Hello Fellow Travelers!
The following was pubished in "Further Light" by the Florida Lodge of Research this month.
Brother Coach N.
Ask any Mason what significance Athens has to Masonry and there is a high probability that you’ll be met with a blank stare and a possible grunted “huh?” I would be tempted to say that this response is most unfortunate but reality tells me this is for the best. If the connection between Athens and Masonry became common knowledge, Masonry would transform before our very eyes. However, least I get ahead of myself in revealing too much too soon, let me first share with you some trivial background and set the stage for such a quick transformation.
Classical Athens had a rich background and long record of accomplishment. It was a powerful city-state. Athens was a center for the arts, learning and philosophy. It was home to Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. Classical Athens is currently referred to as “the cradle of Western civilization” since its cultural achievements laid the civil foundations of the West. It is also considered “the Birthplace of Democracy.” What’s more is Athens, as a city, has been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years – a very long time in terms of human history.
In all these statements about Athens, there lay seeds of some important Masonic connections. One of these connections is the practice of Civility. Civility is the core of Civilization. Civilizations are complex societies or culture groups characterized by interdependence upon agriculture, long-distance trade, state form of government, occupational specialization, urbanism, and class stratification. None of these can exist without Civility.
Another connection is Democracy. Democracy is either Direct or Representative. A Direct Democracy is a political government carried out by the people; a Representative Democracy is where the power to govern is granted to elected representatives. Interestingly, the word “Democracy” is derived from the Greek word “dēmokratía,” which means “the power to the people.” It was coined from “demos” which means "people" and “krátos” which means "power." The Athenian connection? The word “Democracy” was coined in the middle of the fifth century BCE to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens following a popular uprising in 508 BCE.
There are two principles that characterize any form of Democracy: equality and freedom. They are most often reflected as all citizens being equal before the law, having equal access to power with freedom secured by legitimized rights and liberties. These are generally protected by a ratified Constitution.
It is useful right now for us to delve a bit into what constitutes a ratified Constitution. A Constitution is a set of rules for government—often codified as a written document—that enumerates the powers and functions of a political entity. Ratification occurs by the approval of the principal for an act of its agent where the agent originally lacked authority to legally bind the principal. Simply put: To ratify is to legally empower others to act as agents to execute specific functions. Such ratification occurs of one’s own freewill and accord.
Constitutions are not a new idea. People were creating Constitutions very early on in recorded history. Excavations in Iraq around 1877 found evidence of the earliest known code of justice, issued by the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash around 2300 BCE that allowed for some citizen rights. Some of these rights provided tax relief for widows and orphans. Other rights protected the poor from the usury of the rich. Early on, Constitutions became entwined in civil support.
This leads us to a very important Constitution that occurred in Athens. In 621 BCE, a scribe named Draco wrote the laws of the city-state of Athens. Its codes had one unique prescribed solution – a death penalty for any offense. This was changed 27 years later when, in about 594 BCE, Solon, the ruler of Athens, created the new Solonian Constitution. The new Constitution eased worker Burden. It also made the ruling class wealth based and not birth based, as in a “Plutocracy” rather than an “Aristocracy.” About 508 BCE, Cleisthenes reformed the Athenian Constitution and set Athens on a Democratic footing as an ancient Participant Democracy. For this action, he is referred to as “the father of Athenian Democracy.”
Later on around 350 BCE, Aristotle, made a formal distinction between Ordinary Law and Constitutional Law. He established ideas of Constitution and Constitutionalism. He also attempted to classify different forms of Constitutional government. His efforts further clarified the relationships between men, their government and the world.
The clarification process within Athens continued for some time. All who lived within it stirred the pool of shared information. Ultimately, the foundation laid by Athenians has provided Masons with much to be grateful.
Gratitude though sometimes comes in mixed measures. There was another very important, albeit disturbing, heritage established in Athens to which Masons should take notice. It was the establishment of tyrannicide; the killing or assassination of tyrants for the common good. This began in Athens in 514 BCE. The group establishing this act was referred to as the “Athenian Tyrannicide Cult.” They showed outright contempt for tyranny.
Tyranny was not always looked at in disfavor though. At that time and before, tyranny simply meant anyone who obtained executive power in a polis by unconventional means. In fact, the word derives from the Latin word “tyrannus”, meaning "illegitimate ruler", and this word in turn came from the Greek “týrannos”, meaning "sovereign, master."
In Classical Athens tyranny occurred regularly. Support for tyrants came from the growing middle class and from peasants who had no land or were in debt to wealthy landowners. The populous preferred them to kings and aristocracy. Unfortunately tyrants once positioned, used mercenary soldiers from outside of their respective city-states to maintain their power. During the growth of the Athenian Democracy, the word “tyrant” took on its negative connotations. What has come to be known as “tyranny” is antithetical to Masonic practice. Masons should note how such tyrants come into being and how they maintain their power base.
