Book Review: A Little Fun, A Lot of Philosophy, A Little Philology

Collage of books reviewed in July-August 2012 Scottish Rite Journal

We have quite a mixed offering this month, but that reflects my mixed reading tastes and those of so many of the readers of this column. With so many good books in so many categories, it’s often hard to stay focused.

Pratchett, Terry, Guards! Guards!, New York: Harper Torch, 2001, 384 pages, paperbound, ISBN 006-1020-6-48, available on the Internet, new and used, from about $2.91.

Now a black-robed figure scurried through the midnight streets, ducking from doorway to doorway, and reached a grim and forbidding portal. No mere doorway got that grim without effort, one felt. It looked as though the architect had been called in and given specific instructions. We want something eldritch in dark oak, he’d been told. So put an unpleasant gargoyle thing over the archway, give it a slam like the footfall of a giant and make it clear to everyone, in fact, that this isn’t the kind of door that goes “ding-dong” when you press the bell.
The figure rapped a complex code on the dark wood work. A tiny barred hatch opened and one suspicious eye peered out.
“ ‘The significant owl hoots in the night,’ ” said the visitor, trying to wring the rainwater out of its robe.
“ ‘Yet many gray lords go sadly to the masterless men,’ ” intoned a voice on the other side of the grille.
“ ‘Hooray, hooray for the spinster’s sister’s daughter,’ ” countered the dripping figure.
“ ‘To the axeman, all supplicants are the same height.’ ”
“ ‘Yet verity, the rose is within the thorn.’ ”
“ ‘The good mother makes bean soup for the errant boy,’ “said the voice behind the door.
There was a pause, broken only by the sound of the rain. Then the visitor said, “What?”
“ ‘The good mother makes bean soup for the errant boy.’ ”
There was another, longer pause. Then the damp figure said,
“Are you sure the ill-built tower doesn’t tremble mightily at a buterfly’s passage?”
“Nope. Bean soup it is. I’m sorry.”
The rain hissed down relentlessly in the embarrassed silence.
“What about the cagèd whale?” said the soaking visitor, trying to squeeze into what little shelter the dread portal offered.
“What about it?”
“It should know nothing of the mighty deeps, if you must know.”
“Oh, the cagèd whale. You want the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night. Three doors down.”
“Who’re you, then?”
“We’re the Illuminated and Ancient Brethren of Ee.”
“I thought you met over in Treacle Street,” said the damp man, after a while.
“Yeah, well. You know how it is. The fretwork club have the room Tuesdays. There was a bit of a mix-up.”
“Oh? Well, thanks anyway.”
“My pleasure.” The little door slammed shut.

I’ve talked about Pratchett’s books before in this column. They are simply good fun, especially the “Discworld” series, of which Guards! Guards! is one. I don’t think the book can be considered an attack on Freemasonry, but it may, perhaps, invite us to take ourselves less seriously. And there is at least one important lesson to be learned—if your Grand Master suddenly starts trying to materialize a dragon, RUN!

Champion, Bro. Peter, 32°, Masonic Trivia, Amusements, & Curiosities, Createspace, 2012, 223 pages, paperbound, illustrations, ISBN 978-1466-366-2-99, Available on the Internet from $14.95, Kindle edition $7.95.

This is a different sort of fun, but it’s every bit as enjoyable. I love trivia books, because you can read something of interest, even if you only have a couple of minutes to pick the book up. This is a treasure trove!

There is no end to the list of great literature that will live on in the halls of academia for millennia to come. This book is not one of them. It is a sampler of strange, curious, laughable, haunting, whimsical, and head-shaking oddities of Masonic trivia offered up for your amusement, with a ticklish dash of enlightenment. My goal is that you will chuckle while saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that!”

Within these pages you will discover a tattooed corpse, dwarfs, giants, a hot-air balloon, a sunken submarine, a taxidermy-stuffed African man’s body, the US Patent Office, ghosts, racehorses; a blood splattered Lodge Room, a fraternal mouse, a cod fish, pirates, western outlaws, a slave-trading President, an empty California Gold Rush tin-can, a broken lawnmower, and the missing skull of a Presidential candidate.

