If you were to ask the average American which mythical figure best represents the national character, most would reply with a household name: Uncle Sam. The genial yet intimidating patriarch has dominated artistic and poetic descriptions of the American nation-state for a hundred years.
However there is another, more deeply ingrained avatar of the American populace, the omnipresent Columbia. Most famously depicted as the Statue of Liberty , upon which is inscribed Emma Lazarus’ poem reproduced above, Columbia was the mythical figure adopted by the founding generation of the early United States. After the defeat of the British in 1783, America found itself free from international harassment and a wide open frontier of unknowable bounty. What was needed was an icon, a symbol by which to galvanize and direct the consciousness of the American people. By the late 1790’s, Columbia was born. Columbia quickly became the patron saint of Manifest Destiny, the doctrine of westward expansion embraced with genocidal fervor by the pioneers and politicians alike.
Columbia advancing towards the darkness of the West, bringing light and civilization in her wake.
Columbia’s figure appears on or within many state and federal buildings constructed in the 19th century, usually cast in bronze and often pointing or facing West. She adorns the Wisconsin Capitol building, sculpted by the same Daniel Chester French who constructed the greatest rendition of Columbia in history, the 65-foot-tall Statue of the Republic commissioned for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Illinois. She reposes atop the Texas Capitol holding the sword of Justice and raising aloft a blazing golden star. She lends her name to numerous towns across America, she is the patron of Columbia University and the seat of governmental power stands in a district built in her honor: The District of Columbia.
Columbia as a symbol is far too complex and deeply-rooted to be ascribed as a creation of political machinations. Columbia is only the latest name given to a goddess who is older than recorded history and can be traced in her modern form to the early Egyptian dynasties. She has been known throughout history variously as Inanna and Ishtar by the Sumerians, Kali by the Hindus, Freya by the Norse and most notably as Isis by the ancient Egyptians. She is the goddess of love, wisdom, warfare and destiny and is venerated by all cultures as the mother of civilization. In the original
Isis with the infant Horus at her left breast.
Egyptian telling of her tale, Isis is also the goddess of magic, friend of slave and aristocrat by equal measure. It was Isis that kept the veil of night cloaked about the light of wisdom and it was her name invoked in the rites and rituals of the numerous fertility cults that sprang up along the banks of the Nile. The pentagram, or five-pointed star, the primary symbol of magical and initiatory societies across the world, is the shape traced in the heavens by the transit of the planet Venus throughout the year. In this Roman context the parallels between Isis and the western conception of the Virgin Goddess in her myriad forms become starkly apparent.
She has also enjoyed considerable veneration throughout history as a figurehead of Freemasonry or as Manly Palmer Hall put it, “The Virgin of The World”. Numerous Masonic writers have expounded lengthy treatises on the Masonic symbolism inherent in the legend of Isis, it being so closely tied to the inner curriculum of Masonry. In the pre-Christian Mystery traditions, Wisdom was always depicted as feminine. In Greece, Wisdom was personified as Athena, Goddess of Knowledge and Crafts. The seven liberal arts are given female representations and the nine Muses invoked by countless artisans and artists are all of female form. For an organization with an historical opposition to the admittance of women, Freemasonry has an oddly persistent fascination with feminine representations of their Craft.
It is often acknowledged that many, if not most, of the founding figures of early America were Freemasons. Could it be that this small group of men, working with the vast repository of Masonic symbolism, crafted a symbol to forge a specific path forward into the future? Is it coincidence that Columbia led the waves of settlers of the New World from ‘sea to shining sea’, transporting the light of civilization from its birth on the Eastern horizon to its maturity in the West? Though she has been subsumed in popular understanding by the withered visage of Uncle Sam, Columbia keeps constant vigil from the forgotten and overlooked corners of American history and geography, a testament to a different time. She may remain cloaked behind the veil she draws so closely to her breast yet the light of her torch still burns for those with eyes to see.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
Cast as we are now into a state of civil unrest in some places, and massive peaceful protest in many others, it seems that racism is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Indeed, this is a very real issue which is overdue for resolution. We, as a society, need to overcome both institutional racism, and widespread indifference to the very real struggles faced by the black community in America.
The Masonic Philosophical Society is an organization which values not only ethnic diversity, but also approaching problems with wisdom and objectivity. Particularly useful in the examination of any problem is to know what about it we can be relatively certain of? Science is the source of greatest certainty on any topic. In the case of the issues brought to the surface by the death of George Floyd recently, what can science tell us about racial bias?
THE SCIENCE OF RACIAL BIAS
Much of the rhetoric around racism is that it is learned, and we just need to unlearn it. However, if that were wholly true, then how would it have arisen in the first place? While it certainly seems true that racism is passed on culturally from generation to generation, there may actually be more to it, according to science. Most racism these days is not open or even necessarily conscious, but implicit and unconscious, at least in the majority of people. So how does this unconscious racism work?
Psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying racial biases scientifically for some time now, with many interesting findings. Much of it boils down to what many of us already know: We all carry implicit racial biases, which we would not consciously identify with, but in unconscious ways we nevertheless tend to treat people differently based on perceived race of that person. But why?
The theories of some experts are that our brains have a tendency to find patterns and to automatically categorize novel experiences or information according to those patterns, even when it isn’t rational to do so. This generalization becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or feedback loop, as people of color are treated differently because of it, live in greater poverty, resulting in greater rates of crime, and the generalization lives on. This is a very difficult loop to escape, unless we expend conscious effort to change it.
So, based on this analysis, we can say that there is both a cultural and neurological component. Yes, we inherit it from culture, but the reason it keeps perpetuating is because of cognitive tendencies related to how our brains work, and perhaps why the phenomenon arose in the first place.
