romance over all that has hitherto been written about Freemasonry. Unjustly, but very naturally, scholars have been inclined to reject all our legends in every part as fabulous, because they found in some the elements of fiction.
But, on the other hand, the absurdities of legend-makers, and the credulity of legend-readers, have, by a healthy reaction, given rise to a school of iconoclasts (to whom there will soon be occasion to refer), which sprang up from a laudable desire to conform the principles of criticism which are to govern all investigations into Masonic history to the rules which control profane writers in the examination of the history of nations.
As examples of the legends of Masonry which have tempted the credulity of many and excited the skepticism of others, those almost universally accepted legends may be cited which attribute the organization of Freemasonry in its present form to the era of King Solomon's temple-the story of Prince Edwin and the Grand Lodge congregated by him at the city of York in the 10th century-and the theory that the three symbolic degrees were instituted as Masonic grades at a period very long anterior to the beginning of the 18th century.
These statements, still believed in by all Masons who have not made the history of the Order an especial study, were, until recently, received by prominent scholars as veracious narratives. Even Dr. Oliver, one of the most learned as well as the most prolific of Masonic authors, has, in his numerous works, recognized them as historic truths without a word of protest or a sign of doubt, except, perhaps, with reference to the third legend above mentioned, of which he says, with a cautious qualification, that he has "some doubts whether the Master's degree, as now given, can be traced three centuries backwards."
But now comes a new school of Masonic students, to whom, borrowing a word formerly used in the history of religious strifes, has been given the name of "iconoclasts." The word is a good one. The old iconoclasts, or image-breakers of the 8th century, demolished the images and defaced the pictures which they found in the churches, induced by erroneous but conscientious views, because they thought that the people were mistaking the shadow for the substance, and were worshipping the image or the picture instead of the Divine Being whom it represented.
And so these Masonic iconoclasts, with better views, are proceeding to destroy, by hard, incisive criticism, the intellectual images which the old, unlettered Masons had constructed for their veneration. They are pulling to pieces the myths and legends, whose fallacies and absurdities had so long cast a cloud upon what ought to be the clear sky of Masonic history. But they have tempered their zeal with a knowledge and a moderation that were unknown to the iconoclasts of religion. These shattered the images and scattered the fragments to the four winds of heaven, or they burnt the picture so that not even a remnant of the canvas was left. Whatever there was of beauty in the work of the sculptor or painter was forever destroyed. Every sentiment of aesthetic art was overcome by the virulence of religious fanaticism. Had the destructive labors of these iconoclasts been universal and long continued, no foundation would have been left for building that science of Christian symbolism, which in this day has been so interesting and so instructive to the archaeologist.
Not so have the Masonic iconoclasts performed their task of critical reformation. They have shattered nothing ; they have destroyed nothing. When in the course of their investigations into true Masonic history, they encounter a myth or a legend, replete, apparently, with absurdities or contradictions, they do not consign it to oblivion as something unworthy of consideration, but they dissect it into its various parts ; they analyze it with critical acumen ; they separate the chaff from the wheat ; they accept the portion that is confirmed by other and collateral testimony as a legitimate contribution to history ; what is undoubtedly fictitious they receive as a myth, and either reject it altogether as an unmeaning addition to a legend, or give it an interpretation as the expression of some symbolic idea which is itself of value in a historical point of view.
That lamented archaeologist, Mr. George Smith, late of the British Museum, in speaking of the cuneiform inscriptions excavated in Mesopotamia, and the legends which they have preserved of the old Babylonian empire, said: "With regard to the supernatural element introduced into the story, it is similar in nature to many such additions to historical narratives, especially in the East ; but I would not reject those events which may have happened, because, in order to illustrate a current belief, or add to the romance of the story, the writer has introduced the supernatural."
It is on this very principle that the iconoclastic Masonic writers, such as Hughan and Woodford, are pursuing their researches into the early history of Freemasonry. They do not reject those events related in the old legends, which have certainly happened, because in them they find also mythical narratives. They do not yield to the tendency which George Smith says is now too general, "to repudiate the earlier part of history, because of its evident inaccuracies and the marvelous element generally combined with it." It is in this way, and in this way only, that early Masonic history can be rightly written. Made up, as it has been for centuries past, of a commingled tissue of historical narrative and legendary invention, it has been heretofore read without judicious discrimination. Either the traditional account has been wholly accepted as historical, or it has been wholly rejected as fabulous, and thus, in either case, numerous errors have been the consequence.
As an example of the error which inevitably results from pursuing either of these methods of interpretation, one of which may be distinguished as the school of gross credulity, and the other as that of great skepticism, let us take the legend of the Temple origin of Masonry-that is to say, the legend which places the organization of the Institution at the time of the building of the temple at Jerusalem.
