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The Freemasons: Prosocial Groups of the Enlightenment Era. A Conversation with Margaret C. Jacob
IN THIS ARTICLE
Biology History
Margaret C. Jacob
Margaret C. Jacob
is professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles.
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

While reading a biography of Robert Burns, the Scottish Bard who lived in the 18th Century, I learned that he was a Freemason. I had heard of the Freemasons as some sort of secret society, but that didn’t help me understand how Burns, a lowly farmer by trade who had become roughly the equivalent of a rap artist of his day, would be one of them.

Intrigued, I began to read more about the Freemasons, which led me to Margaret C. Jacob, the distinguished historian whose books include The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents (2000), The Scientific Revolution: A Brief History with Documents (2009), The Radical Enlightenment (1981), Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe (1991), and The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions (2007). Jacob was the perfect historian for someone like me—scholarly, accessible, and capable of seeing both the forest and the trees.

What I learned from Jacob and other authors was that the Freemasons were originally a guild of architects that morphed into a “speculative society” in England during the early 1700s; that the speculative version spread rapidly to the European Continent and America; and that Freemasons were influential in the emergence of the democratic governance at the national scale.

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Anyone would be fascinated by this story, but for me, it was especially captivating because it meshed so well with cultural Multilevel Selection (cMLS) Theory, my own area of expertise. A central concern of cMLS theory is how cooperative forms of governance can overcome disruptive self-serving behaviors at all scales, from small groups to large nations. All European nations prior to the 18th century were autocratic, which means that they were governed by an elite for their own benefit and not necessarily for the common good. Democratic movements in Europe and America were a swing away from extractive forms of governance in the direction of more inclusive forms of governance, to employ the language of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012). Viewed from a cMLS perspective, the history of the Freemasons seemed to indicate that (relatively) democratic governance first originated and spread at a small scale—the Masonic lodges—and then expanded in scale through the democratic revolutions. The word “relatively” is important because the Masonic lodges were by no means totally inclusive and were famously hierarchical in their own way—but then, the first democratic governments weren’t totally inclusive either.

If this interpretation of the Freemason movement of the 18th century is correct, it goes beyond historical interest. Modern societies are again becoming highly extractive, run for the benefit of elites rather than the common good, with America and the United Kingdom leading the way. It makes no difference that the favored 1% are economic elites rather than aristocratic elites. If small groups were required for a swing toward inclusiveness in the 18th century, then perhaps they are equally needed today. That is one way of putting the mission of PROSOCIAL, a practical framework for improving the efficacy of groups based on my collaboration with Elinor Ostrom, who received the Nobel prize in economics in 2009 for her work demonstrating the capacity of common-pool resource groups to manage their own affairs. In Ostrom’s vision of large-scale governance, called polycentric governance, small groups play a critical role, although coordination is also required among the groups.

No one, to my knowledge, has explored the intersection between the history of the Freemason movement, cMLS theory, and Ostrom’s vision of polycentric governance. Not shy in a situation like this, I reached out to Professor Jacob, who graciously agreed to have a phone conversation with me in January 2017.

David Sloan Wilson: Welcome, Professor Jacob! Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

Margaret C. Jacob: That’s fine!

DSW: We’ll get to evolution later on, but first, for a very broad audience with few common denominators, could you please describe how the Freemasons began as a guild of architects and then morphed into what was called a “speculative society”.

MCJ: Yes. In the Middle Ages, the Masons guild had members with various skill levels. Master Masons really were architects. They were the people who designed the buildings and supervised their construction. They were literate and numerate. That made them different; it made them a higher class of hand worker. When the Masonic guilds get to the 16th century, they show in their early records interest in the hermetic tradition, number mysticism, and all kinds of Renaissance activities that you would not necessarily find in the Clockmaker guild, for instance, or the Bell Ringer guild. In the 17th Century in Scotland–as far as we know the first place that this happened–for economic reasons, the Masons’ guild had to bring non-Masons in to get their building projects financed. You can see this happening, for example, in the records of Dundee, Scotland, where we have a really good account of who’s coming in. Many of the men who came in were not Masons themselves; they were generally merchants, men with money who could help finance the projects. Very gradually, this…if you want to call it Middle Class—I don’t like using that term—it’s mercantile men who have spare capital—become dominant in the lodges and it’s that move toward dominance that we call the transition from operative to speculative. That’s really all that means.

