BROTHERS and BUILDERS:, The Basis and Spirit of Freemasonry.
BY: JOSEPH FORT NEWTON (Litt.D.)
 

CHAPTER IV

THE COMPASSES

IN our study of the Square we saw that it is nearly always
linked with the Compasses, and these old emblems, joined
with the Holy Bible, are the Great Lights of the Craft. If the
Lodge is an "oblong square" and built upon the Square (as
the earth was thought to be in olden time), over it arches the
Sky, which is a circle. Thus Earth and Heaven are brought
together in the Lodge - the earth where man goes forth to his
labor, and the heaven to which he aspires. In other words,
the light of Revelation and the law of Nature are like the two
points of the Compasses within which our life is set tinder a
canopy of Sun and Stars.

No symbolism can be more simple, more profound, more
universal, and it becomes more wonderful the longer one
ponders it. Indeed, if Masonry is in any sense a religion, it is
Universe Religion, in which ail men can unite. Its principles
are as wide as the world, as high as the sky. Nature and
Revelation blend in its teaching; its morality is rooted in the
order of the world, and its roof is the blue vault above. The
Lodge, as we are apt to forget, is always open to the sky,
whence come those influences which exalt and ennoble the
life of man. Symbolically, at least, it has no rafters but the
arching heavens to which, as sparks ascending seek the
sun, our life and labor tend. Of the heavenly side of Masonry
the Compasses are the symbol, and they are perhaps the
most spiritual of our working tools.

As has been said, the Square and Compasses are nearly
always together, and that is true as far back as we can go. In
the sixth book of the philosophy of Mencius, in China, we
find these words: "A Master Mason, in teaching Apprentices,
makes use of the compasses and the square. Ye who are
engaged in the pursuit of wisdom must also make use of the
compass and the square," Note the order of the words: the
Compass has first place, and it should have to a Master
Mason. In the oldest classic of China, The Book of History,
dating back two thousand years before our era, we find the
Compasses employed without the Square: "Ye officers of the
Government, apply the Compasses." Even in that far off time
these symbols had the same meaning they have for us to-
day, and they seem to have been interpreted in the same
way.

While in the order of the Lodge the Square is first, in point of
truth it is not the first in order. The Square rests upon the
Compasses before the Compasses rest upon the Square.
That is to say, just as a perfect square is a figure that can be
drawn only within a circle or about a circle, so the earthly life
of man moves and is built within the Circle of Divine life and
law and love which surrounds, sustains, and explains it. In
the Ritual of the Lodge we see man, hoodwinked by the
senses, slowly groping his way out of darkness, seeking the
light of morality and reason. But he does so by the aid of
inspiration from above, else he would live untroubled by a
spark. Some deep need, some dim desire brought him to the
door of the Lodge, in quest of a better life and a clearer
vision. Vague gleams, impulses, intimations reached him in
the night of Nature, and he set forth and finding a friendly
hand to help knocked at the door of the House of Light.

As an Apprentice a man is, symbolically, in a crude, natural
state, his divine life covered and ruled by his earthly nature.
As a Fellowcraft he has made one step toward liberty and
light, and the nobler elements in him are struggling to rise
above and control his lower, lesser nature. In the sublime
Degree of a Master Mason - far more sublime than we yet
realize - by human love, by the discipline of tragedy, and still
more by Divine help the divine in him has subjugated the
earthly, and he stands forth strong, free, and fearless, ready
to raise stone upon stone until naught is wanting. If we
examine with care the relative positions of the Square and
Compasses as he advanced through the Degrees, we learn
a parable and a prophecy of what the Compasses mean in
the life of a Mason.

Here, too, we learn what the old philosopher of China meant
when be urged Officers of the Government to "apply the
Compasses," since only men who have mastered
themselves can really lead or rule others. Let us now study
the Compasses apart from the Square, and try to discover
what they have to teach us. There is no more practical
lesson in Masonry and it behoves us to learn it and lay it to
heart. As the light of the Holy Bible reveals our relation and
duty to God, and the Square instructs us in our duties to our
Brother and neighbour, so the Compasses teach us the
obligation which we owe to ourselves. What that obligation is
needs to be made plain: it is the primary, imperative,
everyday duty of circumscribing his passions, and keeping
his desires within due bounds. As Most Excellent King
Solomon said long ago, "better is he that ruleth his spirit than
he that taketh a city."

