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Masonic Morality & Temperance

October 15, 2007 24 comments

Back in July of 2006 I wrote about a website with a collection of pictures of tattoos with a Masonic theme; generally some versions of the traditional Square & Compasses, but many we very elaborate examples of well-designed skin art. That site, Masonic Ink, now has dozens of pages of such artwork, and hundreds of pictures of various tattoos sent in by readers ranging from young, new Masons up to Grand Masters of the craft. In the last six or eight months it’s become one of the most popular pages on this blog, judging by the Google and other search engine hits. Obviously, the desire to display one’s Masonic affiliation has, for many of us, gone far beyond deciding what kind of ring or pin to buy.

That is why I was surprised and admittedly, a little irritated to read this recent anonymous comment on that post:

An “oxymoron” is a thing which is characterized by inherently incongruous or contradictory elements. For instance, a “smart fool,” a “salty candy,” a “soggy desert,” etc.

A Masonic tattoo is what many would consider an oxymoron because the wearer has chosen to do something that demonstrates a certain lack of the kind of prudence, restraint, moderation and temperance that is taught in Masonic degrees.

Of the three great duties that you, as a Mason, are taught to inculcate, the third charges you to avoid “all irregularity and intemperance, which may … debase the dignity of your profession.” We are assured that “a zealous attachment to these duties will insure public and private esteem.”

But, a Masonic tattoo says to the casual observer, “I’m enthusiastic about being a Mason, even to the point that I am willing to do something incredibly tasteless and intemperate to display my membership, therefore also demonstrating that I have learned nothing of Masonry’s lessons.”

Other examples of this kind of misplaced enthusiasm would include a minister who is so enthusiastic about being a minister that he would would wear his collar anywhere he went, including wearing it into a house of ill repute; or an Eagle Scout who is so proud of being an Eagle Scout that he wears his uniform all the time, even when he is doing something that he should not.

Would you want to be a member of a fraternity whose members do not frown upon, say, eyebrow rings with the fraternity logo? I wouldn’t.

Wow.

I have to admit that my first thought after reading this was “Who died and left you in charge of what is acceptable and tasteful around here?” After a few moments, however, I managed to subdue my passions and read it again. What struck me was how this person – who I’m assuming is a brother – ascribed a “wrongness” to tattooing, without explaining his reasoning behind it. The central theme of his opinion, that a tattoo is “incredibly tasteless” and proves that one has learned “nothing of Masonry’s lessons,” is, I’m sure, based upon some kind of previously held perspective on morality; and truth be told, most of us have some kinds of prejudices and biases based on nothing more than our constant exposure to stereotypical attitudes in our local culture. Further thinking on this led me to wonder what it is about tattooing and other body modification that – supposedly – belies one’s Masonic prudence.

Indeed, it made me wonder about the entire concept of Masonic morality. After all, we purport to teach moral lessons through metaphor, allegory, and symbolism. But what, exactly, is the basis of that morality? And what, exactly, are those ethical principles? And how do we manage to go from general principles of morality to those things that belong within the realm of the individual – tattoos, clothing, piercings, hair length?

In the US, the charge to a Fellowcraft – the second degree of Masonry – one learns that it is “the internal, and not the external qualifications of a man that Masonry regards.” One can’t get much more “external” than a tattoo or an eyebrow piercing. Indeed, I’m reminded of one of those old Carl Claudy-esque tales in which a young, long-haired, scruffily dressed Mason shows up at a crowded lodge meeting, and finding no seat sits on the floor. An older, respected Past Master sees this and walks (slowly, because of of his age, of course) down the aisle. Everybody in the room expects that the PM is going to give the scruffy youngster a stern talking-to, but they are surprised when he – carefully – sits down on the floor next to the young man and introduces himself, and welcomes him to the lodge. Apocryphal as this story most likely is, it demonstrates that some of our members actually do that that part of the charge to heart. Masonry has everything to do with being a good man and true, and little or nothing to do with what amount to individual preferences or tastes.

Coincidentally, there is a recent post over at Beacon of Masonic Light about homosexual lodge members, and personally I’m astounded that this topic even warrants any discussion. Again, as with tattoos or piercings or hair length, where in any of our obligations, allegories or any other part of our teachings does a person’s sexuality have any bearing on their being good, honest, and upright men? Judging from the comments left there, however, it apparently does make a difference to some members. Bro. Dunn’s excellent response to a comment sums up my own perspective on Masonic morality rather succinctly:

Its not about me changing them, its about ME changing ME.

We need to keep this in mind in lodge. Morality is not about what people do with consenting adults in private, its what we do to and for society that shows our morality.

Indeed. Those of us with ashlars needing to be perfected would do well to remember this.

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