Highlights from The Symbolism of Freemasonry (Albert G. Mackey)

Establishing our new series, here are some highlights from Albert G. Mackey’s The Symbolism of Freemasonry (1882).

Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and our own edits, though marked, may be broad. Important: By sharing these highlights we neither endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that we know little of the authors, and that we have nuanced views on the matter—as with all our book recommendations.

The Symbolism of Freemasonry

“One of the most remarkable phenomena of the human race is the universal existence of religious ideas—a belief in something supernatural and divine, and a worship corresponding to it.”—Gross

[…] we find, soon after the cataclysm, the immediate descendants of Noah in the possession of at least two religious truths […]. These truths were the doctrine of the existence of a Supreme Intelligence, the Creator, Preserver, and Ruler of the Universe, and, as a necessary corollary, the belief in the immortality of the soul […].

There is no record of any nation, however intellectually and morally debased, that has not given some evidence of a tendency to such belief. The sentiment may be perverted, the idea may be grossly corrupted, but it is nevertheless there, and shows the source whence it sprang. 

Almost every country of the ancient world had its peculiar mysteries, dedicated to the occult worship of some especial and favorite god, and to the inculcation of a secret doctrine, very different from that which was taught in the public ceremonial of devotion. 

[…] after death comes life eternal, and […] though the body be destroyed, the soul shall still live. 

[…] conventional modes of recognition, by which one brother might know another in the dark as well as the light[.]

[The freemasons] became members of an establishment which had so high and sacred a destination, was so entirely exempt from all local, civil jurisdiction, acknowledged the pope alone as its direct chief, and only worked under his immediate authority […].

[…] in 1714, a proposition was agreed to by the society “that the privileges of Masonry should no longer be restricted to operative masons, but extend to men of various professions, provided that they were regularly approved and initiated into the order.” 

[…] at the commencement of the [18th] century, the operative element wholly disappeared, and the society has ever since presented itself in the character of a simply speculative association. 

[…] we shall find [freemasonry] so intimately connected with the history of philosophy, of religion, and of art in all ages of the world[.]

Freemasonry is a science of morality, developed and inculcated by the ancient method of symbolism. It is this peculiar character as a symbolic institution, this entire adoption of the method of instruction by symbolism, which gives its whole identity to Freemasonry, and has caused it to differ from every other association that the ingenuity of man has devised. 

We must constantly bear in mind this fact, of the primary existence and predominance of symbolism in the earliest times. […] The older the religion, the more the symbolism abounds. 

This spiritualizing of the temple of Solomon is the first, the most prominent and most pervading of all the symbolic instructions of Freemasonry. It is the link that binds the operative and speculative divisions of the order. […] Take from Freemasonry its dependence on the temple, leave out of its ritual all reference to that sacred edifice, and to the legends connected with it, and the system itself must at once decay and die […].

The perfect ashlar, therefore,—the stone thus fitted for its appropriate position in the temple,—becomes not only a symbol of human perfection (in itself, of course, only a comparative term), but also, when we refer to the mode in which it was prepared, of that species of perfection which results from the concord and union of men in society. It is, in fact, a symbol of the social character of the institution. 

The square is a symbol denoting morality. 

The plumb is a symbol of rectitude of conduct, and inculcates that integrity of life and undeviating course of moral uprightness which can alone distinguish the good and just man. 

The level, the last of the three working tools of the operative craftsman, is a symbol of equality of station. 

[…] the symbolic meaning which accompanies [the trowel] has a strict and beautiful reference to the purposes for which it was used in the ancient temple; for as it was there employed “to spread the cement which united the building in one common mass,” so is it selected as the symbol of brotherly love […].

The form of a masonic lodge is said to be a parallelogram, or oblong square; its greatest length being from east to west, its breadth from north to south. A square, a circle, a triangle, or any other form but that of an oblong square, would be eminently incorrect and unmasonic […].

A masonic lodge is […] a symbol of the world. 

[…] the Phallus or Lingam was a representation of the male principle only. 

[…] the point within the circle [with the] the point indicating the sun and the circle the universe, [got] invigorated and fertilized by his generative rays. 

