It is unnecessary to examine every aspect of Masonic ritual in order to underline the philosophical nature of its content. The gist can be obtained by looking at each Explanation of the Working Tools, a key component in the three Masonic degree ceremonies, which use allegory to outline the foundational Masonic principles.
The Explanation of the Working Tools of an Entered Apprentice contains references to education as the pivot on which self-improvement turns. A similar theme appears in and is reinforced by the second ‘Fellow Craft’ degree where the candidate is encouraged to embrace education: to ‘contemplate the intellectual faculty and to trace it from its development, through the paths of heavenly science’. A similar theme occurs in the third degree, which iterates that ‘we apply these tools to our morals’ with the intention of attaining a ‘straight and undeviating line of conduct’.
In the first degree the Working Tool catechism begins with a statement concerning operative stonemasons’ tools and is given at the end of a ceremony which is concerned with the allegorical birth of the candidate as he enters Freemasonry:
The Working Tools of an Entered Apprentice are the twenty-four inch gauge, the common gavel and chisel. The gauge is to measure our work, the gavel to knock off all superfluous knobs and excrescences, and the chisel to further smooth and prepare the stone and render it fit for the hands of the more expert workman. But as we are not all operative masons but rather free and speculative, we apply these tools to our morals: the gauge represents the twenty four hours of the day, part to be spent in prayer, part in labour and refreshment, and part
in serving a friend or brother in time of need; the gavel represents the force of conscience which should keep down all vain and unbecoming thought; and the chisel points out the advantages of education by which means alone we are rendered fit members of regularly organized society.
The aim is to promote reflection and meditation; charity and philanthropy; and education for the benefit of self and society.
A similar approach is taken in the second degree whose subject is how one should live one’s life, that is, ‘with square conduct, level steps and upright intentions’:
The Working Tools of a Fellowcraft are the square, the level and the plumb rule. The square is to try and adjust rectangular corners of buildings and assist in bringing rude matter into due form; the level to lay levels and prove horizontals; the plumb rule to try and adjust uprights while fixing them on their proper bases. But as we are not all operative masons but rather free and accepted, or speculative, we apply these tools to our morals: the square
teaches morality, the level equality and the plumb rule justness and uprightness of life and actions.
Once again the meaning is clear: an enjoinment to seek personal morality; egalitarianism; and to behave with justness and uprightness in one’s life and actions.
The third degree reflects on the observation that one’s conduct in life will be judged and rewarded or punished at death:
The Working Tools of a Master Mason are the skirret, pencil and compasses… But as we are not all operative masons but rather free and accepted, or speculative, we apply these to our morals: the skirret points out that straight and undeviating line of conduct laid down for our pursuit in the sacred law; the pencil teaches us that our words and actions are observed and recorded by the Almighty Architect; and the compasses remind us of His unerring and impartial justice. Thus the working tools of a master mason teach us to bear in mind and act according to the laws of our Divine Creator.
Other Lodge Ritual
Freemasonry’s three grand principles can be derived from its over-arching Enlightenment philosophy.
The first, ‘Brotherly love’, the promotion of thoughtfulness towards others, is advocated in the first degree ceremony alongside ‘Relief’, that is, charity and benevolence:
It is customary, at the erection of all stately and superb edifices, to lay the first or foundation stone at the North-East corner of the building. You, being newly admitted into Masonry, are placed at the North-East part of the Lodge figuratively to represent that stone, and from the foundation laid this evening may you raise a superstructure perfect in its parts and honourable to the builder. You now stand, to all external appearance, a just
and upright Mason and I give it you in strong terms of recommendation ever to continue and act as such. Indeed, I shall immediately proceed to put your principles in some measure to the test, by calling upon you to exercise that virtue which may justly be denominated the distinguishing characteristic of a Freemason’s heart; I mean Charity. I need not here dilate on its excellences: no doubt it has often been felt and practiced by you. Suffice it to say, it has the approbation of Heaven and earth, and like its sister, Mercy, blesses him who gives as well as him who receives.
In a society so widely extended as Freemasonry, the branches of which are spread over the four quarters of the globe …among the thousands who range under its banners, there are some who, perhaps from circumstances of unavoidable calamity and misfortune, are reduced to the lowest ebb of poverty and distress. On their behalf it is our usual custom to awaken the feelings of every new-made Brother by such a claim on his charity as his
circumstances in life may fairly warrant. Whatever, therefore, you feel disposed to give, you will deposit with the Junior Deacon; it will be thankfully received and faithfully applied.
Question: Have you anything to give in the cause of Charity?
Question: Were you deprived of everything valuable previously to entering the Lodge?
Question: If you had not been so deprived would you give freely?
I congratulate you on the honourable sentiments by which you are actuated; likewise on the inability which in the present instance precludes you from gratifying them. Believe me, this trial was not made with a view to sport with your feelings; far be from us any such intention. It was done for three especial reasons: first, as I have already premised, to put your principles to the test: secondly. to evince to the Brethren that you had neither money
nor metallic substance about you; and thirdly, as a warning to your own heart, that should you at any future period meet a Brother in distressed circumstances who might solicit your assistance, you will remember the peculiar moment you were received into Masonry, poor and penniless, and cheerfully embrace the opportunity of practicing that virtue you have professed to admire.
The third principle, ‘Truth’, that is, understanding and education, is mentioned specifically in the second degree ceremony:
… the badge with which you have now been invested points out that, as a Craftsman, you are expected to make the liberal Arts and Sciences your future study, that you may the better be enabled to discharge your duties as a Mason and estimate the wonderful works of the Almighty.
Taken as a whole, the Charges, Ritual, and the 1723 Constitutions and its successors, are designed to inculcate Enlightenment principles and ensure that the values and aspirations of eighteenth-century Freemasonry are safeguarded.