Less than a century ago, fraternities played a major role in the life of men in the USA. The Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, and, of course, the Freemasons (or “Free and Accepted Masons”), among hundreds of other, smaller fraternities, existed in every state. And male initiatic societies – from the Cult of Mithrais to martial arts schools of China — have played an essential role in most societies in the East and in antiquity, prior to Christianity becoming the religion of Western nations.
The disappearance of the mannerbund (“male society”) has left a vacuum, which has been filled by the idiocy of “frat houses” and the violence of street gangs. Freemasonry still exists to offer initiation, and there are also a number of esoteric Orders that do likewise, though these generally accept men and women, and, often — as in the case of Wicca — emphasize the feminine aspects of nature or Divinity.
More problematically from an initiation into manhood (or into womanhood, for the female sex), such esoteric organizations are not equipped to initiate men and through rites of passage from youth to adulthood — which imply sexual maturity, tribal loyalty and responsibility to society, and, more traditionally, responsibility toward the gods and nature. Such rites of passage are expected to have taken place prior to joining an esoteric society, since by their nature, the latter are concerned with the “greater Mysteries,” while initiation into manhood or womanhood is concerned with the “lesser Mysteries.”
What, then, are the lessons that men need to learn? Freemasonry is unique as an institution in that it teaches both esoteric and the exoteric lessons necessary for a true understanding of the Mysteries. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the hero is told that the virtues of the Lodge include:
Morality, love of mankind, courage, generosity, and the love of death.
Let’s take a look at them: Courage and generosity go together. Warriors care for each other in life, and fight for each other in battle. Even contemporary business leaders almost always extol the virtue of giving some of the profits to charity, claiming that this actually creates wealth in return.
“Men brave and generous live the best lives, seldom will they sorrow,” says the Old Icelandic book The Poetic Edda, “then there are fools, afraid of everything, who grumble instead of giving.”
Most fathers would encourage their sons to be brave. But, because, today, they often teach children to be selfish and to “look out for number one” the lesson cannot, in most cases, be absorbed. For, to be generous is to cultivate courage. Either the child grows up to be a “selfless” type that will fight neither for himself nor anyone else, but, instead, fetishizes his inability to act as being somehow Jesus-like. (Such “selfless” individuals, however, usually secretly harbor a loathing for most of humanity.) Otherwise, he will become a Wall Street banker of the worst kind, or the sort of CEO that leave his morality at the door, believing that fairness and respect have no place in the “dog eat dog” world.
Today, in our society in which we can adopt any system of morality, religion, ethics, etc., or freely mix ‘n’ match from them, to create our own convenient worldview, we’re not always sure what morality is. The political (who present themselves as the most moral) always defend the bad behavior of their friends, while savagely attacking even the minor infractions of the opposition. Abuse, violence, oppression, and atrocities that don’t serve the political agenda of the Left or the Right are conveniently ignored by the respective sides. Though the talk is always of “democracy” and “rights,” ethics and morality usually serve the little ego.
In Craft Freemasonry, there is an emphasis on “Justice.” Why? What is justice, exactly? If you look at the Statue of Liberty or the Justice Tarot card you’ll notice that both figures are holding scales. For this reason, many people might be tempted to say that justice is “balance.” This isn’t quite correct. More exactly, justice is proportion. If a murderer gets a fine, and the starving man who steals a loaf of bread, life imprisonment, then we say that this is unjust (in both cases). Same elsewhere. If you do all the work for your company, but someone else gets the praise — and more money — for that work, then that company is behaving unjustly toward you. Justice is punishing the wrongdoer, proportionally — and rewarding noble, elevating, heroic, courageous behavior, also proportionately.
“Love of Death.” Of all of the Masonic teachings we hear about in War And Peace, this is the most difficult for modern mind to grasp. It is also the one that crosses over from the exoteric to the esoteric teachings and initiations. Yet it is not new. In relation to esoteric Hinduism, for example, Craig Williams points out that there are five types of negative traits (Kleshas — literally “causes of affliction”) that the initiate can have. One of these, he tells us, is “fear of death” (abhinivesha). (See Craig Williams, Cave of the Numinous, Theion Publishing, p. 114.) We find it also in the Samurai tradition, as well as others, where the practitioner was required to meditate upon his own death on a daily basis.
To reflect on one’s mortality, to imagine the moment of death, is to enter into a sudden shock of silence, like leaving the clutter of the city on a train, and seeing the countryside and nature all around for the first time in too long. Such a meditation reminds one of what is important, what we will think about at death. It will not be how much sex or money we had, but about the people we care about, the people with which we engaged in a way that embodied timeless, eternal values, and about what is beyond life and beyond death.