There is further significance for Masons in knowing Athenian history. Athens was named after Athena, their city’s patron. She was known as the goddess of Wisdom, war, strategy, industry, Justice and skill, of which the metalwork of weapons fell under her patronage. Athena was also known as a shrewd companion of heroes and the goddess of heroic endeavors. Although known as a goddess of war, she disliked fighting without a purpose. Athena preferred using Wisdom to settle disputes, using war only as a last resort and for good and reasonable cause. Like all of Masonry and its symbol of Solomon, Athena’s underlying character is Wisdom based.
Interestingly enough, this focus on Wisdom is also echoed in the Volume of Sacred Law. One scripture: Wisdom had Built her house; she has set up in it Seven Pillars; becomes even more important to Masons once some connections are known. Let’s review some now. The classic Symbolic interpretation of the word “Seven” denotes “completion or sufficiency.” The meaning is rooted in the phase changes of the moon where every seven days reveals a completed phase change. The classic Symbolic interpretation of the word “Pillar” denotes three possibilities — “a supportive structure,” “a commemoration of a significant event,” and when it is accompanied by an orb placed on top, it denotes “a person of importance.” When these two word meanings are placed within the context of Wisdom’s house, we see that it is always a significant event when an important person comes to support Wisdom’s house completely or sufficiently. Masons should know how this is immortalized in Ritual.
Those Seven Pillars have much to do with regard to Masonic endeavors. They provide a sound and firm understanding of what supports Masonic Wisdom. They represent the “complete or sufficient” study of Wisdom as provided by the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. The Masonic connection to these Liberal Arts and Sciences may not be clearly apparent at first. Let’s explore elsewhere a bit before I share this connection.
Properly Aimed Study
The term “Liberal Arts” derives from the Medieval Latin phrase “artes liberals.” The root meaning of “artes” is “subjects of study,” and the root meaning of “liberals” is “proper to free persons.” Science is Knowledge supported by an integrated system of rational thought. The “Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences” are book studies that are proper and sufficient for persons who are free. Their aim is to properly prepare students for the serious pursuit of Science in the strict sense of the term. Students schooled in the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences prepare themselves for serious study of Scholasticism, which is the combination of Philosophy and Theology.
“Scholasticism” is a word derived from the Latin word “scholasticus” which means “that which belongs to school.” It was a method or tool of learning taught by academics of medieval universities circa 1100 CE to 1500 CE. Originally, its purpose was to reconcile ancient classical Philosophy with medieval Christian Theology. By placing emphasis on Dialectical reasoning, it was believed that one could find answers and resolve contradictions.
This leads us back to the point of this communication. The foundation of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences was first established in Ancient Greece and more specifically Athens. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were Athenians partially responsible for helping to establish the foundation for the study of subjects we now know as the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. Plato was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens. The Academy was the first higher learning institution in the Western world. Academy teachers were known for laying the foundations of Science, Natural Philosophy, and Western Philosophy. Please keep in mind that Philosophy for ancient Greeks had a much broader connotation than what is applied to it today. Back then, it applied to all those domains of reality reflecting rational thought.
The story of Greek Philosophy starts sooner than Plato’s Academy though. It began in the seventh century BCE with an Ionian named Thales. He was one of the first recorded “thinkers” to reflect rationally on the makeup of the primary substance of the universe. Thales’ primary interests were Ethics, Metaphysics, Mathematics and Astronomy. Aristotle regarded him as the first Philosopher in the Greek tradition.
Other “thinkers” followed Thales’ example. They were Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides and Democritus – Philosophers all. Their collective method of reasoning was Dialectic and involved the use of Rhetorical thought and discourse. This method caught on fast. Within two centuries of introduction of this specific thought process, sophists were making money in Athens instructing young men in Rhetoric. Such instruction was considered at that time the art of persuading an audience.
The Sophist’s Philosophy though espoused a type of skepticism with respect to religious beliefs and philosophical knowledge. They embraced a relativistic approach to Ethics. Their view of the universe was summed up by the sophist Protagoras, who claimed that “man is the measure of all things.” Plato characterize sophists in his “Sophist” dialogue the following way: Sophistry is a productive art, human, of the imitation kind, copy-making, of the appearance-making kind, uninformed and insincere in the form of a contrary-speech-producing art.
Plato’s mentor, Socrates, was a man who firmly and fiercely disagreed with sophist ideals and methods. He was an Athenian Citizen and Philosopher who lived between 469 BCE to 399 BCE. Socrates is sometimes referred to as the “Father of Philosophy.” The development and use of the “Socratic method” was his legacy to Philosophy. His method uses a series of Inquiries and Responses in the form of questions and answers to refute groundless opinions and to lay the foundation for the discovery of true Knowledge.
Socrates was known for many things, of which two facts about his life should stand out for Masons. The first fact was that his father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason who is believed to have died by the year 424 BCE, before Socrates’ 46th year. The second was that Socrates’ execution, about his 70th year, profoundly changed ideas about what it meant to be heroic since he died only because this Widow’s Son steadfastly refused to abandon his principles.
Plato was tremendously influenced by Socrates, along with Pythagoras, Aristophanes, Protagoras, Homer, Hesiod, Parmenides, Aesop, Heraclitus, and Orphism. He used the Socratic dialogues in his Academy. They were written by Plato as thirty-five dialogues and thirteen letters. These dialogues were used to teach a range of subjects, including but not limited to Philosophy, Logic, Rhetoric and Mathematics.