EMPATHY AND RACE
My experience as a white man with a majority of white friends and family has led me to believe that most white people do not overtly hate black people, although we surely carry some of the implicit biases described above, which we hopefully make efforts to override. I would say that the biggest issue in our time is not only implicit racism, but relative indifference to the struggles faced by the African American community among many people who look like me.
The Human Brain, Race, and Empathy
In a way, you could say that this is actually the biggest problem we face, because it’s what prevents action being taken to stop the small, truly hateful minority from doing what they do to persecute innocent people simply for having black skin, especially in our police forces. If more people were seriously concerned about it, things would change, which is hopefully what we’re seeing with the current events.
This is where some other research concerning race and empathy becomes very interesting. Essentially, what was observed was that rats were much less likely to help other rats who looked different from them than they were their “own kind.” However, researchers later added a variable, where they raised the different types of rats together from birth, and the result was that the rats that were raised together were equally likely to help one another out.
The takeaway? We are cautious about those who are different from us, particularly when we are not accustomed to them. In a sense, a certain trust has to be built in our brain, you could say, by spending time with those who appear very different from us; otherwise, we will regard them with greater caution, and potential fear, especially when cultural biases already incline us to do so.
SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS
The good news it that the parts of our brains that are primarily engaged in these kinds of reactions are the most basic, instinctual parts, such as the amygdala, the “fear center.” This area is activated automatically when we are shown pictures of people who appear very different from us, in some studies. Our higher reasoning ability is located in other places, such as the frontal lobes, and it has the ability to override these animalistic, automatic processes, through higher level decision-making and conscious effort, as many people obviously have done to become less racist.
Understanding the underlying biological factors contributing to implicit racism and lack of empathy for black struggles can help us not just to overcome this problem in ourselves, but also to understand why it’s there in the first place. Rather than placing judgments on people that they are “evil” or “without conscience” for being less concerned with racial issues than they ought to be, we can understand that a deficit of empathy to those perceived to be different from us is a natural bias which we must expend effort to overcome.
FREEMASONRY AND TRUE EQUALITY
In that case, is it any wonder that many people haven’t put forth the effort to do that inner work, especially when not much in their culture demanded it from them? We must all overcome natural tendencies, for instance when we resist things like greed, lust, gluttony, or laziness.
Really, this is simply an aspect of being an upstanding moral person. We could simply add racial bias and indifference to that list of problematic natural tendencies, and consider it something which we must put forth conscious effort to overcome, especially since lives are at stake. We can also make a conscious effort to diversify our friend groups, so that we are less inclined to live in a bubble of only those who look like us.
Masonry and the Promotion of Equality
As Co-Masons, we are implored to overcome our bodily passions and unhealthy tendencies, and to function according to a higher purpose of aspiration to knowledge, and the betterment of humanity. We can and should consider overcoming our racial biases to be an important part of that process.
We are well aware of the unfortunate historical reality of mainstream Freemasonry’s past and even present (in some places), when it comes to racial segregation or exclusion. Although we are an entirely separate institution, we would like to make it clear to all that race is not a factor which we even remotely consider, when it comes to accepting new Masons into our ranks. People of all ethnicities, political views, genders, and religions are welcome in our temples.
In our present time, there seems to be a huge market for “buying” your way to enlightenment. Everyone is peddling a secret. Chant this mantra. Hold this crystal. Buy some incense. Rub that oil. Say these words. Go to this retreat. Some of these things may have some value. Spiritual longing is a real part of the human experience. Labyrinths hold a special attraction for me. Can a labyrinth really be a tool for enlightenment? Are sacred places important?
The first labyrinth that I ever experienced was a Chartres Labyrinth, although I was not lucky enough to be in at the famous labyrinth in Chartres, France. I liked it so much I began to investigate labyrinths in general and the Chartres Labyrinth in particular.
Chartres Cathedral was built one thousand years ago to be the site of a Mystery School. Not only was the cathedral an architectural feat but was one of the leading learning centers at the time. The edifice combined the visionary teachings of Plato with Christian mysticism. You must walk the entire labyrinth path before gaining entrance to the Temple. It is the “way in,” if you will, a Chamber of Reflection of sorts.
Those who have been to the actual site in France say that the effect of the Cathedral is peaceful and nurturing. You are at rest, left to wander or to meditate in tranquility. The atmosphere suggests that the veil between the human and celestial worlds is thin, and God is very near. It represents the ideal of a sacred space: a blending of the divine and material. The impact of Chartres on people at that time must have been enormous. How can a place be so heavenly?
The Divine mystery of the labyrinth walk might be due in part to the magical pattern. One path leads inwards to the center, and the same path leads back out again. Chartres has an eleven-circuit design, divided into four quadrants. They are encircled by an outer ring of lunations, thought to represent a type of lunar calendar. The quadrants suggest the even armed cross. At the center is a Rosette pattern of 6 petals which is the place of rest. It reminds us of the sacred lotus, symbol of enlightenment.
In medieval times, the path was considered a substitute for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is symbolic of the pilgrim’s journey into his Soul: the Center. It must be a two-way journey, which ends at the starting point. The pilgrim must not seek to remain inside. He goes and comes back. He visits. He walks from the unreal to the real, from the periphery to the center, from the mundane to the spiritual and back. Is this not life?
Symmetry of the Design
In his book, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, Louis Charpentier recalls his first experience of being inside the cathedral. He was immediately struck with the impression that “everything contained its opposite in itself.” He said that the same balance contained in the secret of the Chinese Tai Chi, is at work in Chartres where the “proportions, orientation, position and symbolism have all been designed to alert the psyche and refresh the spirit.”
This idea is hinted at in Chapter 14 of the Tao Te Ching:
The Labyrinth at Chartres
What we look for beyond seeing And call the unseen, Listen for beyond hearing And call the unheard. Grasp for beyond reaching And call the withheld, Merge beyond understanding In a oneness Which does not merely rise and give light, Does not merely set and leave darkness, But forever sends forth a succession of living things as mysterious As the unbegotten existence to which they return.
