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Article # 287
Excellences of Character

Author: R.W.Bro.Dr.John Reginald    Posted on: Tuesday, December 23, 2014
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Excellences  of  Character

Excellences  of  Character

 

Paper presented by R.W.Bro.Dr.John Reginald  S.G.W., P.Dy.R.G.M,

in the Masonic Retreat in Mahabaleshwar in 2009.

 

A little more than 26 years ago, when I first saw the light of Freemasonry, I was told that “still there are other excellences of Character to which your attention may be peculiarly and forcibly directed”. At every stage of the progress in Freemasonry, we are taught some aspect of the excellent character.     I then realized that each and every Masonic Ritual teaches excellences of character and directs us in the path of virtue leading to that excellence. Apart from the degrees, the addresses rendered during the Installation of all the Orders teach us more and more aspects of excellent character. An ardent and devout student of Freemasonry realizes, that those addresses are not mere oratory flashes, but are intended as directions to be assimilated, followed and obeyed during our life time , so that we can become worthy to be called excellent masons. I have the least fear of being contradicted, when I assert that all those Masonic teachings are applicable to each and every Freemason, irrespective of the Office he holds or has held and that the higher we move, the greater will be our moral and Masonic responsibility to exhibit the excellences of character and be the shining examples for the junior brethren to emulate and copy.

Some years ago, R.W.Bro.G.K.Selvarajan, our beloved Immediate Past Regional Grand Master  presented a paper on Cardinal Virtues in a Masonic Seminar held in Vijaywada , which paper was subsequently published in various Masonic journals, marshalling  the various lectures of different jurisdictions and views of eminent  Masonic writers, besides guiding us  through the teachings of scriptures on those virtues. That paper had made a profound impression on numerous brethren besides me and my contemplation of the same and further study had emboldened me to venture in the preparation of this paper on the Excellences of Character.

Referring to the purpose of ideal education, Martin Luther King Jr,  proclaimed,  that the function of education, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically and that education, which stops with efficiency may prove to be the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. We must therefore remember that intelligence alone should not be the criterion. Intelligence plus character should be the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to contemplate and concentrate. Freemasonry purports to do that by its peculiar way of teaching with the ultimate object of acquiring excellences of character.

Plato believed that the soul is divided into three parts of Desire, Rational, Appetitive, or Spirited. In order to have moral character, we must understand what contributes to our overall good and to have our spirited and appetitive desires educated properly, so that they can merge and synchronize with the guidance provided by the rational part of the soul.

Aristotle tells us that there are two different kinds of human excellences, excellences of thought  and excellences of character. His phrase for excellences of character  ęthikai aretai , is translated usually  as moral virtue or moral excellence. When we speak of a moral virtue or an excellence of character, the emphasis is on the combination of qualities, that make an individual the sort of ethically admirable person, that he is. Aristotle defines virtuous character at the beginning of Book II in Nicomachean Ethics as, “Excellence of character, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect”. In Aristotle's opinion, good character is based on two naturally occurring psychological responses, which most people experience without difficulty, our tendency to take pleasure from self-realizing activity and our tendency to form friendly feelings toward others under specific circumstances. Based on his view, virtually everyone is capable of becoming better and they are the ones responsible for actions, that express (or could express) their character, of course under some guidance and motivation. Freemasonry attempts to accomplish the same.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it, the tree is the real thing."

Etymologically, the term "character" is derived from the ancient Greek term charaktęr, which initially referred to the mark impressed upon a coin. The term charaktęr later came to refer to more generally any distinctive feature by which one thing is distinguished from others. Along this general line, in contemporary usage character often refers to a set of qualities or characteristics that can be used to differentiate between persons. It is used this way, for example, commonly in literature. In philosophy, however, the term character is typically used to refer to the particularly moral dimension of a person. For example, Aristotle most often used the term ēthē for character, which is etymologically linked to "ethics" and "morality", the  equivalent  of Latin mores.

Aristotle's discussion of moral character, and virtue in particular, is the most notable treatment of such issues. Hence, his views have to be taken as the basis. The Greek word used by Aristotle and most commonly translated as virtue is aretē, which is perhaps better translated as "goodness" or "excellence." In general, an excellence is a quality that makes an individual, a good member of its kind”. An excellence, therefore, is a quality whereby its possessor operates well or fulfills its function. Along these same lines, it is helpful to think of excellences as defining features of one's character. Aristotle sometimes speaks of a good moral character as "human excellence" or an "excellence of soul" (Nicomachean Ethics I.13).The postulate is having a good moral character, helps its possessor act and behave well and live up to his potential.

