On Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty
Brother Michael A. Chaplin, M.D.
Shakespeare Lodge No.750
July 2, 2003
As newly entered apprentices, we are taught about the supports of the lodge, the three pillars represented by the Master, Senior and Junior Wardens: Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty.1 We are told we should have the "wisdom to contrive, strength to support and beauty to adorn all great and important undertakings." While all three are important, and are worth pursuing in this life, I wonder if it is necessary that we strive for all at once. Do not mistake me here- I do not seek to judge the relative merits of these pillars. Rather, instead of seeing them as static and separate, I wonder if they might be better characterized as active and interdependent.
While in college, I took not a few classes in philosophy. I even learned a thing or two. One of those bits of knowledge that has managed to cling to my skull like a barnacle to a hull has been the triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.2 Briefly, it is "the inevitable transition of thought, by contradiction and reconciliation, from an initial conviction to its opposite and then to a new, higher conception that involves but transcends both of them."3 To put it concretely, if we take the color black (thesis), and mix it with the color white (antithesis), we will end up with neither black nor white, but one or many of the shades of gray (synthesis). Hence this question: Do we as Freemasons strive after Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty, or do we achieve Beauty only through the synthesis of Wisdom and Strength?
Let us take them one at a time. Strength, popularly the possession of youth, is the power to act, to put our will into effect, to create and make real. Strength, then, can be considered a generative force. Wisdom, often attributed to elders, directs our actions, tells us when and how we should put our will into effect, and limits the possibilities of imagination to the probabilities of reality. Wisdom, then, can be considered a restrictive force. Strength without Wisdom is wasted, spent on endeavors of doubtful value. Wisdom without Strength is impotent, for even the best of plans cannot be realized without laboring to make it so. What is left to us when the acts of Strength are tempered with the thoughts of Wisdom? The result is Beauty, which is rightly considered to be timeless. It is the equilibrium between brains and brawn, the maintenance of creation in the face of limitation, the product of will bent to discretion. Beauty is found in the balance. Indeed, it comes from that balance.
While the Freemasons of the early 18th century predated the formal notion of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, they would not have found the concept incomprehensible. Much of philosophy, religion, and mysticism have concerned themselves with the nature of reality, and it was not unusual to try to devise a Total Theory of Everything.4 One common maxim stated, "As Above, So Below," indicating among other things that the workings of the mind reflected, and were reflected in, the workings of the lodge, which in turn reflected, and were reflected in, the workings of the cosmos. That the notions of Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty could be applied to each would have been immediately apparent, and the lodge could have been viewed as a model for both the mind and the universe.
Consider the actions of the working tools of the entered apprentice upon the rough ashlar. How would the mason know where to aim the common gavel without having first made the proper measurements with the twenty-four inch gauge? Would those measurements do any good without using the common gavel to follow through? And would the mason not consider the result- the perfect ashlar- a thing beautiful to behold?
A 20th century parallel may be found with Freud's notion of the id, ego and super-ego, whereby one's sense of self is derived from internal passions as they come into conflict with, and are subdued by, the external demands of society.5 Adam Smith, writing much earlier during the Scottish Enlightenment, noted a similar dynamic between self and society, mediated by imagination and sympathy, that he believed was the source of an individual's moral character.6
In the cosmos, we see the Sun as it travels along the southern skies from east to west, the maximum light of day coming only when it reaches the zenith, the balance point between rising and setting. This, too, is reflected in the lodge when you consider that the Master, whose pillar is Wisdom, has his seat in the east, while the Senior Warden, whose pillar is Strength, has his seat in the west. Where do we find the Junior Warden, whose pillar is Beauty? Of course, he is in the south, exactly midway between the two.
The analogy may be pushed further. At its inception, a plan is nothing more than an idea conceived in wisdom and nursed by necessity. As it ascends, more and more people subscribe to it and work to make it a reality. Soon it is a reality, and it is appreciated for what it is. As time passes, though, fewer people will recall the reason behind the plan, and ascribe to it and the structure that has arisen from it an importance that passes far beyond its intrinsic value. Decline sets in until new needs, neither foreseen nor addressed by the original plan, necessitate a new one, beginning the cycle anew.
One can imagine the Freemasons of yesteryear finding beauty in the balance of the strength of faith tempered with the wisdom of reason, and in turn finding reason bolstered by faith. There is no question of them shaping their characters willfully with an eye towards improvement. They certainly would have seen how the strength of the brethren united, directed by the wisdom of the Master, gives rise to the beauty that is the rite that brings an entered apprentice into the light. If the brethren of today's Craft do as well, then they too shall find their lodges supported by those same three pillars, and that Beauty will arise from Wisdom and Strength.
1 In my case, the lesson was made somewhat earlier, as the then-Master, now-Past Master, of my lodge took it upon himself to instruct me when I presented myself for investigation!
2 Commonly described as Hegelian dialectic, but see Hegel.Net, wherein a case is made for attributing it to Marx.
3 The Free Online Dictionary of Philosophy.
4 In fact physicists, one group of the philosophers' heirs, are still at it.
5 A formulation recognizable as "a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other." Interestingly, Freud never used the Latin terms in his 1923 work Das Ich und das Es (The Ego and the Id). He wrote in German of the es, ich, and ueber-ich, which in English would be the it, I, and over-I. An ego is not something you have. It is what you are.
6 Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 1759. Foreword Eamonn Butler. London: Adam Smith Institute, 2001.