Charpentier further states:
“If the pilgrim experienced the entire sensuousness of the cathedral, it would be because the body’s senses had apprehended all the musical and geometrical proportions, and all the numbers and lines expressed in the building’s interior.”
Geometric forms that exist in the labyrinth or even the Masonic Temple such as the cube, triangle, sphere, square, or oblong square could act as a doorway into various states of awareness. “God Geometrizes.” Sacred Temples can be said to stand for an unseen condition of something that can be known.
Beauty as an Expression of Truth
Divine archetypes are said to be not only doorways to the unknown, but as Plato has indicated, they are the very essence of beauty. The nature of beauty cannot always be described in words, and so it is possible, that certain symbols act as a bridge between the visible and the invisible. Satisfying both a physical and metaphysical need, sacred architecture can:
1. Provide an energetic focusing center on the physical plane wherein the mysteries are learned and enacted;
2. Serve those seekers who enter the building and become intellectually and spiritually stimulated.
The more beautiful the appearance in form – the more closely will it correspond with spiritual truth. Buckminster Fuller stated it like this, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
My sense is that if a person does not appreciate beautiful or holy things, he will lose them. Without reverence, the sacred feeling will diminish and then be forgotten. Thereafter, his only concern will be his personal comfort and selfish desires.
On the other hand, as we honor holy places we will be entrusted with holy things. Just the opposite of disbelief and despair, the goal is eternal life and peace. Contemplating art and architecture, the spiritual and the divine, moves us away from the mundane world of the daily round.
Do sacred spaces make us more enlightened? Some have scoffed at labyrinths, masonic temples, mantra, and things like crystals or incense for centuries. In times of need, I have tried all of them.
Everyone deserves to be part of a community: to understand, to change, to improve, and to inspire. At the Masonic Philosophical Society (M.P.S.), we embrace the concept of learning as a life-long journey, not just for children, but for all ages. The M.P.S. community operates in an environment where ideas are shared and debated in an open forum – one of insightful and tolerate discussion. This work is fundamental to the M.P.S. mission, which seeks to destroy ignorance in its myriad of forms.
If you have yet to attend a M.P.S. Study Center, now might be the perfect time.
M.P.S. meetings have currently moved online to ensure the safety of meeting participants and organizers. Upcoming event discussion topics include the following and more:
One would think there is no debate about science. The scientific method is, quite simply this: “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” What I find extremely interesting about this statement is the use of the word “nature,” or rather, natural science. It bears noting that “natural sciences” are those sciences which have to deal with the physical world – astronomy, physics, biology, geology, etc. In other words, it is a study of, you guessed it, the natural world.
At a recent M.P.S. meeting discussing the impact of humanity on the earth’s physiology, or eco-system, many arm-chair scientists spoke up and theorized on the state of our globe’s atmosphere. One person noted that there is a “layer of bacteria” it the atmosphere, and this could be the cause of some of the earth’s climate issues. Skeptical, as always, I wanted to know more. Using the internet and what I hope were reputable sources, I determined there is not a “layer” of bacteria but viruses and bacteria do get swept up into our atmosphere and in some cases, may be able to thrive there. There is no indication, however, of their impact on Earth’s changing or evolving climate.
The activities I undertook to understand what someone was saying were also a topic of this very same discussion. We have many ways of obtaining information and while the internet and search engines are helpful, they are not the “end all” of research. When libraries and bookstores were the norm, the person doing the research had to know the topic area, perhaps some reputable authors or scientists, and then searched and read through information to find data to support, or deny, whatever message they were researching. Now, it is slightly backwards – we’re provided the data quickly, but with little background on who, or what, produced this data.
While the tools may have also made the data easier to find, we have become less able to do actual research. In a recent airport visit, I watched a “Big Story” about a man who became fascinated with sea horses. He moved to California from his native Iowa, and during a dive in 2016, he spotted sea horses in the Long Beach harbor. He became fascinated with the creatures and now averages 1500 miles per year, driving and diving up and down the coast of California, to study sea horses. He is not a biologist or scientist of any kind. Yet, over time, he’s taught himself to start taking data, creating biomes for these creatures to study them, and become one of the foremost authorities on sea horses. Why? Because they fascinate him. He is passionate about them. Dare I say, he loves them.
We normal humans have become subjected to being fed “science” and rarely make the time or foment the passion to study a single piece of nature. We might find flowers beautiful or animals majestic, but we move right back to our computers and away from the natural world. When we get out into the world, we begin to understand it in a way that computers and spoon-fed data can never provide. Rather than find a path to learn, we are mortified by “not knowing” and become fearful. We look for information to make us feel better, to generally support our suppositions. We do not gather data based on observation or theory, like our friend above, nor do we really obtain knowledge. We lack understanding. We take what we hear, and return to the world around us a feedback loop of information that is consumed but not subsumed.
Why is science, a respect for science, important? For two reasons, I believe. The first is our ignorance of true science, of true nature, ignores the facts of the world around us. It drives us away from being of nature, when in fact we are nature. We lose context and disseminate false information. Fake news isn’t fake because someone simply lies; fake news is fake news when we perpetuate it without solid understanding and investing in personal research. We then make choices about how we live and how humanity thrives based on misinformation.
The second reason true learning of nature is important is because understanding nature stops fear and anger in its tracks. Understanding the larger cycles of the earth, geologic cycles, helps us understand better what is, and is not, human impact. It complicates what we want to be simple, but it complicates it because it is complicated. Nature needs to be understood by our individual selves, otherwise, we’re not really learning. We are part of this great body of animal, mineral, and vegetable. We’re made of stardust and earth, of air and water. We’re electrical and chemical. So is the world around us. If we seek to understand the universe, we are really seeking to understand ourselves. Destroying this ignorance destroys fear and hate.
