The Masonic ritual was devised in the early 18thcentury and underwent refinement into the ritual we now use during the first half of the 19thcentury. While there have been some minor changes, on the whole, it remains written in the language and style of the early 17thcentury. We often joke about how hard it is to get the rhythm and meaning of English from this time period but we resist the urge to update the wording and syntax to 21stcentury standards. It is felt that changing that language would risk losing some or all of the original intent of the authors. And this is true, particularly when we look at word definitions.
An often forgotten or ignored fact about the English language is that it is very fluid and constantly evolving. From a little used “commoner” language it has spread worldwide and dominates many areas of business and everyday life in many different countries. The challenge with English is that often the definition of a word and its use can and does change depending on the period of history in which it was used. An obvious example of this is the word “Charity” which now a day is mostly connoted to mean giving of money or support but in the 17thand 18thcentury had a much different meaning. Examples of words changing their meanings based on societal changes abound both in our ritual and in everyday life.
In the obligation of the Master Mason’s degree, one of the landmarks stated is that there is a certain class of people that cannot be made a Mason. The list is very specific and for the most part, pretty common sense if you understand the history and intent of Masonry. But there is one class of person that most people are likely misinterpreting and that is the irreligious libertine. When most of us hear or read that phrase, we think of a person of questionable morals, a party animal, or a low class person and on top of that behavior they seem to have no faith in Deity. And in fact, if you look up the two words irreligious and libertine, that impression of this person would be confirmed.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines these two words as follows:
1: neglectful of religion: lacking religious emotions, doctrines, or practices
2: indicating lack of religion
1disparaging: a freethinker especially in religious matters
2: a person who is unrestrained by convention or morality specifically: one leading a dissolute life
So as people that were born in the 20th or 21st century, we feel well grounded in our opinion that an irreligious libertine is a pretty poor character to associate with and it makes sense we would not want to make them a Mason.
But is a morally questionable, dissolute, faithless man really what the authors of ritual were describing? A closer look at the history and use of the word libertine will reveal that there may have been a much different reason for including such a person in the list of non-acceptable candidates.
The hunt for what might be the original intent begins in the 17thcentury. This was a time of much upheaval in Europe and England. The Reformation and the resulting religious wars, especially the 30 years war, were quickly breaking the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church over thought, philosophy and science. Great minds such as Newton, Huygens, Descartes and Pascal were openly proposing ideas, asking questions and conducting experiments that less than a century before would have gotten them burned at the stake by the Church. The adoption of the scientific method, the weakening of the Church’s ability to suppress thought and investigation and the efforts of these new pioneers in thought to share and distribute this information despite the constant upheaval of war lead to the development of a new term to describe these men. Liberty of the mind was now a recognized shift in society and these men were described as having a “free mind”. This meant that they were thinking outside of and often rejecting the dogmatic ideas of the Church including taking a view of the Bible as being more allegory than literal fact.
The word libertine is borrowed from the Latin libertinus,which meant freedman and was used to denote a freed slave or the son of a freed slave. In the case of the men of the 17thcentury that were expanding the boundaries, the “liberty” in libertine referred to freedom from two very important constraints: the constraint of religious orthodoxy and the constraint imposed by the authority of the ancients (e.g. Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo).
Soon the term libertine came into use to describe these freethinkers and natural philosophers (the term scientist didn’t come into use until 1833) and it was a generally positive term! Times were changing and the people of Europe and England were shaking off the chains of intellectual bondage imposed by the Church and the men doing so were seen as leaders into a brave new world by many.
(n.b. This term was also used to describe various Protestant sects in France that believed that under the gospel dispensation of grace, moral law was of no use or obligation, that faith alone is all that is necessary for salvation and nothing is sinful. This is known as antinomianism. The followers of this theology fully lived this idea to the disapproval of everyone else and were associated with debauchery, sensuality and depravity. Thus, the term libertine began to take on its negative definition.)
The Church however, did not see these new freethinkers in such a positive light. In addition, many of the new natural philosophers had talked themselves out of their faith and so after some years, nearly all freethinkers were assumed to be atheist or labeled as atheist by the Church. While this was true for some, it was certainly not the norm of men working in these fields at that time. It was felt (and still is by many scientist today) that you could question the theology of the Church but still have a faith in a Deity.
Nonetheless, as time went by the term libertine became more and more derogatory and associated with atheism, debauchery, sensuality and depravity which led to rumors and gossip about the morals of a libertine or freethinker, and the word became synonymous with a person of low morals and few limits as we use it today. By the middle of the 19thcentury, libertine was no longer a sought after or welcomed sobriquet.
However, at the time our ritual was being authored, the word libertine would still have been a positive moniker and as much of Masonic ritual is about learning (the Fellowcraft degree especially) and what are often seen as Enlightenment ideas such as religious tolerance, charity towards all mankind, and associated liberal ideas. Why wouldn’t you want to make a libertine a Mason? It would seem like a libertine as defined at that time would be a natural for inclusion in the Craft.
The answer lies in the word irreligious. If the phrase irreligious libertine were dissected using modern definitions, then it would seem to be a redundant phrase. It would hard to be “religious” if you were a man of compromised morals as the modern definition of libertine states, so adding the word irreligious doesn’t give a better or sharper definition of the person you want to exclude.
Now look at that phrase and the word libertine from the understanding of its definition in the 17thand 18thcentury. This is a completely different story! The problem isn’t that the person is a libertine. In fact it would seem to be an advantage. Being a freethinker and seeker of knowledge is part of the Masonic fabric. The problem is having no faith…being irreligious.
While thematically, Masonry promotes learning, self-reasoning and innovation, it is always with an eye to remembering that everything is owed to Deity in whatever form you wish to perceive it. Atheism is an anathema to the Masonic philosophy! The authors of ritual appear to have been trying to make sure that the concept of debt to Deity was not lost as men moved forward with the new and exciting quest for knowledge that was taking place at that time. We are first introduced to this idea of faith plus reason in the Entered Apprentice charge where we are told:
There are three great duties, which as a Mason, you are charged to inculcate – to God, your neighbor and yourself. To God, in never mentioning His name but with that reverential awe which is due from a creature to his Creator…
This is merely one place that this obligation to Deity is taught. Ritual is full of overt and covert examples of this important basic tenet. So it wasn’t that Masonry didn’t want intelligent, inquisitive, self-reasoning men, it was that Masonry didn’t want men with those characteristics that had no faith! This phrase was a safety stop to separate out the growing number of philosophers and scientists that had abjured or lost their faith in the face of the new knowledge. It preserved one of the basic concepts of Masonry that man can think and grow and learn but still have a foundation in faith.