Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The secret of Masonry

A carving on a wall of the Salt Lake Temple, showing a perfectly ordinary handshake

When he comes to the point in his memoirs where he is "initiated in the sublime trifles of Freemasonry," Casanova offers the following commentary on its mysteries, and on initiatory mysteries generally.
Mystery is the essence of man's nature, and whatever presents itself to mankind under a mysterious appearance will always excite curiosity and be sought, even when men are satisfied that the veil covers nothing but a cypher. . . . 
Those who become Freemasons only for the sake of finding out the secret of the order, run a very great risk of growing old under the trowel without ever realizing their purpose. Yet there is a secret, but it is so inviolable that it has never been confided or whispered to anyone. Those who stop at the outward crust of things imagine that the secret consists in words, in signs, or that the main point of it is to be found only in reaching the highest degree. This is a mistaken view: the man who guesses the secret of Freemasonry, and to know it you must guess it, reaches that point only through long attendance in the lodges, through deep thinking, comparison, and deduction. He would not trust that secret to his best friend in Freemasonry, because he is aware that if his friend has not found it out, he could not make any use of it after it had been whispered in his ear. No, he keeps his peace, and the secret remains a secret. 
Everything done in a lodge must be secret; but those who have unscrupulously revealed what is done in the lodge, have been unable to reveal that which is essential; they had no knowledge of it, and had they known it, they certainly would not have unveiled the mystery of the ceremonies. . . . 
In the mysteries of Ceres, an inscrutable silence was long kept, owing to the veneration in which they were held. Besides, what was there in them that could be revealed? The three words which the hierophant said to the initiated? But what would that revelation have come to? Only to dishonour the indiscreet initiate, for they were barbarous words unknown to the vulgar. I have read somewhere that the three sacred words of the mysteries of Eleusis meant: Watch, and do no evil. The sacred words and the secrets of the various masonic degrees are about as criminal. . . . 
In our days nothing is important, and nothing is sacred, for our cosmopolitan philosophers. Botarelli publishes in a pamphlet all the ceremonies of the Freemasons, and the only sentence passed on him is: "He is a scoundrel. We knew that before!" . . . In our days everything is inconsistent, and nothing has any meaning. Yet it is right to go ahead, for to stop on the road would be to go from bad to worse.
I am not a Mason myself, but thanks to pamphlets published by scoundrels, I am quite familiar with the content of the blue lodge ceremonies. I have also participated dozens of times in the Mormon version of a Masonic initiation, known as the Endowment, and it was on this latter experience, as much as on my knowledge of Freemasonry properly so called, that I found myself reflecting as I read Casanova's assessment. In what follows, I will pass freely between the two, considering them (and the Eleusinian mysteries) to be instances of the same sort of thing. (I trust my Mormon readers need not fear any bandying-about of the sacred; I will be discreetly vague.)

"Sublime trifles," though it seems merely flippant at first, strikes me as a very perceptive characterization of Masonry. The secrets revealed to Masonic initiates consist primarily of (1) secret handshakes and passwords and such, the only purpose of which can be the safeguarding of the real secrets; (2) injunctions to be good and true and other such moral platitudes (analogous to the Eleusinian secret of "Watch, and do no evil"); and (3) some rather straightforward symbols representing said moral commonplaces, such as a draftsman's compass as a symbol of "keeping within due bounds"; and (4) a simple allegorical drama about the assassination of a master mason, the main thrust of which seems to be the importance of protecting the handshakes and passwords. So, yes, these are trifles. Those "secrets" that are truly secret (i.e., no one but a Mason or a reader of scoundrelly pamphlets would know them) are in themselves of little meaning or importance, and those that are meaningful are the common property of all mankind and may be known intuitively or by cultural osmosis without the need for secret initiatory ceremonies. Yet there is a secret -- so Casanova says, and I believe him -- something to be gotten from those trifles which is sublime and worth getting.

As for the Endowment, I would certainly balk at using the word "trifles," mostly because, while the handshakes and passwords and straightforward symbols and moral commonplaces are all there, the content of the drama -- drawn from the opening chapters of Genesis, one of the deepest parts of one of the deepest books in the world -- is so much richer than that of its Masonic counterpart. Then again, it's all based rather closely on the Bible -- i.e., the most familiar and widely read book in the history of the world and as such the farthest thing possible from "secret" knowledge. Since virtually everything taught in the Endowment is also taught in publicly available scriptures, it is not clear what purpose is served by the pretense of secrecy. Mormons will say that the content of the Endowment is particularly sacred -- but what about it makes it more sacred than what may be read in the Bible? While there are of course some departures from and additions to the Mosaic narrative, I think it's safe to say that no great secrets are revealed, no startling new doctrines kept hidden from the uninitiated. Casanova's suggestion that "the veil covers nothing but a cypher" made me think of how the Endowment ceremony culminates in the initiate's finally being allowed to pass through the Veil of the Temple and discover what lies on the other side -- which turns out to be essentially a large living room, well appointed but not otherwise out of the ordinary, where nothing in particular is done, said, or revealed.