These stories are each a thread in the tapestry of Masonic history and humor gleaned from newspaper accounts, court documents, Lodge archives, monthly trestleboards, and the traditions of Freemason Lodges from around the globe.

How’s that for a tease?!

This is a great book, you can pick it up and put it down when you wish. Some entries are only a few words long, others run for more than a page. It’s written in a clear and approachable style, and you can dazzle your friends with your new-found knowledge. I’ve started carrying mine in my car, so I can read in the small breaks in travel. It’s also a good gift for a Masonic friend, because it covers so many topics they are sure to find something they like.

Poll, Michael R., Bro., In His Own (w)Rite: Papers on the Scottish Rite and the Philosophy of Freemasonry, New Orleans: Cornerstone Book Publishers, 2011, paperbound, 178 pages, illustrations, ISBN: 978-1-613420-17-1, list price $16.95, available on the Internet from about $7.00.

In addition to his outstanding career in the Scottish Rite, Brother Poll is a New York Times bestselling author. I’ve recommended his books here before, and this new book is a delight. It is a collection of articles about Masonry and especially the Scottish Rite. He has an easy, common-sense style which is a joy to read.

What’s Freemasonry? Well, it pretty much depends on who you ask. In the 35+ years that I have been a Mason I have visited quite a few lodges. No two have been exactly alike. Lodges seem to develop personalities of their own, much like people. Some are relaxed and laid back, some are more formal. Some are very healthy with work going on all the time and some, sadly, are on life support. But, in each lodge when I’ve talked to the individual members, they have expressed a true caring about their membership. Sure, it does not mean the same thing to each one of them. The one in the khaki pants and bright Hawaiian shirt with the donut in his hand might view the reason for his membership differently than the one in the tux with the white gloves and a glass of wine, but, so what? Who said Masonry has to mean the same thing to everyone?

The common denominator in all lodges is that Masonry lifts Masons up a bit more from where they started. Not everyone is a philosopher and not everyone will draw the deeper meanings from the Masonic ritual, but we all can benefit from being told to try and be better than we are today. Sure, few (if any) live up to the deepest teachings of Freemasonry, but is our goal perfection or the striving for it? I believe that if we just try to live as Masonry teaches, recognizing that we all fail from time to time, then we are doing what is expected of us. Masonry is not for everyone and we can not expect that it will, in any way, satisfy someone who is just not Masonic material. But, for those who are touched by Masonry, no matter what they are wearing, eating or the state of their lodge, they feel very deeply about being a Mason.

The papers include: Fluid Masonry: The Art of Change; Albert Pike’s Address Before The Grand Consistory of Louisiana; The Grand Constitutions of 1786; The “White Cap”; Integrity in Masonry; Writing Masonic History; The Dwellers on the Threshold; Down the Path of Proper Research; Dyslexia: The Gift in Disguise; James Foulhouze: A biographical study; Quantity or Quality?; Who Am I?; What is Truth?, and Deadly Apathy.

There is much food for thought, here, and not a little fun.

Hogan, Timothy, Bro., Entering the Chain of Union: An Exploration of Esoteric Traditions and What Unites Them,, publisher, 2012, paperbound, hardbound, Kindle editions, many photographs and illustrations, ISBN: 978-1-105-57105-3, available on the Internet—paperbound edition about $27.33, hardbound edition about $45.00, Kindle edition $9.98.

Tim Hogan is one of my favorite authors, and his new book is causing me to rethink a lot of things. It sounds almost ridiculous to say that he is demonstrating the links in all the esoteric traditions (one is tempted to say, “Yeah, when elephants fly!” — but then one remembers Dumbo, to say nothing of the elephants in Hindu cosmology.) He makes a compelling case.

It is an interesting book for many reasons, not the least of which is that Brother Hogan has visited the parts of the world he writes about, often at considerable risk. So he has looked upon the monuments and the physical evidence, and spoken with recognized leaders in many of the great traditions.

