Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Freemasons: Fact & Fiction

Freemasons are the buzz, thanks to novelist Dan Brown, whose book The Last Symbol promises to blur fact and fiction regarding America’s Founding Fathers the way The Da Vinci Code did with the historical Jesus. But the truth remains more interesting than the creations of Hollywood or the publishing industry.

Conspiracy theories trace the freemason’s origins back to the builders of ancient Egypt, to Solomon and his Temple and other secret orders shrouded in the obscurity of time. But the real story is that the masonic order was an outgrowth of the European Enlightenment.

Freemasonry as the Founders knew it was part philosophical society, part social improvement club, part mystic brotherhood. It had its beginnings in 1717 with the organization of the Grand Lodge in London. Earlier masonic lodges were composed mostly of stone workers, remnants of the craft guilds that build the medieval cathedrals. But with the opening of the 18th century, these guilds were on the wane. The Grand Lodge revived masonry by drawing in an entirely new breed–called “speculative” masons–whose interests were mainly scientific and intellectual. Like their predecessors, these newcomers evinced an enthusiasm for architecture and engineering. Not content to carve in stone, however, “speculative” masons hoped to lay the foundations for a whole new society.

John Desaguliers, whose Huguenot family brought him to England shortly after his birth in 1683, was among the principal founders of the lodge where these ideas germinated. As chair of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford, he was an intimate of Isaac Newton and became Curator and Demonstrator for the Royal Society. His great gift was as a popularizer. He was able to lecture freely on gravity, optics, geometry and mechanics and, with the aid of ingenious working models, bring the concepts of elementary physics within the reach of non-scholars.

An ordained deacon in the Church of England, he became the proponent for a faith whose God owed more to the harmonies of physics than to the traditional Christian scriptures. For deity should be demonstrable, Desaguliers argued, like the laws of science, which his own work had proven to be within the grasp of even average minds. So theology should look to the natural world rather than to revelation for inspiration–to the vast Creation and the orderly working of its laws. For just as Newton’s laws seemed incontrovertible and beyond dispute, a purely natural religion might avoid the disputations that had so vexed human history. Persecutions of the kind that drove his own family from France would become a thing of the past if only people would reorient their faith, away from doctrinal differences and variant readings of the Bible, toward what to Desaguliers seemed beyond question–the existence of God (whom he called the Great Architect and Organizer of the World) and the unity of humankind.

This was religion shorn of supernaturalism, devoid of the Trinity, simplified to an affirmation of the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of man. And it was this simple faith that appealed to many of America’s founding generation. Early America masons included figures like John Hancock and Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington–who laid the cornerstone of the nation’s capitol building with a masonic trowel. With lodges around the world, from Russia to France to Britain, masonry was poised to become a unifying, international force for the uplift of society, they believed.

There is no Harvard Department of Symbology to “decode” the hints and clues of the fiction writer’s brain. But ultimately none is needed. Symbols like the pyramid, the compass and all-seeing eye which capture Dan Brown’s imagination were far less important to America’s Founders than the moral substance of masonry–promoting general education and public virtue rather than dividing people along narrowly sectarian lines.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Where the People Rule

September 17 is designated as national Constitution Day, when citizens old and young are encouraged to study our nation’s founding charter. Most know the famous preamble:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

What a wonderful opening phrase, “We the People.” Conventional wisdom in that day held that government was established from the top down. Some men were born to rule, others to obey. That was known as the divine right of kings. But in the newly established United States, government was not mandated by heaven. Legitimacy flowed from the bottom up, from the consent of the governed.

That’s why the Constitution doesn’t mention a deity anywhere in the text. The framers in Philadelphia weren’t clergymen but lawyers by and large. Thirty-four of the fifty-five present were either attorneys or judges. They were more comfortable with the language of contracts than with theological discussion. And government, they believed, was based on a social contract–a voluntary association of individuals joining together by mutual consent. Legislation didn’t spring from a holy book, therefore, but from the People instituting their own laws. So John Adams asserted that the framers “never had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven,” calling ours instead “the first example of government erected on the simple principles of nature.”

