Symbolism : Interpretation & Limitations

by MasterMason

Adapted from “Freemasonry at Work” by Harry Carr

Symbols are a mode of communication; they teach by implication, or recollection, or interpretation. But symbolism is not an exact science; so far as I know. There are no rules by which we can measure the authenticity, or logic, or the accuracy of one’s interpretations.

Our estimation of truth or accuracy, in dealing with symbols, will be governed entirely by how far a particular explanation or interpretation is in accord with our previous convictions, or how far it may succeed in satisfying us in our search for understanding.

Hence I agree that every man is fully entitled (and should be encouraged) to work out his own symbolism and, when he has done this to his own satisfaction, his symbolism is valid for him regardless of the arguments of extraneous logic.

For myself, I prefer interpretation at it’ simplest level and, whenever possible, in the actual words of the Ritual, e.g. “The Square teaches us to regulate our Life and Actions…..”, but it is obvious that teaching can be conducted on various levels, and should be, if that will give the most effective results. To illustrate the necessity for this kind of approach, imagine the teacher-child relationship. There may be many different ways in which a particular point or problem could be explained. One of them may be the generally accepted one, on which most teachers are agreed. GOOD ; but for the child of slower perception it is the teacher’s bounden duty to try another and another until the point is clarified.

For the brilliant child, it would be the teacher’s duty to go beyond the normally accepted interpretation, especially if that would enable the child to achieve an even wider understanding. No teacher could justify neglecting a particular level of instruction if it enables him to teach a lesson effectively.

I have only used the “teacher-child” relationship in order to emphasize my point. The same reasoning would apply to one’s own interpretation of symbolism, i.e., a system of self teaching which has, and should have, no specific limits, no object except enlightenment and understanding.

As to symbolism that was “never intended”, I believe that the chronological objection cannot fairly be raised or sustained, e.g. we all accept the symbolism of the Hiramic Legend as a part of our teachings, regardless of its late introduction.

Nevertheless, I must put on record a deep-rooted dislike for aberrations in symbolism, extremes of interpretation which have no justification in the symbol itself and only mislead the reader or succeed in bemusing him.

Some time ago a paper on the Meaning of Masonry was submitted to me for criticism.

The writer was clearly a “Teetotaller” with strong views on the drink question and in two separate pieces of interpretation of Masonic ritual he showed what they meant, respectively. “the virtues of teetotalism” & the “evils of drink”.

He was probably astonished when I pointed out that he was not giving an interpretation of Masonry, but of himself!  Similarly I am convinced that real damage is done by those inveterate symbolists who need the dimensions of the pyramids, the mysteries of the heavenly bodies, the Tarot Cards, the Zodiac and other equally complex paths toward truth.


For those unfamiliar with the term “Teetotaller” is means the total avoidance of anything with an alcoholic content.

As I am aware that these papers are being shared with wives and families, the content of same will always remain within what can reasonably be shared and understood by all.

My position in approaching content in this manner is to hopefully not only clarify & expand on who we are to ourselves, but also to those near and dear to us, thereby developing an even better level of understanding and support.


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