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The first three Degrees of Freemasonry, namely, those of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason, are known, by way of distinction, as the Symbolic Degrees. This term is never applied to the Degrees of Mark, Past, and Most Excellent Master, and the Royal Arch, which, as being conferred in a Body called a Chapter, are generally designated as Capitular Degrees; nor to those of Royal and Select Master, which, conferred in a Council, are, by an excellent modern usage, styled Cryptic Degrees, from the crypt or vault which plays so important a part in their ritual. But the term symbolic is exclusively confined to the Degrees conferred in a Lodge of the three primitive Degrees, which Lodge, therefore, whether opened on the First, the Second or the Third Degree, is always referred to as a symbolic Lodge. As this distinctive term is of constant and universal use, it may be not altogether profitless to inquire into its origin and signification.. The germ and nucleus of all Freemasonry is to be found in the three primitive Degrees--The Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason. They were at one time, under a modification, however, which included the Royal Arch, the only Degrees known to or practised by the Craft, and hence they are often called Ancient Craft Masonry, to distinguish them from those comparatively modern additions which constitute what are designated as the high degrees, or, by the French, les hautes grades. The striking peculiarity of these primitive Degrees is that their prominent mode of instruction is by symbols. Not that they are without legends. On the contrary, they have each an abundance of legends; such, for instance, as the details of the building of the Temple; of the payment of wages in the Middle Chamber, or of the construction of the pillars of the Porch. But these legends do not perform any very important part in the constitution of the Degree.
The lessons which are communicated to the candidate in these primitive Degrees are conveved, principally, through the medium of symbols, while there is, at least in the working of the Degrees, but little tradition or legendary teaching, with the exception of the great legend of Freemasonry, the Golden Legend of the Order, to be found in the Master's Degree, and which is, itself, a symbol of the most abstruse and solemn signification. But even in this instance, interesting as are the details of the legend, they are only subordinate to the symbol. Hiram the Builder is the profound symbol of manhood laboring for immortality, and all the different points of the legend are simply clustered around it, only to throw out the symbol in bolder relief. The legend is of itself inert--it is the symbol of the Master Workrnan that gives it life and true meaning.
Symbolism is, therefore, the prevailing characteristic of these primitive Degrees; and it is because all the science and philosophy and religion of Ancient Craft Masonry is thus concealed from the profane but unfolded to the initiates in symbols, that the first three Degrees which comprise it are said to be symbolic. Now, nothing of this kind is to be found in the Degrees above and beyond the third, if we except the Royal Arch, which, however, as we have already intimated, was, quite likely, originally a part of Ancient Craft Masonry, and was unnaturally torn from the Master's Degree, of which it, as every Masonic student knows, constituted the complement and consummation. Take, for example, the intermediate Degrees of the American Chapter, Such, for instance, as the Mark and Most Excellent Master. Here we find the symbolic feature ceasing to predominate, and the traditional or legendary taking its place. It is true that in these capitular Degrees the use of symbols is not altogether abandoned. This could not well be, for the symbol constitutes the very essence of Freemasonry. The symbolic element is still to be discovered in these Degrees, but only in a position subordinate to legendary instruction.
As an illustration, let us consider the Keystone in the Mark Master's Degree. Now, no one will deny that this is, strictly speaking, a symbol, and a very important and beautiful one, too. It is a symbol of a fraternal covenant between those who are engaged in the common search after Divine Truth. But, in the role or part which it plays in the ritual of this Degree, the symbol, however beautiful and appropriate it may be, is in a manner lost sight of, and the keystone derives almost all its importance and interest from the traditional history of its construction, its architectural design, and its fate. It is as the subject of a legend, and not as a symbol, that it attracts attention.
Now, in the Third or Master's Degree we find the Trowel, which is a symbol of almost precisely the same import as the Keystone. They both refer to a Masonic Covenant. But no legend, no tradition, no history, is connected with the Trowel. It presents itself simply and exclusively as a symbol.
Hence we learn that symbols do not in the capitular, as in the primitive, Degrees of Freemasonry strike the eye, and inform the mind, and teach the heart, in every part of the Lodge, and in every part of the ceremonial initiation. On the contrary, the capitular Degrees are almost altogether founded on and composed of a series of events in Masonic history. Each of them has attached to it some tradition or legend which it is the design of the Degree to illustrate, and the memory of which is preserved in its ceremonies and instructions.
That most of these legends are themselves of symbolic signification is not denied. But this is their interior sense. In their outward and ostensible meaning, they appear before us simply as legends. To retain these legends in the memory of Freemasons appears to have been the primary design of the establishment of the higher Degrees, and as the information intended to be communicated in these Degrees is of a historical character, there can of course be but little room for symbols or for symbolic instruction, the profuse use of which would rather tend to an injury than to a benefit, by complicating the purposes of the ritual and confusing the mind of the aspirant. The celebrated French writer Ragon, objects to this exclusive application of the term symbolic to the first three Degrees as a sort of unfavorable criticism on the higher Degrees, and as if implying that the latter are entirely devoid of the element of symbolism.
But he has mistaken the true import and meaning of the application. It is not because the higher or capitular and cryptic Degrees are altogether without symbols--for such is not the ease--that the term symbolic is withheld from them, but because symbolic instruction does not constitute their predominating characteristic, as it does of the first three Degrees. Hence the Freemasonry taught in these three primitive Degrees is very properly called Symbolic Freemasonry, and the Lodge in which this Freemasonry is taught is known as a Symbolic Lodge.
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