DSW: OK.

MCJ: As it spread from Scotland down to England, this speculative form of Freemasonry took off and became dominant. Now, there were still operatives within the lodges, in Scotland and to a lesser extent in England, right up to the founding of the Grand Lodge in 1717, but they are less and less important and the leadership becomes increasingly men of some substance and even wealth and sometimes men of Aristocratic backgrounds. This is a transformation that we know happened but don’t know exactly why it happened. One element that attracted the upper reaches of society was the mathematical skill of these architects. That was something that was increasingly of value among educated people.

DSW: Am I correct that these speculative lodges enabled people from different strata of society to socialize in ways that were otherwise forbidden?

MCJ: Well, they weren’t forbidden; it was just that they probably wouldn’t occur very frequently or ordinarily. Most social life occurred in extended families, in Churches, in confraternities in Catholic countries, in guilds. What you begin to see is the mixing of people who would normally not be in the same room.

DSW: Right!

MCJ: You can see this very clearly in the French cabarets of the 1720s and 30s. How do we know so much about them? Because the French police were everywhere and they looked for any social gathering that they couldn’t understand. They were particularly worried about the fact that noblemen were attracted to this because they always worried about aristocratic cabals of one sort or another. Also the fact that they wore aprons and had ritual behavior that came out of the medieval guild tradition. That smacked of religion and made the authorities nervous. So we have some quite good spy reports!

DSW: One of the things that I learned from your books is that you can’t trust any account. You can’t trust what the Freemasons said about themselves and you can’t trust what others said about the Masons. Everything was so steeped in some kind of lore and invented tradition that you have to be a real historical detective to know what was going on at all.

MCJ: Right. The most you could hope for are accounts that coincide, more or less. The other thing that you’re always looking out for are private diaries and letters. They can give you a lot because there people speak their minds. For example, among the earliest letters that we have from Paris, again from the 1720’s and early 30’s, we have brothers writing to one another talking about their lodge activities and mentioning, for example, that to use the language of the time, there is a ”negro trumpeter from the King’s guard”, who is involved. And you think “What??? How is this possible??”

DSW: [laughs]

MCJ: Where did they find him? Or, how did he find them? It’s interesting that obviously, they are attracting people who don’t quite fit in, and who are looking for a social home. This is what was provided by the lodges. It’s fascinating!

DSW: I became interested because I read a biography of Robert Burns…

MCJ: Ah, yes!

DSW: …and I discovered that he was a Freemason. He, as you know, was a farmer and roughly the equivalent of a rap artist of his day. And there he was a Freemason. That’s in the same vein, isn’t it?

MCJ: Yes, it’s the same idea.

DSW: Yet, at the same time, they were highly selective and hierarchical. In one sense they were inclusive, but in another sense they were hierarchical. Can you help me reconcile that paradox?

MCJ: Well, yes and no. They became a part of established society. So the natural leaders of society, in the aristocratic sense, were recruited to become Grand Master and various other officers. Indeed, one of the things going on here is that you have people from all different social backgrounds meeting, as they put it in their constitutions, “upon the level”. So, you have this false sense of equality, among men who were really very different, but when they got to the banquet table, they all broke bread together, drank a LOT [laughs] because we have some of the bills that they ran up for an evening. I mean, nobody got out of there sober. So you have this sense of camaraderie that is artificial, is not true to the way the world is, but which meant something important to these people.

DSW: Even by modern standards, it seems like the lodges spread like wildfire throughout the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and colonial America. They even thrived in spite of persecution. Can you say more about what accounted for its enormous popularity, even so much that they would put up with persecution?

