Freemasonry is a living paradox. This tradition, dating back from the 18th century, is far from the monolithic organization the United Grand Lodge of England is trying to normalize. It is true that, due to the worldwide presence of the British Empire in the past centuries, its form of Freemasonry prevails today, and it is known as "Regular Freemasonry." In some countries like the United States, England, or Australia, such a designation fosters the idea that no other kind of Freemasonry exists. Consequently, there is a strong belief among members of these organizations that everything else is an illegal copy of a brand owned by the National Masonic Grand Lodges. This conflicts with the historic facts and does not represent the global reality of Freemasonry today.
On the contrary, this initiatic tradition has been diverse from the beginning, and this is still true in the 21st century. In European countries and indeed, all over the world, several kinds of Masonic rituals are practiced. Masonic Organizations welcome both genders, do not discriminate because of color, handicaps, or beliefs. Some call this "liberal Freemasonry." However, it is good to remember that this kind of Lodge was totally acceptable for famous figures. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was the Worshipful Master of the Lodge "lLes Neuf Soeurs" (The Nine Sisters) in the "Grand Orient de France" in Paris. This founding father, along with George Washington, was involved in various occult rituals such as the famous "Hellfire Club." Their understanding of Freemasonry was very different from the mainstream Freemasonry of our century.
Undeniably, Masonry is a powerful benevolent organization doing a lot of good. For example, the "Scottish Rite" and the "Shriners" are well known for their tireless philanthropic activities. However, these noble causes exist alongside a growing interest in various Masonic traditions focusing on esoteric activities. Taking advantage of a growing public interest, several Grand Lodges began to use the word "esoteric," claiming the presence of hidden knowledge in their rituals. Of course, it is possible to call "esoteric" any interpretation of a symbol and conclude that a given organization fits the definition. This is misleading; in fact, some rituals have been built according to esoteric structures originating in genuine ancient initiatic traditions. You should know, for example, that the Egyptian tradition was the basis of the famous "Egyptian Freemasonry."
But before going further, we must understand what "Esoteric Freemasonry" really is. For that, we will first look at "initiations."
Before Christianity, religious practices were different from what we see today. The notion of faith based on strong dogmas was irrelevant. Instead, we can see four main aspects of religious practices: a pragmatic use of the power of deities, state religions that require no beliefs, a philosophic religion (Neoplatonism), and initiatic mysteries, also known as Mystery cults.
For centuries, the ancient Western Mysteries have been transmitted through rituals called "initiations." (Explaining them would require another article.) What we must keep in mind is that Egypto-Greco-Roman mysteries were practiced between circa 2000 BCE and the end of the fourth century. At this time, Emperor Theodosius forbade all religious life on a visible level.
Initiations performed by the Isis clergy, Pythagorists, Neoplatonists, Hermetists, Mithraists, and Theurgists apparently vanished.
However, we know enough about these initiatic rituals to give a few insights about them. Simply defined, an initiation is a ceremony that allows a candidate to have an inner experience of "sacred Mysteries" related to Divinities or laws of the universe. Initiatic rituals can be either symbolic or theurgic, yielding two different categories of initiations.
The first one uses symbols (sounds, lights, perfumes, sacred words, etc.) to trigger a psychological reaction in the candidate. If the ceremony is authentic and well performed, the impact can be profound, affecting the deepest level of consciousness. Mainstream Freemasonry is a good example of a traditional organization using such symbolic initiations.
,p> In the second category, the initiatic rituals used are considered theurgic. With proper training, the initiators should be able to use the symbols on two levels: physical and spiritual. Acting simultaneously on the visible and invisible planes, the initiator acts deliberately on the unconscious of the candidate to awaken his deepest level of consciousness. Eventually, his soul is touched by this magical action.
It is interesting to notice that the symbolic ritual does not necessarily imply the theurgic level unless the initiators are specifically trained therein. However, a theurgic initiation necessarily implies the use of different symbols and magical tools.
There are several goals in such initiatory Orders, but let's talk here about the most important:
Don't forget that every one of us will die. Nobody knows when. It may happen in a few minutes, or many years from now. We can consider it as a major initiation, and we don't want to cross this gate without being well prepared. One goal of an initiation is to prepare you for this final moment, and to teach you how to stay aware of what is happening when you leave this physical life. This can not be learned theoretically, but requires following precise training. If you succeed, you will be able to keep your memory intact and to choose your next life. If not, you will be randomly dragged down, losing what you have just learned. As you can see, being trained is paramount, both theoretically and practically. This is what an authentic initiation gives you.
That said, it will be easier to understand the connection with the notion of esotericism and find an answer to our question: What is Esoteric Freemasonry?
