The Central Importance of the Second Degree
The Second Degree is regarded as the easiest degree; it is also the shortest and the least dramatic. The candidate, having proven some understanding of his initiation and of Freemasonry, is simply passed into the secrets of the Second Degree without any real explanation of what is so special about being made a Fellowcraft.
But the clues are there. The Master tells him that "as a Craftsman, you are expected to make the liberal Arts and Sciences your future study, that you may the better be enabled to discharge your duties as a Mason and estimate the wonderful works of the Almighty". The Fellowcraft is then "permitted to extend" his "researches into the hidden mysteries of Nature and Science." Am I alone in having found these words mysterious when 1 first heard them?
Think of the globes which some of our older lodges still possess. Why should our brethren so long ago have equipped themselves so expensively? Could the globes relate to the exploration of the world about us (and within us?) ‑ to the "hidden mysteries of Nature and Science"? If they once did, their significance appears lost to the degree as we now know it. For before the early 18th century there appear to have been only two degrees worked, and the essence of our 'Third' may well have been integral to becoming a Fellowcraft. Let us then look at the tools of the degree. They are the square, level and plumb‑rule, used to distinguish the three most important lodge officers: The Master and his Senior and Junior Wardens (the three of 3,5 and 7), central figures of the lodge, as the tools are central to operative masonry. Sound building requires the walls to be upright with level courses and with square corners. It should be no surprise that the square denotes the Master, but he will not build a house without his 'Wardens', the level and plumb line.
The Master's Installation takes place before the brethren of the Second Degree, the Fellow Crafts who are constitutionally the true body of skilled men from whom our Wardens are chosen; they are central to our Institution and in this sense the Second Degree is of central importance.
I recently read the Portrait of a University [Manchester] 1851‑1951 by Sir William Hamilton in which, curiously, some observations arise which may help us understand the Second Degree. He writes that‑‑‑Craft... by itself is mere skill and is bent on producing a product of utility", while "Art... [is that] which makes the product beautiful.', We‑may like to think of this distinction when hearing the closing prayer at the end of lodge proceedings: "May he continue to preserve the craft by cementing and adorning it with every moral and social virtue" (i.e.: for utility cementing it with every moral virtue, and for art adorning it with every social one). Writing of the liberal arts, Hamilton states that "their liberalizing effect lies in the spirit with which they are pursued, not as accomplishments merely which add to the grace of life, as they undoubtedly do, but as opening the mind to insight into human affairs and things." Furthermore, "The highest end of education is not to dictate truth but to stimulate exertion; since the mind is not invigorated, developed, in a word, educated, by the mere possession of truths, but by the energy determined in their quest and contemplation!'
The Master's injunction then to "make the liberal arts and sciences your future study" and "to extend yours researches into the hidden mysteries of Nature and Science" are not to be accepted lightly, but to be regarded as a considerable personal challenge to us to use "the intellectual faculty". By expending energy in the quest for, and contemplation of, truths, we undertake that process of education "by which means alone we are rendered fit members of regularly organized society!' Those acts of speculation characteristic of the genuine speculative mason stem from the challenge of the Second Degree.
Now I wish to awaken your speculative faculties. What was it that attracted some distinguished gentlemen in the 1600s to Freemasonry ‑men such as Elias Ashmole, Robert Moray and Randle Holme? I would suggest that it was their curiosity for knowledge of history, science and eternity, expressed in part in the remarkable works of operative masons. While wars of religion had scarred European life for over a century, God's truth, the right way, had become increasingly hard to discern.
Brotherhood based on sound principles of proportion and rectitude, drawn from proven experience in addressing God's natural laws, might hold a key to a just life, society and science.
While today we know of the moral symbolism stimulated by this quest, we have forgotten the knowledge of Nature's hidden mysteries possessed by the mason craft. Indeed, by the time Grand Lodge appeared in 1717, there was merely a nod towards operative knowledge in the form of classical 'Orders of Architecture'. What had formed the basis of the (apparently) gravity‑defying wonders of pre-Reformation craftsmen? The use of the square, level and plumb line, supplemented by the compasses: the bringing to life of Geometry (literally, earth‑measurement). The mason craft was completed as a liberal art, aiming for beauty in proportion and harmony ‑ hidden mysteries secreted in natural law, a key to God's most fundamental revelation, His science of creation, true for all men.
This science is visible in the use of the square and the triangle in medieval ecclesiastical buildings. Bourges cathedral is based on a triangle, so is Milan; Ely is based on squares. We all know that to make a perfect square you can use a 3,4,5 triangles. If you put a square diagonally within a larger square, the area enclosed by the former is exactly half of the latter. This principle, among many such, was used in the laying out of cloisters, and later, in a refined form, in the construction of pinnacles. Does 'a square within a square' ring any bells? I recommend Nicola Coldstrearn's Masons and Sculptors (British Museum Press) and The Flowering of the Middle Ages by Joan Evans (Thames & Hudson) as introductions to the amazing speculative genius of the medieval masters and craftsmen, and as a way of deepening one's experience of the Second Degree. I hope we may gain some greater sense of inheritance, pride and purpose by this knowledge. For ours is a Craft which, remarkably, has failed to appreciate and adequately celebrate the true basis of its greatness.