Freedom is regarded, in our century, as a precious and absolute right. That is as it should be. And, in an earlier century, the American Declaration of Independence tells us how highly freedom was prized then. ‘We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness …’ The founding fathers of the American republic certainly understood that liberty, freedom in an individual and in a social sense, was vital and essential. Those who have freed themselves from political, religious or military oppression have an appreciation of the value of freedom that we, living our comfortable middle-class existence in the twenty-first century, may never be able to grasp.
So let us try to examine what freedom means in a masonic context. Whenever and wherever freedom is mentioned, there it has an immediate consonance with Free-Masonry. In what dimension do we speak of Freemasonry and freedom in the same breath? Which aspects of freedom are most immediately identifiable with the pursuit of self-knowledge and moral improvement? In the process of gaining inner light, what role does freedom play? ‘Are you a free man, and of the full age of eighteen years?’ This was the first question we were asked on being admitted to the temple for initiation. At first sight this question seems incongruous. After all, we had just given up freedom. We had just been blindfolded, and we were unable to steer our course properly. We were led here and there, with no means of exercising our own freedom to determine our course. But when we answered ‘I am’, we did so in the knowledge that we were exercising the ultimate freedom, the freedom to say ‘I place myself unconditionally in the hands of the Divinity, that presence of God that I understand to underpin all masonic pursuits. I entrust myself, not to a dogma or a creed, but to the purest Divine beneficence’. What a sense of freedom that can give us! The pursuit of moral improvement requires that, in a masonic context, we make ourselves free of any social, career or ideological baggage we might have been carrying around, as such would impede our progress. The real question posed by the first degree is, to what extent I will allow myself to be shaped by my own selfish impulses, and to what extent shaped by the new life offered through Freemasonry. When I am able to say ‘my impulse is to go this way, but I am being asked to give up selfish impulses, so I will go that way’, then that offers a real freedom, a freedom from selfish indulgence. Now listen again to the words:
Q. How does he hope to obtain those privileges?
A. By the help of God, being free, and of good report.
Has that coloured the meaning of freedom in a slightly different way? Let us examine this a little further. Let us look at a section of the first Emulation Lecture:
Q. Why are we called Free-masons?
A. Because we are free to, and free from.
Q. Free to, and free from what?
A. Free to good fellowship, and ought to be free from vice
in other words, the search for moral improvement frees us from material attachments, leaving our spirit free to ascend.
And here is another aspect. The same lecture asks the question:
Q. How should an Entered Apprentice serve his Master?
A. With freedom, fervency and zeal.
This puts yet another slant on the word. Here we serve our Master, the Great Architect, with freedom, with alacrity, always ready to serve, never hesitant, serving with fervency and zeal.
Now let us turn the coin over, to examine what freedom is not. And here we have the crux of the question. If an individual exercises freedom to pursue his own selfish ends, if by doing so he restricts or impairs the freedom of those around him, then that is not freedom; it is slavery. One who exercises freedom to bomb buses and tube trains is not free. He is a slave to an ideology, an ideology falsely supposed to be supported by religion. Treacherously, it feels like freedom, because he no longer has to take responsibility for his thoughts and actions.
A man was stabbed on a bus recently. One woman went to his aid, and appealed to the other passengers to help her. Although the assailant had long since left the bus, and the danger to other people had passed, those around were slow to help her. Most of them exercised their individual freedom to ‘cross to the other side of the road’. Their crime was of course not comparable to those who explode bombs, but their failure to put shared freedom before selfish concerns, and their exercise of individual freedom to act as they chose, will make of them a slave to their conscience, until such time as they do something to redeem the omission.
Real freedom, in this sense, is well expressed by Shelley:
… that sweet bondage which is freedom’s self,
And rivets with sensation’s softest tie
The kindred sympathies of human souls …
In Free Masonry, at least, we give up aspects of the self on initiation, in order to attain to a greater freedom, the freedom of the heart, and that freedom can be our real strength.
None can love freedom heartily but good men;
the rest love not freedom, but licence.
John Milton 1608- 1674