Sunday, July 1, 2012

Freemasonry in the Academic Perspective

The informed modern mason, and at least a few among the more progressive leaders in Mainstream Masonry in the US, and elsewhere, are aware of the steady advances that have been made in the academic study of the fraternity over the past decade. This renewed attention must be viewed as positive, in that it will greatly increase the quality and depth of scholarship on the history of Freemasonry and its impact on civil society since its inception. Nobody can deny that Freemasonry has had a profound impact upon the modern world, and it did not have that effect by remaining apart from the world.

Academic attention will among other things help to marginalize the conspiracy devotees. Of course, another change it brings with it, is the need to address a number of unfortunate perspectives which have been allowed to become commonplace among some sectors of the Masonic world. This will require some maturation and change if not in private opinion, then at least in public discourse. A new civility must of necessity be embraced in the conversation between the varying masonic institutions which up to now has left much to be desired. This should be sought and supported at the highest levels, demonstrating to the rank and file that fraternity, even in the absence of visitation, can and should be adopted in our conversations. That is the most basic of beginnings.

While I could say more about this, nothing I could write would state these issues and the academic perspective that all of Freemasonry will have to learn to live with if not to wholeheartedly embrace, more succinctly than these words from Jan A M Snoek's preface to his most recent work, which follows. It gives much for Freemasons of every obedience to consider.

"Much has changed since in 1986 John Hamill showed that the hitherto generally accepted theory about the origin and early history of Freemasonry, first formulated by such scholars as Gould in the 1880s, could not be maintained when the facts available were analysed anew from a modern scholarly perspective. Since then, scholars have rediscovered the archives and found many documents which had previously been overlooked, or the significance of which had not been understood. This has led to important new insights, often radically contradictory to those which had been previously assumed. Generally, we now tend to assume that the so called speculative form of freemasonry-the 'speculating' (philosophising) about possible symbolical interpretations of the working tools of a freestone mason, of his 'craft' in general, of what he is working at, etc.-was part and parcel of the training of craftsmen, long before the so called 'Premier Grand Lodge' was formed in 1717, and even before the Schaw Statutes were written in 1598 and 1599. Thus, what changed in the early 18th century was not that 'gentlemen masons' introduced this aspect, but rather that fewer and fewer craftsmen were members of the lodges, so that the 'operative' aspect was gradually lost. Also, there never existed a fixed form of what 'true' or 'authentic' freemasonry once was. Rather, it constantly developed and develops, changing its form all the time, in different ways in different times and places, sometimes very radically. Finally, from a scholarly perspective, there never existed 'bad', 'deviant' forms of freemasonry (as in the past such systems as Cagliostro's 'Egyptian Rite', Von Hund's 'Strict Observance' and Weishaupt's 'Illuminati' have been qualified), but just forms which were successful and those which were not (which is not necessarily a criterion of quality, measured according to ritual theories)."

"Also, the number of scholars-historians and sociologists, mainly-who are not freemasons but are nevertheless of the opinion that freemasonry had such an impact on the development of the Western culture, that this development cannot be understood without paying due attention to the role of freemasonry, has increased significantly. As a result, the study of freemasonry has become part and parcel of the academic enterprise, even creating a few chairs and institutes dedicated to the subject. Today, scholars who are also freemasons, and those who are not, cooperate harmoniously and critically in mutually complementing ways. With the exception of France, this development has so far given rise to very few new books about freemasonry, written from the new perspective. This is the case for nearly all aspects of freemasonry which have been or should be investigated, including the relationship between women and freemasonry, which has been traditionally regarded as a purely male phenomenon. Significant research in this area has been done over the past two decades, again, especially in France. But very little of the new insights have been made available in English."

                                                                   — Link to Jan A M Snoek's latest book with Brill

We must be prepared for the inevitability that this research and these perspectives will be and indeed are beginning to be discussed among anglophone academics in the United States and elsewhere. The impact will begin very soon to be felt in the anglophone Masonic world.

Let us hope that we can learn to embrace a new search for common ground. 

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