Yet there is a secret, something undeniably sublime about the Endowment, and the secrecy/sacredness is part and parcel of it, which is what makes me so ready to believe Casanova when he says something similar about ordinary Masonry.

Joseph Smith is reported to have said, "The secret of Masonry is to keep a secret." Éliphas Lévi listed "to be silent" as one of the four magical Powers of the Sphinx. Some of the Gospels have Jesus stress secrecy so much that Frank Kermode called his book about the Gospel of Mark The Genesis of Secrecy. Secrecy and silence seem to be something more than mere prudence -- seem to be seen as positive goods in their own right.


The purpose of Masonic (and Mormon) secrecy is not to keep information from the general public. This can clearly be seen in the way those institutions have reacted (or failed to react) to leaks, exposés, and the like. Masonry has been using the same passwords and secret handshakes for centuries, even though they have been revealed to the public many times over and are now trivially easy for anyone to find out. If you really care about protecting private information, then when someone hacks into your account, you change your password. In fact, you change your password from time to time regardless, just to be safe. The Masons have never changed their passwords, even though everyone knows them by now. (Even in Casanova's time, the reaction to a Masonic exposé was "He is a scoundrel. We knew that before!") If the Masons really cared about information security, good old Jachin and Boaz (really terrible passwords; anyone who knows the first can easily guess the second) would have long since been replaced by something more like "correct horse battery staple."

I can only conclude that the importance of the secrecy lies not in the supposed result (outsiders not knowing things) but rather in the act of secret-keeping itself. Masonry (and Mormonism, and the ancient Mysteries) is based on the principle that keeping secrets is good for the soul. Is that true? I can think of three possible reasons that it may be.

First, it is a form of discipline, a way of practicing self-control. "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body" (James 3:2-3).

Second, very often our reasons for talking about things are unworthy and related to pride. When I post to this blog, for example, I constantly have to watch myself, to make sure that I am honestly expressing the truth to the best of my ability and not just trying to seem interesting or insightful to others. "Climb a mountain, tell no one" was a meme going around the Internet a while back -- tell no one, not because no one must know that you have climbed a mountain, but because the policy of telling no one ensures that you climb for the right reasons.

Third, there is the idea that non-communication may facilitate deeper and more thorough thought. As Robert Frost puts it in "Build Soil,"
I will go to my run-out social mind
And be as unsocial with it as I can.
The thought I have, and my first impulse is
To take to market I will turn it under.
The thought from that thought I will turn it under
And so on to the limit of my nature.
We are too much out, and if we won't draw in
We shall be driven in.
This idea exists in tension with the idea that communication leads to clear thinking, that you don't really understand something until you have tried to explain it to someone else. I find truth in both views, and perhaps Frost's agricultural metaphor acknowledges as much. After all, you don't keep turning your crops under forever; in the end you do want to take something to the market. So perhaps there is value to the Mormon distinction between the scriptures, which may be publicly discussed, and the Endowment, which must be contemplated in silence. Both social and unsocial thinking are necessary.

Monday, August 26, 2019

I do not know how it happened.

I have a few substantive posts in the works, but in the meantime let me draw your attention to a very bizarre feature of Google Translate, discovered by chance by one of my students. If you enter an English word or phrase and add spaces between the letters, the Chinese translation changes in very unpredictable ways. For example:

For those who don't read Chinese (i.e., most of my readers), here are those results translated back into English:

"I am a comedian"? "I am an unwelcome person"? I do not know how it happened!

Most phrases don't yield as much semantic diversity as "This is a rhinoceros"; more often most of the results are at least marginally related to the meaning of the original sentence. For example, here is "Make love, not war" as translated when progressively more spaces are added.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Naming the animals

People always seem to assume that when Adam named the animals he was creating a language, assigning common nouns to the various species -- saying, "You lot shall be called dogs; you lot, cane spiders; you over there, white-throated guenons," and so on.

Obviously he was doing nothing of the sort. If Adam had been tasked with inventing a language from scratch, nouns for animals would have been a relatively low priority. Why wasn't he coining words like leg, tree, breakfast, sun, or gully? Why did he name only animals -- and, later, his wife? Because he was giving them names -- personal names.

I've always followed Adam's example in this. Any animal that I see often enough to recognize sooner or later gets a name, and I've always had a knack for noticing the features that distinguish each individual animal from its conspecifics. There are limits, of course -- I never could tell one black-capped chickadee from another -- but I clearly remember that as a child I distinguished and named each of the dozen or so mourning doves that frequented our bird feeder. Individual ants of course did not receive names, but colonies did. Certain colonies enjoyed our favor and received occasional gifts -- the biggest of which was a roadkilled toad which the workers assiduously remodeled their whole hill to accommodate.


