The sun as it shines full, and at the top of the day, is as real, as actual, as material as it is possible for anything to be; an artist drawing a decoration for the wall of a room could represent that sun by a golden circle; such a circle would be, as we say, a symbol. But a writer, perhaps a poet, could dispense with even the diagrammatic circle and use the sun itself as a symbol by letting it stand for anything of any kind which gives light, which illuminates, which reveals the presence of things to the eye. In neither event would the symbolist turn the sun itself into anything other than itself, would not turn it into a circle, or a picture, or an idea, or a word; the sun would be the same actual and material sun after this symbolic use of it that it had been before; if it did not, the symbols would lose their meaning.
Rifles in the hands of a squad of soldiers or guns unlimbered in the turrets of a battleship have in warfare a use which we describe, as the contexts of language require, as practical, or literal, or operative; if the same rifles are fired by the same squad of soldiers at the burial of a soldier or the same cannons are fired in salute to the President they are then in use symbolically; the act of firing has become a symbolic act. We know from literature, music, painting, sculpture, and ritual that almost anything can be put to symbolic uses, and almost everything has, a farmer sowing grain, a ship under full sail, a tree falling under the axe, a child playing on the beach, a light in a window. the wave of a hand, a rock in the sea, there is scarcely an object or event or a tool or an experience which has not been somewhere used for symbolic purposes. A gnarled old man hoeing his turnips is nothing but a man hoeing his turnips; but he is also "The Man With a Hoe," a symbol of labor. A symbol therefore is like the earth's path around the sun, an ellipse about the poles, one of them being the actual, literal, real thing itself, the other the meanings which it has that go beyond itself and may be carried elsewhere. It is always false symbology to suppose that when a thing is used symbolically the thing has been made unreal and turned into a species of make-believe.
A symbol may be any one of a large number of devices, an object, a picture, a diagram, a word, etc., and as such it may have a form wholly unlike the thing which it is using, as when a sword is used as a symbol of war though it does not look like war, or a pen may be a symbol of authorship though it is not a picture of authorship, and a man using a hoe is not a picture of labor; nevertheless the meaning of the symbol must be true of the thing used or the symbol is false, as when the meaning of a sword is war, and the meaning of a pen is writing, and the meaning of a hoe is labor. If this be true, why use symbols? Because they are so convenient. A given thing has a meaning, but if it is a thing used in a context its own use is part of a larger use, as when plowing is used as a symbol; plowing is not only an actual part of farming but is convenient to be used as a type of the other practices in farming; if plowing is used as a symbol the symbolist is saved hundreds of words needed to describe the whole of farming - it is like a man pointing at a landscape. Also the meaning one thing has may be found again in many other things; thus if we use a pair of scales as a symbol of weight the one form of weight used in the scales is identical with weight in millions of other things, and the symbol saves us many repetitions. There is thus nothing strained, or queer, or exceptional in the use of symbols, but it is as familiar as gestures and as universal as languages, and every mart is a symbolist all his days whether he is conscious of being one or not - Alfred N. Whitehead, who had one of the best intellects of the Twentieth Century, and was co-author with Bertrand Russell of Principia Mathematica, was so impressed by the universality of the use of symbolism that he built around it a whole system of philosophy.
If it would thus falsify symbols to have them represent things not actual and real or to have meanings not true of those things, so would it also falsify them if they were, as so many men have believed, a device for concealing or disguising the truths, meanings, and ideas which belong to them. Nothing is more difficult for a symbologist to understand than the prevalence of the notion that it is the function of a symbol to make a meaning secret, or to hide it, or to camouflage it, or to turn it into a species of cypher, when he knows that the purpose of any genuine symbol is the opposite of that. It is the function of a symbol to express a truth, not to be mute about it; to reveal a meaning, not to conceal it; to say something, not to keep silence about it; unless it can make some fact or truth or idea more intelligible, more evident, more easily comprehended it has failed of its purpose, and is not a true symbol but a false one.
