I must put my first point somewhat roughly and crudely, with an apology for the frankness which it involves; decoration is here impossible, and on account of so much that will yet remain to say after, I believe that I shall be exonerated in the end. The ethical position is then, so far as Masonry is concerned, a sincere attempt--and this simply--to effect a sanctification of things which of necessity and essentially are obvious in moral teachings. No one challenges these teachings, and in the world about us no one cares anything. It cannot be less than regrettable if any person should join either one or another confraternity with the idea of improving his ethical position, not because the design is anything except highly laudable, but because his most proper incentives are in himself and his daily life. No association has anything to tell him which he does not know already, and this from his earliest childhood. If I may speak my whole mind, after having followed many highways and byways, I should say that his best and only necessary guides are the official religions, the gate of which is morality, as I have striven to make plain elsewhere. It is they that provide the spirit and reason which--unless he is called to go further, and that journey will be further within them--should actuate his conduct, just as the laws of his country take charge of the letter thereof, and see that it shall be constructed after their manner and not according to his own.
From this view it is impossible to derogate, and it is difficult, in respect of it, to qualify; but there is one matter over which misconception may be avoided. Let it be understood therefore that I do not take exception to the ethical value of Masonic or the other laws--in those matters which belong to the conduct of life--because it is so obviously identical with the written or unwritten law of all civilised conscience; but I
affirm that a knowledge which is possessed independently by all, which is mainly derived from unassisted lights of Nature, which no one disputes seriously, which is withal so simple that there is no difficulty in teaching it directly, which in fine has been taught us in our catechisms, even at the knees of our mothers--I affirm that this knowledge does not require an allegorical and ceremonial system of considerable complexity to explain or enforce it. There is above all no evident warrant for secrecy and mystery in the plain basis of individual and social morality. It must be added that, on the evidence of their own history, the associations included by my category have not succeeded in developing a more perfect moral man than has any other system of ethical discipline which is now at work in the world. They do not therefore possess a more powerful instrument than are other instruments with which we may be acquainted independently. When it is said that a Mason, for example, who abides scrupulously by the rule of his Order, cannot fail to be a good man, such a statement may be accepted without reserve; but since the laws of Masonry are simply the expression of an universal ethical standard, as much may be declared of any person, initiated or not initiated, who elects to guide his life by the recognised code of morality and goodwill, more especially as the element of esprit de corps scarcely enters into questions of this nature.
A certain severity will be read into these strictures, more especially as the majority of Masons have never supposed that their association could offer a higher light than that of good conduct in exaltation, and I ought therefore to add that if this were really the limit of its horizon, so far as they are concerned, the craft as such is--in one sense--amply justified. That which is desirable for them, that which for them is the term and aim of goodness may not only be their strong incentive but a necessity in the lesser degree. Moreover, on broader grounds it is no matter of pretence, for it has never,
except in some spurious high grades, which are its burden and not its possession, offered more than it can give. It is not, therefore, as it was described by De Quincey, the great imposture of the modern world; and if it be an error of enthusiasm to put forward an ideal of natural goodness in the guise of a mystery of knowledge, one can only wish that the effect had been to make that ideal an actuality over the whole world.
All this notwithstanding, its success or failure along these lines could be scarcely a special concern of ours, who know of ways as excellent after its own kind and of better ways beyond them. I return therefore to my previous proposition--that Masonry can interest us so far only as it enshrines something more than an ethical doctrine and instruction. This other thing is not, however, by way of additamentum, but by way of essence. The recognition of such an essence will enable us to understand more clearly some of the lesser processes, or at least to tolerate them more patiently, as first stages in a history of development which have also the heights as their term. I may alienate the sympathies of some of my readers, seeing that there are so many listeners, but the explanation of this last point lies to my mind in the fact that the raison d’être of all natural goodness must be sought in the law of grace. So also it remains that the churches are still the accredited guides because grace has its channels therein, or so at least till we transmute the official beliefs into direct experience and thus enter not into that which is apart from them, but that which is their wider consciousness. In the meantime, all that is innocent, all that is blameless, all that is of fair repute makes in fine for goodness; and if that goodness is natural in the first degree, it has also a mode of dissolution into the goodness which transcends Nature. If therefore the laws of brotherly love are maintained and promoted in a lodge of Masons, as they certainly are, it is all honour to Masonry, and so much towards the reign of peace on earth. But it is
not less true that it is easy, and very easy, to reach those limits beyond which it has scarcely entered into the heart of Masonry to conceive--by which I mean as it is so far understood in the lodges; as it is to be judged by its literature; and as, outside all personal initiation, we may know it in the life of its members. It is at this point that some who are on higher quests than those of conduct must part with it, leaving their benedictions behind them; or that they must find therein, after all the horizon of ethics has been at last traversed, some region beyond the ordinary ken which may prove the land of their desire. Beyond the seven bands which comprise the spectrum of the corporal works of mercy, there are other rays of light, and in Masonry also there are rays beyond the violet. We may glean something concerning them from its history, but we must seek above all in its symbolism and in the proper meaning of its legends. To conclude as to this part, Masonry either belongs to the secret tradition or it is for us made void.