THE VALUE OF SYMBOLS
By Bro Clive Herron
Marine Lodge 627 I.C.
At one time, when very few were literate, the use of symbolism was widespread. It was a form of “visual shorthand” which suggested abstract concepts. Symbols were easily recognized, and understood. It did not matter where one lived, one would recognise most, if not all, of the symbols, although there may have been some local variations. When a series of symbols were strung together, (as with hieroglyphics) they could be used to tell stories and record history.
in life we are surrounded by symbols, some exhorting us to drink Coca Cola, or
buy a Mercedes, others define us as Christians, Muslims or Jews. There are
symbols used to impose legal constraints upon us – we “Stop” when we see
the red traffic light, we keep left or right on the road according to the sign
or symbols. We use either the Ladies or Gents wash room. Chemicals are defined
by symbols. Academically, symbols are given to students as a measure of
achievement in an examination, and so we can go on. Then there are symbols that
depict the abstract, for example, “love” is often symbolised by a heart –
because you can’t draw love. A skull represents “Danger” (another
what can we deduce from all of this? - A Symbol (usually a graphic depiction and
not the written word have a meaning that can be clearly understood)
are quick to take full advantage of symbols to influence consumers. Companies
spend fortunes promoting their logo or symbol. The connection is drummed up into
the public through constant exposure and association because they realise that a
symbol is a powerful substitute for many words.
Dictionary describes Symbolism as
A representation (visual or conceptual) of that which is unseen or
invisible. The value of a symbol is its ability to elucidate; to compress into a
simple, meaningful whole, readily grasped and retained; to provide a center for
the shaping of conduct and belief.
us now look at the use of symbols by using the VSL as the basis. There are many
examples where symbols were used to illustrate morality, an exercise we engage
in at all our meetings. The plumb line, a string with an attached weight for
testing the perpendicular of a wall, is used half-a-dozen times in Scripture to
illustrate the lack of uprightness displayed by the people and their deviation
from that which is straight. These metaphors borrowed from the builder's art
were used by the Prophets Isaiah and Amos, and mentioned in the Book of Kings
study of the VSL will clearly show that the moral teachings contained therein
run parallel with freemasonry therefore from these examples you can conclude
that our symbols have a very real and similar meaning to that being used in the
not a religion, Freemasonry uses allegorical symbols to teach philosophy
concerning the nature of the creator, and humanities universal destiny. We (as
Masons) are instructed that our symbols teach a system of morality (just as they
did in biblical times.)
I HOLD UP A CAN OF COKE YOU WILL READILY RECOGNISE IT AS A SYMBOL OF REFRESHMENT
AND DISTINGUISH IT FROM A PEPSI ALTHOUGH BOTH ARE COLAS)
meaning is quite recognizable. In fact, some of the worlds most successful
symbols, Coca Cola or the Mickey Mouse head are so universally known that they
could be distorted, sawn in half and recoloured and still be recognizable.
us in freemasonry, our symbols must be seen as a graphic representation of an
abstract idea - one that has no
direct visual equivalent. Our symbols can take on many meanings depending on the
I HOLD UP A SQUARE YOU WILL RECOGNISE IT TO BE AN EMBLEM OF MORALITY THE PROFANE
WOULD RECOGNISE IT AS CARPENTERS TOOLS)
are other examples outside of freemasonry where a symbol can take on a multi
meaning - take for example a cross. A cross on a school exercise book means
something entirely different from a cross on a ballot paper and a cross on a
road sign has no relationship with a cross on a church.
symbols, take on meanings that are not always obvious. Our symbols are not
regulated or defined in the way a traffic sign is. It is for this reason that we
are encouraged to contemplate and study our ritual in order to take that
personal message from each symbol and apply this towards our own perfection.
Masonic tools or symbols define such fundamental values as the individual’s
relationship with God, his neighbour and himself. They cross cultural and
language barriers, and are timeless, yet the message is simple and readily
understood. They teach us to build upon a foundation of God, using the square of
justice, the plumb line of rectitude, the compasses to restrain the passions,
and the rule to divide our time into labour, rest and service
gives us the choice as to how we should use these symbols in our daily life so
as to achieve our own perfection.
definition of Freemasonry tells us that it is “ a science of morality veiled
in allegory, and illustrated by symbols”
symbols illustrate for us the Mysteries of Freemasonry.
The puzzle for some is why do we create the mystery?
Cola and other brands go out of their way to display their symbols and spend
millions advertising the underlying benefits to the consumer. The company would
certainly dismiss any advertising agent who sought to veil their symbols or give
them a random or double meaning.
are however many answers to the question as to why we create mystery, but let us
again be guided by the VSL. It is written “Do not cast your pearls before
the swine lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to
pieces.”(Mathew 7:16) We are being warned that there is a genuine danger
of sharing powerful information with those who are not ready for it or would
abuse it. It is for the same reason that we hold certain matters confidential
and in our heart, only to be shared with those who have been duly prepared.
if we were to disclose that Freemasonry is solely a system of morality and say
exactly what we stand for we would be creating a fixed definition restricted by
the use of words. This would impose a limit on our thoughts
we would not be able to discover the hidden wisdom of the lodge. The VSL tells
us that we “must strive to enter through
the straight and narrow gate” The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu likewise
said “to see the Tao, one must walk
through the gate of mysteries, mysteries upon mysteries” As freemasons we
also enter the degrees of knowledge through the gate.
steps we can take to uncover the mysteries is clear “Ask
and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and it will be opened to
you” This should sound very
familiar to all freemasons.
Freemasonry is a science – a philosophy – a system of doctrines
which is taught, in a manner peculiar to itself, using allegories and symbols
requires that we do a lot of seeking and much knocking through meditation in
order to unravel the mysteries of our Order.
