The deeper and deeper I look into the ancient lineage of Freemasonry, I am constantly confronted with the lack of Empirical Evidence. Yet, with that thought in mind, let us also consider the fact that the Craft itself was never designed to be am Empirically based organization, despite recent attempts to make it one. You see, the concept of Empirical Evidence is a recent phenomena of scientific academia, which has it roots in alchemy, which I will discuss later on in the article. Whereas, the ancients employed both Empirical and Anecdotal Evidence in its decision making process.
But before I delve into this specific topic, a little history is in order. The battle between the Ancients and the Moderns (or Postmoderns as they are often called today) is about 300 years old, if not longer. Basically, the Ancients formed a Grand Lodge in England in 1751 because they believed the Moderns had taken control of the Grand Lodge that was formed in 1717, and were progressively attempting to change the history of Freemasonry. Sound familiar? It should! You see, for the most part this battle is no longer being played out by Grand Lodges; rather it is being played out in our literature by well meaning pundits like myself. I have referred to this battle as a civil war. Seriously, this battle has gone on for some 300 years, with no end in sight. How sad.
Consider the following, Masonic Empirical believers do not buy into the argument that Anecdotal Evidence should be considered in any Masonic discussion about our lineage. Nevertheless, it is admitted by the academic world that Anecdotal Evidence still falls under “the scope of Scientific method.” Admittedly, it is the weaker of the two evidences; nonetheless, it is still used and applied as a starting point for scientific discovery. We also know that Anecdotal discovery uses the creative elements of the human mind, and is the source of countless new ideas, discoveries and inventions; but it is also sometimes biased, especially if misapplied and not balanced with Empirical Evidence. In short, scientific researchers often start with Anecdotal Evidence and end with Empirical Evidence.
But how do historians look upon such theories? As a historian, I was taught to look at Anecdotal Evidence as a secondary source, particularly when primary Empirical Evidence was available. However, in the absence of Empirical Evidence, historians often turn to diaries, newspapers, journals, etc., to help tell a story and fill in the gaps. Most people are not aware that these types of sources are less accurate and fall under the Anecdotal Evidence category. Nevertheless, historians still use such information to help fill in the gaps that Empirical Evidence does not supply.
In my history studies, the first topic I was taught was historiography, which can be defined as, “the writing of history; especially: the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods.” At the conclusion of my studies on this topic, I learned that virtually all history is flawed, especially the further back one looks. The reason for this belief is simple, virtually all history contains the biases of the individual who wrote about a topic. Or as Walter Benjamin amply stated, “history is written by the victors.”
In fact, historians often use Anecdotal data when writing about history. Furthermore, many historians today use hermeneutics to form a better perspective about a historical event or time period. You see, way too many people are caught up in the Empirical vs Anecdotal Evidence debate, which is so often used in the realm of the sciences, but is often dismissed, or at least becoming less important, by many authors of history.
As well, a closer look into the topic of hermeneutics demonstrates something we already apply in Freemasonry, but is dismissed by the Moderns as unscientific. I love this word, unscientific; as though the Craft was ever designed to be strictly scientific. For surely it was never intended to be so. But I digress. The word hermeneutics can be defined as, “the theory and methodology of text interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts.” You see, this is what Aristotle and Plato used in their great works, which still influences Freemasonry today,
But the mental affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs (semeia), are the same for the whole of mankind, as are also the objects (pragmata) of which those affections are representations or likenesses, images, copies (homoiomata). [De Interpretatione, 1.16a4]
This type of literature and learning became prominent in the middle ages, and helped shape our views about reading and interpreting like the ancients:
The discipline of hermeneutics emerged with the new humanist education of the 15th century as a historical and critical methodology for analyzing texts. In a triumph of early modern hermeneutics, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla proved in 1440 that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. This was done through intrinsic evidence of the text itself… The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneutists, especially Protestant exegetists, to view Scriptural texts as secular classical texts. They interpreted Scripture as responses to historical or social forces so that, for example, apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporary Christian practices.
You see, many times, only through text interpretation can a truth be revealed. I know this type of learning counters contemporary thinking about traditional educational sources; nevertheless, it has value and is now becoming a recognized type of study, despite recent attempts to dismiss its worth in contributing to scholastic study.
Yet it should also be said, these types of learning and study have been around the esoteric world since the beginning of recorded history through the use of allegorical literature and interpretation. Albert Pike wrote,
“Though deprecating the demoralizing tendencies of poetry, he was too wise to attempt to replace them by other representations of a positive kind. He justly says, that spiritual things can be made intelligible only through figures; and the forms of allegorical expression which, in a rude age, had been adopted unconsciously, were designedly chosen by the philosopher as the most appropriate vehicles for theological ideas” (Albert Pike, Morals and Dogma, 1871, p. 678).
Therefore, if the philosophers, like Aristotle and Plato, understood and used allegory as a source for expressing ideas unfit for the profane, why are we as Masonic historians criticized for using anecdotal, and or allegorical interpretations, when writing about Masonry. Honestly, it makes no sense not to use Anecdotal data and allegory when writing about Masonry, especially since the Craft itself was devised using such concepts.
“Everywhere the sacred body of Nature was covered with the veil of allegory, which concealed it from the profane, and allowed it to be seen only by the sage who thought it worthy to be the object of his study and investigation. She showed herself to those only who loved her in spirit and in truth, and she abandoned the indifferent and careless to error and to ignorance. ‘The Sages of Greece,’ says Pausanias, ‘never wrote otherwise than in an enigmatical manner, never naturally and directly.’ ‘Nature,’ says Sallust the Philosopher, “should be sung only in a language that imitates the secrecy of her processes and operations. She is herself an enigma. We see only bodies in movement; the forces and springs that move them are hidden from us.’ The poets inspired by the Divinity, the wisest philosophers, all the theologians, the chiefs of the initiations and Mysteries, even the gods uttering their oracles, have borrowed the figurative language of allegory. ‘The Egyptians,’ says Proclus, ‘preferred that mode of teaching, and spoke of the great secrets of Nature, only in mythological enigmas.’ The Gymnosophists of India and the Druids of Gaul lent to science the same enigmatic language, and in the same style wrote the Hierophants of Phœnicia” (Albert Pike, Morals and Dogma, 1871, p. 659).
As Pike wrote above, the poets, philosophers and theologians all wrote in an enigmatic style that held great secrets, and they did this for a reason; they wanted to hide these wonderful teachings and wonders from the profane. So they covered, or hid, them under a veil of allegory.
Interestingly, unlike today, the ancients understood the differences between Anecdotal Evidence (parables of the Hermetic philosophers) and Empirical Evidence (prophets of Alchemy); Alchemy, of course, being the precursor to modern day science, which Pike confirmed when he wrote about their differences and their use in understanding the entirety of a topic:
“It is in this sense we are to understand the parables of the Hermetic philosophers and the prophets of Alchemy; but in their works, as in the Great Work, we must skillfully separate the subtile from the gross, the mystic from the positive, allegory from theory. If you would read them with pleasure and understandingly, you must first understand them allegorically in their entirety and then descend from allegories to realities by way of the correspondences or analogies indicated in the single dogma.
In others words, it is certainly OK to write about differences, but never totally dismiss somethings value to a topic. Yes, lets seek Empirical Evidence whenever possible, but let’s not dismiss the true potential of Anecdotal Evidence, like allegorical literature (poetry, biblical accounts, folklore, ancient literature, etc) and their interpretations, simply because it is not fully understood or agreed upon and appreciated through Empirical ideals, which again is a contemporary idea to separate the two, which the ancients did not do.
Pike was clear about interpreting:
EACH of us makes such applications to his own faith and creed, of the symbols and ceremonies of this Degree, as seems to him proper. With these special interpretations we have here nothing to do. Like the legend of the Master Khūrūm, in which some see figured the condemnation and sufferings of Christ; others those of the unfortunate Grand Master of the Templars; others those of the first Charles, King of England; and others still the annual descent of the Sun at the winter Solstice to the regions of darkness, the basis of many an ancient legend; so the ceremonies of this Degree receive different explanations; each interpreting them for himself, and being offended at the interpretation of no other.
Did you catch that? Many people see things others do not, but we should never be offended at the interpretation of another person. Therefore, our own Masonic literature encourages us to seek new Masonic knowledge through interpretation; however, we are told by a small group of modern academics that we are wrong for seeking out Masonic lineage using such a method. In other words, here is the cool-aid, shut up and simply drink the 1717 narrative. I don’t think so, we don’t buy into this idea and never will. So what are we to do as Masons? Should we keep fighting this unwinnable battle, or perhaps find a solution? I think I have a solution to the problem.
I personally think the only solution is to admit that both methods are valuable within the scope of discovering our lineage. We need to stop thinking of Freemasonry strictly as a science; but rather we need to again reestablish the ancient viewpoint of research, just like the ancient alchemist did. You see, they included a spiritual or an occultist component to everything they did. They did not just rely on Empirical Evidence; no, they were willing to use both Empirical and Anecdotal Evidences to explain something. Even contemporary historians use Anecdotal Evidence to explain things that otherwise would go unexplained.
You see, we are neither science based nor history based in our foundation; rather, we are an immersion of both. Only because of contemporary academic ideas have we become separated, which has resulted in a split within the Craft itself. One side says the other is not truly representative of Masonic lineage based solely on the ideals of Empirical Evidence, while the other side says we can only explain our past using Anecdotal Evidence. Honestly, I think we need to rethink our positions and start showing brotherly love, otherwise this unwinnable civil war will never cease. I certainly hope for this day; until than however, I will continue to write about Masonic lineage using both forms of evidences; never dismissing the value of each of them.
So Mote It Be!!!