The Cardinal Virtues

by MasterMason
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Rt. Wor. Bro. Professor B. E. Murphy, P.G.W.
I wish to make some contribution to the study of the ethical side of Craft Masonry.

Freemasonry is defined as “a peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”

The word “peculiar” here must not be taken as meaning strange or unusual, because a scrutiny of our system shows that it embodies the rules of moral conduct which have been observed by good men in all ages. The veiling in allegory is perhaps thin, while the illustration by symbols adds a vivid emphasis to many of our moral precepts, and is found mainly in the Working Tools, the Columns of the three principal Officers, and (a short but important reference), and the tassels shown on the tessellated pavement and explained in the lecture on the First Degree Tracing Board. Primarily, Freemasonry is a code of conduct.


It is concerned more with right living than with reasoning as to the why and wherefore thereof. It provides a body of detailed moral precepts sufficient completely to regulate the moral life, but it has relatively little to say about ethical theory. The principal repositories of moral precepts in our Craft system are the Charge after initiation, the explanation of the Working Tools, the Address to the Brethren and the Master at his Installation Ceremony, the Ancient Charges to which the Master gives his assent upon Installation, and the lesser known “Charges of a Freemason” prefixed to the Book of Constitution.


However, it is not with this body of precepts that I am primarily concerned this evening. There must be, either expressed or implied, some reference to moral theory, and I think it is found in two short but important passages.
These passages are as follows: –
1 “Let prudence direct you, temperance chasten you, fortitude support you, and justice be the guide of all your actions.” (The Charge after Initiation.)
2 The other passage upon which I rely in support of my contentions this evening is found in the last paragraph of the Emulation Lecture on the First Tracing Board, and reads as follows:
“Pendant to the corners of the Lodge are four tassels, meant to remind us of the four cardinal virtues- namely, temperance, fortitude, prudence and ,justice.”


These two passages satisfy me that the basis or theory of conduct behind our moral precepts is the well-known classification of the FOUR cardinal virtues, which derives originally from the Greek thinkers. The original Greek words are usually translated in the English as wisdom (prudence), courage (virtue), temperance and justice (harmony). The adjective “cardinal” here indicates a hinge, pivot or framework upon which a classification of the virtues can be based, and I think all the characteristic virtues stressed in Craft Ritual can be brought under this classification without any strain. Taking first, wisdom or prudence, this is represented by the Worshipful Master’s Column. In its original, and also in its Masonic significance, wisdom implies not only knowledge and qualities of the intellect, matured by a background of experience, but also a definite moral quality as well. This is shown by the Prayer in the First Degree, which contains the following passage: – “Endue him with a competency of Thy Divine Wisdom that, assisted by the secrets of our Masonic Art, he may the better be enabled to unfold the beauties of true godliness, to the honour and glory of Thy Holy Name.”


The other passage which supports the inference drawn from this Prayer is found in the exhortation in the Third Degree, which says: “You were led, in the Second Degree, to contemplate the intellectual faculty, and to trace it, from its development, through the paths of heavenly science even to the Throne of God Himself.”

The inference I draw from these paragraphs is that to the Freemason, wisdom involves not only knowledge and experience, but virtue and godliness as well. A wise man could never be a wicked man, but a clever or a learned man might.


It should be noticed also that wisdom is inculcated and esteemed not for its own sake, but because it brings us closer to the Divine nature. Freemasonry holds, however, that true virtue is impossible in a complete sense without knowledge and enlightenment, because that is what releases us from the bondage of ignorance. Only a wise man can enjoy freedom, and without freedom moral choice seems impossible. The term wisdom also can reasonably be extended to cover the characteristic Masonic virtue of caution and secrecy. In itself, however, Freemasonry teaches us that wisdom will not create a truly moral character without courage or virtue to implement the course which wisdom points out as right. The very word “character” indicates strength, because nobody would refer to a weakling as being a man of character. The Craft, therefore, teaches that wisdom and prudence must be reinforced by virtue or courage.


In this manner a Freemason proceeds to implement the third of the cardinal virtues -that of temperance. Temperance in its Masonic significance clearly means carrying out the injunction of the Second Degree, to observe a due mean. The Craft recognizes that moral conduct is a due balance or proportion, avoiding either excess or defect of a quality. This has always been recognized by moralists, both pagan and religious. The driving to excess of a virtue, may constitute a vice in just the same way as omission of the quality. This virtue of temperance seems also to cover that most characteristic Masonic attribute, tolerance or charity. I use the word “charity” here not in the sense of alms giving, but in the New Testament sense of brotherly love.


Wisdom strengthened by fortitude to discern and follow out. the due mean indicated by temperance, gives us that balanced moral life, the term for which is usually translated as justice, but which in my view can more properly be designated as harmony in the Masonic sense of that word.


As far as I can see this is practically the only ethical theory which Craft Masonry appears to endorse, and it should be noticed that it is the ethical theory of a moral man without any distinctively religious tinge. It is true that faith, hope and charity are mentioned in the lecture on The First Tracing Board, and that faith and hope at all events are distinctly religious virtues. This classification, however, is not made use of in Craft Masonry, although as many will be aware it is not without importance in other branches of Freemasonry.


Craft Masonry, however, is ethical solely and does not involve the endorsement of any specific religion. I do not feel that much I have said this evening will be new to the Brethren, although the point of view may be so; neither do I think that it will prove to be contentious. The ideas involved are simple, but very important. I have found that the most important truths are usually simple – both in Freemasonry and the world in general.


I totally endorse Brother Murphy’s statement that Freemasonry does NOT endorse any specific religion and simply requires its Brethren to endorse the belief in the existence of a Great Architect of the Universe.
Have a Wonderful Day & God Bless Norm

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