Bro. James W. Maertens, Ph.D.
Lodge Education Officer
One of the declamations you will here at each opening on the first degree in lodge is the statement I have used as a title. What come you here to do? To subdue my passions and improve myself in Masonry. If you do this job, you will be doing the true work of a Freemason. But what exactly does it mean? What passions exactly do we mean? And for that matter, what does it mean to “subdue” them?
The word “subdue” means to calm, vanquish, or tame. By passions we usually mean some kind of intense emotion. So we pledge to calm our emotions and master them, most especially when they are too extreme or likely to make us commit acts that are unwise an will lead to bad consequences. We might think of anger, lust, jealousy, envy, hate.
In fact we are referring to what the medieval theologians called the Seven Deadly Sins. You have heard of them before, no doubt, but here they are again: Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. Sometimes, they are given different names and some moral philosophers have felt that there ought to be more than seven. But seven is one of those magic numbers we like to use – seven planets, seven days in a week, seven colors of the spectrum, seven seas, seven liberal arts -- as we learn in our Fellowcraft degree,
The word “sin” is used almost exclusively in a religious sense, but as Masons we may wish to call them simply moral errors. Passions are not in themselves bad. On the contrary, we admire men with passion. But passions that are detrimental to ourselves and others are not good and as good men we should wish to avoid them. We don’t need to subdue passions of a positive and constructive nature. That is what we call enthusiasm. The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek entheos, which means to be filled with a god, or inspired. Enthusiasm feels like one is being motivated by a god, by some power beyond one’s ego.
Unfortunately, negative passions feel the same way – we can feel swept away with emotion so that we believe ourselves unable to help ourselves. We often talk that way when we say we “fall in love” – as if it were a pit, out of which we are powerless to escape. And once “in love” the world plays by different rules.
As they say, all’s fair in love and war – meaning that what we are compelled to do by the passions of love and the heat of battle are things that are socially unacceptable in normal, calm, rational states of mind. Things like infidelity and killing our fellow men. In the seven deadly sins scheme, what we are talking about are lust and wrath. We license soldiers to let loose their wrath on enemies within some limits. Lust is taken for granted in society and used by Hollywood and Madison Avenue to make a living. It underlies our culture, but polite society tries to not talk about it, at least when ladies are present. So, let’s start with lust.
Let’s start with Lust, since that is probably the most interesting of the sins. What do you picture in your mind when you think of the word “lust”? Sometimes we think of it as physical attraction distinct from love. But Thomas Aquinas considered that the sin of lust is in an excessive love of others -- the love of another more than one loves God. It isn’t the physical act, the dance of sex, which is a sin. It is putting sexual attraction before everything else. It is losing one’s self-control and putting a particular person, love object, or the love of the act itself in a position that is all-consuming . Infidelity may be another moral lapse, but that is distinct from lust itself.
Lust is a mistake because it removes God from the center of your life and being. And this doesn’t mean that you ought to be going to church instead of the brothel. It is an inward matter first, that may lead to certain outward behaviors. But Lust is a sin even if it doesn’t lead you into a life of debauchery or adultery, and other actions that are destructive and hurtful. Before any physical action, it is a matter of spirit. Spiritually, if you love some other person more than God, then you have abandoned the center of your being and sacrificed yourself to that person, making a false god or goddess to worship.
Lust may be “selfish” but it is so in a weird way, because we shrink our sense of “self” when we lose sight of our connection to the Divine. In trying to make yourself the most important thing in the world because you are the worshipper of your beloved, who is the most important thing in the world, you actually diminish yourself, and your beloved. Psychologically speaking, you have identified yourself and your lover with archetypes and in doing so you feel temporarily inflated and ecstatic, but you have lost sense of yourself and your lover as a whole person in the process.
Of course, there is another logical reason given by the theologians why lust is an error: It is a waste of time and energy. Giving in too much to sexual passions means a man is not getting anything else done. It interferes with his main mission, which is to realize himself and use his talents and gifts in the world – hopefully to make life better for others as well as for himself.
Waste is the theme of Gluttony too. Gluttony is about eating too much, but it is also about eating food that is too expensive, too fancy. It is really about overindulgence. Eating more than we need to eat wastes food and is unhealthy, so it wastes our strength. Eating too much or too expensively wastes money that you might have done better to give to the poor and hungry. No matter what your religion, it undoubtedly urges you to feed the hungry and clothe and shelter the destitute.
There is an awful lot of feasting that goes on among Masons, a lot of money spent that might, honestly, be spent better feeding those who are less fortunate than we are. Those nameless poor and homeless people living on the streets, are exactly the people that should be the objects of our charity. While I know it’s a damper, you might think about this when you are indulging yourself with luxuries like liquor and cigars, or a dinner at an expensive restaurant. Especially, if you are sitting at the table afterwards feeling too full. American culture encourages gluttony. There are a lot of voices urging us to eat more vegetables and lose weight, but the balance of our restaurant-eating culture is mostly gluttonous. The man who wishes to subdue his passions cannot play along with this part of our culture. Save your money. Learn to cook, and donate the savings to a food shelf.
Envy and Greed
Greed and Envy seem to go together. Envy is an excessive desire for the possessions or accomplishments of others. Instead of admiring the wealth and achievements of a friend or colleague, or our brother’s beautiful home or wife, we fall into the passion of Envy and that results in wanting to take away the possessions of others in order to have them yourself. Envy turns a man into a criminal, willing to commit theft, treachery, murder, to lie or cheat and betray even a friend, to get his property, or if that is impossible, to deprive him of it. The envious man resents something that his neighbor has, which he himself lacks.