While I think we should question everything, I am not so sure there should be debate about science – about its existence and use in our lives. There should be no debate about nature, about physics or chemistry, no debate about exploration nor about the extrapolation of research. We should all become our own scientists in this world, curious and intuitive, passionate about life. Humanity isn’t separate from nature; humanity is nature, and thus, we study nature, we study ourselves. We learn. We grow, We become better.
Not long ago, a friend asked how I’ve come to this point in life with the vocation and avocations that I have. Were these all conscious choices or not? I thought long and hard about it, and decided it was a combination of mind and gut – of curiosity and intuition. Sometimes, I felt like the job offers appeared before me and the universe was saying, “Okay, how about this one?” Curiosity propelled me toward research and ultimately jumping in. Other times, my intuition said, “Hey! You need to be over there, now!” So, I took the fresh position without any research whatsoever. Pure gut. Pure terror, more like it.
Yet, at each of these moments, I grew in equal measure. Curiosity provided expansion while intuition afforded me introspection and trust in something greater than myself. Fate. God. Destiny. Connectedness. Consciousness. Whatever you wish to call it, that seems to be the place where that voice-not-ours originates.
According to the University of Chicago, “intuition” was first used in a text at the end of the 15th century. Until the 17th century intuition meant “mentally looking at”; “the act of regarding, examining, or inspecting”; “a view, regard, or consideration of something”, all of which are now obsolete meanings. In the modern world, it reflects insight not necessarily borne of cognition. In fact, the root of the word intuition means “to look over, to watch over.” Who, or what, is watching and even more important, who or what is speaking to us?
Conversely, curiosity is nothing but mental questioning, inquisitiveness stemming from, “I don’t know but I really want to know.” One might say it has less to do with the mind and more to do with the heart. It is an eagerness to learn, a desire for expansiveness of mind, body, or emotion. Curiosity makes us step into the water without knowing the depth or temperature, to see what lies at the bottom. Oddly enough, the word curiosity stems from the same root as “to cure.” Curiosity is hungry mind.
Both words have that measure of terror with them. I don’t mean this literally; I mean that there is the sense of the unknown, the essence that we might be too fragile to cope with what is on the other side of knowledge, or that we might not like what we find. The opposites of these two words, curiosity and intuition, might be equally interesting to measure: indifference and intellect, respectively. They take on a hard aspect, something cold and somewhat lifeless.
Why explore these? I am curious. Why do they exist? Why are humans propelled to investigate while others do not? Is this an evolutionary drive? Why do we rely on intuition when it might steer us wrong? Are we really able to let go of fact and simply go with our gut?
This question becomes highlighted when we talk about divinity and our motivations in perfecting humanity. What would our humanity look like without curiosity and intuition? Would it be cold intellect, heartless? Or would it be mindless automatons, moving through the world without the reason or passion to ask why? Would either of these antithetical properties propel us forward toward becoming better versions of ourselves? I’d have to say no.
Yet, today, we fight something something insidious, something related and underlying: apathy. We fight it in our politics, our work places, our schools, and even in our families. It’s easier to take the intuition and curiosity to the depths rather than bring it into the light. It’s interesting that this is what our Masonic Philosophical Society meetings do – bring out curiosity and intuition and work toward crushing apathy.
And time after time, I hear how needed these meetings are, how hungry people are for color where there is only black and white. Only divisiveness. It seems to me that something we should, as the “human race” should cultivate is curiosity and intuition, in our babies and children. Forty years ago, Dr. Wayne Dyer cultivated the idea that we limit curiosity in our children, and it creates frightened or apathetic adults; adults who do look to others for guidance at every turn are neither curious nor intuitive. They have lost touch with themselves and thus, lose their own sovereignty. Can humanity move forward without such sovereignty? I do not think so.
So, here is the encouragement:
Be curious about something you “think” you detest.
Listen with an open mind to a political rival, and ask questions.
When the voice tells you to send your friend an email, do it.
Pick up that call from a number you don’t know, when the drive tells you to.
Listen to the quite nudges of your mind and heart.
Smile at a stranger, hug your boss or your coworker if you need to, and learn to listen to the subtleties of human movement in the world.
The world opens wide, full of wonder, when we listen deeply.
What is themeaning of Brother Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Book Seven of his immortal work, The Republic? And why is this allegory so widely read and studied in the world of “higher education” today, over two thousand years after it was first published? The purpose of this short labor of love is to explore the possible answer to the first of these two vital questions for the mutual benefit of myself and the reader, leaving the answer to the second question to the reader to explore and find independently, if he or she so chooses, as such an intimate journey into the depths of one’s own heart and mind will be sure to reveal to him or her just how important, beautiful, and fulfilling it is for each of us to discover the true meaning and purpose of human existence for ourselves, as common, yet unique, individuals.
Fortunately, for us, Plato explains the gist of the meaning of his allegory of the cave within The Republic itself. This should make things a little bit easy for us. Unfortunately, for some, the fact is that Plato was a mystic and a philosopher– a lover of wisdom— which means that he wrote all of his timeless dialogues for the sole purpose of sharing and examining the nature of wisdom with other philosophers through the interrelated philosophical principles of epistemology, dialectic, metaphysics, ethics, contemplation, and meditation.
In other words, the genuine and intended meaning of Plato’s allegory will forever remain an incomprehensible mystery to any reader of it who is not a true wisdom lover. Furthermore, the meaning of all of Plato’s sublime wisdom that has come down to us in written form through the ages, can only be captured by one who pursues true and ancient philosophy in the manner of the immortal philosophers of antiquity, who were known Initiates of the Ancient Mystery Schools such as Freemasonry. Such a noble pursuit demands nothing less or more than an open heart and mind that are both truly focused and desirous of knowing ultimate reality, as well as the true meaning and purpose of living in this world as a mortal– as a human being. From this we can understand that no matter how clearly and eloquently Plato may have briefly explained his allegory’s hidden meaning through the wise lips of Socrates within the pages of The Republic, it can only begin to be even vaguely understood by the man, woman or child who deeply loves wisdom.
