Our Naked Shivering Nature
Traditions, Edmund Burke once wrote, “are all the decent drapery of life.” Others, certainly, consider inherited traditions like the masonic rituals we read about in today’s chapter to be merely ornamental, perhaps even frivolous socio-evolutionary leftovers. But Burke saw something much deeper and vital in traditions. He peered beyond the merely visible and saw that often a tradition carries within it the unseen, embedded wisdom of the ages. He therefore saw traditions as “all the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation.”
The entirety of today’s chapter is dedicated to traditions — or, at least, rituals — and how they assist the transmission of this moral imagination. There are things that Pierre, during his initiation into the Freemasons, is made to do that seem absurd. Walking around blindfolded, for instance. Standing before a man wearing an apron stained with blood. Being given three sets of gloves. But, as Burke would say, there may be more to these rituals than meets the eye. Maybe that’s why we keep hearing the congregants in the background calmly bickering over the exact order of the rituals as Pierre completes them. Maybe these rituals aid an initiate’s focus on the purpose and mission of Freemasonry.
During Pierre’s induction into the Freemasons the Grand Master of the ceremony proclaims some of the statutes of the order. The following will suffice for our meditation today:
Beware making any distinctions which may infringe equality. Fly to a brother’s aid whoever he may be, exhort him who goeth astray, raise him that falleth, and never bear malice or enmity towards thy brother. Be kindly and courteous. Kindle in all hearts the flame of virtue. Share thy happiness with thy neighbour, and may envy never dim the purity of that bliss. Forgive thy enemy, do not avenge thyself except by doing him good. Thus fulfilling the highest law thou shalt regain traces of the ancient dignity which thou has lost.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace