The Enlightenment

‘The Enlightenment’ refers in broad terms to a philosophy that emerged in northern Europe in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Its defining characteristics include a belief in reason, personal liberty, and the search for knowledge through scientific method and rational observation. It was and is a philosophy sceptical of political, social and religious diktat expressed, for example, by absolute monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, and the unwillingness of established religious authorities to face questions, a criticism levelled at the Catholic Church in particular. Enlightenment values embrace religious toleration, constitutional government, civic responsibility, meritocracy, and the promotion of the societal and personal advantages that flow from courtesy, charity, education and self-improvement.

The Grand Lodge of England adopted and promoted these values, a process that began visibly with the publication of the 1723 Constitutions with its reworked Charges and Regulations, and adoption of a reformulated Masonic Ritual.

Masonic values are frequently summarised as the three Grand Principles of ‘Brotherly Love’, ‘Relief’ and ‘Truth’. In this context, ‘Brotherly Love’ can be considered a short-hand expression for the promotion and practice of consideration for others, that is, for mankind or humanity. ‘Relief’ is the promotion and practice of benevolence and charity: not simply relieving poverty but also ‘distress’, or suffering more generally. And ‘Truth’ refers to education and improving one’s understanding of both the world and oneself, whereby freemasons are encouraged to focus on the ‘advantages of education, by which means alone we are rendered fit members of regularly organized society’.

The 1723 Charges, Regulations and Ritual lie at the heart of modern Freemasonry. And the intellectual and philosophical ideas expounded in the eighteenth century embedded Enlightenment principles within the Craft.

The Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, pictured above, was designed by Christopher Wren in 1676 and completed in 1695; it holds Isaac Newton’s notebooks and his annotated copy of Principia Mathematica.

Photography © The Old Stables Press