Why through Symbols?

The Most popular definition of Freemasonry states that it is “a System of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” Many a brother has asked “Why illustrated by symbols? Why not illustrated by plain statements of truth, completely defining the ‘system of morality’?”

There are many answers. Among them is the truth that definition limits what is defined. Seldom has this been better expressed than by that philosopher who asked “Do you believe in God?” His answer: “Define what you mean by God. And when you have defined, no matter what your definition, I shall reply ‘No, I do not believe in God, because a God defined is a God limited, and a limited God is no God!”

All mathematics are written in symbols, since our digits are symbols for quantities. Algebra used a symbol for a symbol, expressing quantities by letters, instead of numbers.

In the algebraic equation “a + b = c” any quantity may be assigned to any one, or any two of the letters and the equation still be true. But note that the replacing of a symbol by a known quantity limits the equation. Go a step further and replaced two symbols by two quantities; write that 2 + b = 4 and the necessity for b as a symbol disappears; it can only equal 2.

This soul or spirit comprehends a language which the brain does not understand. The keenest of minds have striven without success to make this mystic language plain to reason. When you hear music which brings tears to your eyes and grief or joy to your heart you respond to a language your brain does not understand and cannot explain. It is not with your brain that you love your mother, your child or your wife; it is with the Something Beyond; and the language with which that love is spoken is not the language of the tongue.

A symbol is a word in that language. Translate that symbol into words which appeal only to the mind, and the spirit of the meaning is lost. Words appeal to the mind; meanings are expressed in words appeal to the spirit.

It is thus seen that definition of a symbol limits its scope, and Freemasonry, by using symbols which are not closely defined, makes it possible for many men of many minds, each to read his own conception of the truth into the symbols. Freemasonry thus becomes as great a “System of morality” as the mind of him who attempts to understand it may admit.

A Masonic historian wrote:
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 which 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 in entire variance; yet these three men can gather about our altars and labor together in perfect amity.

That Freemasonry conceals in symbols in order to arouse curiosity to know their meaning is often considered the only explanation. But there are many more lofty ideas of why this great system of truth, philosophy and ethics is hidden in symbols.

As Masons we seek to enlighten both the spirit and mind… May we always endeavor to be successful in our pursuit of understanding and teaching those symbolic lessons that transcend the mere language that we communicate them by.


— WB Michael Bishop