“Esotericism is a Matter of Degrees”

An essay by Bro. Arturo de Hoyos

Arturo de Hoyos
Br. Arturo de Hoyos – Grand Archivist and Grand Historian of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite, SJ; Director, Department of Education and Heritage
Is Freemasonry esoteric, or not? The short answer is “Yes, no, maybe.” Esotericism is any topic “intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.” This certainly applies to Masonry. But on a deeper level, and in a Masonic context, it’s usually taken to mean that our ceremonies and rituals allude to realities and/or truths not generally understood, or which may have a spiritual component to them.

The term is tainted to some people, and acceptable to others; hence, it may not be easy to wholly accept or discard the term ‘esoteric Masonry.’ Like an onion, each ‘esoteric’ layer successively builds upon the other. We can all agree that Masonry is intended to be understood by few, and that it’s a kind of specialized knowledge.

But the question is—what kind of specialized knowledge, and are they real “secrets?” Depending upon one’s inclinations, the Master Masons Degree has been interpreted in a variety of different ways by different persons. For some, it’s a story of fidelity; for others, it teaches hope in the immortality of the soul; for still others, it’s a lesson in alchemy; and yet for still others, it alludes to the discovery of entheogens. Some see it as multi-faceted, or a combination of various things. But, as I wrote in my post “The Private Epiphany,” we should avoid trying to enshrine our interpretations as the “true” one.

Since 1717 there have been over 1000 ‘Masonic’ degrees created. The most popular survived and are included in many of the Rites, Orders, Systems we know today. Like a meal, each degree is only as good as its creator. The recipe may include many of the same ingredients as other meals, yet taste completely different. By analogy, we may see many of the same “ingredients” (features) in a number of degrees which teach completely different things. The predilections of a degree’s author affect the content as much as the taste-buds of a chef. The ‘flavor’ of the foundational Craft Degrees in various rites, orders and systems (Webb working, Scottish Rite, York Rite, Swedish Rite, R.E.R., etc.), differs immensely, and in the ‘higher degrees,’ the differences are even more dramatic and pronounced: some are philosophical, others practical; some present allegory, and others offer discourses on symbolism or (quasi-)historical themes. In something like the Scottish Rite, the same degree may have dramatically different rituals, depending upon the jurisdiction (compare, for example the 20th degree in the SJ and NMJ – they are nothing alike).

But, when someone describes himself as an ‘esoteric Mason,’ it quite often means someone who sees, and embraces, what appears to be aspects of the ‘Western Esoteric Tradition’ in our rituals; i.e., some affinity to the symbolism of Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, etc.

Freemasonry is an eclectic organization and, at various times, we have borrowed the language and symbols of these and other traditions. The question is, do our rituals really teach these things as ‘realities’ or we use them to stimulate thought—or both? We are repeated told not to mistake a symbol for the thing symbolized. In some cases, I believe that is what has happened, while in others, I believe we do indeed have vestiges of other traditions. But even when they are there, they may be only one layer thick on our Masonic onion.

The problem is twofold: some deny any esoteric influences at all (or assert they are just used symbolically), while others claim it’s the main part of the onion. If the matter is open to interpretation (not defined by the ritual itself), who has the “right” to decide?

This much we know: many of Freemasonry’s symbols were used before the modern fraternity existed (1717), and appeared in a variety of books. Some were educational and philosophical (such as the “Choice Emblems”), others were indeed Hermetic (such as Alchemical texts). As I said, we’re an eclectic organization. How many times have you seen the Square and Compasses or All-Seeing Eye used and abused in Hollywood and elsewhere because it looks ‘cool’? Well, I’m willing to bet that at least some of our symbols migrated into the fraternity the same way. An unknown degree maker, in the 1700’s, saw something that looked cool, and dropped it into the ritual. Not necessarily bad, but 225 years later his personal predilection turns into a debate.
esoteric illustration
Certainly, there are clear examples of “borrowings” from “esoteric” texts. For example, I am aware of an older version (early 1800s) of a Scottish Rite degree which includes a large portion extracted from Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia (1531-33). If asked if that degree was ‘esoteric’ I would say ‘yes,’ while to its counterpart in a later version or in another Supreme Council, I would say, “no.”

My point is to quit quibbling over such things, and find the common ground where we “can best work and best agree.” If esotericism interests you, that’s fine; if not, that’s also fine. My personal library is well-stocked with enough material on both sides to make anyone think and in favor of, or against, any position.

The important thing is to be well-educated, and understand what we know first. Before you reach for the stars, make sure your feet are firmly planted on the ground. Make yourself into someone who can be taken seriously. Learn the facts about our origins based upon what we know.

I sometimes speak about “historical records” versus “hysterical documents.” Before you buy into such fantasies as “Freemasonry descended from the ancient Egyptians,” get a quick education. Here are three books to give you a reality check:
(1) Harry Carr, World of Freemasonry
(2) Bernard E. Jones, Freemasons Guide and Compendium
(3) David Stevenson, The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century 1590–1710.

When you can speak intelligently about the Old Charges (Gothic Constitutions), early Freemasonry in Scotland, the formation of the first Grand Lodge, and how and when the degrees developed, people may be inclined to listen to you, when you start to talk about more exotic things.

Educate yourself well enough to argue both sides of the argument.

Take due notice thereof and govern yourselves accordingly.

Published with the permission of the author using the original illustration from the source