Entering the Chain of Union is an exploration of the world’s esoteric traditions and what unites them. Timothy Hogan examines different spiritual and initiatic traditions from around the world and shows how they share common ritual elements and spiritual doctrines. His first hand account of his travels around the world introduce[s] readers to traditions as diverse as the Sufi, Druze, Mayans, Taoists, Tibetan Buddhists, and his personal meetings with spiritual leaders like Harun Yahya. In this book, he explores in great detail the spiritual philosophies of Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Qabbalistic doctrines, Taoist and Tibetan alchemy, secret Mayan traditions, and ancient sacred landmarks from around the world. He further shows how they relate directly to the western traditions of initiation, to include Templarism, Freemasonry, Martinism, and Rosicrucianism. He unveils certain secret spiritual doctrines that have been perpetuated (sometimes unknowingly) by the world’s great religions. The travels presented in this book cover areas as diverse as Tibet, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and areas in both North and South America, and it clearly illustrates how secret societies and associations over the centuries have contributed to the Western esoteric tradition. While unraveling the mysteries of The Primordial Tradition, this book presents a glimpse of esoteric history and doctrines which have just never been published previously.

If you have an interest in the great traditions of esoteric thought, I highly recommend this book. I’m on my second reading of it.

Di Bernardo, Giuliano, Bro., [trans. Giuliano di Bernardo and Guy Aston], Freemasonry and Its Image of Man: A Philosophical Investigation, Worcester: Freestone Press, 1989, hardbound 167 pages, ISBN: 0-7104-5001-X, price—out of print but findable on the Internet. Price, used, is around $10.00.

I missed this book when it came out, and I greatly regret it. Brother di Bernardo held the chair of Philosophy of Science at the University of Trento. An internationally acclaimed philosopher, he was the youngest ever life member of the Masonic Supreme Council for Italy.

This is a slim book, but loaded with much material for thought. The author proposes an “anthropology of Freemasonry.” He essentially asks the question “Are Freemasons different from others, and if so how?” He concludes that the differences are real.

There are four elements of Masonic anthropology which are profane (that is, which are knowable to the non-Masonic world). Those are Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, and Transcendence. The book is well worth reading just for the discussion on those alone. But di Bernardo then adds the element which is only within the experience of those who are among the initiated—the “initiatic secret.”

Thus we have a quintuple—Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Transcendence and the Initiatic Secret—as a full representation of masonic philosophical anthropology. I would like to focus on an important feature in the distinction between philosophical anthropology based on the first four elements and masonic philosophical anthropology itself. The elements of the quadruple Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Transcendence are objective values which those who are not masons can hold. This means that such values, as they are globally understood, do not represent the specific nature of Freemasonry. They express so to speak, its profane counterpart which features in the constituent elements of masonic philosophical anthropology, but only partially. The move to philosophical anthropology tout court is accomplished by adding the initiatic secret to the quadruple. But what does that mean? It means that the overall sense of masonic philosophical anthropology is only acquired through the rite of Initiation when one becomes a mason. Here lies a profound and fundamental difference between an initiatic society and any other: whereas the concept of man in a non-initiatic society is recognised by all (we have only to think of Christianity), the conception of man in masonic terms can only be grasped by masons. The initiatic secret, which allows one to reach full cognitive awareness, now takes on an additional meaning by shedding a new light on the quadruple—Freedom, Tolerance, Brotherhood, Transcendence—and by giving it an even deeper significance.

Chapter six contains an excellent discussion of the differences between Freemasonry and religion. It may not be easy to find a copy of this book, but it is well worth the effort.

Weir, Bro. John (editor), Robert Burns the Freemason, Surrey, Kent UK, Lewis Masonic, 1996, Grand Lodge of Scotland, hardbound, 160 pages, illustrations—some in color, ISBN 978-0853-182-13-9 Available on the Internet, new and used, from about $14.00.

As the author points out, most of books about Robert Burns completely ignore his Masonic membership. To counter this ignorance, the Grand Lodge of Scotland approved the issuance of this book.

There is much to know about Burns but small as it is, this volume does a very good job of hitting the highlights. One of the world’s best collections of books by and about the Scottish poet is in the Robert Burns Library of the House of the Temple in Washington, D.C. This collection is recognized as one of the finest, second only to the Burns Collection in Glasgow, Scotland.

Whether you are working on building a Masonic library or just enjoy reading, this is a little gem you need to own.