What is the meaning of a symbol? If by symbol is meant (as necessarily it is) the object, picture, device, etc., which is used to represent something else the meaning is never to be found in the symbol but always is to be found in that which it represents or denotes or stands for. The Letter G is a symbol of Geometry; an ingenious theorist could write a book about the letter G itself, its history, its shape, etc., and could collect a hundred myths, legends, and tales about it, but the meaning of G as the seventh letter of the alphabet is not the meaning of The Letter G as a symbol; its meaning is one of the many meanings of geometry, and any interpretation of The Letter G which is not true about geometry, or about men's use of geometry, is not a true interpretation of the symbol. Many of the things which have often been used in symbology are so rich with meanings that it may be represented by many meanings; or some one symbol of it may be used for many purposes. An instance of the former of these two cases is the moon, which has been symbolized by a long and varied list of figures and pictures such as Moses, a goddess, a hunchback, a prophet, a Queen of Night, a scimitar, the night-time, etc.; an instance of the second case is the North (or Pole) Star. The swastika has been used as a symbol for at least 4,000 years, and Count Goblet d' Alviela believed it to be the oldest symbol still in use, but the swastika itself has been employed by many peoples and religions for at least a hundred different purposes. For this reason one of the first rules of symbology is that any given symbol must be interpreted in its context, and in the light of the purpose for which it is used.
These many uses of the swastika (the word has more than twenty spellings) involves a rule in symbology the violation of which has made so many writings on symbols of no value; whether a symbol represents one meaning or many the meanings belong to it itself; the function of the interpreter is not to give meanings to the symbol but is to find the meanings already there. They are not his, but the symbol's meanings. No mathematician would dream of giving to the number 9 any value he might take a fancy to; it has its own value, and he must use it accordingly; he can, if he wishes, say that it is the ninth in the series of numbers, or the number between 8 and 10, or the square of 3, he could write a book about its properties (it has been done), but he cannot out of his own fancy attribute to it a value it does not already possess. An interpreter of a symbol is equally bound; he cannot read into the symbol, or fashion for it, or attribute to it any meaning not already its own. The compasses are a symbol; they represent a circle; it may be any circle, a geometrician's, an artist's, a hostess's circle of guests, the sky, the horizon (a circle of which a man can see only an arc), there are many uses of the circle, and each use means something, but any interpretation of the circle as a symbol is false if it is false to the facts and properties of a circle. If a man lying horizontally on the ground is raised to the vertical to stand on his feet, the act may be symbolical; it may be pictured by a square; but the meaning of the square when thus used cannot mean more or other than is meant by the action of raising a man from the level to the perpendicular. The doctrine so often heard, even in Lodge Rooms, which says, "You can give a symbol any meaning you choose," is a false doctrine.
Freemasonry is probably the world's most magnificent masterpiece of symbolism. It is more symbolic from top to bottom, is richer in symbols of every type, has a larger number of them, and has carried symbology nearer to perfection than any other association; for a man who responds to symbols as a musician responds to music, it has an infinite, a never-wearying fascination, and if he gives his career to it he is not throwing his life away, because he will find in its 200 symbolisms a work by masters in this art, sublime, of profound meanings, inexhaustibly rich, and of that great beauty which is never found except in the supreme masterpieces. And if he does pursue it he will in consequence find in it, embodied and exemplified and at work, the whole complement of facts, principles, standards, and rules which comprise his own art; Freemasonry could not be a great system of symbolism if he didn't, because symbolism is in this respect like a circle, either it is perfect or it does not exist. The explanation and rules of symbology which have been given in this chapter can be superimposed upon Freemasonry, and will correspond to it at every point, and will furnish a Newly-Made Mason with a guide to the Ritual; they are given here for that purpose.
