BRIAN BRINDLEY has mixed feelings about a fascinating but maddening study of English Freemasonry
Who's Afraid of Freemasons? The Phenomenon of Freemasonry, Alexander Piatigorsky, Harvill Press, £25
AROUND 1700 A FEW small groups of men, mostly shopkeepers or petty professional men, got together in London and cities like York to form convivial societies for mutual protection and charity. They chose to borrow the name and some of the insignia and practices of the itinerant stonemasons of the Middle Ages, who had formed themselves into "lodges" wherever they found themselves working, and who protected Liken trade secrets by a
'stem of private marks (still to be found carved in the slones of old buildings) and signs of recognition. As masonry as a craft organization declined, non-operative masons had been admitted as "accepted" members; the founders of the new Friendly Societies called themselves "Free and Accepted Masons", they dressed themselves up in fancy aprons, and they played with setsquares and spirit-levels and pairs of compasses.
They also set about providing themselves with a history: little books were published tracing the Craft back to Noah (or even Adam) through the obvious route of Solomon; practically everyone celebrated in English history was roped in as a Mason, and its absence from anybody's knowledge was ascribed to the recent negligence of Sir Christopher Wren.
By 1717 they had formed themselves into a Grand Lodge for England and Wales; by 1721 they had acquired a noble Grand Master in the person of the Duke of Montagu; by 1790 the had the Prince of Wales as Grand Master; in 1813 they successfully absorbed the rival, and more attractive, organization of "Antient Masons".
Since then, Freemasonry has been a part of the English "establishment". It can be divided into three groups: the noblemen, landowners and leading politicians, who regard it as part of their duty to nation and county; a fairly small group of keen masons, who are willing to take the trouble to learn the "workings" by heart and thus to rise within their own lodge; and the vast majority of "ordinary" masons who are willing to put up with the tedium of the initiation ceremonies for the sake of meet
ing on an equal footing with men like themselves, and eating and drinking afterwards, though it should be noted that social distinctions exist between one Lodge and another, and even within a single Lodge.
Undoubt edl y, quite a number of masons join in the hope of "getting on" in their profession or with local notabilities; from time to time institutions like the police, or the judi
ciary, or local political parties become so infiltrated by masons that corruption is suspected. Before as Catholics, we congratulate ourselves on being immune from all that, let us remember that we are sometimes accused of banding together for self-advancement, or secretiveness, even of hushing up the disreputable activities of our fellow Catholics. Every institution, human or divine, is susceptible to corruption; it is not these failings in particular that make Freemasonry wrong.
Since 1738 successive Popes have forbidden us to join. It is probably true that papal condemnation was attracted by the subversive and anti-religious activities of the Grand Orients of continental masons, and not by the comparatively benign doings of the original English variety. Nevertheless we fear and suspect Freemasonry as a substi
Professor Piatigorsky is a Russian long resident in England, where he teaches Comparative Religion at London University. You should not be attracted (or, for that matter, repelled) by the catchpenny title "Who's Afraid of Freemasons?" That is emphatically not what this book is about. It is about The Phenomenon of Freemasonry, examined from the standpoint of Comparative Religion. It is at once a fascinating and a maddening book: fascinating for the insight it gives into the perennial question, what do they actually do? (Answer: Nothing much, and none of it interesting). Also for its copious extracts form the first masonic "histories", which are self-destructive in their absurdity. It is maddening, I fear, because the discipline of Comparative Religion is not the right standpoint from which to examine the Craft: one needs a specialist in early 18th century political and social history, and a student of morbid psychology. It is a general question, not specific to Freemasonry: why did founders of new organizations (like the Venerable Order of St John) and old genealogists write down as true that they must have known to be untrue?
And, to this day, why do men of standing spend hours committing to memory such preposterous tosh as the masonic rituals? Why did Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury, used to the sonorities of the Anglican liturgy; why did that master of words Rudyard Kipling; why did the forthright and honourable King George VI, to whom, with his halting speech, the recitation of anything in public must have been a nightmare; why were such men not merely Freemasons but keen Freemasons?
I have no answer: Professor Piatigorsky does not address the question. In his analysis of the three 'blue' degrees and the Royal Arch (for he appears strangely uninformed about the higher degrees) he proves too much, because he takes seriously what should not be taken seriously at all. He knows that practically everything about the Craft is a new invention of the years 1717 to 1738; yet he insists on seeing in it echoes (subconscious? unconscious? deliberate? who knows?) of ancient or exotic cults; the elaborate chart of Themes on the endpapers of this handsomely produced book seems to prove only that everything is like everything else.
Grand Lodge is fond of saying about Freemasonry "It is not a Secret Society, but a society with secrets." In truth, it is a secretive society without a Secret. If you are afraid that, as a Catholic (or as a woman), you are somehow missing something by not belonging, read this book to discover that you are not.