Let us consider
B, C. are alphabetical letters but they can also be used as symbols which when
assigned values can give them different meanings
“A” could represent one exhibit in a legal case and “B”
another etc. OR when set out as a formula “A”= length, “B”= Breadth, and
we were to say “A” multiplied by “B” then “C” would be area and this
could be in Sq. Inches, Sq Miles etc ON THE OTHER HAND assign numbers to
“A”, “B” & “C” and they could take on varying meanings again. If
“A” “B” & “C” were the points of a right angle triangle then
a2 + b2 = c2 or the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square on the other two sides (Pythagoras Theorem)
You are given a blank signed cheque, - to some this could be a symbol of
a free meal, to others it could mean a new car or boat. The symbol being the
cheque. Now if I were to endorse that cheque “Not to exceeding R100” that
would be to create a definition and place a limit thereon and restrict your
each of the examples I have given you the symbol has been defined.
Masonic symbols would be the same if we were to impose clear and
undisputable conditions upon them. Anything that is defined is restricted to
definite bounds. Masonic symbols are not restricted they give the individual the
opportunity to place whatever meaning or value they so comprehend, the ultimate
being that they symbolise true goodness as understood by that individual.
Consider this carefully:-
you believe in God?”
“Define what you mean by God”, and when you have done so I will say
“No I do not believe in God, because a God defined is a God limited
– and a limited God is no God at all”
So it is with all Masonic symbols, just as the Freemasons God, being the creator of all that has gone before and all that is to come cannot be limited by definition, He is the creator of the universe and the same God of all who acknowledge Him as the Supreme Being. We refer to the Deity symbolically as The Great Architect.
We as masons are moral, we were accepted as men of good repute when we
entered - but it is the acceptance
of the meaning of our symbols that enables us to make ourselves better.
Today in the 21st Century, accepted morality can often be in
conflict with Masonic morality. We are greeted with new moral and social issues
each day in the newspaper and these bid us farewell on the evening news.
I refer to promiscuity, drugs, adultery, same sex marriage, abortion and
the list goes on - so called RIGHTS
Freemasonry permits each individual to interpret and apply the lessons of
the Craft as he sees best. It is this unique spirit of tolerance and freedom
that frequently confuses opponents of the Fraternity. One mason places his
interpretation upon a certain symbol or attribute of Freemasonry; another may
take an entirely different view, and will cite evidence with which a third may
be at entire variance; yet these three men can gather about our alters and in
our Lodge together in perfect amity.
It is said that man has a triple nature; he has a body, and senses which
bring him into contact with, and translate the meanings of, the physical world
of earth, air, fire and water that is about him. He has the brain and a mind
with which he reasons and understands about the matters that surround him. He
has a “SOMETHING” beyond; call it a Soul or Heart or Spirit or imagination,
call it, as you will. Masonic symbolism is the tool of abstract thought, which
develops the soul or imagination just as food develops the body. The human mind
is endowed with power which no one may set limit we have the right to choose how
we live our life. As Masons we know that we could seek no wiser foundation to
build on, year by year, than a foundation in God using the Square of Justice,
the Plumb Line of rectitude, the Compasses to restrain the passion and the Rule
by which to divide our time into labour, rest and service to our fellows. Out of
this flow those qualities of Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. Faith hope and
Thus using symbols, Freemasonry becomes a great system of morality with
which the individual Mason is encouraged to understand and interpret the true
meaning and purpose of life.
To quote Albert Einstein – “Imagination is more important than
knowledge. Knowledge itself is limited, imagination encircles the world.
Think of anything you may desire – knowledge may tell you that you
can’t afford it but with imagination you can own it.
Freemasonry uses symbols because only by them can the Craft speak the
language of the spirit, each to each, and because they form an elastic language,
which each man can read for himself according to his ability to comprehend.
Symbols form the only language, which is elastic, a vehicle of revelation, given
during inspiration and used to interpret the experience. It is given to us at
our initiation, when it appears as something new and take on a lasting
significance through our journey as a fellow craft and master mason. They relate
a man to that which should be of obvious concern.
Take from Freemasonry its symbols and but the husk remains; the kernel is
gone. Freemasonry without its symbols would not be Freemasonry at all it would
be nothing more than a dogmatic association that would certainly not have stood
the test of time. If you only hear
the word of Freemasonry you will miss the meaning you must constantly live and
learn from Freemasonry. Our symbols require interpretation, contemplation and
study. As a Mason involved in labour you are encouraged not only to competently
recite the workings of the Ritual, but also most importantly, reflect and apply
their significance and meaning. “Brotherly love”, “Relief from
suffering”, and “Truth”.
No man is perfect; our symbols help us on the path to perfection. But
these alone are not sufficient. Initiation alone never did, nor ever can, make a
man a true mason. These ceremonies only lay the foundations and without
exploring the true meaning of the symbols and using these as a blueprint for our
lives can the superstructure be raised.
Brethren look to our symbols – are they for you a source of light or
darkness? The answer lays with you in the way you interpret them. We all create
our own reality. What we expect from life is what we receive. The VSL tells us “as
you sow so shall you reap” If we seek trouble, disagreement, doubt,
negativity in situations that is what we will experience. Life does not always
go smoothly and so if we do not seek to really understand and put into practice
what is taught by our symbols we cannot expect our path as freemasons to be
smooth. We have been given the meaning and the tools – it is our response to
these that will truly define us.
alone never did nor ever can make a man a Mason it only lays the foundation. The
true mason is made when he studies, interprets and implements the meaning of the
symbols in his daily life.