by Bro. James W. Maertens, 32°
Lodge Education Officer
The three chief virtues practiced by Freemasons are brotherly love, relief, and truth. What do these words really mean to us? Often the words we use to refer to abstract virtues or vices grow fuzzy and become mere platitudes in our consciousness. We hear them, we nod and pay them lip service, but too seldom perhaps stop to really think about what they mean. The word becomes a vague gesture instead of a sharp instrument against our breast.
Looking at the roots of words is a good way to sharpen them – to see where they came from when they were first used. In English we use two words to express "brotherly love." The phrase suggests that it is feeling or emotion. Love, in English can mean so many things. We can hardly count all the nuances of that single word. Primarily, however, it is used to describe relationships. Sometimes "love" describes things that give us pleasure – I love to fish or I love to read. When applied to people it implies relationship, the feelings that we have, and our behavior towards the beloved. What does it mean to love your brother?
In Latin there is a word that describes this relationship and the feeling that goes with it. The word is Fraternitas. It comes from the Latin word frater, meaning brother, and it was used as we use the word "brotherhood." It is the source of our English word "fraternity." Fraternitas refers to birth and blood but also to that adoptive brotherhood that men feel when they join together under some organization and authority. Men in the military often feel like brothers.
However, we know that brothers can hate each other as well as love each other. So fraternitas really points to that concept we express with the phrase "brotherly love." We are talking about the right relationship among brothers. One of the most seminal stories in the Bible is that of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve who serve as the archetypal example of the lack of brotherly love. Cain murders Abel because he is too competitive and envious. The Romans called this state of mind aemulus, from which we get our word "emulate." In Latin the word could mean, as it does for us, to make someone else our model of behavior, but it could also have a bad sense, for which we use the word "envy." Instead of emulating Abel, Cain just saw him as a rival and envied his apparent success in making God happy with his sacrifice.
Remember that God is very much "The Father" in The Book of Genesis. And Cain and Abel are both trying to please their father in this symbolic or spiritual sense. That is often how it goes with men. Men organize themselves into patriarchies -- which comes from the Latin pater "father" – meaning "the rule of the fathers." Symbolic fathers as well as biological fathers can organize in this way because what patriarchy really means is that the older men take on the role of father and exercise control over younger men. In the military, the hierarchy of men and the rule of the older men is readily apparent in the chain of command and the many ranks through which a career soldier climbs. Brotherhood under patriarchy is always defined in terms of subordination to a literal or symbolic father.
Freemasonry, by contrast, is founded on the principle of equality among brothers. The philosophy of Masonry implies that no Mason should occupy the authoritarian role of "father." Nevertheless, there have developed within the fraternity all sorts of titles, degrees, and offices, especially in the concordant orders. Such titles and offices emulate the structure of patriarchy, often explicitly using titles drawn from military ranks or priestly patriarchies. Yet, my impression is that in the context of Freemasonry, such titles are carried to an almost ridiculous degree of pomposity for a reason, and the reason is satire. The vanity of man-made hierarchies, and titles inherited or bestowed by monarchs is dramatized in order to demonstrate precisely its illusory quality. The only knighthood or kingship or mastery worth anything is that based in real virtue, not social status and power over others. Masonic philosophy places all master masons on the level. One may hold an office, but that does not mean, as it does in patriarchal structures, that the office gives one superiority and power over the other members of lodge or temple. Each of us is the Grand Master from the moment of his initiation. A band of brothers works together and the only Father that Freemasons acknowledge is the Fatherhood of God. No single mason speaks for that Spiritual Father or acts for Him.
Anyone who has had several brothers knows that brotherly equality is often undermined by age. Older brothers begin to emulate their fathers and act as if they have authority over their younger brothers. But the older brothers within masonry are not intended to be patriarchs, nor is the eldest the heir of the father. All the brothers in our family are heirs to the Great Architect. Younger brothers may, in turn, play tricks, complain, tattle, or simply annoy their older brothers in an attempt to exercise power over them. If the father is absent (and we are leaving the mothers on the side for the moment), then brothers can become quite vicious.
The word "vicious" is also Latin, from vitium, which is also the root of our word "vice." We may think of viciousness as something fierce with big teeth, but vitium started out meaning "weakness," that is, a flaw or weak point. In the building trade you need to avoid weak points in your structure because even small weaknesses can lead to whole buildings collapsing. So, when I say that in the absence of a symbolic father brothers can become vicious to each other, I mean both that they can be cruel and also that that streak of cruelty becomes a weakness. Indeed, once one brother goes off plumb, his weakness spreads in rivalry and jealousies. It is odd that in our society's idea of masculinity, toughness and ferocity are often represented to be strengths. They may be ways to display physical strength or bravery, but when they become vicious, that is something else. Physical strength or strength of will is no virtue when undermined by the weakness of uncontrolled passions and a desire to dominate others.
Notice that in English the opposite of vice is virtue. The word "virtue" comes to us from the Latin word vir, and that means "man." So, "virtue" alludes to manliness. But it doesn't mean machismo – strutting around acting tough, or brawling with anyone who disagrees with our opinions -- it means all those qualities that we admire in a good man. These are give us in our Masonic lectures and degrees: The cardinal virtues of fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, and the spiritual virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In our Masonic obligations and charges, we are admonished to seriously study these virtues. Such old-fashioned ideas and words have become rare in our everyday conversation. While we still speak of "intestinal fortitude" (having guts), the word "temperance" has come to mean that a person disapproves of strong liquor, and the word "prudence" has practically disappeared from our vocabularies altogether. Yet these virtues are actually central to the Masonic ideal of manliness – "prudence" (Latin prudentia) means wisdom, conservative caution, and good judgment, while "temperance" means due restraint -- the ability to circumscribe our actions within the bounds of acceptable behavior so that our passions do not become self-destructive or hurtful to others.
In the traditional scheme of seven virtues, we can identify the spiritual virtue of Charity (or Love) as the wellspring of the three Masonic virtues: Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth.
In upcoming issues of The Herald, I will explore these virtues in more detail. In the next issue I will examine the practice of Relief and Truth as the two other sides of the triangle of which Love is the base.