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The Square
...the Masonic Square!

© Bro. Jean-Michel David, PM (VII° SRIA)


[Lodge is opened in 2nd degree]

'What is Freemasonry?'

'A peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory, & illustrated by symbols'

Morality is that by which the summum bonum , the ultimate good, is reached. Morality is, in many ways, the guide of all our actions.

By what symbol does freemasonry illustrate this? By the square, which, as the Worshipful Immediate Past Master informs us 'is well applied by Freemasons to inculcate the purest principles of piety and virtue — Masonically speaking, it should be the guide of all our actions.'

The guide of all our actions.

The square, illustrating the peculiar system of morality which masonry is, should be the guide of all our actions.

I have sometimes wondered why, of all symbols used in the Craft, including that of the V…S…L… — [direct attention], the letter G — [direct attention], and the square and compasses positioned on the V…S…L… — [direct attention], it should be the square that is the Masonic guide to all our actions.

So let us look in a little more detail at the square.

What is a square? — An implement, we are told, having an angle of 90 degrees, or the fourth part of a circle.

One of the perennial problems that man faces is, according to a Jungian psychological viewpoint, that of squaring the circle. By this is to be understood that the task of man is for the self, represented by the circle, to have optimally developed his 4 functions — Thinking, Feeling, Sensing, & Intuition.

If a square is the fourth part of a circle, then self-development begins by developing this square.

As a side point of interest, the traditional Masonic emblem — the square and compasses — can be taken as a symbolic representation of the solution to the Jungian problem: a Mason is one who learns to square the circle.

Within this framework, the square can be seen to be a guide to full self-development — which, again, is what our rituals tell us, for we are informed that one of Freemasonry's goals is self-development, & that the square should be the guide to our actions. One would expect that what one is guided by is consistent with the destination envisaged.

Yet, one is still at a loss as to what guidance the square specifically gives, for a square, in itself, illustrates what, rectitude? — Yes, but is that all?

Our current formal education does not encourage, nor develops, our semiotic perspective. It does not encourage us to understand the way symbols — especially traditional  & esoteric symbols — are used, nor are we lead to understand, or view them, in their multi-dimensional aspects. This is not intended as a negative criticism of current educational aims, for what we have developed is greater precision in our thinking by focussing on the power of the word. Symbols are, however, by their very nature, precise in a frustratingly ambiguous, or multi-layered, sense.

But let us return our focus on the square.
The Masonic square is typically depicted in two ways: one with equal length arms — or sides, and the other by arms or sides of unequal lengths. This latter is sometimes referred to as the gallows  square.

It is the Gallows-square which most ancient masonic documents illustrate. Why? — Is that of any significance?

The true Gallows-square is peculiar, in that one side measures 3 units, & the other 4. To those that recall school-day elementary geometry, a right angle having one side 3 units long & the other 4 units long must have its hypotenuse, the line which closes the square into a triangle, as 5 units long.

This 3-4-5 triangle can be used to measure any length easily: 1 is found by firstly measuring a length of 4 units, & then measuring 3 units from that length; 2 from firstly measuring a 5 unit length using the two end point of the square, and then deducting 3 units from that length; 3, 4 & 5 by obvious straight measurements, 6 from doubling the 3 unit side, 7 from adding the 3 & 4 unit sides, and so on.

This peculiar square also has symbolic significance, for it depicts, through its 4-unit length side, the 4 elements of tradition & the 4 cardinal virtues, & the 3-unit length side the 3 alchemical processes & the 3 theological virtues.

The 4 cardinal virtues are first mentioned explicitly by Plato, in the Republic . According to an academically reliable translation, he names them as Wisdom, Courage, Self-discipline, & Justice.

These virtues have, over the past 2 & a half thousand years, changed little. Often the change has been a minor variation of the name, rarely, and only with few authors, do the virtues themselves change.

Wisdom is at times called Prudence, or practical intelligence. It informs one that actions ought to be thought out prior to their execution. Wisdom, according to Plato, increases as one's knowledge and understanding increases. To develop Wisdom, one should thus develop knowledge and understanding through what the tracing board lecture informs us are the 7 liberal arts and sciences — grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, & astronomy — these being, incidentally, the basis of an educated 17th century man's curriculum, from which they are most likely taken.

Wisdom is the first virtue, & yet I am at a loss as to whether any of us have developed this virtue to its fullest potential — or whether, in fact, it can ever be developed to its fullest potential — for maybe its potential is boundless. Wisdom, as the other virtues, may be dispositions, or inclinations, by which we operate. The virtues may be processes used by individuals, and as such, are forever expanding.