The Constitution they drafted was criticized at state ratifying conventions for leaving out the Almighty. The only place where faith is mentioned, in fact, is in Article Six, where it is specified there should be no religious tests for public office. Some tried to modify this language–to insert a provision that only candidates sufficiently orthodox could stand for election. That was the practice still in effect in Britain, for example, where only Anglicans were entitled to the full privileges of voting, serving in Parliament, or attending state universities at Cambridge and Oxford. The King was head of the Church, as well as head of State. But America took another path.

So on Constitution Day, those of all faiths—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists–can celebrate the genius of our founding document, where all are equal citizens, regardless of their personal beliefs, and where “We the People” rule.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Right to Die?

The right to die is again in the news. This coming Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court will consider the case of Robert Baxter, who, afflicted with incurable lymphocytic leukemia, claimed that a doctor’s refusal to help him die abrogated his rights under the state’s constitution.

But what about the federal constitution, or the Declaration of Independence? Do rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” imply an individual’s power to exit life on his own terms, and in her own time? What did the Founders think about assisted suicide, or ending one’s own life in the face of incurable illness?

Our nation’s founding generation often drew their ethics from classical rather than Christian sources. Many especially admired the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca. So John Adams admonished himself in his diary to “Study Seneca, Cicero, and all other good moral Writers.” A listing of Washington’s library from his Mount Vernon estate shows a copy of Seneca’s Morals, published in London in 1746, among the collection.

In those moral essays, Seneca advised that “mere living is not a good, but living well.” A wise man ought to be prepared to end his own existence whenever it grew unduly burdensome. “He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.”

Some goods were superior to survival, Seneca held, and some evils worse than death. He tells the story of a young Spartan taken into captivity. When ordered by his master to perform an undignified act—fetching a chamber pot—the boy cried “I will not be a slave!” and dashed his own brains against the wall. The illustration was likely to appeal to patriots ready to lay down lives on the altar of freedom. “Life, if courage to die is lacking, is slavery,” according to the Stoic teacher.

Clearly, though, bashing your own brains out was an unpleasant way to exit. Seneca preferred less painful means. He tells another story of a contemporary philosopher, Tullius Marcellinius who “fell ill of a disease which was by no means hopeless; but it was protracted and troublesome, and it demanded much attention; hence he began to think about dying.”. After distributing his meager belongings to his circle of friends, Marcellinius then stopped eating. “For three days he fasted and had a tent put up in his very bedroom. Then a tub was brought in; he lay in it for a long time, and, as the hot water was continually poured over him, he gradually passed away, not without a feeling of pleasure, as he himself remarked.”

That was the sort of gentle finale Thomas Jefferson probably had in mind when he wrote to Dr. Samuel Brown in 1813 about a lethal concoction of the herb Datura Stromonium, or jimson weed, which he praised as bringing on death “as quietly as sleep,” without the least distress. “It seems far preferable to the Venesection of the Romans, the Hemlock of the Greeks, and the Opium of the Turks. I have never been able to learn what the preparation is, other than a strong concentration of its lethiferous principle. Could such a medicament be restrained to self-administration, it ought not to be kept secret. There are ills in life as desperate as intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief, e.g., the inveterate cancer.”

Jefferson had already reached the Biblically allotted three-score and ten at that point. Strategies for the end game were beginning to occupy his thoughts. That same year, at the age of seventy-seven, John Adams wrote to the physician Benjamin Rush, in a letter penned under the persona of his horse “Hobby.” Wouldn’t it be a kindness to the old man to simply stumble one day, “Hobby” wondered, and end a tottering life like Adams’ quickly?

Nine years later, at an even more advanced age, Jefferson wrote to his friend in Braintree, “When all our faculties have left, or are leaving us, one by one, sight, hearing, memory, every avenue of pleasing sensation is closed, and athumy, debility and malaise left in their places, when the friends of our youth are all gone, and a generation is risen around us whom we know not, is death an evil?

One suspects they both endorsed Seneca’s answer: “The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as be can.”