On Subduing Passions

Freemasonry implores us to subdue our passions. I’d like to take a moment to discuss this idea.

For me, the idea of subduing one’s passions initially seemed to mean that of stifling unhealthy or destructive passions (intolerance, prejudice, pride…), of moderation and of even temperament… of suppressing one’s undesirable passions, and keeping your conduct in check.

But what are our passions? The typical modern definition is along the lines of “strong and barely controllable emotion,” or “a state or outburst of strong emotion,” but the definition as “an intense desire or enthusiasm for something” also fits well here. If we consider all of those definitions together as a whole, the idea of subduing our passions becomes very applicable to addiction, lust, and other vices and worldly superfluities, but also to our enthusiasm for our vocations, causes we feel strongly about, our personal devotions, and the zeal (listed as a synonym) with which we undertake our endeavors.

The compasses are one of the symbols used to teach and remind us of this concept. They are so central and critical to the themes and practical workings of Freemasonry that it is one of the two tools commonly used as our emblem (along with the square) on our buildings, worn on our rings, hats, or lapel pins. In Lexicon of Freemasonry by Albert Mackey says of the compasses:

… so, in speculative masonry, is this important implement symbolic of that even tenor of deportment, that true standard of rectitude which alone can bestow happiness here and felicity hereafter. Hence are the compasses the most prominent emblem of virtue, the true and only measure of a Mason’s life and conduct. As the Bible gives us light on our duties to God, and the square illustrates our duties to our neighbour [sic] and brother, so the compasses give that additional light which is to instruct us in the duty we owe to ourselves — the great imperative duty of circumscribing our passions, and keeping our desires within due bounds. “It is ordained,” says the philosophic Burke, “in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate passions cannot be free; their passions forge their fetters.”

This passage certainly supports the interpretation of shedding the shackles of unwholesome or damaging passions. While this idea is undoubtedly a component of subduing one’s passions, I believe there is a broader idea to apply here.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition for the word subdue is “to conquer and bring into subjection.” The use of this definition dates to as early as the late 14th century, so it’s hardly a stretch to interpret the idea of subduing one’s passions by this definition.

I hadn’t previously put much thought into the definition of the word, but upon doing so felt that it opened up a broader interpretation, that conquering passions seems similarly applicable to controlling our undesirable passions as discussed above, but also to reinforcing and practicing positive passions, to controlling not only the magnitude of our various passions but of seeking to control what we are passionate about in a positive way by conquering ourselves. It is about conquering ourselves to control and act on positive passions as well, and relates closely with the ideas embodied in the 24-inch gauge and the common gavel.

The ideas and methods of Napoleon Hill and Earl Nightingale, and of contemporary figures like Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins all speak to the ideas of knowing yourself and deliberately setting your mental state, priming yourself for success and for setting your priorities straight. The core idea is that we care about the things we choose to focus on, and that we can change who we are and what we are passionate about through the decision to focus on those things.

Implementing this in our daily lives is done through a simple daily (ideally more frequent) habit of reinforcement — of deciding what or how we want to be and choosing to dwell on those ideas in deliberate and patterned ways. Whether in prayer, meditation, journaling, visual cues or reminders, or other practices of mindfulness, we can reinforce the ideas we have of ourselves that shape our outlook, our priorities, and our conduct.

Learning the meaning, history, and application of the tools and symbols of Freemasonry allows one to dwell on those attributes and ideals in a calculated way, and seeing them on your ring, your car, your bookshelf, or at the lodge can be a powerful reminder that refocuses you on those thoughts and your commitment to them.

I don’t believe it is a stretch to interpret the idea of subduing your passions as the control over one’s self in both suppressing unwanted passions and fostering healthy, positive ones. I also believe Freemasonry provides the tools to help with both sides of this endeavor.

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