Symbolical Masonry, by H.L. Haywood, , at sacred-texts.com
The first operation of actual building is the quarrying of the stones; this is followed by dressing them into shape, with straight and level sides, and true angles. As the Gavel and the Guage are appropriately used in the first process they are allotted to the Apprentice; as the Plumb, Square, and Level are for testing perpendiculars, angles, and horizontals, they belong naturally, as being next in order, to the Fellow Craft.
"The line teaches the criterion of rectitude," wrote William Preston, "to avoid dissimulation in conversation and action and to direct our steps in the path which leads to immortality." The Webb Monitor of 1821 defines it in similar fashion: "The plumb is an instrument made use of by Operative Masons to raise perpendiculars . . . the plumb admonishes us to walk uprightly in our several stations before God and man." The idea embodied in each of these definitions is expanded by Mackey, in his "Symbolism of Freemasonry" as follows:
"The plumb is a symbol of rectitude of conduct and inculcates that integrity of life and undeviating course of moral uprightness which can alone distinguish the good and just man. As the operative workman erects his temporal building with strict observance of that plumbline which will not permit him to deviate a hair's breadth to the right or to the left, so the Speculative Mason,
guided by the unerring principles of right and truth, inculcated in the symbolic teachings of the same implement, is steadfast in the pursuit of truth, neither bending beneath the frowns of adversity nor yielding to the seductions of prosperity."
By an inevitable co-incidence the central word in each of these three typical definitions is rectitude; and rectitude is from the Latin rectus, "signifying upright, not leaning to one side or another, standing as it ought." From rectus we have derived our word right, a term referring to a straight line, originally, even as wrong first meant a crooked line. Rectitude, therefore, is a straight line running up and down, and we find in it the very picture of the plumbline. In the Operative Mason's hand it is an instrument for making a wall stand straight up and down; in Speculative Masonry it is the symbol of that in us by means of which we may cause our characters to stand straight up and down.
Therefrom arises the question, What is this "that" which we find in human nature, and by which we can test our rectitude? This question must be answered lest we be trying to use a working tool without knowing what it is; but our answer, if it be adequate, cannot be packed into a sentence.
"By a necessity of our nature, it would seem, we must think in terms of time and space. Men in all ages have instinctively linked whatever is strong, noble and true with that which is above, and whatever is weak, base and vile with that which is below. This habit of thought is more hoary than the most antique custom, and no matter what science may tell us of how the world is made, the two dimensions of space will always describe the two orders of being. Indeed, it could hardly be otherwise, and until the end of things men will still look to the heights for the sovereign virtues and to the depths
for the malefic and infernal vices. Nor does it matter what words we use, so long as we keep it in mind that such ways of thinking are only symbols which conceal as much as they reveal the truth which they try to tell."
In consequence of this manner of thought, to which we are thus instinctively led, we find ourselves constantly saying of things within our own character "This is lofty, or high; this is low, or base!" We may call this perception of different moral levels, taste, conscience, idealism, or what we will, but the power of such perception is in us every one, and it is this which is our plumbline.
By virtue of this same habit of judging we recognise that other men also are high or low in character, and we say that the saint lives on the heights while the sinner grovels in the depths; to one we look up, on the other we look down. "What the best man says is sweet, is sweet," says Walt Whitman, most democratic of mortals; and the best man must ever be to us an example and an ideal, to be followed as a teacher, and reverenced as a superior. All nations have had such guides and leaders, as Moses to the Jews, Buddha to the Hindoos, Mohammed to Islam, Confucius to the Chinese, and Jesus to the Christians. These great characters are the plumblines of society.
"The Level," says Mackey ("Encyclopedia"), "is deemed, like the square and the plumb, of so much importance as a symbol, that it is repeated in many different relations. First, it is one of the Jewels of the lodge; in the English system a movable, in the American an immovable, one. This leads to its being adopted as the proper official ensign of the Senior Warden [the plumb is the badge of the Junior Warden, and also an immovable jewel], because the Craft when at labour, at which time
he presides over them, are on a common level of subordination."
When a building is being erected every stone in it must be so placed that the stress of gravity pulls on all portions of the structure in such a manner that its unity and consistency are preserved. This is accomplished by having the longitudinal axis of each stone made perfectly horizontal. As the level is used for this purpose it is properly said to "lay horizontals." And because of that mental custom of dividing things into higher and lower classes, described above, we naturally think of the level, in its figurative sense, as denoting equality and symbolising democracy. If we can discover that in us which unites us to our fellows on a common ground we shall have unveiled the principle in human nature which may be figured by the Level and may serve as a genuine symbolical working tool.
In a time when nations bowed before the divine right of kings and churches made obeisance to a pope, Masonry was teaching men to meet upon the level; indeed, as Albert Pike has said, "Masonry was the first apostle of equality." Before democratic governments were known in Europe an early Mason was justified in saying that "the chief glory of Masonry is that it brings together upon a plane of common equality men of the most diverse opinions, occupations, and interests. Here upon the level, the symbol of equality—the rich and poor, high and low, titled princes and sturdy yeomen, forget all differences of rank and station and unite their best endeavour for the highest good of each and all." So marked was the democratic character of the Order, even in the seventeenth century, that certain of its English critics declared it to have been secretly organised by Oliver Cromwell as an engine of republicanism!
