Tradition and Heritage


Here are some thoughts on Masonic traditions and heritage in the context of Masonic education. An edited version of a lecture given in a Masonic lodge.

What is Tradition?

The word “tradition” comes from the Latin verb “tradere” – to transfer. The concept of tradition includes the current, social, religious, local, and organizational culture, actions, customs, and norms that successive generations pass on to each other. The tradition includes our accumulated knowledge, values, and a significant part of our customs.

FreemasonryThe term tradition usually includes religious traditions, holidays, folk arts, or for example, the tradition of opening the school year or playing hymns in sports competitions in honor of the winners, as well.

The term tradition derives from the Hebrew word kabbalah. It means to receive or accept, to be a traditional doctrine. Kabbalah, originally meant a learning path.

More specifically, we can consider as a matter within the scope of culture and tradition the totality of values defined by society as a whole and accepted by all its members.

That is, together, all the normative behaviors, knowledge, experiences, the value systems that the whole of society and all its members, individually, consider worthy of preservation, perpetuation, and renewal. Traditions reflect the way of thinking and thinking of a given society, ultimately its value system.

Thus, we can regard as a tradition, from the heritage left to us by previous generations, everything that the generation of the “following” age maintains in an unchanged – or only slightly changing, modernizing – form and considers worthy of transmission. However, this requires that the individual, who is born into a given society and culture, wants to carry on the traditions of his ancestors, the heritage of his ancestors.

To answer the question, what is tradition? We must recall a song by way of explanation. We could find the answer in a song from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” titled “Tradition”.

In the musical, Tevye the milkman says, “Old habits were also new once.” According to the song: “Tradition is tradition.”  Tevye asks the question and answers, 

“How do we keep our balance? 
That I can tell you in one word… tradition! 
Because of our traditions,
We’ve kept our balance for many, many years.
Because of our traditions,
Everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
 And the last sentence Tevye answers the question:
“Tradition. Without our traditions, Our lives would be as shaky as… as a fiddler on the roof!”
The Halliwell Manuscript, known as the Regius Poem, is the first of the old documents. It is made in Middle English written.

What is Heritage?

 This is where the other term to be examined comes in heritage, which is also such an old concept that it was already known in Roman times. At the time, they were talking about “patrimonium”. This term originally referred to the right of family birth and then inheritance, primarily meaning the inheritance of material goods, such as immovable property, to descendants.

In today’s everyday use, it is customary to talk primarily about cultural heritage. However, the concept of heritage includes many things outside of the culture itself, such as our communication, our languages, but also our history, legends, the heritage of the nations of the earth or, from another perspective, our natural and, last but not least, our built environment.

Many interpretations of the conceptual domain of inheritance are known. Lawyers understand the concept of heritage differently from philosophers and cultural anthropologists, archaeologists who talk about “archaeological heritage“, architects who talk about architectural heritage, or other engineers who talk about “technological heritage“, or “greens” who talk about “environmental heritage” live in a different heritage concept. And then we didn’t even mention another sensitive issue of “political legacy“.

In addition to all these interpretations, the concept of heritage also has a symbolic interpretation. For example, relics belonging to the concept of religious heritage and the legends that adhere to them, the contents of thought, and knowledge itself are our heritage.

Heritage is, therefore, a broad conceptual circle, it has a spiritual and there is material domain, since it includes all the knowledge, knowledge, experience, and objects that people of previous eras created and accumulated, and our heritage is the earth itself, the planet on which we live.  

This legacy must be perpetuated. In fact, you need to teach and learn.

 “To teach is to deal with people, to pass on all the knowledge that previous generations have accumulated. To teach is to take responsibility for the future of the next generation.

 To learn is to know all that previous ages have left to us. To learn is to master the thoughts, content, and objectified realities left to us from the heritage of previous eras, intended for preservation by our forefathers and to be passed on to future generations.”

It follows from the above that tradition and heritage together have a decisive role in society, in the life of peoples, nations, countries, or other groups or organizations that are separated based on their specific circumstances, cultures, situation or other groups or organizations that are separated, for example by religious reasons. 

Tradition and heritage, according to one interpretation, are core values without which our lives could not be complete. If somebody has no traditions, has no heritage, and does not know his past, his future is in doubt. 

