From The Mentor’s Mouth: Bro. Robert E. Burtt, PM

Robert Burtt

Worshipful Brother Robert E. Burtt, author of A Guide to Modern Freemasonry messaged me a little over a week ago, expressing an interest in contributing to my blog. Of course, I promptly invited him to submit to any of the contributor columns. I am proud to present his first contribution, which seemed to me to best fit here in From the Mentor’s Mouth. In this portion extracted from his book A Guide to Modern Freemasonry, which is published by Createspace, a division of Amazon, he presents a brief coverage of the history, philosophy, and psychology of Freemasonry. If you enjoy his work as much as I do, you can purchase it from the links above.

Bro. Robert E. Burtt, PM was born in Du Bois, PA in 1954.  An alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh, he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Political Science, and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration there.  He is a veteran of the U.S. Navy.  Although Bro. Burtt has done all of those things in life that one needs in order to become a writer, he still finds that he must depend on other work for his physical needs. He currently works as a minor functionary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Bro. Burtt was raised a Master Mason in Harmony Lodge No. 429, Zelienople, PA in 1995.  He is a Past Master of Harmony Lodge.  A member of Delta Royal Arch Chapter No. 170, New Castle, PA, he is Past High Priest.  He also belongs to Hiram Council No. 45, Royal and Select Master Masons, where he is Past Thrice Illustrious Master.  He was knighted in Lawrence Commandery No. 62, and is Past Eminent Commander.  He is also a Knight of the York Cross of Honor.
Bro. Burtt is also a Charter Member of the Pennsylvania Lodge of Research and a Companion Knight in Golden Triangle York Rite College No. 32, Pittsburgh, PA. Finally, he is a member emeritus of Antioch Conclave, Knights of the Red Cross of Constantine, New Castle, PA.
Bro. Burtt is the author of A Pennsylvania Masonic Handbook, and A Guide to Modern Freemasonry. His non-Masonic works include Wait Until Sunset, a study of the Japanese-American conflict in the South Pacific, and Rome: A Commonplace Book, a love letter to his spiritual home, Italy. He has also authored or co-authored several monographs concerning media and politics. These are of an academic nature and are chiefly useful to those unfortunates afflicted with insomnia.
Bro. Burtt is married to his wife, Grace and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas with his two step-daughters, grandsons, and a dog named Ashes.

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PSYCHOLOGY OF THE FRATERNITY

            I can almost hear you asking: “what in the world does psychology have to do with Freemasonry?  When are we going to get to the ‘good stuff:’ the crazy ceremonies, the costumes, and the weird things those old guys do?  If the pace of this book doesn’t ‘pick up’ soon, I’m dropping it!”  Bear with me for a while dear reader.  I promise that all of that “good stuff” will be covered in due time.  We must first begin at a basic level and ask fundamental questions.

One of the curious things about the organization has been its staying power, and its enduring fascination and attraction to its members.  Ever wonder why?  In other words, what is Freemasonry grounded on?  Why does it still exist?  My answer to this query is that the foundation of the Order is partly to be found in the human makeup, particularly the mind.

When examining any phenomenon, a real danger is going back to first principles until one arrives at the story of Adam.  I won’t go that far, but we must begin with one of the foundations of the modern world: the Eighteenth Century movement known as “The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was a complex period in European history that expressed itself in a variety of ways according to national character.  The movement was very different in Scotland than it was in France, for example.  Rousseau and Adam Smith were unalike in temperament, lifestyle, and interests.  While very difficult to summarize, there are several discrete elements within it.

The Enlightenment immediately followed the rise of the modern scientific method in the late Seventeenth Century.  Newton, Descartes, and Leibniz are generally considered the leading minds of this period.  The invention of modern science was an important precursor for what was to follow.  Enlightenment thought was generally hostile to superstition, skeptical of established authority, especially in matters of religion and politics, and open to reason and rationality as the governing norm for society.[1]

Thinkers like Montesquieu, Kant, and Thomas Paine saw prejudice, intolerance, and superstition as major causes of evil amongst the human race.  They saw humans as “perfectible.”  If educational standards were raised, and the natural tendencies of human intelligence allowed free play, then society would improve, political understanding would increase, and the civilization would advance.

The Enlightenment movement tried to encourage open-mindedness, freedom of thought and expression, as well as individual rights and liberty.  The American and French Revolutions were the ultimate examples of these ideals translated into action.  During the Eighteenth Century the educated population of Europe became more and more enthralled with this new vision of humanity.  In every country they tended to gather together to share information, debate new ideas, and keep in touch with other like-minded individuals.

In each nation these groups met in differing venues.  Englishmen embraced the institution of the “Coffee House,” where newspapers were readily available, intellectuals debated new ideas, and an exciting new beverage fueled middle-class progressive dreams.  In France, the Salon became an institution where, usually under the sponsorship of noble Grande dames,[2] thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau exposed the shortcomings of the French monarchy.  In Germany and Austria, Academies were formed where social improvements and ideas for bettering the individual and the state were explored.

At the center of this continent-wide movement was Freemasonry.  The Brotherhood made its appearance in London in 1717 and quickly spread to every nation in Europe.  Much of its appeal finds echoes in modern examinations of the Craft.  It was an organization dedicated to helping its members achieve a higher level of moral and spiritual development.  Lodges were also organized—partly by accident—as “laboratories of republicanism.”

Each lodge, although part of a larger, national organization, was set up as a self-governing body.  Officers were elected by the membership for specific, set terms.  Each lodge had a constitution—a set of rules which all members and officers promised to abide by.  Finally, each Freemason had been elected by the other members and entered into fellowship with his “brethren” on equal terms, with equal rights and obligations.  These obligations extended to himself, his brothers, his lodge, and to Freemasonry in general.

