In praise of introductions

©The Two Crafts

The other day I posted on my Instagram account a picture of a book of mine soaked by a typical English heavy rain. So far, so good. However, some friends came to me to make an interesting observation: Why was I reading “an introductory” book on History? I mean, next to the completion of a Ph.D., why should one bother on reading introductions?

I couldn’t recommend the introductions more. If you don’t know anything on the topic, they are a nice and soft path to bolder readings. If you know a fair amount about the topic, they operate as a quick and enjoyable recapitulation of the main points and themes.

Students of all sorts use to dislike the introductions since they give away their supposed beginner status on some topic or skill. Nonetheless, the introductory books were also reinvented in the form of “1.000 [insert substantive] you need to [insert adjective] before you [insert here a catastrophic event]”.

The introductory books may also be historicised, which means to be transformed in the centre of a historical narrative. From the 19th century onwards, with the expansion of press, there was, consequently, the expansion of things to be learned. The manuals were a sensation in every branch of knowledge, trade, and even life. The marriage manuals, for husbands, wives, brides, mothers-in-law, are just an example of that; and to not leave Freemasonry aside, let’s not forget Carlile’s Manual of Freemasonry.

IMG_20190924_085837_886
My book, wet by an English rain, was this post starter.

Another part of this history is the series “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?) published since 1941 by the PUF (Prèsses Universitaires de France), which inaugurated sundry series of the same kind, and similar name, worldwide. Fast-forwarding to the nineties, more precisely 1991, comes the series “For Dummies”, also translated in several languages. Among my favourites are the series “For Beginners” and “A graphic guide”, since they mix cartoon (in an Al Jaffee meets Robert Crumb style) with snippets of condensed information. To introduce, accessibly, Sartre, Foucault, Logic, or Chaos Theory, is pure art and mastery of didactics.

The question that every introductory book sparkle is “where do I begin?”. The mandatory savvy quote from Alice in Wonderland “Begin at the beginning…”, make us chuckle, but brings more confusion for someone trying to find something, as Alice. To write an introduction is an effort of concision, it is to make hard choices, to create a common ground for newcomers Also, is to promote a safe harbour for the ones already familiar with the topic but wishing to revise, reinforce or remember the basics. Yes, because to forget what is fundamental in a topic is almost inescapable after you are in it for a long time.

Regarding the two topics of this blog, History and Freemasonry, I recommend two introductions that are from the same collection: the “Very Short Introduction” series from the Oxford University Press. No, this is not a paid post. The History one, is written by Professor John H. Arnold (Cambridge), it brings a well-flown discussion on the topic and addresses the questions that every historian must answer from the rest of his life, inside the classroom and elsewhere, like family dinners: Is history an opinion matter? History is the past, right? Are the historians judges of the truth? And so on, and so forth.

The one about Freemasonry (and I would stress, mainly History of Freemasonry) is in the capable hands of Professor Andreas Önnerfors (Gothenburg), a well-known name for the regulars of this blog. I strongly advise this book to researchers (professionals and amateurs) thirstily going through documents from the 18th, 17th, and even 15th century (!), to find “hardcore” evidence on some “mind-blowing” fact that will produce a “ground-breaking” article on Freemasonry. And why? Because of one thing that my Ph.D. made me realise is that research on Freemasonry needs common ground.

Introductory books have the power to put together such grounds, or the discussion about what is fundamental. The manuals end up giving an accessible starting point, preventing a random out-of-ones’-depth book followed by a dilettante understanding of what was read. The latter is probably one of the ingredients for conspiracy theories.

Poking the Beehive: Is there an “English Rite”? (Part V – final)

©The Two Crafts

Before reading this one, I suggest reading part I, part IIpart III, and part IV

Why all this fuzz about the existence or not of an “English Rite”? We are losing ourselves in semantics, some would say. Well, I can even agree if we are talking about Freemasonry for the practitioner – in this case, a Freemason. For a member of a lodge in Bristol or in Kent, the name by which his rituals are called may be of less or no importance since they are performing it regardless. But before I make a case for the importance of definitions for any academic (or just committed) study, let me address the significance it has for Freemasons.

Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist, published in 1973 a book called “The interpretation of cultures”. This work was a game changer not just for the Anthropological Studies but its effects were felt in the field of Historical Studies as well. From all the important ideas that he put forward in this book we can pick some to explain why the concept of “masonic rite” is important, also why it is also crucial to know if this concept may be applied to the English system of Freemasonry, and last but not least, if English Freemasons recognise themselves in this concept that is a Masonic rite.