And there is more: The meaning of the allegory of the cave will not unfold and reveal itself deeply within one’s soul if we overlook the importance of the philosophical concept of justice. This is due to the resplendent fact that The Republic is a philosophical lamp whose light is centered around the mystical oil of the search for the true meaning of justice and the heart’s burning desire to know what it truly means to be justor virtuous. We must therefore keep the mystery of justice firmly in heart and mind as we proceed. Now, let us step into the Light.
A QUICK SUMMARY OF THE ALLEGORY
There is a group of chained prisoners in a cave, who have been prisoners there since they were born. They are chained in such a way that they can only see a low stone wall in front of them, and they have never seen anything else in their entire lives. There is also a fireplace constantly burning at a short distance behind them, which allows for the shadows of people outside the cave, who walk past it, to be casted upon the low wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners, who have never seen anything else in life but themselves and these shadows, believe that these shadows are real things, and that there is nothing much more to life than the appearance of these shadows. One day, however, one of the prisoners in the cave breaks free and escapes from the cave. Upon seeing the world outside of the cave for the very first time, he quickly realizes that his former perception of life was limited, and all wrong. He has seen the light of the Sun and now knows that the shadows in the cave were not what they appeared to be. He then returns to the cave in an attempt to enlighten his former prisonmates about the true nature of the shadows, but they do not believe him. Instead, they threaten to kill him when he offers to set them free so that they can see the truth for themselves.
THE SECRET AND INNER MEANING OF THE ALLEGORY
The prisoners in the cave, as Plato vividly points out in The Republic, are us, or “you” and “I”. They are the symbolic personifications of the popular but mistaken notion that there really is such a thing as a separately existing “you” and “I”, as it is the crown jewel of true and ancient philosophy that there is really only one I or self that exists, and that this authentic I exists eternally as the infinite Universe in its entirety.
According to Plato, the underground den or prison within the cave is symbolic of the “world of sight”, by which he means the objective world as perceived by a non-discriminating and irrational mind through the five outward-focused senses of sight, taste, touch, sound, and smell. This prison is therefore a philosophical symbol of the mind itself, which lets us know that the cave, which contains this prison, and which, like the mind, is a secret dwelling place, is likewise a philosophical symbol of the mind, so that there is essentially no difference between the cave and the prison described by Plato. More precisely, the cave symbolizes the human mind in general, while the prison within the cave symbolizes the human mind or ego that is delusional and out of touch with reality.
The fire and light that are both inside and outside of the cave are symbolic of the “light” and life of both individuated consciousness and cosmic or universal consciousness, which are ultimately interconnected as One Mind. Plato states this darkly through the symbolic character of his wise teacher, Socrates (whose name means master of life), by having Socrates explain to Plato’s brother, Glaucon (whose name means owl-eyed), that, “the light of fire (in this allegory)is the Sun, which, when seen, is inferred to be the universal author of all things that are beautiful and right. It is the parent of light and the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual world. It is the power which he who wants to act rationally in public or private life must keep his eye fixed upon.” Now, ask yourself, does it sound like these alleged words of the enlightened Socrates are referring to the Sun in a literal sense, or to the Sun as being an ancient symbol of the “light” and life of consciousness which constitutes the mind? Isn’t it true that you can close your eyes and still see things through the “light” of your mind, even while you are sitting or lying down alone in the dark?
What about the shadows in the cave? And what about the wall in the cave that serves as the screen upon which these shadows are seen? This wall and the shadows casted upon it are symbolic of the various objects, or people, places, and things, that the individual mind perceives as the objective world, or the world “outside of”, and “separate from”, one’s own relative self or ego-personality. Like shadows, these objects or forms that collectively make up the objective plane of life are merely the fleeting reflections of something that can be said to be real. They are nothing more than transitory effects that are caused by the obstruction and limitation of the light or illumination of consciousness. These philosophical shadows are what Plato would call relative and substantially illusory or unreal “forms”, while the metaphysical objects of which they are merely the reflections and imperfect revelations are what he would call the absolute, eternal, and perfect “ideas” behind these phantom-like forms.
As for the chains that keep the prisoners locked up and divested of mental and spiritual freedom within the cave of their own dim consciousness, they are a potent symbol of our closed-minded concepts and selfish ways of thinking, as these counterproductive mental constructs keep us mentally binded, blinded, and unable to behold the light of metaphysical and philosophical enlightenment. When we succeed in breaking these chains by freeing our minds through true education, which involves philosophy and meditation, we discover the greatest secret of life and existence, which in turn gives us insight into the true meaning of justice, the main subject of Plato’s Republic. This most valuable secret of all secrets is that all life is One Life, all minds are One Mind, and all things are One Thing.
Not only does Plato’s Republic teach us that the mind can be, and that it all too often is, the worst kind of prison that we can ever find ourselves locked up in, this golden dialogue also teaches us, perhaps paradoxically, that the mind is also the key that we must use in order to free ourselves from that prison:
WE all have duties, which we are responsible for in life, although some may not ascribe these responsibilities that term. We are responsible for the well-being of families and our own self-improvement. Many of us would say that we have a duty of service to our community or even to humanity as a whole. “Duty” is an important concept in Freemasonry and can be viewed or defined in two basic ways:
a moral or legal obligation; a responsibility, commitment, or allegiance.
a task or action that someone is required to perform.
The first definition speaks to a higher concept – an attitude of reverence or respect in the cause of fidelity. The second definition is more concrete and delineates a specific action one is required to perform. What duties do we owe in life, and do these duties circumscribe our personal Dharma?
What is Dharma?
Dharma is an integral concept in many eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In Hinduism, Dharma has been defined as a spiritual law, which governs the necessary conduct of each individual. While there is no direct, one-word translation in the English language, Dharma can be described as duty, morality, virtues, or calling.
