Freemasons, by their very nature, are
eager for knowledge, eager for formal settings where serious conversation can occur
about a range of topics. Perhaps these
discussions can begin within lodges, articulating the principles and protocols that
inculcate civility. And perhaps this is a logical place for the meaningful conversations
to start: among brothers who rely and trust
one another in a safe environment.
The question of its public persona is as old as
Masonry itself. Within 20 years of the founding of the Grand Lodge in London in 1717,
lodges were forbidden in the Dutch Republic
because of their Orangist associations; they
were spied on in France by the police; even in
Britain, where they were a homegrown phenomenon, they were attacked from the pulpit.
Will contemporary American brothers
run the same risk if they openly engage with
the problem of incivility? Conspiracy theorists still lurk out there in the shadows. And
in tackling any public issue – especially
where politics is involved – one should
expect a certain amount of hostility. Not all
brothers will welcome this. In the public
arena and among their own membership,
the grand lodges would have their work cut
out for them.
And so, how do Freemasons proceed?
Should American lodges rethink their role
in civil society?
As originally formulated by the German philosopher George
Hegel, the concept of civil society denotes a zone of independent social life, separate from the state and from the traditional
institutions of family, church, confraternities, etc. It is a place
where the individual can be independent, mindful of events,
forceful in his or her opinions, and also exercise freedom. For
Hegel, “The history of the world is none other than the progress
of the consciousness of freedom.” This “progress of freedom”
would suggest that the uncivil has just as much a right to be
voiced as the polite.
But what if the uncivil drives people out of the zone of
engagement, forced out by the uncouth, the mean, impolite, racist, sexist, etc.; left then to retreat into the privacy of family – or
even of the lodge? If that is what is now happening, then do participants in civil society have an obligation to change the nature
and tone of the discussion? We are a republic without monarchy
or aristocracy; here in America, leadership comes from the citizenry. Do Masons, in particular, have a responsibility to address
social ills, to address our common humanity?
These are questions that only Freemasons can answer, armed
with their history of republican idealism. It is not unthinkable
for Masons to lead the way to a society in which more civil
behaviors reign, and respect for one another, and differing opinions, is paramount. Just remember the theaters of 18th century
London, and that Masons were able to lead by example to make
a more meaningful experience for all. Perhaps now is the time
for history to repeat itself. Let the questioning begin.
Editor’s note: Margaret C. Jacob, Ph.D., is among the world’s
foremost Masonic scholars. She is largely responsible for documenting and establishing connections between early European
Freemasonry and the craft today. Through a partnership with
the Grand Lodge of California, Dr. Jacob leads the development
of academic courses on the history of Freemasonry and civil
society at the University of California, Los Angeles.