It is not true, as a century ago it was so widely believed, that Operative Freemasonry came to a virtual end in about the Sixteenth Century; that in the Transition Period new growths, and of a new kind, began to spring up among the Operative ruins; and that in 1717 A. D. these suddenly flowered into a new kind of Freemasonry. What occurred during that long history of the Fraternity occurred in another region, and was of a kind wholly different from that. The ancient, time-immemorial Operative Fraternity was preserved intact; during the Transition Period each new member, Operative or Accepted, pledged himself on oath that he would never be guilty of introducing innovations; and we today continue to give that same pledge. The one and only large and fundamental change was to put the ancient Operative Fraternity to a new use, and that new use would have been pointless had not the old Fraternity remained there to be used. This putting the old Freemasonry to a new use was the real transition, the only transition, from Operative Freemasonry to our Speculative Freemasonry; and when we say that Speculative Freemasonry is Symbolic Freemasonry it is that new use which is meant. But Symbolic Freemasonry is not the whole of Speculative Freemasonry; the Speculative Fraternity preserved and continues to perpetuate the ancient Fraternity but in doing so it did not employ each thing which it thus perpetuated for symbolic purposes; many customs, usages, Landmarks, laws are not symbolic, but are still as literal and as "operative" as they were eight centuries ago; only that in the Fraternity which is presented, or shown, or taught by means of symbols belongs to Symbolic Masonry.
The 200 or so symbolisms in our Ancient Craft Masonry are in each and every instance wholly and exclusively Masonic; not one was imported into it from outside; any Mason is free, as reader or student, to study symbols as they are used elsewhere, for he is under no censorship, but he cannot bring the meanings of symbols which he elsewhere finds back into Freemasonry with him because each and every Masonic symbol has a use and a meaning exclusively its own; it is Freemasonry itself which uses its own symbols and decides what symbols it is to use; what ideas, or facts, or teachings it may express by means of them is not for any outside cult, or fraternity, or religion to decide; what does it have to do with them? Let other associations have their own symbols, and use them for their own purposes; we contend that they should always be free to do so, because it is what we do ourselves. Their symbols, and the meanings of their symbols, are useful and valid for them; they can be only an irrelevancy to us. Thousands of symbols are sown throughout the Old Testament and the New, in the Koran, the Zend Avesta, the Vedas, in Kabbalism. Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and other forms of Medieval hermetism, but they are not our symbols, and their meanings have nothing to do with the meaning of our Ritual. Any symbol in the Three Degrees is a Masonic Symbol, and it can be interpreted only in the terms of its Masonic use - that is the first law, the great Landmark, of Masonic symbology.
Each and every one of our 200 or so symbolisms can be traced back to some period in our history when a practice or custom in Craft work came to be used for the purpose of presenting something or saying something; no one of them was thought up or devised by any one man, nor came out of the thoughts and theory of any one man's head or out of the heads of any group of men; they became symbols of themselves, and they therefore, and without exception, originated historically; that fact includes the concomitant fact that each symbol has a history of its own, and it is often by means of its history and its long-continued use that it can be best explained.
Each symbol represents or makes use of something
which is actual, is real, is in practice, and often is of a material
kind, or else to something which was in actual and literal practice
or existence in the past. Instead of leading us away from actual
and ponderable things toward some realm of abstractness or mysticism
they do the opposite, and lead us more closely to actual things
or help us to penetrate more deeply into them. The operative Mason
used a metal trowel to spread his plaster or his cement; Speculative
Masons use the trowel as a symbol but it is the same metal trowel
- the meaning of the trowel for actual use is the meaning of the
trowel when used as a symbol. When the Ritual speaks about a building
it is of an actual structure of stone or brick that it speaks,
and the same meanings, which belong to the Operative Masons' building
are the meanings of the Rituals' building. When a Speculative
Mason takes the place and acts the part of an Operative Mason
he is acting symbolically, but it is the actual, flesh-and-blood
Operative Mason who is thus symbolized, not a phantom, or a ghost,
or an idea. When in the Third Degree a Candidate takes the place
of a Master of Masons, his doing so does not reduce the Master
of Masons to an abstraction; there are some fourteen or so thousands
of Masters of Masons in the United States at any given time, and
they would know what to think of a man who questioned their visible
actuality. Always in the Three Degrees it is some object, some
actual man, some concrete event, or visible occurrence, or literal
practice which is used as a symbol, and it is the function of
symbology to show what it is and what it means for Masons.
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