In short, it is the old triad, without which character loses its
symmetry, and life may easily end in chaos and confusion. It
has been put in many ways, but never better than in the
three great words: self-knowledge, self-reverence, self-
control; and we cannot lose any one of the three and keep
the other two. To know ourselves, our strength, our
weakness, our limitations, is the first principle of wisdom,
and a security against many a pitfall and blunder. Lacking
such knowledge, or disregarding it, a man goes too far, loses
control of himself, and by the very fact loses, in some
measure, the self-respect which is the corner stone of a
character. If he loses respect for himself, he does not long
keep his respect for others, and goes down the road to
destruction, like a star out of orbit, or a car into the ditch.

The old Greeks put the same truth into a trinity of maxims:
"Know thyself; in nothing too much; think as a mortal" ; and it
made them masters of the art of life and the life of art. Hence
their wise Doctrine of the Limit, as a basic idea both of life
and of thought, and their worship of the God of Bounds, of
which the Compasses are a symbol. It is the wonder of our
human life that we belong to the limited and to the unlimited.
Hemmed in, hedged about, restricted, we long for a liberty
without rule or limit. Yet limitless liberty is anarchy and
slavery. As in the great word of Burke, "it is ordained in the
eternal constitution of things, that a man of intemperate
passions cannot be free; his passions forge their fetters."
Liberty rests upon law. The wise man is he who takes full
account of both, who knows how, at all points, to qualify the
one by the other, as the Compasses, if he uses them aright,
will teach him how to do.

Much of our life is ruled for us whether we will or not. The
laws of nature throw about us their restraining bands, and
there is no place where their writ does not run. The laws of
the land make us aware that our liberty is limited by the
equal rights and liberties of others. Our neighbour, too, if we
fail to act toward him squarely may be trusted to look after
his own rights. Custom, habit, and the pressure of public
opinion are impalpable restraining forces which we dare not
altogether defy. These are so many roads from which our
passions and appetites stray at our peril. But there are other
regions of life where personality has free play, and they are
the places where most of our joy and sorrow lie. It is in the
realm of desire, emotion, motive, in the inner life where we
are freest and most alone, that we need a wise and faithful
use of the Compasses.

How to use the Compasses is one of the finest of all arts,
asking for the highest skill of a Master Mason. If he is
properly instructed, he will rest one point on the innermost
centre of his being, and with the other draw a circle beyond
which he will not go, until he is ready and able to go farther.
Against the littleness of his knowledge he will set the depth
of his desire to know, against the brevity of his earthly life the
reach of his spiritual hope. Within a wise limit he will live and
labour and grow, and when he reaches the outer rim of the
circle he will draw another, and attain to a full-orbed life,
balanced, beautiful, and finely poised No wise man dare
forget the maxim, "In nothing too much, " for there are
situations where a word too much, a step too far, means
disaster. If he has a quick tongue, a hot temper, a dark
mood, he will apply the Compasses, shut his weakness
within the circle of his strength, and control it.

Strangely enough, even a virtue, if unrestrained and left to
itself, may actually become a vice. Praise, if pushed too far,
becomes flattery. Love often ends in a soft sentimentalism,
flabby and foolish. Faith, if carried to the extreme by the will
to believe, ends in over-belief and superstition. It is the
Compasses that help us to keep our balance, in obedience
to the other Greek maxim: "Think as a mortal" -- that is,
remember the limits of human thought. An old mystic said
that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, and its
circumference nowhere. But such an idea is all a blur. Our
minds can neither grasp nor hold it. Even in our thought
about God we must draw a circle enclosing so much of His
nature as we can grasp and realize, enlarging the circle as
our experience and thought and vision expand. Many a man
loses all truth in his impatient effort to reach final truth. It is
the man who fancies that he has found the only truth, the
whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and who seeks to
impose his dogma upon others, who becomes the bigot, the
fanatic, the persecutor.

Here, too, we must apply the Compasses, if we would have
our faith fulfil itself in fellowship. Now we know in part - a
small part, it may be, but it is real as far as it goes - though it
be as one who sees in a glass darkly. The promise is that if
we are worthy and well qualified, we shall see God face to
face and know ever as we are known. But God is so great,
so far beyond my mind and yours, that if we are to know Him
at all truly, we must know Him together, in fellowship and
fraternity. And so the Poet-Mason was right when he wrote:-

"He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in."


 

 

         

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