In the early 1700’s this mindset was revolutionary.  Monarchies rightly feared that Masonic lodges could become cradles for massive social change.  In France, the Parisian police became worried about such republican activities and their ultimate effect on social order.*[3]

In a work this short, simplification is perhaps a necessity.  Broad brush strokes are required, else this book would become an uncontrollable monster.  Although we have ignored the subtleties of Enlightenment Thought, hopefully the “spirit of the age” has come through.

Individual man was seen as a perfectible creature, with untapped resources in his intellect.  In one of Locke’s easily misunderstood passages, the human mind is seen as a “blank slate” at birth.  The purpose of education is to fill that blank slate with facts, knowledge, philosophy, and an appreciation of liberty and freedom.  Once the proper “data” are inserted into the brain, the individual will have learned to love truth, beauty, and justice.  As new experiences impinge on each man, he will automatically process facts, weigh them in the balance, and choose what is best for himself and for his society.  Education and rationality are thus the keystones in the Enlightenment Project to improve the human race.

lamp
The Lamp. An important Masonic symbol.  Not only does it provide physical illumination, but the light it provides represents spiritual and intellectual human development.

SIGNS AND SYMBOLS

            We come now to a strange aspect of our story.  It is true that Masonic lodges were dedicated to improving each member’s moral and intellectual powers.  What is strange is the method by which Freemasonry chose to impart its lessons.  One would expect, given the Age’s emphasis on logic, science, and rationality, that an appeal to the human intellect would be the method by which such lessons would be imparted.  To the average person, formal classroom settings, or even a seminar-type discussion system, might be the obvious way to advance such an agenda.  In the absence of any other ideas, perhaps a program of lectures might be considered appropriate.  After all, Christian churches of all denominations had been using the “Homily,” or sermon for hundreds of years to impart moral teachings.  Surely this was a serviceable model?

What the new organization, dedicated to human reason chose to do was to institute procedures designed to appeal to the emotional, irrational side of human nature!  Instead of seminars, discussion groups, or “Socratic Dialogues,” Freemasonry teaches its philosophy with costumes, props, myth, interactive dramatics, and ceremonies designed to appeal to the senses.  From the beginning, the Craft immersed its devotees in a complex system of theatrical productions designed to impress lessons upon the memory of its members.  Lights, smells, bloody symbols, meditations on death, and appeals to the eternal human spirit were used from the start.  A strange way, one would think, to reach the rational mind!

In another part of this book we will cover Masonic ceremony in greater detail, but for the present, what is important is the central paradox of Freemasonry.  Masonry seeks to reach the rational mind of man through irrational methods.  It imparts lessons meant to be utilized by the intellect by tapping into the non-intellectual side of human nature.  It seeks to train the individual to think for himself as a free creature, by using the emotional aspects of the brain and through a mysterious program of regimentation for its initiates.

Ritual
Early Masonic ceremony of the 1700’s.[4]
            Of course, initiatory experiences are as old as human society itself.  Even primitive peoples have coming of age ceremonies, warrior fitness tests, and religious “mystery” cults, where knowledge is imparted to a small, spiritual elite.  As far back in western history as ancient Greece, each polis had a network of ceremonies that each citizen was expected to pass through.  One of the key background elements in the case against the philosopher Socrates was the knowledge that he had always refused to participate in the rites of Demeter and Persephone held at the cult center of Eleusis.  He deemed them a mark of superstition and unworthy of a rational being.

One can make too much of this aspect of Freemasonry, since even the Greeks sought to excite the irrational in the search for truth.  Still, the Brotherhood is one of the few modern institutions that continues this old, counterintuitive tradition of education.

THE MODERN MIND

            Even during The Enlightenment, some thinkers were uncomfortable with the rationalistic view of the human mind.  Edmund Burke most famously argued that prejudice is a natural outcome of society and that change is almost always problematical for groups.[5]  He also had a great respect for tradition and a deep suspicion of rationalist schemes to improve society and the individual.

In the last thirty years or so, cognitive scientists have become convinced that the Enlightenment model of the human brain is wrong.  For example, the classic view saw reason and emotion as opposed.  Emotions got in the way of reason and interfered with rationality.  However, research has shown that humans with brain damage that makes them incapable of experiencing emotion, or seeing it in others, cannot function rationally!  They cannot perceive what decisions will lead to happiness or satisfaction—for themselves or anyone else.[6]  Emotions actually fuel reason, rather than impairing its use.

Our mind (or rather what we consider our rational mind) is largely emotional, empathetic, uses metaphor to understand the world, and is shaped by experience, prejudice, and non-rational learning.  Probably through luck, or because of its pre-Enlightenment roots, Freemasonry stumbled upon a perfect way to teach morality and self-development.  Mysterious ceremony, strange symbols, memorized incantations, and other-worldly initiations, are at the core of the Masonic experience.

It is now time to explore just how the institution of Freemasonry was born and how it came to occupy its present position in the world.

handshake
The handshake—a very important Masonic symbol and sign of respect and brotherhood.  Freemasons shake hands at almost every opportunity.  There are several different kinds of handshakes and all depend on both men knowing a subtle code while clasping hands.  This gesture symbolizes universal brotherhood and fellowship.  It lies at the core of the Masonic experience.

[1] Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (New York: Hill and Wang, 1984). 149.

[2] Leading ladies of the time, usually of noble birth and wealth, who had the leisure to cultivate the leading minds of the day and sponsor writers and intellectuals through patronage.

[3] Margaret C. Jacob, Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.

[4] Traditional engraving. Picture taken by the author from his private collection.

[5] Louis I. Bredvold & Ralph Gl Ross, eds. The Philosophy of Edmund Burke (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970), 35.

[6] George Lakoff The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain (New York: Viking, 2008), 7-9.

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