By: Lance Card, Senior Deacon
Do Freemasons practice Stoicism? Is the ancient Greek philosophy a cemented foundation of the teachings of our ancient and honorable society? Or, is it the other way around? Did the Stoics adopt principles of Freemasonry? Can these two philosophies work in concert or are they different enough that they are ultimately incompatible?
“Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.” – Epictetus, Discourses 1.15.2, Robin Hard revised translation
Stoicism was introduced by Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. as a more acceptable doctrine than Cynicism which was founded by Antisthenes, a student of Socrates. If we are to assume that Freemasonry was operating at the time of Solomon (circa 953 B.C.) then we can also assume that the wisdom and knowledge inculcated within Masonry were taught amongst the educated craftsmen of that period across the known world. Could this education have made its way to Greece? Perhaps even influencing the philosopher, Zeno of Citium?
If we are to boil down the tenets of this philosophy, we can say with confidence that they are to develop self-control and endurance to conquer destructive emotions. Destructive being the keyword in that simplified explanation. Stoicism doesn’t strive to eliminate all emotion but promotes the voluntary avoidance of worldly influence enabling the use of reason. Stoicism promotes the unemotional approach and deductive reasoning, an escape from passion (or anguish, anxiety, fear, and other negative emotions).
Keep in mind that the use of familiar words often found in the writings of Stoicism doesn’t necessarily mean what they do today. So, in the works of the philosophers, you might see the word, apatheia, and rather than being associated with the negative definition of modern-day apathy, it more correctly means to be objective and clear-minded. In being objective and emotionally unburdened, a stoic individual may better be able to decipher the natural universe, and in understanding the natural universe, be more capable of correcting the flaws within themself.
Stoics seek to improve their inner being, to become more ethical and establish greater moral well-being in accordance with Nature. Within Stoicism, all things are equal and the decision of an individual—driven by the detached nature of apatheia—still effects the world around them. In essence, the Butterfly Effect. The Stoic is unemotional, accepting of Nature, and uses the Natural Universe as a guide for morality focusing particularly on two traits of the Universe: Active and Passive. It is also important to note that the Universe is a blanket statement used to loosely define God or Nature.
Active Substance: Fate or Logos, the aether or primordial fire from which everything is created including Man. All men are subject to Fate.
Passive Substance: Matter, the inactive substance which is waiting to be used.
Additionally, Stoics propound the cardinal virtues espoused by Plato of Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance in their ethics. Along with these ethics, Stoics view God or Nature as imminent and un-personalized, and there is neither a start nor an end, to time or the Universe. Within this logic, evil is a circumstance of ignorance. An individual who does not understand their universal reason is more likely to commit acts of evil and unhappiness but there is no such thing as inherent good or evil.
The philosophy of Freemasonry is that morality and virtue are achieved through knowledge and putting into practice charity. Of course, I’m attempting to summarize the deep mysteries and lifelong education of the oldest philosophy in the world. Freemasonry is about self-improvement, using logic and reason to study the works of the Celestial Grand Master, merging science, philosophy, and theology to seek Truth. The pathways to knowledge aren’t nearly as straightforward as a simple sentence—a Blue Lodge holds a lifetime of education without ever stepping foot into any of the appendant organizations.
To truly understand the world around him, a Mason must experience it using a balance of reason derived through critical thinking and emotional discernment. Freemasonry is about balance in all aspects—subduing our passions does not mean eliminating them.
Charity requires an understanding of self, a deep dive of your personal inventory. You cannot give something that does not exist within you. As well, Freemasonry arguably has always had a basis in God, most prominently the Abrahamic God, though we are non-denominational as a practice and not a religion by any means. While Charity is the greatest of the virtues we as Masons practice, we are purveyors of rational thought.
Openmindedness and a willingness to apply the principles of critical thinking to our studies provide Freemasons with a lens through which to view the Universe. We seek to understand the whole of existence by investigating the outside world, or extra se, while at the same time working to evolve and improve our interior self. Without internal improvement, we cannot begin to understand the external.
Stoicism was overrun by Christianity, which contained within it a more humane philosophy. Though modern Stoicism is still practiced it isn’t likely that this philosophy will make the same impact it once did. On its own, Stoicism is faulty and narrowing, even leading to selfishness and unhealthy individualism. I am convinced that Zeno, Diogenes, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius borrowed from the more whole philosophy of Freemasonry whether knowingly or unknowingly to create and elaborate upon the school of Stoicism.
This is bound to be an unpopular opinion amongst the supporters of Stoicism. An educated Mason will, however, see that the tenets of Freemasonry contain within them the best, most beneficent, virtues of Stoicism while also delivering a more complete view of the Universe and our existence.