What is this equality of which Masonry has ever been
so ardent an advocate? We may answer, first, that it is a task. In ways without number men are unequal by birth and by circumstances; one man is born in a city slum, another in a circle of wealth: one is endowed with talent, another is condemned to mediocrity; one seems to be bound in by an iron wall of disabilities, while another finds the gates of opportunity opening out on all sides. Our Fraternity's solution of this problem of the inequalities of fate and fortune is to bring all the diverse men into a circle of Brotherhood, where each can share with the others, the learned giving his knowledge to his less enlightened mate, and the strong helping to bear the burdens of the weak. From this point of view the equality of Masonry is like that of a family in which the members may contribute little or much, but all share equally, and the law is "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
Again, the Fraternity recognises equality as a natural fact, contradictory as these two attitudes may seem. For, despite the sundering differences of talent, of possession, of opinion, race and creed, there is in each of us that which he holds in common with all, even as the sap flows in the roots of a tree as well as in the leaves. This is our universal human nature, our life in the one world of time and space, and our childship under the one God. These are the things that unite us, and ever are they more than the things that divide.
Thus understood there is no conflict in idea between the Plumb and the Level; for in one we have that aristocratic ideal which bids us grow as tall of soul as possible, and in the other the democratic ideal which bids us share our advantages with our fellows. To use one alone might lead us to pride; to use the other alone might debase us to the dead level; to use them in co-operation saves us from both extremes and rightly adjusts us to
that sovereign will of the Grand Architect of the Universe, which is to the world of men what gravity is to the world of matter.
When a perpendicular is united to a horizontal a right angle results; this is embodied in the Square, which is therefore included with the Level and the Plumb as a working tool, and which may consequently be appropriately studied as the third member of this Fellow Craft triad. It is necessary to bear in mind that we have to do, not with a four-sided figure, or the measuring square of the carpenter, but with the Try-square of the Mason.
Of the Square it is difficult to speak under due limitations because its history is so varied and so ancient, and its use so universal; but perhaps, if we study it simply as a working tool, as the present connection only requires, we may uncover something of its secret.
In China's classic "The Great Learning," written some five centuries before our era, it is said that a man should refrain from doing unto others that which he would not want them to do unto him, a rule described by the writer as "the principle of acting on the square;" while Mencius, Confucius' great disciple, adjured his followers to apply the square and compass to their lives. (See Gould's History, vol. 1, ch. 1.) Brother John Yarker tells us that "one of the oldest words in the Chinese language is literally 'square and compass,' and signified right conduct." In the foundation of Cleopatra's Needle, the Egyptian obelisk removed to New York City, the Square was found carved in the stone, surrounded by other builder's emblems. Among the Egyptians the Square was evidently a sacred symbol from a remote period and some believe that it originally derived from an old form of the Cross.
[paragraph continues] Among many other ancient peoples it was widely used and always for similar purposes.
In Brother Conder's "Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons" we read that a picture of William Warring-ton was engraved on that worthy's tombstone, showing him holding the square and compasses in his hand; the date was 1427. In 1830 a square was found in the foundations of an old bridge near Limerick, dated 1517, and bearing the inscription:
[paragraph continues] The emblem is also found in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra":
[paragraph continues] The square played a conspicuous part in the symbolism of the Compagnonage and of occult fraternities of the Middle Ages.
The data thus thrown promiscuously together comprises but a fraction of the number of examples that might be given, but, even so, they show us how widespread has been the symbolic use of the Square, and how under all circumstances it has meant the same thing—right conduct.
What explains this universal usage? Some have suggested, and rightly I believe, that the square is a natural symbol and would deliver its message to a man utterly ignorant of its symbolic interpretations. Brother MacBride believes that it may have received its vogue from its obvious connection with the great transition of the
building art from pyramid form to square form structures. Speaking of the early workman groping his way along the path of progress he writes, "Gradually, no doubt in the course of centuries of experience and through the lessons of repeated failures, he acquired a working knowledge of the Law of the Square in building. But it seems that it was only when he properly mastered the problem of forming a right angle that the day of civilisation really dawned. This was the chief cornerstone in his evolution. Progress, seemingly, would have been impossible without it. Art and science alike owe almost everything to it."
The same wise interpreter goes on to suggest the symbolic meaning of the tool: "Hence the importance attached to this instrument and the reason why Masons, Speculative and Operative, call it the great symbol of their Craft. But, however important it may be, it should not be forgotten that after all it is nothing more than an instrument. It has no power nor virtue in itself. Operatively, it derives its importance from being adjusted to the great central forces that dominate in the material world. Speculatively, it obtains its significance, because it represents the great faculty of conscience that governs in the moral world. . . . As the Square is applied by the operative to his work, so are we to apply our conscience to our work of life-building. It is true, theoretically, that neither Square nor Compass is perfect. But they are the best, and the only test we have, and are, in their respective spheres, indispensable to true building."
If we consider carefully the practical use of the Square we see that its function consists in the right adjustment of two lines which would otherwise oppose each other. In view of this a number of our scholars have seen in the implement a symbol of that Doctrine of Balance which Albert Pike expounded with such stately language, especially
in the closing pages of his "Morals and Dogma." In this world of men, light and darkness, fatalism and freedom, dogmatism and agnosticism, sensuality and asceticism, etc., are ever in conflict. The true life of man consists in the right adjustment of one opposing force to another, so that one does not lapse into either extreme, but walks on a level in which the two hold each other in equilibrium. "The way of wisdom is to accept both facts in the case, as the Two Pillars of a Temple of Truth, and walk between them into the hush of the holy place." (See The Builder, vol. II, p. 268.)