MCJ: Well, it helped a lot in Catholic Europe that the Clergy and the Papacy were hostile. That attracted all kinds of people to the Lodges [laughs]. It’s also that it was fashionable and it had the aura of science about it. There are a lot of people in the London records. We know that there is a high correlation between Masonic membership and being fellows of the Royal Society. That also had a certain cache.

DSW: OK!

MCJ: Not least, in commerce, it meant a lot if you could travel from one place to another and go to a meeting where you are accepted as a brother and given a meal, and wined and dined, and that goes on throughout the century.

DSW: Aaahhh!

MCJ: Indeed, among the most fascinating records I’ve ever looked at are the visitor’s book of the main Amsterdam lodge.

DSW: OK, so anyone who is traveling, and of course that would include merchants, would then have a place to go.

MCJ: Exactly. And contacts, not least. So, we can see in the late 1770s and 80s Jean-Paul Marat is visiting in Amsterdam, and we know what he becomes. Casanova, the famous rake, he’s there as well. And then in 1781 and 2, there are brothers visiting from Philadelphia. Now imagine what they talked about?

DSW: Yeah, right! [laughs].

MCJ: This was a way to find out about what was going on in the American colonies. There also men coming in from Moscow, from Germany, from Italy. It was a place to meet and greet.

DSW: Most of them would have been religious in some sense of the word, but there was a norm of putting religious differences aside–is that right? At the same time, you wouldn’t call many of them atheists, in the modern sense. Am I right about that also?

MCJ: Yeah, you’re right about that. Where we can find intellectuals who belonged, there by the middle of the 18th century you get people like Montesquieu, who was a deist. Some of the people I have worked on include Jean Rousset de Moussy, who is hardly a household name, but he was a pantheist or an atheist. So, you are beginning to get people attracted to the lodges who belonged to the vanguard of the Enlightenment.

DSW: So, they are heterodox, but not necessarily atheist. Is that safe to say?

MCJ: Exactly right. They are not by any means atheist. Let me give you an example. In Strasbourg, which was a big Masonic center–and the lodges there were very Aristocratic–they would have ceremonies in which they would put a table in the lodge, and on it, they would put a Tabernacle. They called it that in the records—a Tabernacle. Inside the Tabernacle, they would have a copy of Masonic constitutions. You look at that and say: “Are they being sacrilegious? What are they doing?” No, they are being syncretic. It’s their way of saying this is an important document that we honor, the way we honor the host. I don’t think it was meant to be sacrilegious. It was meant to incorporate religious symbols into what was essentially a secular gathering.

DSW: Right. Am I right that the first constitutions were Masonic?

MCJ: Not quite. The earliest form of constitution making that we find in England is in the mid 17th Century and you can find all kinds of groups writing their constitutions. That is distinctive. It comes late, relatively speaking, in 1723, when the [Masonic] constitutions—plural—are published. We can assume that a lot of local guilds and lodges had their own constitutions and that they amalgamated these into one document. But there were people doing this previously. What’s interesting is that the word is exported in French as early as 1710 to refer to Masonic statutes and rules, and that’s the earliest usage we have of the term “constitution” in the French language. It did not mean the statutes and rules of an organization prior to that. Rather, it meant one’s physical constitution. One’s body, one’s health. So that’s a British expropriation.

DSW: Wow. OK! Now I’d like to focus on the idea that Freemason lodges served as incubators for democratic governance at a small scale, which then became manifested at a large scale through the democratic revolutions. Is that roughly correct, and can you elaborate?

MCJ: Yes, but you have to be careful. Here you have aristocrats and merchants and schoolteachers and Lord knows what, all breaking bread together and treating one another as equals. Are they equals in reality? No, they are not. No way. But, this does create a kind of ideal that brothers can be equals. The first use of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite—you know, the French slogan–comes out of Masonic usage, before the French Revolution. So, in a sense, there is nowhere else for this social form to go but in the direction of democratic behavior. But you have to be very cautious here. These people are not pioneers of democracy. They are experimenting, but I’m not even sure they knew what they were experimenting with, exactly.