Again, we might say that this passion leads to a huge waste of time and energy. It is a disproportionate feeling, an imbalance of mind and can be just as obsessive as lust. Envy turns admiration into hatred. And hatred is always destructive and if acted on can be self-destructive as well.
Likewise Greed (also called Avarice). This is the excessive desire for wealth and power. And note that it is power and not just money. As with sex and lust, there is nothing wrong with money itself, making it, or having it. Greed is going beyond what we need to a point where the desire for money and power is substituting for something else in our psyche. Again, the mind has slipped away from God and the center of the self. The greedy man can never be content no matter how much he has. Again, he wastes his time and energies as he neglects other aspects of his life, and fails to act upon the golden rule.
Wrath is another of the seven sins. It certainly deviates from the golden rule. Few of us want to be beat up or murdered by our neighbor. We know that murder and assault are crimes almost universally in every human society. But wrath is not the violent act itself. It is the state of mind underlying the act. Wrath is excessive anger – anger that is disproportionate and impulsive. Aquinas said that it is the perversion of the desire for justice. The sort of hatred that leads to feuds, duels, vigilantism, and sudden, thoughtless assaults on other people.
Nor should we think it is only a matter of physical violence. Verbal and emotional abuse, the abuse of power in general, if it is motivated by wrath is a serious fault in one’s character, and a passion that must be subdued in order to sustain a peaceful, organized society. What about simply wishing others dead through the intermediary of the national armed forces? That too can be wrath showing its ugly head, desiring not justice so much as revenge, or worse still, hating some foreign “other” just because it makes us temporarily feel superior.
Wrath can also be directed inward as self-hatred, even leading to suicide. To allow anger, disappointment, or for that matter any of the other sins to lead us into self-hatred, means that once again we have dislodged the Supreme Architect from his rightful place in our hearts. To fail to love oneself or others is to lose connection with the love of the Creator that is the only limitless source of happiness and contentment. The ruffians in our legend allowed themselves to be consumed by wrath and so destroyed the very source of the knowledge, power, and sustenance that they wished to take by force. Fortunately – and the legend tells us this too – nobody can actually destroy the Great Architect with their wrath.
Pride, is considered by some to be the root of all the seven sins. And here again we must distinguish pride from healthy self-esteem. Pride is the opposite of self-hatred. It is excessive love of yourself, and the belief that you are superior to others. It leads to hatred and disparagement of others in order to puff up your own sense of power and worth. It is the excessive desire to be more important and more attractive than everyone else. Does this mean you should stop bathing and getting your hair cut? Or stop wearing good clothes? Probably not. Unless you are wasting money on such things that might be better spent helping others.
Examine your state of mind. Is your self-image calm, rational, confident, and self-assured regardless of what others think of you? Or is your self-image motivated by the desire to appear better than other people? Our American culture tempts us to this state of mind constantly. We are tempted to buy a more expensive suit, a more expensive home, and more expensive car, or vacation, or whatever it may be – all because this is supposed to make us feel superior to others. Don’t be duped by that false promise. Superiority is not necessary to anyone in life. The truly superior man does not need to prove his worth. He may indeed be a better man than many, but he is not puffed up with pride about it. He goes on quietly, daily making himself a better man -- better than he himself was yesterday.
The fallen angel Lucifer, from Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost is a great example of pride. Lucifer’s pride ultimately makes him want to be superior to God, his creator. Put in human terms, this might not sound so bad, but if you recognize that God is not a King or a boss or even a father, then the error becomes clear. God is the center of Being, the Supreme Being by definition, not because he put himself there. We might say that those ruffians, before they let themselves go to wrath, let themselves become proud. The desire to be superior, excessive ambition, led them to commit crimes and ultimately destroy themselves.
Sloth or Acedia
I have saved Sloth for last. This moral error is also called Acedia. The word comes from Greek: a – “without” and kedos “care.” So, it means “without care, careless, uncaring.” We think of Sloth as laziness, but it is more than just laying around in the hammock doing nothing. Acedia is the act of not acting when we could. If we fail to use our gifts and talents, if we decline to help others, or to help ourselves, or if we disengage from the world, indifferent to what happens this is acedia. It often leads to cynicism, and its most extreme form is apathy and despair.
This lack of hope, lack of faith, and lack of love are the sinful part of Sloth. It is the lack of motivation of any kind. The man of inaction, who gives up and despairs of ever getting anything right, making anything of himself, or helping to create a better future world, sets himself in a downward spiral, a self-fulfilling prophecy of hopelessness.
Examine yourself frequently to see if you care. Step aside and look at your state of mind, what lies behind your ego and your actions. Do you care? Or do you not care? And what is the nature of that caring? For too often we think we are acting because we care about other people’s welfare, but are motivated by our own pride, our belief that we know what is right for other people because we are superior men. Subdue that desire to be better than others and then care about them. That is the only way to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
What if you were to take each of these troublesome “passions” in turn, one for each day of the week. Take just ten minutes to write about your state of mind on that day and whether you felt any of these seven Errors of Attitude, as we might call them. Realizing that you have felt the tug of one of these dangerous currents turning your boat off course, allows you to make daily course corrections, and to keep your own inner Helmsmen at the Wheel. Or, to use a more Masonic allegory, you must each day consult the designs on the trestleboard to make sure that no mistakes are being made in the building of your temple. Now, put on your apron and try it.