In the aforementioned book, to oppose the Structural Anthropology of Claude-Levi Strauss, Geertz proposed an Interpretative Anthropology, and what that means? Among other things, Geertz states that an interpretation should not distance from what is happening, that is to say, from the object of study. He also alerts that to understand a culture it is not necessary to become a “native”, but that it is indeed necessary to talk to them, to understand, to get a grip of their concepts. That’s why the conceptual precision is so important and rigorous in the interpretative anthropology, and by extension, in History nowadays.

That being said, I will bring my own experience that was not ethnographical in its nature, but that has an ethnographical value, especially for this topic. I am from Brazil, so, on a regular basis, some Freemason asks me how’s Freemasonry in Brazil. And guess what part is the hardest, almost impossible, one to explain? Yes, the notion of “Rite”. Because for the so-called “Continental Freemasonry” the concept of rite is crucial since the Craft degrees are worked into a rite tradition, there is to say, the Craft degrees are basic degrees of a bigger system which works vertically. For English Freemasonry, rite is an alien concept, overall when referring to the Craft degrees. Does that mean that there are no rites in England? No, they exist, but a rite is one path out of many possibilities allowed by the English system.

The notion of Rite is laudable in its ecumenicity, however, I understand to be inaccurate when it comes to the structure of English Freemasonry. There are rites – i.e. a group of degrees conferred inside a particular order in an established sequence – inside the English system. An English Freemason may join the A&AR (Ancient and Accepted Rite)[1], for instance. Nonetheless, after the Craft degrees, the Freemason is not obliged to progress in a particular path. Some will say that the English Master Mason is strongly encouraged to join the Holy Royal Arch and etc. Notwithstanding this fact, a Master Mason can join, after one year, the A&AR, or the Order of Mark Master Masons, or the SRIA, or the Royal Order of Scotland… The point is: there is not a vertical, necessary, mandatory sequence.

The other point is that the “higher degrees” in the English System work inside Orders, rather than in the body of a rite controlling them all. Most of these Orders work from one (as the Holy Royal Arch) to five degrees (as the Allied Masonic Degrees), and every order, or the combination of association in two of them may serve as pre-requisite to join even other bodies. Some will see in that evidence to suffice the name “rite”, but again, we have to remember the history of Freemasonry and its rites. Most rites started as a group of degrees already existent, and that was at some point compiled, enhanced and organized to give it a structure and a philosophical rationale.

What I aim to expose here is a view seeking more accuracy, what is always needed in academia, and I believe that it is very welcome in any other field, professional or amateur. There is nothing terribly wrong in calling what happens in England (or places that emulate this system) as “English Rite”, however, it may lead (and by personal experience, I can say it did) to an understanding that there is a mandatory or enchained sequence between the rites and orders that compose the English system.

The notion of rite is ubiquitous, as I tried to demonstrate in this sequence of posts. Also, the notion of rite is really dear to most Freemasons because it eases things out. Nevertheless, it can work as a pitfall when we are in need of understanding a specific Masonic system, different from the ones that we know. To exemplify: it is like to arrive in someone else’s house and presume that they eat the same things as your family does, that they call their dog by the same name, that they go for vacations to the same places, etc, just because they are a family (like yours) and because they live in a house (like you).

Names are not just a tag, they are embedded in values, notions, and meanings. As it is often said, “if everything is art, nothing is art”. So, if every set of rituals in Freemasonry is a rite, so nothing is a rite. In order to study something, sometimes we need generalizations and sometimes specifications. However, the generalizations cannot lead to massification, flattening obvious differences, and the specifications cannot single out to the point of becoming the knowledge of the object impossible.

Research and my amateur “ethnographic” experience in England led me to understand that what exists in England is a system of Freemasonry. This system fosters rites and orders, but it is a stretch to call the whole ensemble of the English Freemasonry, a rite. However, I don’t criticize the efforts made in the past to propagate the English system by calling it a rite. Hughan and others did an amazing work “translating” how the passage of degrees and other aspects of the Craft were conducted in England.

Nevertheless, since then, masonic studies grew in importance, scope, and complexity. It is about time for us researchers, amateurs and professionals, to be more thorough with the specifics of Freemasonry. At the same time, the tools offered by theory (of humanities and social sciences) may be used to understand this phenomenon that it is far from being “niche” or for Freemasons’ only.

[1] In England, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is normally called “Ancient and Accepted Rite”, my guess is that it is called this way to not be confused with the workings under Scottish Constitution (GloS)

Structure_of_Masonic_appendant_bodies_in_England_and_Wales
A good, but not exhaustive, representation of the English Masonic System.