DSW: Right! Even if it wasn’t intended—cultural evolution, or history as you might think of it, is an indeterministic process. All sorts of things happen that no one intends to happen, and so on.

MCJ: Exactly.

DSW: Knowing that, what was the role of the Masonic lodges in scaling up? The central thesis that I’m trying to work on is that large movements start out being incubated in small groups. This is one of the things that I’m trying to flesh out.

MCJ: Well, certainly I think that lodges could operate in that way. I tend to think of them more as schools of government. Because men learned to speak on their feet, to give orations, to vote, to contribute funds—they were taxed on a regular basis—to set up charity accounts, to govern themselves.

DSW: OK!

MCJ: That looks toward the future, not toward the past.

DSW: OK, so they were models of self-governance then.

MCJ: Yes.

DSW: Were there other models, in parallel? Maybe the Masonic lodges plus more?

MCJ: Not so many. Where you find self-governance, for example, is in all the different scientific societies that were set up, and the literary societies, but there is one big difference between them and the Masonic lodges. The scientific and literary societies did not set rules for moral behavior. They did not, as it were, police their members, the way the Masons did.

DSW: How did the Masons police themselves morally? This is important.

MCJ: First, you were not supposed to behave in disrespectful or outrageous ways in public, separate from the lodge. You were not meant to bring any kind of scandal to the lodge. You were not to be seen drinking or swearing in public. Let me give you an example: It was a custom of the lodges in London to march to the theater in order to watch a play. Now, London theaters and theaters everywhere in Europe during this period were madhouses. People screamed and talked and walked around. There was almost no order. The silence that we expect is a late 18th Century development. But uniformly the Masonic behavior was noted by contemporaries as being silent and respectful. They were disciplined. I think we’ve come to see, increasingly, that discipline is an important part of democratic behavior.

DSW: That’s fascinating. I’m reminded of the Quaker movement…

MCJ: Hmmmm…

DSW: …and other religious movements where were also exemplary. People loved to do business with Quakers because they knew that they wouldn’t be cheated. Things like that. I wonder if there is any connection in your mind between a religious movement such as Quakerism and something like the Masonic lodges.

MCJ: Well, yes, I think there is, to the extent that people tended to trust their brothers more than perhaps someone else. You can see that today in contemporary Freemasonry. There is a camaraderie among lodge members that I would think spills out into business dealings and what not. It’s just you have someone with whom you are breaking bread, who accepts the same principles that you do. That would make commercial interactions easier. But there is no guarantee.

DSW: Basically, in my terms–and I’ll flesh this out in the introduction to our interview–this is connected to the work of Elinor Ostrom. I don’t suppose that you are familiar with her? She was a political scientist who won the Nobel prize in 2009 in economics.

MCJ: I know the name. Tell me the ideas and I might know them too.

DSW: She studied groups that attempt to manage common-pool resources, like forests, fields, fisheries, things like that…

MCJ: Mmm Hmm..

DSW: …and she derived eight core design principles that caused these groups to function well. I’ll quickly list them to you and you can see how well they ring true for Freemason societies. The first one definitely rings true because it’s a strong sense of identity and purpose.

MCJ: Mmm Hmm!

DSW: Number 2 is a fair distribution of costs and benefits. It’s not sustainable for some people to do all the work and others to get all the benefits. Benefits need to be proportional to costs.

MCJ: Mmm Hmm.

DSW: Number 3 is decision making that is inclusive. It doesn’t need to be by consensus necessarily, but there is a sense in which decision-making is thought to be inclusive and fair.

MCJ: Mmm Hmm.

DSW: We can get back to decision making—I’d like to do that—but let’s proceed with the list. Number 4 is monitoring of agreed upon behavior. If you’re not monitoring behavior, you can’t regulate it.

MCJ: Mmm Hmm. This sounds awfully familiar!