I've often been surprised at how readily animals of a variety of "higher" species seem to grasp the concept of a name -- something that seems pretty abstract for an animal to deal with. Dogs and cats, of course, but also, surprisingly, sugar gliders -- very small animals with no real history of domestication.

Each of our cats is known by several different monikers in two different languages, but each can recognize and respond to all of its names. The cat called Pinto, for example, answers to Pinto, P, Doudou, Heibai, and Xiaohuai. He also understands that Scipio is the name of another cat whom he particularly hates, and he responds to that name by lowering his ears and tensing up. I find this ability -- in a not-very-social species that communicates primarily by body language -- nothing short of astonishing. I've sometimes wondered if it might not have a psychic component -- if the cat responds not so much to the name itself as to the attention channeled by the act of uttering it.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

A frog among herons

I stepped out last night and found a frog perched on the back windshield of my car -- a rather handsome medium-sized brown frog with dark eyes. I'm not really up on the frog species on Taiwan yet, but if I had seen it in America I would have called it a Little Grass Frog, and I assume it was something along those lines -- a "tree frog" but of a non-arboreal species.

I always feel responsible for animals that show up at my doorstep, and clearly this frog had to be moved. He had unwittingly wandered into the territory of a half-dozen feral cats that pretty much kill anything that moves (they just got a skink the other day), and one of them particularly likes to sleep on that car.

I first tried to move it by hand, with the predictable result. (As Hobbes observed, "They drink water all day just in case someone picks them up.") This spooked the frog enough that it hopped away and climbed up into the innards of the neighbor's motorcycle to hide. I spent some time with a flashlight trying to locate and extract the creature, but it had hidden too well. In the end, I had to give up and just hope that it had the good sense to come out before morning.

An hour or so later, I stepped out again, and the frog was back on the car! This time I managed to persuade it to hop into a little paper bowl, and I set off to find a safe place to let it go. The frog settled in, folding its limbs up as neatly as a bat's, and waited patiently in the bottom of the bowl, turning its head occasionally to check on me but otherwise motionless. (In fact, his movements and general mien reminded me very much of one particular bat I had known years ago, so much so that thoughts of reincarnation fluttered around the periphery of my attention. With short-lived species, who can say how many times, and in how many guises, the same handful of beast-souls might keep crossing one's path?)

My wife had suggested that I let him go on the big magnolia by the side of the road, but in the end I decided that the dangers of the road, and the lack of water and of other vegetation, outweighed the commonsense consideration that a tree frog ought to be in a tree. (Anyway, my somewhat biologically informed hunch was that this, while technically a tree frog in the same way that a panda is technically a carnivore, was a mostly non-arboreal creature I was dealing with.) I opted instead for a paddy field with a few small trees in it, some distance from the road.

When I reached the intended release point, I was greeted by the sound of heavy wingbeats, and a large heron rose up from a nearby canal and flapped off into the night. Herons, of course, eat frogs, and I almost decided to take my little charge elsewhere. However, I already knew from experience that there were no unheroned precincts in the vicinity, and in fact for the moment this was the one stretch of paddy where I knew for sure there was not a heron hunting -- so I said a brief prayer for him and let him go, comforting myself with the thought that, whatever the risks, he was at least safer now than he would have been if I had left him in the lions' den where I had found him. "Go your way: behold, I send you forth as a frog among herons." In the end, I'm afraid, safety just isn't on the menu for frogs. They must seek other satisfactions. He made a few trial hops, turned back to look at me for a second, and then disappeared into the vegetation.


The strange thing is that I'm usually on quite friendly terms with the local herons and have no objections to their catching and eating frogs -- but I wanted very much for them not to eat this particular one. But why? Why should this frog live and others die? Just because it's the one I happened to find -- or rather, the one that happened to find me? Well, yes, that's the reason -- and on some level I feel quite sure that such thinking isn't as irrational as it seems.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Disney and McDonald's

1. Each company was founded in California by two Irish-American brothers.

2. Both are icons of global Americanization.

3. McDonald's is symbolized by the Golden Arches; Disney, by the double arcs of Mickey Mouse's ears.

4. Disney's two most iconic characters are called Mickey and Donald. The Mc- element in McDonald's corresponds to Mickey, as in the nickname "Mickey D's."

5. Both companies use "happy" in their branding. Happy Meal. The Happiest Place on Earth.

6. Both Mickey Mouse and the prefix Mc- are used colloquially to indicate mediocrity or worthlessness.

Five cornerstones

I recently received another batch of emails from a correspondent who keeps encountering repetitions of the number 5 (55, 555, etc.). This ma...