It is possible and has happened on many occasions throughout the history of humanity, that an overly traditional, dissuasive conservative mindset becomes, or has become, a barrier to reform and innovation throughout history. For such a conservative way of thinking, we use the term fundamentalism.

 What does fundamentalism mean?

The content and the meaning of the term itself have been tried to be formulated by several thinkers. Many analysts of the concept describe the term as pejorative. 

Some commentators said that fundamentalism is a literal interpretation of religious teachings, and this is also applied to certain groups of Christianity.

According to another view, fundamentalism means its action against the modernization of various religions. According to this view, the writings of religious faith are infallible, even if they are refuted by modern science.

The term “fundamentalist” thus refers to a way of thinking that seeks to return to the original foundations and principles of a given religion. The origin of the term can be found in the Latin word fundus. Its original meaning is a house site, a plot of land, a small estate, or a fund for a purpose. 

The religious way of thinking distinguishes between a religious one of a fundamentalist and an orthodox one. In contrast to the term fundamentalism of Latin origin, the word orthodoxy is of Greek origin, meaning “upright/right/true faith“.

Consequently, an Orthodox is one who professes true faith and is faithful to the tradition of faith. Although similarities can be discovered between the two terms, we can still discover fundamental differences between the two.

To simplify the question, it can be formulated that although both are conservative ways of thinking, both are true to traditions, but, as long as fundamentalism is not willing to make any changes, orthodoxy does not reject modern challenges, but responds to them not by changing tradition, but by constantly reinterpreting them.

The most recent evidence of this is the “modern Orthodox” Jewish religious trend that started in the USA. This world of thought considers the observance of the 613 laws of the Jewish religion and the observance of the rules of the Sabbath and kosherness to be the overriding principles, but it allows the followers of the religion in all social classes to live according to the challenges of the modern age.

Many fundamentalist thinkers, especially religious ones, believe that, despite the changes, everything must return to basics. For example, one of the best-known fundamentalist religious leaders, Ayatollah Khomeini, does not recognize social progress and believes that all members of society should live according to the ancient laws of religion. These thinkers, religious leaders, and politicians do not recognize the possibility of change.

A tableau from the Washington Masonic National Memorial Museum.

Masonic traditions

Masonic traditions, while preserving the Ancient, Accepted, and traditional core values, but the heritage of freemasonry is not based on fundamentalism. 

The conceptual scope of Freemasonry includes many Masonic traditions. I would like to present, just for example the next:

  •  Among the Masonic traditions, let us look first at the beginning of the use of the term itself. The wording can be traced back to the era of guilds. The guilds “received their patrons as honorary masons. The masons, in addition, took among themselves the freethinkers, the persecutors of religious fanaticism. After some time, especially when the era of large-scale cathedral construction was over, from the eighteenth century they gradually separated from the actual builder guilds, but, taking over their traditions and symbolism, they began to call themselves Freemasons.” 
  •  According to the oldest Masonic traditions, five masters, one Entered Apprentice, and one Fellow Craft could already form a lodge. Nowadays, at least seven masters are needed.
In every lodge, there are two blocks of stone: ashlars, one rough and a smooth and polished stone. The source of the photo: New York Masonic Hall

There are many examples from the Masonic heritage. I would just like to highlight one point of view here and now. That way, which is one element of heritage, is the way when Entered Apprentice becomes a Fellow Craft, and the Fellow Craft becomes a master. From the Masonic heritage of thought, I would like to highlight the way and the symbol of rough and polished stone represents.

According to the Masonic heritage, the rough stone is what the Entered Apprentice is working on. It is also a symbol of the soul. According to the history of Freemasonry: “In doing so, he must carve out all prejudices, extremes, unnecessary passions from himself. The rough stone, in addition to the previous ones, is also a symbol of freedom without limits, and the polished stone cube is a symbol of purpose and humility. The Entered Apprentice must work to make it resemble a polished granite cube. Learn how to control your emotions, your passions.”


Freedom, equality, fraternity!

When we are discussing Masonic traditions and heritage, we cannot miss the examination and interpretation of three basic terms.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen
Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

The origin of the use of the three words together can be traced back to the French Revolution, and a declaration.  

