Sunday, May 17, 2009

No Seldon Plan

I recently listened to Episode 30 of the Masonic Central Podcast (direct MP3 link) featuring Professor Margaret C. Jacob, who covers a lot of very interesting historical ground about the spread of early speculative Masonry, and the way it comes to be either very open or very secretive depending on the surrounding political/religious climate. Also fascinating was her explanation of the Masonic libraries stolen by the Nazis during World War II and then kept by the Soviet Union (and then former Soviet Union) until 2000; information that suddenly doubled the amount of material available to Masonic researchers. That's the kind of discovery that can potentially turn lots of established historically accepted "truths" on their heads, and if there's one thing Freemasons like to discuss it's historical truths.

Whether approaching Freemasonry as a direct descendent of the ancient Egyptian Mystery Schools, or a less mystical, gentlemanly by-product of the Enlightenment, one always encounters discussions about the intent of the unknown Brothers who first developed the symbolism and ritual of the Craft. Opinions differ as to what their intentions were, but there does seem to be a general impression that they were trying to establish something very deliberate, and enduring.

Professor Jacob talked about how Freemasonry in the 18th century taught men, among other things, skills of leadership and self-government - a very unique thing during a time when most of the world was still ruled by monarchy.

When it comes to Freemasonry and its role in the 21st century, she painted a less flattering (but uncomfortably accurate) picture. While Freemasons were ahead of the curve during the 18th century in terms of forward thinking ideas about religious tolerance and human rights, in the 21st century we're being dragged behind modern society kicking and screaming; the issue of continued racial segregation (in the form of Grand Lodges' refusal to recognize Prince Hall Masonry) in the south was cited as one reason that many of her students have a very difficult time finding any sort of relevance in the Fraternity, as was regular Masonry's continued exclusion of women.

I will admit that I have a really hard time with the idea of women belonging to my Lodge/Grand Lodge. I feel that the question of gender is quite different from race in this context; I believe, unapologetically, that adding a co-ed dynamic to the Lodge experience would distract greatly from the Work (with men probably more to blame for that distraction than women, frankly.) I have no problem with Co-Masonry, and perhaps the next logical step would be toward recognition between US Grand Lodges and the Supreme American Council of Co-Masonry - but I think that forcing all lodges to admit women would destroy a lot of them, as many Brothers would stop attending, demit, or form new, clandestine, male-only lodges.

Back to the original creators of speculative Masonry... did they foresee these crises of race and gender, but trust to future Freemasons to be carry the torch of enlightenment and lead the way when society was a little more ready? Did it not even enter into their deliberations because race and gender inequality was "the way we've always done it?" Did they even care what happened to Freemasonry after their deaths? We're so used to thinking about Freemasonry as a tradition whose origins are lost in time, that it's hard to remember that, at some point, someone was making it up as they went along.

One of my favorite science fiction stories is the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The premise, in a nutshell, is that a mathematician named Hari Seldon develops a statistical science called psychohistory by which he's able to analyze past socio-political trends to predict future ones, and in so doing foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire, to be followed by a 30,000 year dark age before a new empire would arise.

Seldon and a team of psychohistorians take it upon themselves to develop a plan by which they can manipulate future history to shorten that dark age to a mere 1,000 years, by situating a "Foundation" in such a way that it is able to preserve much of the knowledge of the current Empire and remain at an advantage over the more barbarous neighboring planets.

The Foundation stories chronicle a series of crises that arise along the plan's timeline, carefully designed by the psychohistorians so that the Foundation will ultimately have no choice but to follow the particular course of action that will advance the formation of a new, enlightened empire at the end of that 1,000 year span.

When we talk about the original creators of speculative Masonry, it seems like we often attribute a similar prescience to them, that they were creating this peculiar system of morality (veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols) to be passed down through the ages, and that we are not to question or deviate from the landmarks they left us.

I don't think that attitude has worked all that well, as Professor Jacob aptly points out. Part of the problem is that American Freemasonry has been fighting its own internal battle with membership attrition... if we can stabilize that problem, it will be up to this new wave of 20-40 somethings to aggressively re-establish the relevance of our Fraternity in an increasingly fragmented and distracted society.

1 comment:

47th Problem of Euclid said...

I took an introduction to historiography course with Prof. Jacob when she taught at the New School for Social Research, when I was an undergrad. It was one of the best courses I took at that school, and she was a brilliant teacher. Later, when I became a Freemason, I was delighted that she had contributed so much to masonic scholarship.