In order for a moral character trait to be a virtue, it must not only be in accord with the relevant moral norms, but with the full knowledge about the matter at hand. This is so because the virtues are excellences of character insofar as they are the best exercise of reason. All the excellences of character must be guided by practical wisdom, which by itself is able to make morally discerning choices in practical matters. This suggests a link between intellectual virtues and virtues of character.

The morality which Freemasonry inculcates from the mists of time, makes its demand for liberty of conscience, for the freedom of the intellect, and for the right of all men to be equal before God and the Law, each respecting the rights of his fellows and in fact all being on the Level. It has to be understood, that it is not the quantity of life, but its quality, its depth, its purity, its fortitude, and its spiritual refinement, that is relevant and important. Masonry insists upon the building of character and the practice of righteousness, upon moral culture and spiritual vision. He who achieves the highest degree of moral conduct, towards himself and towards others, in accordance with the philosophical and ethical ideas gains the respect and love of his fellow men and contributes to the formation of a society worth living in, becomes worthy to be called an excellent Mason. 

Within our Masonic teachings, we are exposed to issues related to fraternity and equality. The basic concept being that no man should consider himself better than another, that he should always be willing to contribute his time, talent, and resources to the betterment of Masonry and mankind in general, and to teach the principles of Masonry to our fellow Mason. However, before we can teach others Masonic principles, we must ourselves understand and act and live according to those principles.

We are aware that the principles of moral truth are taught to us in the I degree, after we were admitted in a state of helpless indigence, inculcating lessons of natural equality and mutual dependence and we were instructed in the active principles of universal beneficence and charity. We were further taught to bend with humility and resignation to the will of the G.A.O.T.U and to dedicate our hearts to His Glory and the welfare of our fellow men. We were then led in the II degree to contemplate the Intellectual faculty. Our minds were then modeled by Virtue and Science and after we were conducted through the intricate windings of this mortal life, we were finally instructed how to die. Various other virtues were also taught to improve our character.

The lessons taught revolve around characteristics of moral excellence and responsibility, that we should strive to emulate in our daily lives, within our families, as citizens in society, and in our Lodges. What are these virtues? They are many and more are added as we progress. In retrospect we can recapitulate that as an E.A, we were taught at first that we should have a belief in God and the distinguishing characteristic of a Freemasons Heart namely Charity was explained to us. We were assured, that if we do not disgrace the badge, it will never disgrace us. Later in the charge after Initiation, our duties to God, our neighbours and  to ourselves and our Civil duties, allegiance to our native land and the need to obey the laws of the country were explained. Still later, the imperative duty to practice the domestic and public virtues particularly Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice were stressed. The other excellences of character namely Secrecy, Obedience and Fidelity were explained in detail. The Four Cardinal Virtues, which were constantly practiced by a great majority of our Ancient Brethren, were explained to us. In the end, the distinguishing characteristics of good freemason were unfolded as Virtue, Honour and Mercy, with an instruction that those should ever be found in a Freemason’s breast.

As a Mason, one must strive to develop a character of moral uprightness. He must be true to his convictions, always follow the Masonic virtues, and resist the pressures of the world to lower one’s own standards. As Masons, we should be pillars of society and try to lift others up to a higher standard of moral and righteous living. As men and Masons our lives must be founded upon the highest principals of morality, integrity, and honesty. Time does not permit an elaborate discussion of the virtues taught to us. I request the brethren to refer to the paper of R.W.Bro.G.K.Selvarajan on the Cardinal Virtues in which he has elaborately considered most of the virtues. The article has been posted in the website www.masonicpaedia.org

I would however like to take a few minutes of your precious time to elaborate upon a few virtues, which of late had become necessary to be reiterated due to their frequent violations. Installation after Installation, we are being old that “Humility in each is an essential qualification”. Some of us seem to forget that advice, the moment we leave the Temple after the meeting even though Humility can be characterized as the crown of Masonic virtues, along with Toleration, Justice and Truth.