Nothing is higher than Dharma. The weak overcomes the stronger by Dharma, as over a king. Truly that Dharma is the Truth (Satya); therefore, when a man speaks the Truth, they say, “He speaks the Dharma”; and if he speaks Dharma, they say, “He speaks the Truth!” For both are one. — Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.xiv
Dharma signifies behaviors that are in accord with Rta, (i.e., the order that upholds the universe). In the Vedic religion, Ṛta (ऋत, “order, rule; truth”) is the principle of natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. Those ordinances, or life paths, which upholds Rta, are referred to as Dharma, and the action of the individual in relation to those ordinances is referred to as Karma. Ṛta – as an ethical principle – is linked with the notion of cosmic retribution.
A central concept of the Ṛig Veda (an important Hindu Scripture) is that created beings fulfill their true natures when they follow the path set for them by the ordinances of Ṛta, and failing to follow those ordinances was thought to be responsible for the appearance of various forms of calamity and suffering. Committing one’s actions to the governance of Ṛta, referred to as its “Dharma“, was therefore understood as imperative in ensuring one’s own well-being. Karma (lit., “action”) refers to the works one performs, which can occur either in congruence with or in opposition to Dharma – and thus, to Ṛta – and which are posited to stand in a causal relationship to the pains and pleasures one experiences in life. Described also as a “law of moral causation,” Karma places the responsibility for one’s life on the shoulders of the individual. Thus, an individual’s circumstances in life – calamity or fortune – are considered the outcome of that person’s past actions.
Determining One’s Duty: Aspects of Dharma
There are aspects of Dharma that apply to everyone (universal Dharma) and aspects that are specific to each individual (personal Dharma). In order to be in accordance with Rta, one first needs to cultivate certain universal moral principles including:
Asteya: Refraining from Theft
Indriya Nigrah: Control of One’s Senses
Akrodha: Absence of Anger
Such moral principles are part of the universal application of Dharma, which apply to every individual and is referred to as sadharana Dharma. This is augmented by a person’s specific Dharma, which is impacted by three factors: 1) Gunas: Individual Tendencies, 2) Ashrams: Stages of Life, and 3) Syadharma: One’s Personal Calling.
The Gunas: Tendencies of Each Individual
“What is action; what inaction? Even the wise are hereby perplexed. It is needful to discriminate action, unlawful action, and inaction; mysterious is the path of action” – Bhagavad Gita, iv. 16-17
The concept of Gunas is based on the idea that all human beings have a mixture of three tendencies: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.
Sattva: Tendency towards Truth and Purity
Rajas: Tendency towards Action
Tamas: Tendency towards Inaction, Obstruction, or Ignorance
Gunas, or individual tendencies, are expanded upon by their application to Varnas – or groups within the Hindu social structure – based on the recognition of the difference in individual tendencies and sort all members into one of four categories. Thus, each group follows a different life path and is assigned different duties.
The Varnas: Groups Within Society
Varnas are groups within society, including Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras.
Brahmins: Priests, Scholars, and Teachers
Predominant tendency: Sattva (Righteous and Purity)
Duties: Control of the mind and the senses, austerity, purity, forbearance, and also uprightness, knowledge, realization, belief in a hereafter
Action: study the Vedas, live according to Vedic principles, and share that knowledge
Form the head of the cosmic being: As they make up the Mouth: Relay Truth
Kshatriyas: Rulers, Warriors, and Statesmen
Predominant tendency: Rajas (Quick to take action)
Duties: Prowess, boldness, fortitude, dexterity, and also not flying from battle, generosity and sovereignty
Action: Protect righteousness
Arms: Protect Truth
Vaishyas: Businessmen, Bankers, Merchants, and Farmers
Mix of the tendencies of Sattva (Truth) and Rajas (Action)
Duty: Agriculture and Trade
Action: Meet the material needs of society without over indulging
Thighs: Provide Material wealth
Shudras: Custodians, Laborers, and Service Providers
Predominant Tendency: Tamas (Inaction)
Action: Support the other activities of the other groups
Feet: Provide Support
These classifications were once the basis of the Caste system in India and other nations. Based on the Caste or class someone was born into, these classifications cemented the person’s opportunities and social status. This is no longer the case in India, but it does highlight the past subjection of certain people based on their circumstances at birth. This raises the interesting question: Is one’s future predetermined at birth? Are we born with certain qualities [Gunas] which influence our life path, duties, or Dharma?
To be continued…
This is Part I of a two part series on Dharma, Duty, and Freemasonry. Readers can view the second installment here: Part II.
A long time ago, I heard a Freemason tell another that they “should not be friends” with their Brothers. It was a strange comment to me, as I thought that when I joined Freemasonry, I would find like-minded people who I could spend time with, conversing and changing the course of the universe, all of us achieving amazing and lofty ambitions. These are the things you do with people you like. And don’t you like your friends?
Later on, once I moved into the higher degrees, another, more experienced Freemason said the same thing, adding, “it is a lonely path, being in these higher degrees.” While I might have doubted before, I did not doubt now. I have seen too many things go awry to question that wisdom. My quandary, though, was trying to figure out what the difference between Freemason and Friend is all about? Why can’t a Brother also be a Friend? Why shouldn’t a Brother be a Friend? How do I communicate that to others, who have stumbled into some awkward and emotionally disturbing situations? How do I avoid them, too?