[…] Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, Justice, Faith, Hope, and Charity. 

[…] Freemasonry is, strictly speaking, a science of symbolism. 

These masonic symbols rather may be compared to the elementary characters of the Chinese language, each of which denotes an idea; or, still better, to the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians, in which one object was represented in full by another which bore some subjective relation to it, as the wind was represented by the wings of a bird […].

[…] the act of going with naked feet was always considered a token of humility and reverence[.]

The rite of discalceation is, therefore, a symbol of reverence. It signifies, in the language of symbolism, that the spot which is about to be approached in this humble and reverential manner is consecrated to some holy purpose. 

“Who shall ascend,” says the Psalmist, “into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart.” The apron may be said to refer to the “pure heart,” the gloves to the “clean hands.” Both are significant of purification […].

Light […] became synonymous with truth and knowledge, and darkness with falsehood and ignorance. 

The difference between operative and speculative Masonry is simply this—that while the former was engaged in the construction of a material temple […], the latter occupies itself in the erection of a spiritual house […].

[…] in Hebrew, ho is the masculine pronoun, equivalent to the English he; and hi is the feminine pronoun, equivalent to she; and therefore the word HO-HI, literally translated, is equivalent to the English compound HE-SHE; that is to say, the Ineffable Name of God in Hebrew, being read cabalistically, includes within itself the male and female principle, the generative and prolific energy of creation […].

The Egyptians considered the equilateral triangle as the most perfect of figures, and a representative of the great principle of animated existence, each of its sides referring to one of the three departments of creation—the animal, the vegetable, and the mineral. The symbol of universal nature among the Egyptians was the right-angled triangle, of which the perpendicular side represented Osiris, or the male principle; the base, Isis, or the female principle; and the hypothenuse, their offspring, Horus, or the world emanating from the union of both principles. 

The triangle has, in all ages and in all religions, been deemed a symbol of Deity. 

The All-Seeing Eye is the symbol of the omnipresent God. 

The triangle is the symbol of the Supreme Architect of the Universe—the Creator; and when surrounded by rays of glory, it becomes a symbol of the Architect and Bestower of Light. 

[…] throughout the masonic system we find a predominance of odd numbers[.]

It is one of the most beautiful, but at the same time most abstruse, doctrines of the science of masonic symbolism, that the Mason is ever to be in search of truth, but is never to find it. This divine truth, the object of all his labors, is symbolized by the word, for which we all know he can only obtain a substitute; and this is intended to teach the humiliating but necessary lesson that the knowledge of the nature of God and of man’s relation to him, which knowledge constitutes divine truth, can never be acquired in this life. 

[…] to believe that all this pictorial representation of an ascent by a Winding Staircase to the place where the wages of labor were to be received, was an allegory to teach us the ascent of the mind from ignorance, through all the toils of study and the difficulties of obtaining knowledge, receiving here a little and there a little, adding something to the stock of our ideas at each step, until, in the middle chamber of life,—in the full fruition of manhood,—the reward is attained, and the purified and elevated intellect is invested with the reward in the direction how to seek God and God’s truth,—to believe this is to believe and to know the true design of Speculative Masonry […].

At every “gate of life”—as the Orientalists have beautifully called the different ages—[one?] is beset by peril. 

The institution of Freemasonry preceded the advent of Christianity. Its symbols and its legends are derived from the Solomonic temple, and from the people even anterior to that. 

[…] the Masonic Institution, that it teaches not only the necessity, but the nobility, of labor. 

“Profit by all that has been revealed to you. Improve your heart and your mind. Direct your passions to the general good; combat your prejudices; watch over your thoughts and your actions; love, enlighten, and assist your brethren; and you will have perfected that temple of which you are at once the architect, the material, and the workman.” 

The mythical history of Freemasonry informs us that there once existed a word of surpassing value, and claiming a profound veneration; that this Word was known to but few; that it was at length lost; and that a temporary substitute for it was adopted. […] The search for the Word—to find divine Truth—this, and this only, is a mason’s work, and the word is his reward. 

Read the whole book: The Symbolism of Freemasonry.