Now, the former of these schools implicitly receives the whole legend as true in all its details, and recognizes King Solomon as the first Grand Master, with Hiram of Tyre and Hiram as his Wardens, who, with him, presided over the Craft, divided into three degrees, the initiation into which was the same as that practiced in the lodges of the present day, or at least not very unlike it.
Thus Dr. Anderson, who was the first to publicly promulgate this legend and the theory founded on it, says, in the second edition of his " Constitutions," that Hiram Abif, " in Solomon's absence, filled the chair as Deputy Grand Master, and, in his presence, was the Senior Grand Warden" ;1 and, again, that " Solomon partitioned the Fellow Crafts into certain lodges, with a Master and Wardens in each"; 2 and, lastly, that "Solomon was Grand Master of all Masons at Jerusalem. King Hiram was Grand Master at Tyre, and Hiram Abif had been Master of Work." s The modern rituals have made some change in these details, but we evidently see here the original source of the legend as it is now generally believed by the Fraternity.
Indeed, so firmly convinced of its truth are the believers in this legend, that the brand of heterodoxy is placed by them on all who deny or doubt it.
On the contrary, the disciples of the latter school, whose skepticism is as excessive as is the credulity of the former, reject as fabulous everything that tends to connect Freemasonry with the Solomonic temple. To the King of Israel they refuse all honor, and they contemptuously repudiate the theory that he was a Masonic dignitary, or even a Freemason at all. One of these Pyrrhonists has gone so far as to defile the memory of the Jewish monarch with unnecessary and unmerited abuse. Between these two parties, each of which is misdirected by an in• temperate zeal, come the iconoclasts-impartial inquirers, who calmly and dispassionately seek for truth only. These disavow, it is true, the authenticity of the Temple legend in its present form. They deny that there is any proof which a historian could, by applying the just canons of criticism, admit as competent evidence, that Freemasonry was organized at the building of the temple of Solomon, and hence they look for its origin at some other period and under different circumstances.
But they do not reject the myth connected with the temple as being wholly unworthy of consideration. On the contrary, they respect this legend as having a symbolic significance, whose value can not be overestimated. They trace its rise in the Old Constitutions ; they find it plainly alluded to in the Legend of the Craft; and they follow it in its full development in the modern rituals. They thus recognize the influence that the story of the temple and its builders has exerted on the internal construction of the Order, and hence they feel no disposition to treat it, notwithstanding its historical inaccuracy, with contumely.
Knowing what an important part the legends and symbols of Freemasonry have performed in the progress of the Institution, and how much its philosophic system is indebted to them for all that is peculiar to itself, they devote their literary energies, not to the expurgation of this or any other myth or legend, but to the investigation of the questions how and when it arose, and what is its real significance as a symbol, or what foundation as a narrative it may have in history. And thus they are enabled to add important items to the mass of true Masonic history which they have been accumulating.
In short, the theory of the iconoclastic school is that truth and authenticity must always, and in the first place, be sought ; that nothing must be accepted as historical which has not the internal and external evidences of historical verity, and that in treating the legends of Masonry-of almost every one of which it may be said, " Se non vero, a ben trovato "-if it is not true, it is well invented -we are not to reject them as altogether fabulous, but as having some hidden and occult meaning, which, as in the case of all other symbols, we must diligently seek to discover. But if it be found that the legend has no symbolic significance, but is simply the distortion of a historical fact, we must carefully eliminate the fabulous increment, and leave the body-of truth to which it had been added, to have its just value.
Such was the method pursued by the philosophers of antiquity ; and Plato, Anaxagoras, and Cicero explained the absurdities of the ancient mythologists by an allegorical mode of interpretation. To this school I have for years been strongly attached, and in the composition of this work I shall adopt its principles. I do not fear that the claims of Freemasonry to a time-honored existence will be injured by any historical criticism, although the era in which it had its birth may not be admitted to be as remote as that assigned to it by Anderson or Oliver.
Iconoclastic criticism can not depreciate, but will rather elevate, the character of the Institution. It will relieve it of absurdities, will often explain the cause of anachronisms, will purify the fabulous element, and confine it within the strict domain of history.
It was a common reproach against the great Niebuhr that he had overthrown the whole fabric of early Roman history, and yet Dr. Arnold, the most competent of critics, has said of him that he had built up much more than he had destroyed, and fixed much that modern skepticism had rejected as fabulous on firmer historic grounds.
Following such a method as that pursued by the most learned of modern historians, it will be necessary, for a faithful and comprehensible investigation of the history of Masonry, to discriminate between the two periods into which it is naturally divided,
The HISTORIC embraces the period within which we have authentic documents in reference to the existence of the Order, and will be considered in the second part of this book.
The PREHISTORIC embraces the period within which we have no authentic memorials, and when we have to depend wholly on legends and traditions.
The legendary history of Masonry will, therefore, be commenced in the next chapter.
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Last modified: March 22, 2014