Let me preface this with saying that this discovery, this understanding between friend and brother, has been a long journey. I have learned a lot about myself, as Freemasonry is wont to provide to a person on its path. I am the type of person who tries to have a pleasant demeanor and be welcoming. Call it being a Libra, a caretaker, eldest daughter, or whatever you will; my personality is to bring in as much hospitality as possible with my attitude, thoughts, and feelings so as to create a circle of warmth, trust, and authenticity. I feel it’s the only way to communicate well with people, and how I want people to communicate well with me. Being open gives me insight into who they are. Many people mistake this for friendship; I think in general, people from the United States mistake quite a bit for friendship, but that might be a topic for another time. Being nice does not equate to friendship. Being nice is, well, simply being nice. I have had this issue all my life and it’s something I understand about myself. While I attempt to be clear, I sometimes do not see the forest for the trees. I struggle to see how being nice may cause misunderstanding. Let’s call it knowledgeable naivete.
A friend is someone who you have created a bond with, someone with whom you know and have a mutual affection. Someone once said to me, you win friends. They are created through experiences of trust, sharing, and having someone with which is common. You might or might not provide some kind of support for a friend; it might be emotional, mental, or physical support.
Different friends have different levels of engagement and meaning. A friend might be someone with whom you share events throughout your life or someone with whom you only share coffee once in a while. There are no expectations in overall friendship; each relationship creates its own boundaries and ways of thinking and being together. In Europe, acquaintances are not friends. You may know someone for 20 years, but they are not your friend. They are someone you know. We have less distinction about that here in the United States. We rely a lot more on others who tell us what we should be. Friends are necessary for everyone; they provide us a window to the world and an ear to speak to when we need that confidant, that supporter, that person who knows us best.
A Brother is very different. While we choose our Brothers in Freemasonry, it’s a very democratic and discussion-heavy process. Brother, it should be clear, is a title. It may mean a fellow Freemason, but it is also a title of someone who is a Freemason. For someone to become a Brother, there is a lengthy and stringent process, where the requirements are spelled out based on the Masonic organization or body. For example, one has to be just, upright, and free, of mature age, sound mind, and strict morals. They don’t have to meet my morality; they have to demonstrate a morality that upholds the tenets of Freemasonry – for example tolerance and prudence. As a Freemason who makes a judgement about an applicant, I can say with authority that this isn’t a popularity contest: the applicant must meet the criteria and the majority of the Lodge members agree to the membership. While it’s nice to have people get along, it is certainly not a requirement unless something is seriously disharmonious. Some Masonic groups do not admit the other gender, or some do not admin non-Christians. Whatever the rules are about entrance, they are tightly controlled by the overarching organization.
In my opinion, the more diverse the group of Freemasons, the better the growth of the human and humanity. What better way to gain a better understanding of the self than to rub up against those people with whom we don’t particularly fit well? Think… rock tumbler. We like to think we have no rough edges but all rocks in a tumbler are pokey. If you catch on someone else, it’s not because your surface is super smooth. You have bumps, like we all do. That is how we get better. By working them out. We’ll talk more about this later.
Selecting who becomes a Brother is only one part of answering the question, what is the difference between Brother and Friend? The second comes from repeatedly working in Lodge together as Freemasons. Human beings are normally drawn to one another as they perceive common interests. In Freemasonry, many Brothers travel together or offer their homes for visits and boarding. In the outer world, the non-Masonic world, this indicates or implicates friendship. For someone who is not clear about their Masonic boundaries, this kind of interaction can be misconstrued. Being nice isn’t being a friend; being nice in Freemasonry is expected and hospitable. Conversely, as I noted above, agreeing with someone isn’t a requirement to be or remain a Freemason. We all don’t have the same thoughts, same views, nor would we want to. Debate and rhetoric are things which create better humans, and Freemasons value the well-informed, opinionated debate. If you can’t discuss topics of importance with your Brothers, then you may not have success as a Freemason. In other words, disagreement or debate isn’t cause for hate or strife. It’s a cause for growth.
There is a code of conduct that Freemasons have in interacting with one another that is fairly formal and is intact whether they are in a Lodge meeting or out in public or at a non-Masonic event. No Freemason would dream of striking another physically, calling names to them or their families, or treating them with anything but human decency. There is a respect for them as a human being but even more so, they have earned respect because they have the title Brother. There is also a respect for the hard work someone has put into their Masonic Order, whether it be from years of service, traveling to instruct or mentor, hours of meetings and committees, or other volunteer time. There is a respect of position, formally granted by the Lodge to that person who must spend their time coordinating, planning, instructing, and fostering further Masonic influence, as well as that Lodge’s officers who carry out the work. There’s respect for memorization, degree work, and one hopes, for the execution of the ritual. All of these require a sense of honor for fellow Brothers and a real dedication to support what they do, even if we don’t want to, can’t, or are not able to do it ourselves. We respect merit and ability. This respect is backed up by rules and regulations that demand respect, and a jurisprudence that enforces those rules.
I think this is where the waters become muddy. In the non-Freemasonic world, we bestow respect by our own credo. We win friends by living by our own ideals and sometimes we compromise those ideals for the benefit of having those around us who share our proclivities. We tend to choose our friends because they think like us, not because they think differently. We choose friends with our egos, generally. In a society that is increasingly polarizing, we need our armies around us to make us feel better. In a society that increasingly insular, we mistake the slightest hint of personal niceness as being hit on or being courted for, well, becoming a courtier. It can’t be stated enough that we don’t bring the outside world into Freemasonry and expect it to adapt. Likewise, we shouldn’t misconstrue the hospitality and fraternity of Freemasonry for friendship.
As you move through the path that is Freemasonry, your responsibilities, duties, and obligations become greater, wider reaching. Your duty grows, and your mind must be set to think of not only your own Lodge but your District, your Grand District, and perhaps your entire Order; it may even grow so far as to be responsible for the growth of Freemasonry itself. While a true, authentic friend would never ask you to compromise your avocation for them specifically, it places everyone in a precarious balance if you mix responsibility, duty, and obligation with going out for a few beers on a Saturday night with a single Brother. One has to be very careful where one boundary ends and another begins. How one comports themselves is in direct relation to how they have obligated themselves to a position within Freemasonry.
