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