Plato though is best known for writing, the “Republic”, originally titled “Politeía.” The title “Politeía” literally means “the order or character of a political community” that is “its constitution or regime type” and is a guide to "city-state governance.” It has profoundly influenced Philosophy and political theory since its writing. In it, the characters discuss the meaning of Justice and examine whether the just man is happier than the unjust man. It accomplishes this by imagining a society ruled by Philosopher-Kings and supported by Guardians. The dialogues also discuss the role of the Philosopher, Plato's Theory of Forms, the place of poetry, and the immortality of the soul.
Masons would do well to inform themselves about Guardians and their training. Guardians were those persons educated to be gentle toward their own citizens and fierce toward their enemies. This education was accomplished by totally training each Guardian’s character toward producing a morally mature individual. It strived continuously to connect Ethics with Aesthetics, thus cultivating Guardians attracted to good and repulsed by evil. The training combined the proper balance of intellectual and physical training and cultivation so neither overrode the other. Part of the discipline required to do this was to discourage Guardians from questioning the accepted belief system, leaving this to those who have been properly schooled to do such things. What is most striking about Guardian education is the strict emphasis on all Guardian educational material reflecting good Morals, personal balance and encouraging development of Virtues. Masons should recognize this as the focus of education toward which the First Degree Ritual points us.
This leads us toward the Masonic connection involving the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences. Philosopher-Kings were those persons educated in what is now known as the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences, with particular emphasis on Dialectic and the Quadrivium. The study of Dialectic focused upon Logical discourse and it was supported by knowledge and proper practice of Grammar and Rhetoric. Masons recognize these as the Trivium.
Education in the Trivium and Quadrivium have a profound effect upon those who study them. Plato had his concerns regarding improperly guided Dialectic though. He believed that without proper Philosophical guidance Dialectic could destroy a person’s belief in religious myths, its traditions and conventional norms. This very concern is characterized and conveyed in present day Masonic Ritual as “Irreligious Libertines and Stupid Atheists.” They are two characters denoted in Masonry who destroy Faithful belief through irreverent use of Dialectic, usually because of their poorly guided study. Philosophers avoid cultivating these possibilities in their students by refocusing Dialectic toward the Eternal Forms and to the form of the Good. Masons must keep in mind though that myths represent forms of Good about as well as shadows represent the things that cast them. This is why the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences were studied. Studying them allowed future Philosopher-Kings to look through the illusions cast by myths and see clearly the truth behind them. The Masonic degree that best reviews and espouses the education of Philosopher-Kings is the Fellow Craft Degree.
Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft Masons partake in a specific study as they travel Eastward. These studies echo the ones put forth in Plato’s Republic for those characters within called “Guardians” and “Philosopher-Kings” respectively. For Fellow Craft Masons, that study is best exemplified by what is now referred to as “The Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences.” The protagonist of Plato’s Republic is Socrates, the Widow’s Son and the “Father of Philosophy.” He is noted for inspiring new ideas as to how to go about thinking and what it is to be heroic. When men follow his example, their awareness, merits, rewards and contributions are profoundly Raised.
I’ll now delightfully revoke my earlier statement about Masonry transforming if the aforementioned connection were to become common knowledge. It wouldn’t transform, but you may. Let me now share with you no more trivial background. If I have done my job, your stage is now set for some cavernous contemplation, intense investigation and some titanic transformation.
- Review the benefits reaped by Masonry through its connection with Classical Athens.
- How does tyranny occur and continue and what was one Athenian solution to it?
- Describe an undesired outcome that might occur when studying Dialectic and how to prevent it.
- What is the significance behind the education of Guardians and Philosopher-Kings and its ramifications?
- Explain the significance Socrates, Plato and Aristotle have to Masonry.
- Identify and discuss both the overt and covert Masonic connections communicated herein.
About the Article: This article is based on the unpublished Masonic writings, “The Attic” and “The Attic Catechism” written by Dr. John S. Nagy. They are found in the soon to be published book “Building Athens – Uncommon Catechism for Uncommon Masonic Education - Volume 3” by the same author. The book is scheduled to be published by PG Publishing in June 2010.
About the Author: Dr. John S. Nagy is a Master Mason, a perpetual member of Tampa Bay Lodge No. 252 in Tampa Bay Florida and a Life Member of the Florida Lodge of Research. He is the Lodge Musician for both Lodges and occasional Masonic Education provider.
“Attic” refers to the plain of Attica, home of Athens; it also refers to the upper most story of a Building.
Counter to this educational focus was “artes illiberales”, which are pursued for economic purposes, the aim of which is to prepare the student for gaining a livelihood.
Sophist (dialogue) - Plato, Wikipedia
The Republic - Plato, Wikapedia
Republic, Book 2 (375a-383d); Book 3 (386a-412b)
Republic, Book 7 (521c-541b)
Source of the word “Trivial”
Libertines, Encyclopedia of Masonry; Charges of 1722
Republic, Book 7 (514a-521b)