Those who inquire about the craft often receive an answer that includes mention of “a system of moral instruction,” “higher moral standards,” or most commonly how the fraternity seeks to “make good men better.” We say these things thinking about the brothers in our lodge, the working tools and other symbols, the degree work, lectures, and charges, and historical examples. But how do the stories, rituals, symbols, and relationships actually improve Masons? As I see it there are several ways Freemasonry makes good men better, and all of them depend on the individual and his participation in (and attention to) the work of the craft.
Through the symbols and allegories, the lectures and charges, the prayers, and even the opening and closing rituals we are taught lessons of personal conduct touching on topics of morality, social conduct, devotion to deity, family obligations, equality, honesty, moderation, community involvement and philanthropy, the value of time, and work ethic (among many others). For the vast majority of people, few of the ideas presented are novel. As “good men,” most viable petitioners are already going to value these ideals to some extent.
The true work of Masonry is our routine work with these ideas in their various presentations. When we participate in the work of the lodge, we are steeping ourselves in not only the ideas, but also in the framework through which they are presented and the presentations themselves. By attaching a symbol to an idea we can be reminded of that idea by that visual cue. When we attach metaphor to an idea, we gain new ways to discuss or think about the idea, and often more ways to apply it. The allegories and charges of the degrees further help embed the ideas in our subconscious by contextualizing them and fitting them into a narrative and clear admonition.
Seeing symbols that we associate with ideas or values can demonstrably change our behavior and influence our mental state (review of a relevant book will be on the way) even if we don’t realize that’s happening. Familiarity with the work and the relationships between the symbols and the concepts they represent is in a way programming our minds to respond when we are exposed to them.
People value what they spend time doing and thinking about. By memorizing the work, studying it, or even simply listening to it thoughtfully each time it is presented, we internalize it and create or strengthen mental schemas we subconsciously use to interpret the world and our own identity. The work creates new relationships between the ideas, and gives us a context for interpreting our own thoughts and directing our actions in every moment. With these values consistently and frequently reinforced by verbal (the words of the ritual), visual (the symbols and layout of the lodge), kinesthetic (as in floorwork or associations with the operative use of the working tools), and emotional cues, we begin to filter our thoughts and actions through them and measure ourselves against them. We become more aware of our actions that contradict these values and are given the opportunity to evaluate alternatives and elevate our conduct. The same may be said for many belief systems, however Freemasonry is special in its universality and how well it complements religious and cultural belief systems.
While the core concepts of the craft probably seem incredibly basic to a contemporary audience, our exposure to them in the framework of the craft (and continued study) help actively shape how we think and how we perceive ourselves. The concepts and values may be basic, but reflecting on and contextualizing them is the first step toward living them.
Familiarity with the work also enables us to communicate more efficiently and effectively with brothers on topics relating to the values presented in the craft. Having the context to understand a reference to one’s cable-tow, or to a working tool, or any other symbol of the craft allows us to communicate, relate, and expound on or apply those ideas with more nuance, precision, weight, eloquence, and personal meaning. The same applies to our interpretation and application of masonic literature, and potentially our devotional lives.
Our obligations can also serve to make us better men, not only because of the solemn promises made in the obligations themselves, but because we know our brothers are obligated to us in kind. The fraternal bonds of friendship, when coupled with the obligations can form not only an inspiring support network, but also an opportunity for accountability. For this to be the case, we have to take the time to form and maintain those fraternal bonds and must have cause to reflect on our obligations (such as when performing degree work or working on proficiencies with a mentee).
There is also an accountability that comes from being a representative of the fraternity. Every Mason is a representative of his lodge and of the craft to the outside world whenever he displays a square and compasses on his hat, lapel, ring, or car. Our conduct with others will be associated with the symbols we display and wearing them comes with a responsibility to display the values they represent.
Masons also have role models throughout history, and undoubtedly in their own lodge. These role models inspire us to be better masons and better men through their exemplification of the principles of the craft, the example they set in their communities, and the efficacy with which they conduct their lives. The intergenerational membership of successful lodges also presents an opportunity for young masons to learn from their elders. In our fellowship and work young brothers receive broader exposure to the wisdom that comes from life experience than most other young men in today’s society.
In “making good men better” I would also argue that “better” means both better in the moral sense and better as more effective members of society. In my own experience, I can confidently say that my involvement in lodge has made me better at public speaking, leading or participating in a meeting (particularly one with parliamentary procedure), event planning, prioritization, group communication, and so much more. These areas of life have some relationships to the work, but are also strongly cultivated by mentorship from older brothers and trial-by-fire when placed in roles necessitating those skills. Holding offices in the lodge can be just as much of an initiatic experience and opportunity for growth and self-reflection as the degrees themselves.
While Freemasonry may not make men perfect, I do believe in it has great capacity to improve the life and character of those brothers who make its study and participation a priority. Those who receive their degrees and fade from participation truly miss out on most of the benefits of the work and fellowship.