DSW: Yeah! Number 5 is graduated sanctions. If you’re not behaving right, then something has to be done about it, but it doesn’t have to start out harsh. It can start out friendly and escalates as needed.

MCJ: Mmm Hmm.

DSW: Number 6 is fast and fair conflict resolution. Conflicts of interest will occur and they need to be resolved quickly and in a manner that is fair and empathetic to both parties. Number 7 is local autonomy. A group must have elbow room to manage its affairs. Number 8 is appropriate relations with other groups, which embody the same relations as among individuals within the group. So, I just described common-pool resource groups, according to Elinor Ostrom. How do they fit Freemason society?

MCJ: [laughs] Well!

DSW: [laughs] I thought so! Let’s get back to decision-making. How were decisions made and was it inclusive?

MCJ: Votes. They voted.

DSW: OK.

MCJ: And they often practiced secret ballot. When it came to membership, bringing someone new in, it really had to be unanimous. They fought for a high degree of cohesion.

DSW: Right!

MCJ: They did not want to bring people in who would be troublemakers. Decisions that were tricky or difficult or politically suspect probably were made by the upper leadership and didn’t involve the everyday brothers. In France, for instance, in the time of Cardinal Fleury in the 1730s and early 40’s, the lodges were subject to spying. The way the Lodges handled this was that they would move their meeting place every month. Now, who made that decision? Almost certainly the top leadership. Things like that were made by the people at the top.

DSW: But then other things were subject to vote and secret ballot.

MCJ: Absolutely.

DSW: That’s great. How about graduated sanctions? I was a Rotary member for a while and was always amused at how members would be fined for lapses in good behavior, such as not showing up for meetings. Small monetary fines that would be levied in public, with great levity and good humor, but you knew that they were actually quite important. That was the mild start of graduated sanctions.

MCJ: That sort of thing went on, yes. You could be fined for not turning up—but that was also true in non-Masonic gatherings. I’ve looked at the social clubs in Edinburgh in the 18th century and there you’d be fined if you didn’t show up also. The place where you could really get fined was transgressing Masonic norms. For instance, we have evidence from the lodges of Bordeaux. They had some priests involved and they invited women to the lodges. That really upset the apple cart and some of these priests were thrown out.

DSW: [laughs]

MCJ: It has to be said, they may have been doing this partly to have a good time, and partly because there was this growing accusation of sodomy.

DSW: OK!

MCJ: The authorities couldn’t figure out why men of no similar religion, no similar clansmen, no blood relation, nor the same occupation, would break bread together. So they were looking for some explanation and sodomy presented itself.

DSW: That’s a good way to stigmatize people, also.

MCJ: Yes, exactly.

DSW: Let’s talk a little more about the importance of ritual. That’s something that I don’t quite understand. There is an egalitarian core to the Freemasons, yet it is combined with this heavy overlay of ritual and hierarchy. I wonder if that might be in part a carryover of the roots of the Freemasons, as opposed to being an essential element of the society.

MCJ: Well, it’s partially a carryover, but think of 18th Century society. The political order at court was dominated by ritual. The churches were dominated by ritual—more in Catholic than in Protestant countries, but in both places. There were all sorts of family rituals that were commonplace. So, to have a ritual in that period especially is hardly surprising.

DSW: Right, OK.

MCJ: It would be surprising if they didn’t have any ritual.

DSW: That’s a great point. Why is it that ritual has become so attenuated nowadays?

MCJ: I’m not sure what the answer to that is.

DSW: What about the Freemasons today? Are they still a strong movement?

MCJ: It depends on where you look. In parts of Europe, they are still strong. In other parts, they feel under siege. At this moment in Turkey, they feel besieged. In this country there has been in steady decline demographically, and also I suspect in terms of general influence. Some people say that they have managed to halt that decline, but I’m doubtful. The other problem, of course, is that in the contemporary world— if you look at my students, for example, racially, gender, ethnicity—you name it—they mix. The UCLA campus is the future. To have a place where everyone essentially looks the same and is the same gender, is increasingly an anachronism.

