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Article # 44
Duty in the degree of Secret Master

Author: Bro. Larry W. Chavis    Posted on: Tuesday, September 17, 2002
General Article | 1 comments  | Post your comment

            “Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language.  Do your duty in all things, like the old Puritan.  You cannot do more – you should never wish to do less.”  So wrote General Robert E. Lee in a letter to his eldest son, G. W. Custis Lee.[i]  Though the general was not a Mason, so far as is known, the sentiment expressed in this statement, and the way Lee lived his life, was very Masonic, indeed, for Masonry teaches a great deal about duty.  In fact, the candidate is told plainly in the ritual of the Degree of Secret Master, “Masonry is duty.”[ii]

            In a sense this is not a ‘new’ lesson to the candidate, for the Three Degrees of Craft Masonry each have something to say to the candidate about duty.  He is repeatedly told, for instance, that nothing in his Masonic obligations will conflict with or supersede duties that have priority – those to God, country, family, neighbor.  By impressing one with these duties as fundamental, and only then delineating the duties one takes upon himself in the obligations, Masonry begins to teach her initiates one of the most profound and useful lessons of a man’s life … that of ordering his life and assigning proper value to its various parts. In a society that seems more and more to be turning from that which has real value to insubstantial pleasures, such a lesson is sorely needed. 

            As Pike implies in the lecture to the Fourth Degree, however, the lessons of the Craft Degrees, while laying the foundation for growth, and, in fact, containing in seminal form all the truths of Freemasonry, are less and less understood as distance [in time] from their creation increases.  In a way, one might say that a form of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that that entropy increases in any closed system, is at work in Freemasonry, along with other human institutions as well, no less than in the physical systems to which the law actually applies.   For some Masons, the essence of Masonry has become no more than perfection in ritual, for others, keeping a full schedule of social functions, and, apparently for many, the mere paying of dues and carrying a dues card.  None of these things can necessarily be faulted in itself: poorly-done ritual leaves little impression on a candidate, and may even obscure some of that which he should take away from his degree experience; Freemasonry is a brotherhood, and brothers ought to enjoy each others company; perhaps the Mason whose only interaction with his Lodge is the paying of his annual dues is living a life of Masonic principle under circumstances that prevent his attendance at Lodge functions.  In such a case, he may be fulfilling his Masonic duties more fully than others who attend every meeting.

            Still, that being said, the thoughtful Mason, as he ponders the lessons of the Craft, begins to see that there is more to Freemasonry than word-perfect ritual, more than chili suppers, and even more than charity fund-raisers.  For this one, Pike says, the way lies open to further light, and the Degree of Secret Master is a step across the threshold.[iii]  And the step, he says, is duty.

            Duty is one of those words whose meaning everyone knows, yet many fail to understand.  Dictionaries can give the cold denotation – something along the lines of   moral obligations, or acts required by one’s position, or faith, or government.  Teachers are required to be “on duty” at times when students are in motion across a schoolyard.  Parents recognize, or should, a duty to provide for their children.  These are things that all people know about duty, yet they may or may not understand the essence of duty.  Duty, seen only as an obligation imposed from without, may, especially in this self-centered age, seem irksome, troublesome, something to be dealt with as quickly and with as little fuss as possible.  Then one can return to what has become the primary duty of our time, pleasing oneself and seeking one’s own comfort.  Duty becomes a distraction from the important business of life; it may be important in one way or another, but it is unpleasant, onerous, and to be dispensed with as expeditiously as possible.

            It isn’t so for the Mason; that is, it ought not to be so for the Mason, and this is a lesson of the Fourth Degree.  Duty is not an oppressive force imposed on the Mason from without, but a bond he freely, and willingly, takes upon himself, in order that he might become more serviceable to humankind. Nor is this all – while the candidate is informed that Masonry is duty, he is further warned that duty fulfilled may never find recognition among one’s fellows, so that the Mason must be prepared to find satisfaction in the knowledge that he has discharged his duty, even though that fact remains known but to himself and the Creator.  Duty fulfilled is its own reward.  That this idea flies in the face of cultural and societal forces bent on making pleasure and comfort the essence of fulfillment makes it a valuable lesson for the Mason embarking on his search for a deeper appreciation of the light Freemasonry has to offer.  Accepting the demands of duty becomes the key that unlocks the door to further light.

            An ivory key emblazoned with a Z is the jewel of this Degree, and one of its chief symbols.[iv]  A key quite naturally implies a lock, and provides the means for opening and closing its lock.  One meaning of this symbol of key, of course, is bound up in the first of the three virtues (which are also duties) inculcated in this Degree, that of secrecy, or silence. 

As in all Masonic degrees, the candidate undertakes a solemn obligation to refrain from divulging the secrets of the degree to any person not lawfully entitled to receive them. Later in the obligation the candidate swears to maintain secrecy if required by the interests of a brother, or the various Masonic bodies to which he holds allegiance.  It is important to note that such secrecy is enjoined with the provision that it be maintained only in such fashion as permits the Mason to remain a lawful, faithful citizen of his country, and not otherwise.  This should (but won’t) lay to rest the claims by some that Freemasonry’s secrecy is somehow insidious, evil, or unlawful.  To the contrary, his obligation of obedience to the rightful laws of his land precludes such illicit secrecy.

The obligation of secrecy and silence sometimes comes into question in two respects: 1) if there is nothing evil to hide why be secret, and, 2) if the “secrets” are freely available in books and Internet websites, why bother?  The first objection, held generally by those who are pre-disposed against Masonry, can, perhaps, best be answered by the fact that the Mason is required to place duty to God and country ahead of any Masonic duty, and therefore the secrecy required cannot be in opposition to either.  This likely will prove unsatisfactory to many who advance this objection, but it is equally likely that nothing that could be offered would satisfy those who are determined to find fault.

The second question, that “if the secrets of the ritual, words, grips, and so forth, are freely available to one who expends of modicum of effort searching, then why bother with secrecy?” goes to the nature of Freemasonry as a fraternity: we call each other “brother,” and implicit in that is the idea that we can trust our brothers with that which is important to us. We obligate ourselves, as the ritual points out, to every lawfully-made Mason in the world, and we need assurance that the obligation is mutual.  Hence, maintaining secrecy of the ritual, and those things improper to be revealed, in spite of their availability elsewhere, is one way of saying to our brethren, “I am a brother; you can trust me.” To be faithful in little things gives assurance that one will be faithful in larger things. 

Secrecy and silence, too, give evidence of one’s discernment and wisdom: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: ... a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;”[v] To speak when appropriate and remain silent when passion might lead one to unwise speech demonstrates that one has made progress toward his E.: A.: goal of subduing his passion, and is maturing as a trustworthy master and brother.

Hence, the key quite rightly symbolizes the locking away of a brother’s secrets in the Mason’s faithful breast; but keys not only lock away, or close, they also open closed doors. So, also, does the Key of the Secret Master.  In making “Duty … hereafter … the rule and guide of my conduct, inflexible as fate, exacting as necessity, and imperative as destiny,”[vi] the way is opened for further growth and light.  The three virtuous duties, already alluded to, when diligently pursued and practiced in the Mason’s life, will open up the way to real fulfillment of his calling to be useful, serviceable, just, and compassionate, leaving a worthwhile legacy behind when he passes into the next life.

It is important to note that the duties of which the Degree speaks are not to be confined, indeed they cannot be confined, merely to one’s Masonic activities.  Duty is found in every aspect of life, and the obligation of Secret Master to make Duty the rule and guide means to do so wherever duty is found: as a created being, one has a duty first and foremost to his Creator, as a citizen, to his country.  There is a duty of family, a duty of a friend, as well as our duties as brother Masons to each other.  Any or all of these duties may require a measure of sacrifice from time to time.  As Pike points out, the siren calls of pleasure and comfort often seek to detour one from duty.  It is in this contest between selfishness and duty, though, that one’s character is forged and purified, becoming the strength and support of a life worth living.  The dross is purged, the gold refined.

In this most materialistic and self-centered world in which we live, the highest recognized duty seems to be the increase of pleasure and comfort for oneself.  Nothing transcends the self, and no higher duty exists than to please the self.  Freemasonry generally, and the Scottish Rite in particular, contends that true fulfillment is found in service, that the highest pleasure is that of duty faithfully discharged.  This lesson of the Degree of Secret Master is urgently needed in this age.


[i] Robert E. Lee, letter to George Washington Custis Lee, quoted in Memoirs of Robert E. Lee, His Military and Personal History, Embracing a Large Amount of Information Hitherto Unpublished, by A. L. Long; reprinted and copyrighted by Blue and Grey Press, Secaucus, N.J., 1983; p. 465

[ii] Pike, Albert, “Fourth Degree: Secret Master,”  The Magnum Opus, Kessinger edition; p.4.

[iii] Pike, Albert, “IV. Secret Master,” Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, The Supreme Council of the Thirty-third Degree (Mother Council of the World) For the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States; p.106.

[iv] Hutchens, Rex R., “Secret Master: FOURTH DEGREE,” A Bridge to Light, The Supreme Council, 33°, Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction, 1995; pp. 15,16.

[v] Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7; King James Version

[vi] Pike, Albert, “Fourth Degree: Secret Master,” The Magnum Opus, p. 5.

[The Author is Bro. Larry W. Chavis, the J.W. of Lodge New Hebron #508 G.L. of Mississippi, F. & A.M. He has also advanced to 32° in the Scottish Rite and he is a member of the Jackson Scottish Rite Bodies of Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite in the Southern jurisdiction. This article relating to the 4 th degree in Scottish rite was submitted by him as the initial assignment to the College of Consistory. That was his first attempt in writing on a Masonic Subject. He has brought out in the article the important aspects of duties, the freemasons have to bear in mind and discharge. At the time of Initiation, we are all taught about the duties we owe to God, our neighbour and to ourselves, besides our duty to our country. The author has stressed the importance of duty by declaring in the words of Bro. A. Pike that “Masonry is duty”. We thank the author for this good contribution. Web Master]

Click Here To Post Your Comment

Didymous wrote on Monday, September 20, 2004:

Subject: Duty

I find Bro. Chavis's article to be squarely on the point when I consider the new Masonic fashion of one day classes that are becoming so popular in the USA. Duty is being relegated to the "good old Masonry" of Grandad's day and we are rushing headlong into an Order of "members" not Masons. Revenue and membership seems to be the principal matter of concern when in truth our duty is to impart enlightenment upon the candidate that he may come to realize his purpose. Thanks Bro. Chavis. Please continue to write for Masonicpaedia. We need these reminders so desperately.

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