The largest and most difficult challenge is being “friends” with people early in your Masonic career and then weighing that with greater obligations as you grow. As we change, sometimes our friends do not. Maybe we don’t go out for beers any longer but stay home and enjoy a good study group online. There may be a bitterness about placing Freemasonry above friendship. There might be sadness because you spend time with a Lodge instead of a single person. I know of one person who became the head of their local Lodge. When that happened, people flocked to her to place them in positions of seeming importance in the Lodge, offices they desired. She succumbed to putting them in these positions and the Lodge suffered because of it because they weren’t equipped to do the jobs they desired; she thought of their desires and not the needs of the group. Friendship above Freemasonry. She learned a valuable lesson that first year.
In some cases, maybe you never were friends and simply Brothers, but that is where the niceties and hospitality of Freemasonry confuse with the outside world. When you first enter into Freemasonry, maybe you are looking for friends or even family. You might be looking for those like-minded people and hope for friendship. Going and getting coffee and talking about esoteric subjects may be something you do with friends or with Brothers; it is the building of the relationship, and context, that makes the difference. It is not impossible to be a friend with a Brother – not by a long shot. Yet, what I see work is when Freemasonry is the basis of the relationship and that takes precedence. I can think of many instances where the reverse does not work.
In Co-Masonry, there is the added, extra challenge of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and other family members becoming Freemasons, sometimes in the same Lodge. This seems to take the modern familial relationship and make it even better. You have the common purpose of becoming better people, together, with a deeper grasp on your relationship. Perhaps it is because that “friendship” relationship never existed between siblings or parents – after all, it’s family. It was family first, even if the adults are friends, too. Freemasonry, in its familial format, supports those ideas and relationships deeply and helps them, in my opinion, become richer. I have seen whole families join Freemasonry and it creates a very strong, lifelong bond.
I have seen more than a few people who have given their entire adult lives to helping Freemasonry grow, and it is not an easy path. They are on the phone from 6:00 to 18:00, backed up in emails and meetings, planning and executing all the time. If they are lucky, they are able to carve out time for family and some close friends, some travel, and laughter. They have raised families who were nearly all Freemasons and have maybe raised some who were bitter about Freemasonry’s influence. Some have worked for decades to improve the lives of all Freemasons, with no thought to their own service or sleep. It is all a choice, and that sacrifice can be as hard as those that give up their individual lives to raise a family or a flock of parishoners. For these dedicated few, they have very few friends but many, many Brothers. For them, that is satisfying and healthy, and it helps them create the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in the world.
Let’s be clear: fundamentalism is strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline. In most cases, people use it to discuss religious adherence to the “word” of any particular religion as being absolutely true and literal, in all sense. You can be, however, a fundamental ballet dancers, barista, or car mechanic. And, also to be fair, being a “fundamentalist” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It comes down to one additional feature: an open mind. Tolerance does not mean you walk away with someone else’s views being your new truth or a completely changed mind. It only means being able to accept that which fills the universe might be slightly bigger than your own fundamentalism.
What has this got to do with Symbolism? I just read a recent article on the symbol of the skull in Freemasonry. The article, is well written and somewhat shocking to me. How could anyone who has been a Freemason for any length of time, at all, think that the skull represents something horrible and to be feared?
Then, I realize, there are literalists in Freemasonry, like there are everywhere. They might not understand the idea of teaching via symbolism or that symbols are human communication mechanisms meant to stir the deep unconscious and subconscious, ala Joseph Campbell. So, let’s take a look at the purpose of symbolism.
Books, tomes, volumes, caves, papyrus, walls, and stele have been written about symbols, their meanings, their other meanings, and still stranger meanings. You cannot spit in a metaphysical bookstore without hitting a volume about that author or society’s view of what a particular pictograph meant. A cat means the afterlife and it means cleanliness, or attentiveness, or patience.
That’s well and good, but what is symbolism? What is a symbol? Symbolism is using symbols to represent ideas or qualities. A symbol is something that simply is a picture that stands in for something else. It isn’t what it is, but what it might act like, or a quality it exudes. So a picture of a cat can be a cat. It can also stand in for the idea of patience, observance, or hospitality. What matters here, is context. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar. Sometimes, as Freud so eloquently poked at, it is not.
By their very definition, a literalist cannot understand symbolism. A literalist does not, can not, see that cat as anything but a cat. A fundamentalist takes words for their exact meaning; there is no such thing as allegory, metaphor, or symbolism. There cannot be, else it breaks the very idea of their fundamentalism. Fundamentalists must have a very difficult time at comedy clubs. The point is that many conflicts come from a literalist and non-literalist arguing over meaning. Religions splinter and fragment based on a symbolic or literal meaning of a single text. The two ways of approaching thought, mind, discovery are challenged every day to come together.
Symbols are there for the explorative mind. Symbols expand our ways of thinking about something and break us out of following a single track. It cracks fundamentalism and provides new neural pathways of consciousness. What does it take? Yes, an open mind. It takes a curious mind. It takes a mind that is us afraid of being different than it once was. It might even take a little comfort in the chaos and disharmony of discovery.
The Freemason is an adventurer, an explorer. She is looking for a world bigger than herself, bigger than her current roadmap. She’s looking to build a map of imagination and wonder. Freemasons discuss and debate symbols because to the Freemason, a symbol is only a beginning point. The symbols take on myriad meanings, all being correct at some level, right at some level. When we share our discoveries with others, we’re offering a guidepost in a new land. We’re opening portals to a wider existence, not just for one but for all. The goal is the search for Truth. Not one truth, or a person’s opinion, but Truth – the fundamental idea of why we are here.
Thus, I think it would be very difficult for someone who is a literalist or fundamentalist to be a Freemason. Even “Fundamental” Freemasons are struggling in decay. Discovery breeds creativity and creativity is growth. Can a literalist be a discoverer? My open, inquiring mind wants to know.