 

The term "humility" is derived from the Latin word "humilis", which is translated not only as humble, but also alternatively as "low", or "from the earth".(Meriam Webstar Dictionary) Because the concept of humility addresses intrinsic self worth, it is emphasized in the realm of religious practice and ethics where the notion is often made more precise and extensive.

 

In Buddhism, humility is equivalent to concern of how to be liberated from the sufferings of life and the vexations of the human mind. Zen Master Li Yuansong states that enlightenment can come only after humility, the wisdom of realizing one's own ignorance, insignificance and lowliness, without which one cannot see the truth.

 

In Hinduism, to get in touch with your true self, whether you call that God, Brahman, etc., one has to kill the ego. The Sanskrit word AHAMKARA literally translates into quite simply the sense of the self or ego. When this sound is stilled, by humility, we will be in touch with our true being.

Catholic texts view humility as annexed to the cardinal virtue of temperance.  It is viewed as a potential part of temperance because temperance includes all those virtues, that refrain or express the inordinate movements of our desires or appetites. Humility is defined as, "A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a humble opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God's sake." St. Bernard defines it as, "A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is abases himself." St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century philosopher and theologian in the Scholastic tradition, defines humility similarly as "the virtue of humility" that "consists in keeping oneself within one's own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one's superior" (Summa Contra Gent., bk. IV, ch. lv, tr. Joseph Rickaby.)

Humility is said to be the foundation of the spiritual edifice and inferior only to faith. However, humility is considered the first virtue inasmuch as it removes the obstacles to faith. It removes pride and makes a man subject to and a fit recipient of grace; according to the words of St. James, "God resisteth the proud, and giveth his grace to the humble" (James 4:6).

"True humility" is distinctly different from "false humility" " which consists of deprecating one's own sanctity, gifts, talents, and accomplishments for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from other, as personified by Uriah Heep. In this context legitimate humility comprises the following behaviors and attitudes

  1. submission to God and legitimate authority;
  2. recognition of the virtues and talents that others possess, particularly those which surpass one's own, and giving due honor and, when required, obeisance;
  3. recognition of the limits of one's talents, ability, or authority; and, not reaching for that which is beyond one's grasp.

As illustrated in the person of  Moses, who lead the nation of Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and to the “Promised Land”, humility is a sign of Godly strength and purpose, not weakness. Of this great leader, the Bible states, “For Moses was a man exceedingly meek above all men that dwelt upon earth" (Numbers 12:3, Douay-Rheims Bible.

Amongst the benefits of humility described in the Bible are honor, wisdom, eternal life, unity, rewards in heaven. In the Bible, an exhortation to humility is found in Philippians 2:1-17:

"If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of charity, if any society of the spirit, if any bowels of commiseration: Fulfill ye my joy, that you may be of one mind, having the same charity, being of one accord, agreeing in sentiment. Let nothing be done through contention, neither by vain glory: but in humility, let each esteem others better than themselves: Each one not considering the things that are his own, but those that are other men's. For let this mind  be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names: That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth: And that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the  Father” Philippians 2:1-17 Douay-Rheims Bible.

Also in 1 Peter 2:23, concerning Jesus Christ's behavior in general and submission to unjust torture and execution in particular: "Who, when he was reviled, did not revile: when he suffered, he threatened not: but delivered himself to him, that judged him unjustly."

Let us now consider the teachings of Islam on Humility, in which humility is advocated to realize God.  In the Qur'an, Arabic words conveying the meaning of "humility" are used. Among these are "tawadu' " and "khoshou ".The Holy Book teaches us that, "Successful indeed are the believers, those who humble themselves in their prayers." (Al-Muminoon 23:1-2). "Has not the time arrived for the believers that their hearts in all humility should engage in the remembrance of Allah and of the Truth which has been revealed to them."(Al-Hadid 57:16)

Humility has been laid down as a virtue in Sikhism. Humility is a deep aspect of Sikhism preached as Nimrata.  Sikhism teaches all have to bow in humility before God. The fruit of humility is intuitive peace and pleasure. With Humility they continue to meditate on the Lord, the Treasure of excellence. The God conscious being is steeped in humility. One whose heart is mercifully blessed with abiding humility. Sikhism deals Humility as begging bowl before the god. Guru Nanak first Guru Of Sikhism said, “ Make contentment your ear-rings, humility your begging bowl, and meditation the ashes you apply to your body.(Page 4,Guru Granth Sahib)

Kant is among the philosophers to extol the virtue of humility. Kant's notion of humility is that humility is a virtue, and indeed a central virtue. Humility is considered an important virtue in Taoism as well.

