What is Freemasonry ? This apparently simple and even elementary question is asked by many, in the profane world (i.e. by those who are not Freemasons), but also and more importantly by those who are Freemasons. "What is Freemasonry?" inevitably wonders the Entered Apprentice who has chosen to embark on this journey, but does not yet know very well what he will discover. "What is Freemasonry?" is sometimes questioned by the experienced Master Mason, who knows the ritual and its symbols perfectly well, but may still be wondering what it's all for and observes, a little disillusioned, that Freemasons are no better than anyone else... What is Freemasonry? There are certainly as many subjective answers as there are Freemasons, as we shall see here.

A variety of answers 

Each Freemason will have his own answer to this question, but this answer may vary according to the era, the country of origin, the spiritual or socio-political orientation, and the sensitivity of each individual. Freemasonry is embodied not only in its members, but also in the cultures in which it develops. Freemasonry is universal, of course, but it is also multifaceted : there is not one form of Freemasonry, but many forms.

The responses from laymen will be just as varied, but often marked by prejudice, as unfavourable legends about Freemasonry abound. We will not deal with them further in this article.

A few objective facts 

All Freemasons will agree on at least a few objective notions, with occasional nuances. First appearing in England and Scotland in the seventeenth century, and organised from the eighteenth century onwards, Freemasonry is a fraternal and initiatory organisation that brings together men (and women, this is one nuance that will not be unanimously accepted) around values such as freedom, equality, fraternity and tolerance. 

Based on the symbolism of the ancient builders, it is founded on rituals, symbols and philosophical and moral teachings designed to encourage personal development and the search for truth. Freemasons meet in Masonic lodges and follow an initiatory path that leads them to progress in their knowledge of themselves and others, through the degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason. 

Freemasonry is not simply an open club : new members are admitted only after a process of investigation and voting. Access to ceremonies is reserved for initiates, which is why Freemasonry is sometimes considered a secret society, although Freemasons prefer to call it discreet.

All Freemasons will identify more or less with this minimal description. But basically, nothing has been said yet !

Multiple fantasies

Things get more complicated when you start questioning the origins of Freemasonry, its filiations, its aims... 

For some, Freemasonry can be traced directly back to the medieval brotherhoods of builders ; for others, it was founded by the Knights Templar ; for still others, it is merely the visible form of the Rosicrucians or of all sorts of alchemical and hermetic movements, while some trace it back to the mists of time. 

And what is its purpose ? To pass on an immemorial Primordial Tradition ? To convey alchemical secrets ? To offer its followers a spiritual and initiatory path ? To reconnect with the great spiritual and initiatory traditions of ancient civilisations ? Change society by making it fairer and more fraternal ? Spreading equality throughout the world ? Getting together with other members of good society ? Doing business through a network of influence ?

For most Freemasons, Freemasonry is a largely fantasised and idealised reality at the core of a spiritual or socio-political belief system. As a result, no one is right or wrong, but each person projects onto Freemasonry their own aspirations, conditioned by their culture, background, social origin and philosophical or religious convictions. That’s why Freemasonry is often less concerned with History than with Legends, which are the ideal breeding ground for projections of all kinds. And everyone can draw on them to create their own legend.

So what is Freemasonry?

With its mysterious ceremonies, its pompous titles, its "disguises" and its swords, is Freemasonry nothing more than a vast life-size role-playing game, or a sort of gigantic projective test, comparable to the famous Rorschach test? It is, certainly. But there's nothing disparaging about that, quite the contrary.

Freemasonry would appear to be a brilliant modern invention, capable of allowing very different interpretations while respecting the same framework. Its creators seemed to have the almost prophetic intuition that the time for closed systems, dogmas and conclusive interpretations was long past, and that it was now time to propose an open and flexible model that could be embodied in different times and places. It is a perfect manifestation of the Baroque spirit that would give birth to our contemporary world. Utopias and enigmas were all the rage in the Baroque period, in the frantic search for a new wisdom capable of reconciling the achievements of earlier traditions with the discoveries of the nascent sciences. 

This is why, from the outset, Freemasonry adopted a double face : mystical on the one hand, rationalist on the other. It was thus armed for the times that would follow, as history clearly shows. Depending on the time and place, it favoured one or the other of its two faces, to present the necessary projection surface here and now. 

This fundamental plasticity of Freemasonry suggests that it will still be capable of nurturing human aspirations in the future, and that we are not finished with it yet ! Its new faces, its new beliefs and its new forms will sometimes be surprising, but they will nonetheless be faithful to the brilliant intuition of its creators : to offer human beings a utopian space in which they can live their present and dream their future in the light of their past.

April 01, 2024 — Ion Rajalescu