In mediaeval times the builders were organised into a secret fraternity composed of separate lodges, which was for the purposes of self-protection, and for preserving the secrets of the trade; and men were given words, grips, and tokens on their admittance to a lodge. This fraternity had an ancient traditional history, and it used its tools and trade processes as emblems and symbols whereby to teach a code of morality far above the average ethical standards of the time. This was called Operative Masonry because its followers were engaged in the work of actual building.
At the time of the Reformation ecclesiastical building, in which the Freemasons were mostly engaged, fell into a decline. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Operative Lodges began to receive a large number of members who had no intention of practical building, but were attracted by the history and symbolism of the Order. In course of time this Speculative element outtopped the Operative so that, at the Revival of 1717, Masonry became wholly a Speculative Body.
The details of this picture may be filled out by a remarkable paragraph in Brother MacBride's "Speculative Masonry" (p. 124): "The view we wish to consider is, that down through the Roman Collegia and the Mediaeval Craft Guilds, along with certain traditions, there was probably transmitted some of the symbolism of the Ancient Mysteries; and that the great quickening of intellectual life in the sixteenth century, resulting from the social and political upheaval of the Reformation, gave new life and a more developed form to the speculative element within the old Craft Lodges. The mental activities of men had so long been `cribbed, cabined, and confined' under ecclesiastical rule that, having burst its bonds, it fairly revelled and rioted in all sorts of ways. Hence we find Kabbalism, Theosophy, Alchemy, and Astrology receiving attention and support from the learned scholars of the age. . . . The spirit of inquiry was rampant, and ill directed as it was in many respects, it had on the whole a wonderfully stimulating effect. Science, in all its branches, expanded and developed; literature, art, and social and political life, acquired fresh vigour. It is from this period that we can mark the presence of the speculative element in the old Craft Lodges. Our view is, that the seed of our present Speculative System, lying latent in these old lodges, was quickened into life through the influence of the Reformation period, and, later on, in 1717, developed into the present organised form."
On another page of the same work Brother MacBride gives a more specific description of the moral and symbolic germ in the craft guilds which later expanded into Speculative Masonry: "Taking the Old Charges, and reading them over, no one can fail to be impressed with the moral precepts they contain, and how the speculative bulks over the purely operative parts. In every case the Mason is charged first of all to be true to God, the King and to his fellows. Stealing and vice are explicitly named to be avoided. Falsehood and deceit are condemned and the general impression left after reading these ancient documents is, that they are not those of a mere trades union or operative guild. There is an element in them, apart from and above the operative work, that refers to conduct and morals, and it is in this, more than anything else, that their relationship with modern Masonry shows itself. After all, what is the purpose of our speculative system but to shape life and conduct to noble ends."
In these passages Brother MacBride takes the position that Speculative Masonry is the expansion of a germ that lay in Operative Masonry. Other writers, while holding this view, also believe that the non-operatives who were accepted during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought with them an entirely new element. Brother A. E. Waite speaks for these writers in his booklet, "Deeper Aspects of Masonic Symbolism"
"The interest in Operative Masonry and its records, though historically it is of course important, has preceded from the beginning on a misconception as to the aims and symbolism of Speculative Masonry. It was and it remains natural, and it has not been without its results, but it is a confusion of the chief issues. It should be recognised henceforth that the sole connection between the two Arts and Crafts rests on the fact that the one has undertaken to uplift the other from the material plane to that of morals on the surface, and of spirituality in the real intention. . . . My position is that the traces of a symbolism which may in a sense be inherent in Operative Masonry did not produce, by a natural development, the Speculative Art and Craft, though they helped undoubtedly to make a possible and partially prepared field for the great adventure and experiment."
On another page of the same book Brother Waite contends that among the men who were accepted into the Operative Lodges were many "Latin-writing" scholars who brought with them ideas and symbolisms from Kabbalism and Rosicrucianism. With this position Albert Pike and many other authorities agree.
Brother Waite's argument, it seems to me, does not contradict, but rather supplements, Brother MacBride's position. If this be the case, we may say that from Operative Masonry our Speculative System has received an organisation, a moral element, and certain emblems and symbols derived from the building art; but that there is an element of philosophy and mysticism in it, in the Third Degree more especially, is derived from other sources.
Leaving for other pages a discussion of the mystical and philosophical element, we may examine here only the elements inherited from the Operative Guilds. The Operative Mason used actual tools to erect structures of wood and stone; for this he received material wages. The Speculative Mason uses moral, mental, and spiritual forces to erect himself into a nobler manhood, and society into a nobler Brotherhood; his wages consist in the enrichment of his own and his race's life.
These words are familiar enough to every Mason; indeed they have become almost hackneyed and threadbare; but familiarity must not be permitted to blind us to the radical, I had almost said, the revolutionary, character of this teaching. For it implies that human nature may be modified, reformed, regenerated; and the world likewise. The cry of the reactionary, the obstructionist, the ultra-conservative, has ever been, "As the world is so has it always been, so will it always be. Poverty, ignorance, vice, - these are fated things, built into the nature of the race, and can in no wise be improved." Against this position Masonry throws itself with all its weight, and contends that out of the stuff of the Present a nobler Future can be made; that a man's nature is plastic material out of which a better man can be fashioned; that the world of today is a rough quarry out of which may be hewn the stones for a Temple of Tomorrow, in which a God may be found to dwell. If his philosophy of Masonry be true, as we Masons are most profoundly convinced that it is, it gives us the one Great Hope of Man, the one certain pledge of Progress.
"Man is not man as yet,
Nor shall I deem his object served, his end
Attained, his genuine strength put fairly forth,
While only here and there a star dispels
The darkness, here and there a towering mind
O'erlooks its prostrate fellows.
"When all mankind is perfected;
Equal in full-blown powers -then, not till then,
I say, begins man's general infancy,
Such men are even now upon the earth
Serene amid the half-formed creatures 'round."
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