DSW: Yeah. This is true for mainline churches. It’s true for the Rotary club. It’s an older culture that people have little interest in joining. I can well see that happening. Peg, this has been so much fun! I’m so happy to make it available to others and to connect the dots with people like Elinor Ostrom and some of the principles of what causes any group to function well, with the Freemasons as examplars from the Enlightenment era.

MCJ: I’m glad to have been helpful. Nice talking!

6 Comments

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6 Comments

  1. Dave says:

    Excellent exploration. So much mystery surrounds the Masons but a cursory reading of French and early American history shows them to be a positive force for democracy.

  2. Rory Short says:

    As a silent metting Quaker the similarities between Quakers and Free masons struck me immediately. We are organised into hierarchical structures from local meetings through collections of local meetings to at the topmost level what we call a Yearly Meeting with the appropriate office bearers at each level appointed collectively by all the members at the bottom most level. The distinctive feature of our organisation is that the social power never leaves the bottom most level so any efforts by those higher up in the organisational hierarchy to act in ways that are not acceptable to those at the bottom most level is cause for them to be ejected from their positions in the hierarchy.

  3. Paul Netman says:

    Thank You. Very interesting insight. I gave freemasonry and this article in particular a place in my latest post (link to fauceir.wordpress.com) on social evolution.

  4. Guy Dauncey says:

    This is fascinating – thanks! Many of the small towns in British Columbia have many service clubs, the Lions, the Rotary, and they mostly originate from 100 years ago, in the period 1910-1920. What was it about that period, i wonder, that caused so many new clubs modelled on the Freemasons but not the Freemasons, to arise?

  5. Dennis D. Embry says:

    This was a wonderful article, touching my family history. My paternal grandfather was a 32nd degree Mason. I have his watch fob. The characteristics described by the the society now make wonderful sense to me why my grandfather was a member. While he was a physician and quite literate, he had hidden burdens. He would have been the first person of African American descent to to graduate from the Kansas City Medical College (now the University of Kansas). His wife was of german descent, and they had to hide that during World War I, This helps me understand how my father developed his very liberal thinking for his era, given who his father was attending these meetings. It’s also just a wonderful story. Benjamin Franklin’s “Leather Apron Society” bears similarities, BTW to this discussion.

  6. Erik Jensen says:

    This is fascinating. It seems that the Free Masons acted as a means for implementing “disruption” in the contemporary culture of the time. Today, we are at a time where dispruption is desired for a variety of reasons. Yet many of the “civic” and free mason-like organizations, i.e. Rotary, Sertoma, not-for-profits, even educational and some faith institutions, that might historically have provided the social foundation for these positive disruptive practices, no longer do so? Perhaps, they are so linked and tied to “establishment” norms and ways, that this critical historical disruptive function of renewal, seems neutered. These entitities now serve the ends and means of status-quoism, instead of that of socio-ecological disprution and development. This might partly be why they are having such a difficult time in generational renewal and continuity?

    I suppose a key question is what shall emerge in its place that will serve as a means to facilitate the change of today? Also, another key consideration is the role of the digital ecology. The digital realm has taken over so much of what we are, with so little understanding of consequences thereof. In this regard, I wonder if there might be an historic parallel regarding Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the later development of the Free Masons movement? I realize the time spans related to the printing press invention and Free Mason incarnation are much broader, but the nature of technology today seems to drive everything at so much speedier and condensed rates. The digital realm can certainly help facilitate the disruptive change, but it seems also to have equal power as a means of control, centralization and manipulation, as well.

    My Great Grandfather Peter W. Jensen from Denmark was a very high level Free Mason. I believe we still have some of the associated regalia. We had a giant, very old photo of him in his Free Mason garb, very reminiscent of that for a high level military commander. I believe my older brother (my g-grandfather’s namesake) has a sword that is inscribed with his name, etc. which was part of this uniform. I am going to re-visit these things now with new eyes, and a new level of appreciation and curiosity.