Freemasonry is one of those things that I knew has been around, because of American currency, random mentions in history books, and…the DaVinci Code and National Treasure movies.
Always thought it was just sort of a strange fad, but also had a sense that it was more important than I realized, simply because Freemasonry has been around now for hundreds of years. And even though it’s in slow decline, it seems to be important.
What I Liked
The Craft is an in-depth book. He goes all the way back to the beginning, and does an excellent job charting the rise fall, and then rise again, and now slow decline of Freemasonry. He also does a good job explaining what it is and why it matters.
I also found the topic strangely engaging. There are so few human institutions that last hundreds of years that it’s worth learning what that institution is doing right.
Outside of religion, government, and a few academic institutions, Freemasonry is really the only thing that you can say had millions of members in the 1700s, and has millions of members now.
I appreciated how he explained the impact of Freemasonry and how it made its way into various nooks and crannies of society. Now I notice old abandoned Lodges all around Atlanta, and I’m increasingly looking for “third place” kind of organizations.
What I Did Not Like
There are a few sections in the 1800s, that are quite boring and get really into the weeds. The sections where Freemasonry interacts with other social institutions, which are now gone, are very tedious to work through.
I wish he had spent even more time on Freemasonry in the postwar era, when it hit its peak membership even if its influence never reached the peak that it did in the 1780s and 1790s.
Freemasonry is important because it was the first truly global, universal institution / concept / narrative that humans adopted.
Humans work together by creating shared abstract concepts (“hey, we’re all part of this company, so we should work together to build a widget!”) that allow us to work towards a mutual goal that is out of reach for individuals.
Truly global, universal concepts that allow people to work together regardless of language, nationality, family, or other local tribal-esque concepts are very rare.
Before Freemasonry, Christianity and Islam were really only global shared concepts that had people around the world working together towards a single goal.
But even those were not truly global, because they had lots of gaps around the world (see…Crusades and Jihad), and also had a system of belief that excluded a lot of people.
Freemasonry, however, came up with a shared experience for members to go through to become part of the brotherhood. There was only a vague system of belief, that really anyone could buy into. So it allowed for truly universal access.
Freemasonry should still be enormously popular and enormously influential in the 21st century. It has history, tradition, nostalgia, and a sense of belonging that most people and social scientists agree is missing in the 21st century. And yet…
But Freemasonry is also Exhibit A for how institutions have to change some to adapt to the times, and they also must lean into their contradictions in order to grow. Freemasonry’s biggest contradiction is that even though it is global and universal…it still excludes more than half of the world’s population.
By not finding a way to include women (and by being embarrassingly late to deal with the awful mistake of allowing white southerners to extend a racist ideology into Freemasonry in the post-Civil War era), Freemasonry, as an institution, is in decline in a way that may not be recoverable as it has many times in the past.
Tribalism is humans’ greatest hack. Even though at face value it should force us into small groups that fight each other all the time, with a little creativity we can actually use it to bring people together (“hey – we all love these sports, let’s start an Olympic movement!”).
By creating clubs and groups that offer people access to something bigger than themselves, we can do a whole lot of good in the world. So whether it’s a local friend’s of the park club, chess club, city, church group, or any other group, it’s important to either join or at least support the existence of those groups.
Freemasonry may or may not survive (it looks a bit rocky to me). But, it’s easy to take clubs and groups for granted. They do important work in making the world a better place, and there’s likely some good in every group that’s worth building on.