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Book Review 258: The Freemasons

December 14, 2012 - Harry Eagar
THE FREEMASONS: A History of the World's Most Secret Society, by Jasper Ridley. 357 pages. Arcade

Whether the Freemasons are really powerful or not -- author Jasper Ridley does not really demonstrate much power -- they can glory in the finest lineup of foes of any society, secret or free, anywhere.

All the most evil men of the past 300 years have condemned the Masons -- the popes, the Nazis, the Communists, the Facists, the Phalangists, assorted emperors and tyrants.

Not bad for a social group devoted merely to tolerance, conviviality, a vague deism, social equality (more or less) and friendship.

But if ideas have power, Jasper Ridley shows -- with a wicked tongue -- just how frightened the bad guys have been by the idea that men, some of them prominent, were gathering together privately to praise liberty, equality and fraternity, even if wrapped up in childish mumbojumbo.

Ridley, a graceful writer, goes back to the origins in a labor union of carvers of stone who went to work on medieval cathedrals and bridges after the rough masons had put up the structure. For obscure reasons -- perhaps because the freemasons had to travel around to their work -- this union was susceptible to ideas of tolerance and leveling once these got a certain traction in reaction to the murderous intolerance of the 17th century religious fights. He describes the early Freemasons as "intellecutal gentlemen who favored religious toleration and friendship between men of different religions and thought that a simple belief in God should replace controversial theological doctrines."

Most lodges banned discussion of religion or politics. They went so far as to admit women, colored people and Jews, at times reluctantly.

That the Freemasons were, and are, regarded as subversive of oppressive regimes will seem odd to Americans, who know them mostly as Shriners, an excuse for grown men to fool around like 9-year-olds under the coloration of raising money for sick children. It's a measure of their diabolical cleverness that they go to such lengths and effort just to mess around.

Ridley, an Englishman, pays little attention to the Americans, though they make up about half the world's Freemasons. He is more concerned to debunk the notion that Masons were a self-serving circle out to subvert government.

At length, he shows that in ordinary political wars and disputes, Masons were on both sides; the stories about Masons letting captives free on seeing a secret sign are fantasies.

There have never been any Masonic armies, Masonic manifestoes or Masonic political parties (though there was an Anti-Masonic Party in the United States, where most of the men who led the nascent Republican Party cut their political teeth).

So it is hard to imagine what power Ridley imagines Masons wield. It seems that their influence was indirect, a place for men of like thoughts to learn of each other's existence and network. In Latin countries, the Lautaro Lodge did spawn revolutionaries, but more as a midwife than as a revolutionary movement itself. There have never been any Masonic Black Shirts.

In the 20th century, Ridley writes, antimasonic writings reached new levels of insanity. All -- or at least very many -- of the forces of antimodernity recognized Freemasonry for what it is: a stalking horse for modernism.

Tomas Masaryk, the father of Czech modernism and independence, put it in a nutshell: "Freemasonry is the guilty conscience of the Catholic Church." And not only of that body; all rightwingers have hated masonry, though antimasonic feeling has never figured too prominently among Muslims. (There are Muslim Masons; they hold a Koran during their ceremonies, while Jewish Masons use the Talmud.)

After all this sturm and drang, "The Freemasons" ends almost on a note of comedy, where Ridley lists some of the accomplishments of men who were Freemasons. (Though Ridley is sophisicated about European and Latin American history, he is pretty shaky about American popular culture, labeling Lowell Thomas as Thomas Lowell among several other flubs).

Did you know, for example, the Hubert Eaton, the man who introduced flat grave markers so lawnmowers could roll unimpeded over the corpses, was a Mason?


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