It has been pointed out to me twice recently that we more often use the word ‘compasses’ in Freemasonry, than ‘compass’. The compasses, of course, are a draughtsman’s, architect’s and mathematician’s implement for describing circular figures and for delimiting objects. Compass, on the other hand, has two principal meanings – in the concrete sense it is a device for determining the magnetic meridian or the relation to it, and in the figurative sense it is used to denote range or extent of something – ‘within the compass of ability’. It got me thinking about symbols and allegories in the wider sense, those implements we, as Freemasons, would be lost without. Our Craft is full of them, and of course no masonic work is possible if symbols are not there to work on.
But so often, perhaps always, they go hand in hand with allegory, defined as a ‘description of a subject under the guise of some other subject, of aptly suggestive resemblance’. Allegory at once stands in for the symbol, and helps us to decode it. We start, at the beginning of our initiatic quest, with the blindfold, an object certainly not provided to prevent us looking outwards, but rather to remove distractions so that we may look inward. This is our first, but not our last, experience of darkness, another allegory, but note that it is personal darkness, not general – the aspirant is the only one in the lodge to be subjected to it. This is in contrast to the darkness we meet with later on our journey, which is by contrast a general darkness, and the two have very different connotations. As symbols, the working tools are possibly more rich in meaning than is apparent on the superficial level when they are presented to us. Kirk MacNulty has a good deal to say about this in his book The Way of the Craftsman. He points out that the working tools of the first degree are not used in actual building: they are tools of preparation. With the first tool we measure the work; with the second and third we prepare the stone and ‘render it fit for the hands of the more expert workman’. He also refers to the application of the Rule of Three, in which one agency may be regarded as the active principle, the second the passive, and the third agency mediates between, and coordinates, the first two. In this case, the gavel is the active principle, representing the passionate, driving side of our nature. The chisel is the passive principle, receiving the blows of the gavel passively, but in its own nature capable of fine, analytical work. The twenty-four inch gauge mediates, acting to temper the forceful gavel and to stimulate the chisel, our finer feelings, and to coordinate them to achieve a measured course of action, measured therefore in more than one sense of the word.
Kirk refers to the second degree working tools as tools of testing, a sort of quality control. By now the stones have been prepared by the tools of the first degree, they are beginning to fit together, and the building has commenced. We need to test what is being done so that, in the words of the lecture, we may ‘carry on the intended structure with regularity and propriety’. I hardly need to point out the functions of the level and plumb rule in building, but the square, apart from proving square corners, is actually a combination of level and plumb rule, having one arm horizontal and one vertical. You can easily work out now which is the active, which the passive and which the mediating or coordinating principle.
The tools of the third degree Kirk refers to as tools of creativity, and space won’t permit me to go into them now. There is however another allegory, namely that the third of the three pillars supporting a Freemason’s lodge is that of beauty, the beauty of the creation, so we can see it is no accident that the tools of the third degree should be tools of creativity.
I would maintain that, since Freemasonry is a path to enlightenment, light remains the greatest allegory of them all, so here we are back with the removal of the blindfold. When, in this way, the allegory of light is made plain to us, we are able fully to appreciate its value, symbolic as well as physical. It is possible that a blind aspirant will have a yet more powerful appreciation of this than a sighted aspirant and if, as sometimes happens in that situation, the Master then takes his hand and places it on the square, compasses and bible so that he can feel what is being described to him, he may quite possibly be seeing with his heart what you and I will see with our eyes. We may perhaps aspire to that insight ourselves, by closing our eyes for a moment and experiencing the eloquence of those symbols by the sense of touch, and by opening our heart. We may surprise ourselves.
I am the eye with which the Universe Beholds itself and knows itself divine; All harmony of instrument or verse, All prophecy, all medicine is mine, All light of art or nature; – to my song Victory and praise in its own right belong.
Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822