The second virtue mentioned is Courage, also sometimes referred to as Fortitude or Strength — not physical strength, but the inner strength that one develops as one metaphorically unfolds — The Courage to be, or become, what one desires — The courage to do good — The Inner Strength that one observes in those whom one admires or respects.

Next comes our third virtue, Self-discipline, or Temperance. To temper one-self is to discipline one-self. To Temper one-self is to modify one's behaviour until it matches an ideal. To temper, to Forge, a better man out of one-self is again a unending process by which one seeks to become greater.

Justice, the final cardinal virtue, is for Plato also the one that  justifies the others. Justice encourages us to see the bigger picture — Is the act just, or fair? — Justice incorporates the concept of equitability — hence the scales by which Justitia is commonly depicted, or, as the ancient Egyptians would have it, the scales by which a man's heart is, after death, equilibrated with Maat, the feather of truth and justness.

These 4 — cardinal — virtues are represented by the side of the square of 4 units.

The side of the gallows square 3 units long depicts St Paul the Apostle's 3 theological virtues, also depicted in our Lodges on the 1st degree tracing board. These are Faith, Hope, & Charity. These underpin the four cardinal virtues.

Incidentally, for historical interest's sake, it was St Ambrose, who lived in the later part of the 4th century, who coined the terms 'cardinal' and 'theological' to the virtues. St Augustine, his contemporary and 14 years his junior, is possibly the one who gave these 7 virtues their importance in later mediæval times, and insisted that Charity, or Love, is the virtue which underlies all others.

The 3 theological virtues underpin the 4 cardinal virtues, for 3, the number of the divine, underpins 4, the number of material manifestation.

The first theological virtue is Faith. Faith enables belief, which is a necessary precondition for knowledge, for if one does not believe something, he cannot know it. Knowledge in turn allows the development of the cardinal virtue of wisdom. Faith — faith that Justice be done, faith that Self-discipline, self-temperance, be possible, faith that one's strength is found when needed.

Hope gives one a positive attitude, without which the cardinal virtues would have but little chance of developing.

& Charity, St Augustine's Christian virtue by excellence. I.e., not the virtue that Christians own, but the one their search ought to seek. Charity, the virtue which underpins all. Charity is the giving of oneself. The giving of oneself brings about passionate involvement, without which neither Hope nor Faith, let alone the 4 cardinal virtues, have any hope of manifestation.
… …

The humble square…

The Gallows square, the Masonic square, depicting the 4 cardinal, & the 3 theological virtues, should be the guide of all our actions.

The educated portion of our brethren of the last century, and the century before that, would have been, it must be remembered, educated in the two languages in which knowledge was communicated: Latin and ancient Greek. If one also holds before one's mind one of those ornately decorated books of by-gone times, the letter 'G', when sumptuously drawn, can be seen as an arc, or a partial circle, combined with a gallows square, another reminder, to the mason who remembers that Freemasonry is illustrated by symbols, of the square and compasses.

[direct attention] — Again reminding the Mason to look up high & see that to which he ought to aspire towards, the Great Geometrician of the Universe — aspire, & be guided by.

The letter 'G' & the square have a further similarity which would not have been missed by our educated forebears — a similarity which is striking, for Gamma, the Greek name for the same letter, is actually written as a square — a gallows square!

Let us now bring some of these points together.

The Volume of the Sacred Law, we are told in the 1st degree, is to rule and govern our faith. The Volume of the Sacred Law should thus be used to aid us in developing, in ourselves, the 3 theological virtues. In an obvious way, this same Volume is connected to the letter 'G' here — [direct attention] — suspended.

The square, which we see represented in many guises within these walls, is related intimately to so many other symbols. It incorporates the plumb-rule, for it exemplifies rectitude. It also incorporates the level, for within the square is hidden the symbol of Justice. Further, is the level not a plumb-rule set on a square, and have we not already mentioned that the plumb-rule is incorporated within the square?

It is also linked to all officers within the Temple:

To the Inner Guard, through his jewel of office, to the deacons through the symbol of the dove, to the wardens, through the plumb-rule & the level, & most directly, to the Master of the Lodge, for the square, like the Master, ought to guide and direct our actions.

But most importantly, the square, as another representation of the Tetragrammaton, as another representation of the sacred letter 'G', as another representation of the Grand Geometrician of the Universe, is a symbol of 'the implement which assists in forming the rude & proves the perfect mass', and it ought to be 'well applied by Freemasons to inculcate the purest principles of piety ', i.e., the 3 theological virtues, '& virtue', i.e., the 4 cardinal ones, '— masonically speaking, it should be the guide of all our actions.'

The humble — Masonic — square.

(original 1992) Jean-Michel David

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