Humility has been extolled in the following words in Matthew (5: 5-9)

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers- for they shall be called the children of God.” (KJV, Matthew 5:5-9)    It has also been pointed out that, “Whoever humbles himself as a child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (NAS, Matthew 18:2-4)

Humility or humbleness is a quality of being courteously respectful of others. It is the opposite of aggressiveness, arrogance, boastfulness, and vanity. Rather than, "Me first," humility allows us to say, "No, you first, my brother." Humility is thus a highly valued religious virtue and is one of the foremost of the Masonic virtues, the practice of which is a must for the continuation and the flourishing of Freemasonry, in which the brethren meet on the Level and none is a subordinate to another. The quintessence of all the religious teachings referred to above is contained in the expression that Humility in each is an essential qualification and that even the Ruler in the Craft has to be courteous in manners. I have taken some pains to impress on all that it is imperative that we all practice humility so that the bonds of Brotherly Love could be further strengthened and not weakened by unmasonic expressions and  behaviour and due to lack of humility.

The next virtue is Tolerance. Tolerance is the ability to respect the nature, beliefs, or behavior of others. Masonry teaches that every man has the right to his opinions and beliefs. No man has the right to dictate to another particularly, when we all meet on the Level. We should be tolerant of views that are contrary to our own. Masons must practice tolerance in our dealings with the other brethren, remembering that we have to drop a tear of sympathy over the failings of a brother.

Justice is equity, honor, and fairness in one’s dealings with others. It is moral righteousness. Masons should judge others as we judge ourselves. We should always look for the good in others and their actions. We should believe everyone is honest and sincere in his beliefs and actions. Justice gives everyone his due. As Masons we are encouraged to stand upright in our beliefs and deal justly with our fellowman.

Truth is the crowning virtue of Masonry. Truth can symbolize divinity and is the foundation of every virtue. The dictionary defines truth as fidelity to a standard and conformity to fact or actuality. Truth is most often used to mean correspondence to fact or with what actually occurred. As Masons, we should be sincere in all our dealings with others. Society today has a twisted perception of truth. People look for ways to pervert what actually occurred or was said to fulfill their own selfish goals. As Masons, we should stand for truthfulness and abhor the perversion of truth.

A great majority of our Ancient Brethren are credited to have constantly practiced the Four Cardinal Virtues and we have been exhorted to practice them, which form the foundation of all excellences of character. Let me quote the passage from  Bro.Arthur Ward in “Masonic Symbolism and the Mystic Way” which  highlights the importance and necessity of the practice of  these virtues.

 “ The four tassels symbolize the cardinal virtues which  when rightly exercised, help the spiritual powers to energise in their  several bodies or vehicles and finally to radiate from their corresponding physical centers, just as the threads of a tassel radiate from the base, through Temperance vitality floods the body, through Fortitude energy  strengthens the soul, through Prudence wisdom enlightens the mind  and through Justice love suffuses the spirit ; for to love all perfectly  is to be unjust to none”.

Let me conclude by drawing your attention to the final charge, wherein we were exhorted to be the best example for the conduct of others by the regularity of our own behaviour. A sacred duty has been cast on us to enforce by precept and example the tenets of our system, which includes among others excellences of character, humility as well. Let us by imbibing all the excellences of character prove to the world, the happy and beneficial effects of Freemasonry and may the G.A.O.T.U bless every Freemason to be the repository of all the excellences of character.

 

 

 

 

R.W.Bro.Dr.John Reginald S.G.W is one of the senior Freemasons held in high esteem. He is a Consultant Neuro Surgeon in Appollo Group of Hospitals. He was initiated in Lodge Ramaprasad (No.238) in 1983 and became its Master in 1989. He has joined Lodges Chennai, Millenium and Madras Masters Lodge. Besides Craft, he has been installed in Royal Arch, Mark and R.A.M Masonry and an active member in A.M.D. Besides being a good ritualist, he is a great Masonic Scholar and has delivered numerous lectures in Masonic Seminars. On every occasion like Masonic Seminars, Masonic Retreats etc, he composes special prayers to suit the occasion. He mixes with all the brethren freely with a jovial behaviour. He is a good singer.


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