These three terms are together, as a slogan, as a motto used mainly by the French origin of non-regular Freemasonry, but also well known in the life of Anglo-American Regular Freemasonry.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was a written expression of the natural rights of citizens in revolutionary France.

  1.  The first expression of the motto is freedom. Original meanings: “The essence of freedom is that you can do what does not harm the rights of others.”
  2. The second concept of the motto, égalité – the word equality means that everyone is equal before the law.
  3. The third concept of the motto, fraternity (fraternité), was formulated in the French constitution in 1795 as follows: “Do not do to someone else what you do not want someone else to do to you; always do as good as you want with others.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, formulates the same principles:

We can find this in the Declaration

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
  • “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.”
  • All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”
  • „Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
  • “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

 Questions to ask ourselves: What is Freemasonry?

Let’s try to answer those questions that serve to understand today’s topic. Before that, however, let’s be clear about one fact.

Every person that belongs to any organization has a double attachment, two environments. One is it’s internal and the other is its external environment.

Notably, the internal environment is Freemasonry itself, the lodge itself, where the Freemason works, the lodge from which he leaves his ores outside, keeps him away. And the outer environment, where he keeps his ores, uses it.

I would like to try to answer the question, and only from this point of view.  

  • According to a Masonic concept used in Europe “What is Freemasonry?” the reply is: “It is a universal union of enlightened men who come together to work for the spiritual, moral, material, and intellectual imperfection of humanity.”
  • Another answer: “Modern Freemasonry is a traditional and universal order derived from the art of architecture, perpetuating its symbolism through inauguration ceremonies. Its purpose is to “become the center of unity and a means of making true friendships between persons who, without it, would have remained at a perpetual distance.”
  • Another person put it like this: (a famous Hungarian poet, Ferenc Kazinczy expressed it this way) “Masonry is a company that makes a little hoop of men of the best heart, in which one forgets the great unevenness which is in the outer world, in which man looks upon the king and the lowest man as his brother, in which he forgets the foolishness of the world, and seeing that in every member there is one soul, that is, the love of the good, she works, she weeps tears of joy.”

FreemasonryI would put the answer to the question:

The Freemasonry

  • is not a friendly society, although the freemasons regard each other as brothers and good friends,
  • cannot be called a table fellowship, but the freemasons like to be together and talk freely,
  • it is not a religion, although the freemasons hold our meetings according to a rite like a religion,
  • the Freemasonry is not a political party, the members have full freedom of thought, but all members of the Freemasonry do not discuss their opinions with each other in the lodges,
  • not a self-education group, although the freemasons are constantly polishing themselves, giving lectures for our own edification,
  • not a job center, although the freemasons are based on the principle of solidarity and can rely on each other when necessary.
Masonic Hall Philadelphia

How do we want to see Freemasonry?

According to my opinion, the Freemason in his inner environment, based on the Masonic traditions and heritage discussed so far, strives for the establishment of common relations based on mutual benefit, friendship, and fraternity. In his external environment, he must live, exist, and work based on these principles. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has already been cited, provides guidance in this regard as well. 

 At another point in the Declaration, it also states: Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

The most important duties of Freemasons in the inner environmental world of Freemasonry are based precisely on Masonic traditions and heritage. First of all, we must establish common, mutually beneficial relations within the Lodge.

Other important duties are:

  • Even if a freemason does not reveal it to his external environment, the Freemason must behave on the principles, traditions, and heritage of Freemasonry, even if he does not reveal it to the external environment. 
  • The Masonic should act as a role model, even if the reason for it cannot be revealed to the external environment.
  •  A Freemason can never forget that with his thinking and outlook, his human posture, his behavior, and all his manifestations, he is a representative of a tradition, a heritage. We can say that he is a secret ambassador of a traditional, eternal world of ideas.

Just as the master builders of the old ages carved stones and built cathedrals out of them, so the masons of the present ages, precisely based on their heritage, wish to unite well-meaning, pure-spirited people into lodges with the aim of ultimately building better society. This is what the Masonic tradition puts it this way:

“Let wisdom raise our building! May strength uphold! And Beauty adorns it!”


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