"I bought me a high school geometry the other day" confessed the Very New Mason to the Old Past Master, sitting on the benches waiting for the Worshipful Master to call the lodge to labor. "I was so much impressed with what I learned of its importance to Masons, during the Fellowcraft Degree, that I determined to go back to my school days and try again. But I am much discouraged."
"Why so?" asked the old Past Master, interested. "I recall geometry as rather an interesting subject. I don't suppose I could do a single original now, it's been so many years.... I don't know when I have looked in one!"
"Why, you surprise me! I thought all good Masons must know geometry. We are taught.... how does it go?.... something about a noble science...." his voice trailed off in silence.
"'Geometry, the first and noblest of the sciences'" quoted the Old Past Master, "' is the basis on which the superstructure of Masonry is erected. By geometry, we may curiously trace Nature through her various windings, to her most concealed recesses. By it we may discover the wisdom and the goodness of the Grand Artificer of the universe and view with delight the proportions which connect this vast machine.'"
"Yes, that's it!" agreed the Very New Mason. "And there is a lot more, isn't there?"
"A whole lot!" smiled the Old Past Master, in agreement.
"Well, then, why doesn't a well informed Mason have to be a geometrician?"
"There is certainly no reason why a good geometrician shouldn't be a good Mason," answered the Old Past Master, "but no reason why a man who doesn't know geometry shouldn't be a good Mason.
"You see, my son, we hark back a great many years in much of our lectures, to a time when knowledge was neither so great nor so diversified as now. William Preston, the eminent Masonic student, scholar, writer, who lived and wrote in the latter part of the eighteenth century, conceived the idea of making the degrees in general, and the Fellowcraft degree in particular, a liberal education! A 'liberal education' in those days was comprised within what we still call, after Preston, the 'seven liberal arts and sciences.' In those days any mathematics beyond geometry was only for the very, very few; indeed, mathematics were looked upon rather askance by the common men, as being of small use in the world, save for engineers and designers and measurers of land.
"But Preston, if his lectures are no longer the real 'liberal education' which he planned, and which, in the form of his lectures modified by Webb (and somewhat tinkered with by various authorities and near authorities who at times have kept the husk and let the kernel escape!) builded better than he knew. For we may now justly and honorable take 'geometry' to mean not only the science of measurement of surface and area and the calculation of angles and distances, but to mean all measurement. And to study measurement, my son, means to study science, for all science is but measurement, and by that measurement, the deduction of laws and the unravelling of the secrets of nature.
"I do not understand geometry anymore; it is long since I studied it. But I do study, and do try to keep my mind awake and always filling, if never full. It is true that to many a Mason the study of geometry itself would be a grand mental discipline and thus greatly improve his mind. But I do not think we are to take this admonition literally, any more than we are to accept literal interpretations for other wordings in our ritual. We meet upon the level, in Masonry, and we act upon the square. But that does not mean that we put our feet upon a carpenter's level, or sit upon stone masons' squares while we 'act.' The words are symbols of thoughts. I take the admonition to study geometry as a symbol of a thought, meaning that a Mason is to educate himself, to keep his mind open, to keep it active, to learn, to think, to develop his reason and his logic, the he may the better aid himself to know himself and his work to aid his fellowmen.
"Even Preston, literal-minded as he was, and focusing all his attention as he did, upon ritual and teaching by it and a formalism which is not yet outworn in our ranks, had a vision of what geometry might mean beside the mathematical science of angles. For.... how does it go? In our charge to a Fellowcraft, we say "Geometry, or Masonry, originally synonymous terms, being of a divine and moral nature, is enriched with the most useful knowledge, while it proves the wonderful properties of nature, it demonstrates the more important truths of morality.'
"It should be obvious that a study of mathematics of any kind cannot demonstrate morality unless it is considered a symbol as well as a science. As we are thus told in so many words to use geometry as a symbol, we may well agree with Pike, who wrote learnedly to prove a Mason's inherent right to interpret the symbols of Freemasonry for himself. To me, geometry is a symbol of science, and one which I should use to impress upon myself the need of something else. To a Mason who had had few educational advantages, the word might mean its literal sense, and he be greatly benefitted by a close study of the book which discourages you.
"I do not attempt, my brother, to force upon you my understanding, or to quarrel at all with those Masons who find a different interpretation of the geometry which is Masonry as we understand it. I do but give you my ideas for whatever use they may be to you, and so you will not be discouraged in what is a praiseworthy attempt to profit by the Masonic lectures. Do you recall the end of the charge you received as a Fellowcraft?"
"I.... I.... I am afraid I don't, just exactly...."
"It runs this way," smiled the Old Past Master. "....'in your new character it is expected that you will conform to the principles of the Order by steadily persevering in the practice of every commendable virtue.' If you study the 'principles of the Order' you will, indeed, be learning Masonic geometry."