In the blog post, we looked at the difference between Obligations and Charges as they relate to Masonry and explored how they might affect our duties as a Mason.
Charges are hortatory and serve as instruction to the Mason on how to further their path in Masonry and improve themselves. Obligations are a morally binding contract in which you declare that you will follow certain guidelines with the assistance of and a debt to Deity. We looked at the Biblical basis for this contract with Deity and how this was a powerful incentive to our ancient Brothers to comply with the requirements of the Obligation.
Ignoring the charge you are given with each degree simply cheats you of the knowledge available through Masonry and harms no Brother directly. Breaking your obligation, however, is sin according to the Torah / Old Testament and means you are cheating or breaking faith with Deity and you are therefore subject to punishment both in this world and the next.
We now turn our attention to the other end of the Obligation and examine the rather curious addition regarding the true nature of our intent in taking the Obligation.
The Obligation is a layered affair starting with an admission that one is not forced to take it, recognizing free will and positive intent, and then invoking the assistance of Deity in performing the duties of the Obligation. In the middle are the various parts and points that the candidate is being obligated to and then there is yet another section that reinforces with specific terms that the person swearing the Obligation is not doing so with any hidden intent. A curious addition considering they have already invoked Deity.
As we discussed in the first section, taking obligations that were sealed with an appeal to Deity was quite common in the 18th century and even before that time. As many were illiterate and Church and State were essentially one, the burdens of religious compliance weighed heavily on the populace. These obligations were not taken lightly and it was believed wholly that breaking the obligation would be a sin punishable by Deity. So why the bookend of “…equivocation, mental reservation or secret evasion…”?
Since the founders of Masonry left us no notes to explain how or why they picked the language they did we can only speculate on what influenced them in the creation of our ritual. Like any author, they would have been influenced by not only the educational standards of the times but also by events of the time and language that was in common usage. If that is the case, then I believe there are two major contributors to the construction of our Obligations: Historical precedence and the influence of the politics and theology of that time.
The use of oaths of allegiance, obedience, etc. has a long history in England stretching back to the Magna Carta. Once the terms had been finalized on 19 June, the rebels again swore allegiance to King John. The later Bill of Rights (1689) included the Oath of Allegiance to the crown, which was required by Magna Carta to be taken by all crown servants and members of the judiciary.
In Operative Masonry, obligations or oaths can be found in records stretching back to the early 1300’s that were required of men joining the Craft.
At time passed, there were three major oaths being used consistently in England; The Oath of Supremacy (religious; the King is the head of the Church), The Oath of Allegiance (to the crown, denying the Pope) and, in 1702, the Oath of Abjuration (denying the Stuarts and the Pope) and therefore they would most certainly had an influence on early Masonry. These three oaths changed over time to include things that were then important to the ruling class but they all contained two similar sections: They were sworn in the name of God per the instructions in the Torah / Old Testament and they contained the phrase:
“…And all these things I do plainly and sincerely acknowledge and swear, according to these express words by me spoken, and according to the plain and common sense and understanding of the same words, without any Equivocation, or mental evasion, or secret reservation whatsoever: And I doe make this recognition and acknowledgement heartily, willingly, and truly, upon the true faith of a Christian: So help me God.”
While there were various issues with the Catholic Church, Royal Lines and other issues that marginally changed the close of the oath, the concepts of there being no “…equivocation, mental reservation or secret evasion…” began to be standard in oaths following the expulsion of the Stuart line and the Catholic Church. (Mid 1500’s)
The reason for the prohibition of this triplet of ethical bending is that as long as there have been oaths, humans have been inclined to figure out a way to get around the oath. Particularly, the technique of mental reservation, which had been proposed as a Catholic doctrine as early as 1565. This was especially important in the case of Catholics in the 1700’s, whom if they did not take the oath, which included abjuring nearly every foundational principal of the Catholic Church, would have 2/3 of their property seized, most of their civil rights suspended and be barred from the major professions (Dr. Lawyer, civil servant). So taking the oath but equivocating, having reservations or evasion makes a lot of sense. (who scares your more…God and the Church or the King’s men?) Another example is those that wished to see a restoration of the Stuart line to the throne and Catholicism as the national religion might take the oath but use one of the three methods to not truly bind himself to that oath.
So, if we can agree that our usage of this phrase was likely influenced by the powerful oaths that permeated society at this time, the struggle between the Catholic faith and the various Protestant faiths and Operative Masonic history, then we can turn our attention to the meanings behind each of these terms and explore how they work together and how, if at all, they should still govern our actions today.
Equivocation is an informal logical fallacy. It is an attempt to mislead or confuse by using a term that can have more than one meaning.
Equivocation is the use in a syllogism (a logical chain of reasoning) of a term several times, but giving the term a different meaning each time. For example:
A feather is light.
What is light cannot be dark.
Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.
The fallacy of equivocation is often used with words that have a strong emotional content and many meanings. These meanings often coincide within proper context, but the fallacious arguer does a semantic shift, slowly changing the context by treating, as equivalent, distinct meanings of the term.
In English language, one equivocation is with the word “man”, which can mean both “member of the species, Homo sapiens” and “male member of the species, Homo sapiens“. The following sentence is a well-known equivocation:
“Do women need to worry about man-eating sharks?”, in which “man-eating” is construed to mean a shark that devours only male human beings.
This occurs where the referent of a word or expression in a second sentence is different from that in the immediately preceding sentence, especially where a change in referent has not been clearly identified.
All jackasses have long ears.
Carl is a jackass.
Therefore, Carl has long ears.
Here the equivocation is the metaphorical use of “jackass” to imply a stupid or obnoxious person instead of a male donkey.
“Nothing is better than”
Margarine is better than nothing.
Nothing is better than butter.
Therefore, margarine is better than butter.
The Bible itself contains a good example of equivocation. Abraham was married to his half-sister by a different mother, Sarah/Sarai. Fearing that as he traveled people would covet his beautiful wife and as a result kill him to take her, he counseled her to agree with him when he would say, “she is my sister”. This happens on two occasions, first with the Pharaoh of Egypt told in Genesis 12:11-13 and secondly with a king called Abimelech in Gen 20:12.
So equivocating while taking the oath by changing words on purpose or by accident or claiming a different definition would be one way of taking the oath without actually agreeing to the terms of the oath. In others words, a trapdoor to escape through when confronted with a transgression of the oath. By saying you are not equivocating, you acknowledge this possibility and swear that this is not what you are doing. As long as there has been language, communication has been a subtle and tricky thing. Claiming ignorance or a different definition for a word would be hard to prove wrong. We often see this in Masonic charges and trials.
This trick has both a secular use or definition and one in moral theology both of which accomplish the same task, that of misleading the receiver of the communication by using a form of deception that is not an outright lie thus tying it directly to equivocation. Justification for such behavior is often given as that mental reservation allows you to save someone the horrors of knowing the actual truth. A lie without actually lying for the good of the recipient.
The moral theology use of this method is called strict mental reservation and originated with the Catholic church in Spain in the mid-1500’s. The basic theory states that it is permissible to lie orally as long as you mentally add words that make your statement not a lie. Since God can hear every thought you have, it is not a lie.
For example in early modern England (e.g. under James VI/I, died 1625) when it was a capital offence for a Roman Catholic priest to enter England. A Jesuit priest would use strict mental reservation in order to protect himself from the secular authorities without (in his eyes) committing the sin of lying. For example, he could use the ambiguity of the word “a” (meaning “any” or “one”) to say “I swear I am not a priest”, because he could have a particular priest in mind who he was not. That is, in his mind, he was saying “I swear I am not one priest” (e.g. “I am not Father Brown”.)
While this doctrine was quite controversial in the Catholic church and eventually condemned by Pope Innocent XI (1679), it was still quite popular well into the 18th century and is still discussed both in secular and religious philosophy.
Again, if you truly believed in this doctrine, you could take any oath supplied to you, and then act as you please and still maintain that you were innocent because you had thought other words when taking the oath.
Evasion as defined in ethics is deceiving someone by using a statement that is irrelevant or leads to a false conclusion. Someone asks you if you have “seen” a particular person whom you know to be in the building because you heard his or her voice but you answer, “I have not seen him”. Both true and a lie at the same time!
These three techniques are so similar to each other that it is often hard to define which one is actually being used. Nonetheless, these were in great use during that time (and in my opinion still are) and the construction of common oaths and our obligation recognized this feature of dealing with people. Specifically eliminating these techniques by naming them and tying it as a promise to Deity, the receiver of the oath has no way out, no excuse and no defense for breaking their oath.
Again, as we saw with the Biblical laws to keep your oath to Deity, we see at the other end of our obligation a trio of commonly used methods to alter or avoid keeping our oath eliminated leaving the receiver of the oath no other path but to strictly comply with the oath.
But that is predicated on the receiver of the oath knowing exactly what those three techniques mean and how they have been used in society up to this point and the seriousness of the transgression.
In part 3 of this examination of our obligations, we will take a look at the specific things that make up the “meat” of the obligation.
- How many of us when kneeling at the alter realized just how firmly the door had been shut to our ability to escape the oath we had just taken?
- Do we take this act of obligation as serious as it certainly is when the inner workings are examined?
- Do we take our obligation as seriously as a written contract, which is the norm in our world today? Should it be?
- How do you feel about ethical behavior being based on either the promise of reward (I’ll tell you the secrets of MM) or the threat of punishment (penalties, sin, etc.)? Does all life work that way? Can an atheist be ethical if there is not fear of eternal penalty?
- Does placing your hands on the Bible and having them held there by the conferring Master change anything or reinforce the seriousness of the obligation?
The Case of an Oath of Abjuration Considered 1702
Discussion of the need for an additional oath in addition to Oath of Allegiance. Argues that it is not needed and impossible to be kept.