It is worth remembering that "esoteric" comes from the Greek "esoterikos," meaning "belonging to an inner circle." It usually refers to Pythagoras, who was the first to clearly divide his followers into two categories: "exoteric" and "esoteric." The first step of his teachings was more open, but the second one, esoteric, was restricted to more advanced students, who were allowed to follow private and even secret teachings associated with various ritual practices.
Obviously, even if Pythagoras used this name for his students, he was not the one who created such a distinction. Almost all religions distinguished various levels of apprenticeship. Consider, for example, professional skills such as sculpting, cooking, drawing, etc. We don't refer to the most advanced group as "esoterists." Logically, people progress by levels, like climbing a ladder; basic skills must be mastered before the student can progress further. Operative masonry can be used to understand the consequences that later occurred in Freemasonry. Professional groups (craftsmen) in Europe organized themselves into brotherhoods intended to maintain the integrity of the workers and the quality of the work done. The profession's reputation was guaranteed by this hierarchy of Master Craftsmen, wardens of the tradition. In a way, they can be seen as the ancestors of unions. But they were more than that. If you chose to become a professional Mason, baker, or cook, you were not obligated to join one of these organizations. However, they reputedly were managed by the most skilled workers, the master craftsmen. To ascend the levels of mastership, it was necessary for the student to learn from the masters, to build his own experience, and to travel from one place to another. By meeting different masters, the apprentice would learn more. Achieving excellence requires following secret recipes that are not revealed to apprentices. The way to build a framework, to make stained glass, or a sauce if you are a chef, is not taught to novices. Students must first demonstrate their desire and seriousness.
Freemasonry was built on the same principles. Remember that we are talking about speculative Masonry. The tools displayed are not intended for physical work, but paradoxically, to be symbols of another kind of work. If you ask the Freemasons around you what the secrets are, you will hear they are mostly composed of secret passwords and signs. However, they are much more than that. There is also the learning of outdated instructions concealed in a mysterious phraseology. When I describe the traditional method of professional apprenticeship in groups of craftsmen, the nature of the secrets is easy to understand, but in Freemasonry, it is less obvious.
To know the reality of what is hidden, we should know the objective. What is the goal? The classic answer you hear almost everywhere is: to make good men better! I have always thought this goal was noble and essential, and that the world would be better if everyone were able to achieve it as soon as possible. Having taught philosophy for years, I do not see the need to complicate such an important purpose with degrees and symbols. Philosophy and common sense work better and faster than meditation on the level or the square! If you want to become a good man (or woman), read philosophers, do not harm, do not lie, and humanity will soon be better. I am not saying that such efforts are useless. On the contrary, they are essential, and this is why we must teach these ideas as early and as quickly as possible. Freemasonry should not be a Sunday school or a mere philanthropic movement. If we consider its roots, the Masonic Tradition has more to offer.
I am sure you understand now that if there is a specific goal in Freemasonry, it must be something else, something hidden, something esoteric. The purpose of esoteric Freemasonry is to unveil to the initiate the mysteries of life and death through initiations and efficient individual practices. To achieve this goal, the system uses several techniques that can be found in the Western Tradition. Obviously, it is not easy to find Masonic groups whose initiates know the keys, how to use them, and have the audacity to actually perform them. I have been lucky in my Masonic life to have met several Master Masons who knew these techniques and taught them to the initiates.
In fact, there are several kinds of esotericism, and each one is related to an aspect of the Western tradition, whether Hermetic, Jewish, or Christian. Each one has its own history, myths, principles, rituals, and practices, and each one has generated a branch of Freemasonry. Some have disappeared, but others are still alive today. Some are organized in independent Masonic groups, while others are comprised of specific rituals inside mainstream Freemasonry. My first initiation in Freemasonry took place in a remote place in the center of France. The ritual practiced was Egyptian, from the tradition of Misraim. Everyone working in this lodge knew well the esoteric goal of the tradition and the practices required to achieve a real inner transformation. This branch of esoteric Freemasonry, called "Egyptian Freemasonry," has a very long history, rooted in the earliest times of Western civilization. This branch succeeded in maintaining a strong identity that can be found even today. Admittedly, even in this part of Freemasonry, all the aspects of this tradition, for example theurgy and philosophy, are not always known and practiced. But this Masonic branch is one of the very few places in Freemasonry where we can explicitly discuss and practice these essential parts of this inheritance.
All along its history, ambition to keep this pre-Christian esotericism alive has drawn opposition, bans, and even persecutions. From the beginning of Freemasonry, small groups or larger organizations have continued the work and maintained the light of this sacred fire. However, several techniques, such as visualization, specific meditations, and inner individual work, can be taught to every Mason eager to know how to apply this ancient knowledge in his life—no need to go to the East to find practical keys that can change our life for the better. They are here, and we have only to learn how to use them. Then, Freemasonry will really become esoteric.