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Oral Instruction

Much of the instruction which is communicated in Freemasonry, and, indeed, all that is esoteric, is given orally; and there is a law of the Institution that forbids such instruction to be written. There is in this usage and regulation a striking analogy to what prevailed on the same subject in all the secret institutions of antiquity. In all the Ancient Mysteries, the same reluctance to commit the esoteric instructions of the hierophants to writing is apparent; and hence the secret knowledge taught in their initiations was preserved in symbols, the true meaning of which was closely concealed from the profane. The Druids had a similar regulation; and Caesar informs us that, although they made use of the letters of the Greek alphabet to record their ordinary or public transactions, yet it was not considered lawful to entrust their sacred verses to writing, but these were always committed to memory by their disciples.

The secret doctrine of the Cabala, or the mystical philosophy of the Hebrews, was also communicated in an oral form, and could be revealed only through the medium of allegory and similitude. The Cabalistic knowledge, traditionally received, was, says Maurice (Indian Antiquities, volume iv, page 548), "transmitted verbally down to all the great characters celebrated in Jewish antiquity, among whom both David and Solomon were deeply conversant in its most hidden mysteries. Nobody, however, had ventured to commit anything of this kind to paper."

The Christian Church also, in the age immediately succeeding the apostolic period, observed the same custom of oral instruction. The early Fathers were eminently cautious not to commit certain of the mysterious dogmas of their religion to writing, lest the surrounding Pagans should be made acquainted with what they could neither understand nor appreciate. Saint Basil (De Spiritu Sancto), treating of this subject in the fourth century, says: "We receive the dogmas transmitted to us by writing, and those which have descended to us from the apostles, beneath the mystery of oral tradition; for several things have been handed down to us without writings lest the vulgar, too familiar with our dogmas, should lose a due respect for them." And the further asks, "Hom should it ever be becoming to write and circulate among the people an account of those things which the uninitiated are not permitted to contemplated. A custom, so ancient as this, of keeping the landmarks unwritten, and one so invariably observed by the Masonic Fraternity, it may very naturally be presumed, must have been originally established with the wisest intentions; and, as the usage was adopted by many other institutions whose organization was similar to that of Freemasonry, it may also be supposed that it was connected, in some way, with the character of an esoteric instruction. Two reasons it seems to Doctor Mackey, may be assigned for the adoption of the usage among Freemasons.

In the first place, by confining our secret doctrines and landmarks to the care of traditions all danger of controversies and schisms among Freemasons and in Lodges is effectually avoided. Of these traditions, the Grand Lodge in each Jurisdiction is the interpreter and to its authoritative interpretation every Freemason and every Lodge in the Jurisdiction is bound to submit. There is no book, to which every Brother may refer, whose language each one may interpret according to his own views, and whose expressions-- sometimes, perhaps, equivocal and sometimes obscure --might afford ample sources of wordy contest and verbal criticism.

The doctrines themselves, as well as their interpretation, are contained in the memories of the Craft; and the Grand Lodges, as the lawful representatives of the Fraternity, are alone competent to decide whether the tradition has been correctly preserved, and what is its true interpretation. Hence it is that there is no institution in which there have been so few and such unimportant controversies with respect to essential and fundamental doctrines.

In illustration of this argument, Doctor Oliver, while speaking of what he calls the Antediluvian System of Freemasonry--a part of which must necessarily have been traditional, and transmitted from father to son, and a part entrusted to symbols--makes the following observations: Such of the legends as were communicated orally would be entitled to the greatest degree of credence while those that were committed to the custody of symbols, which, it is probable, many of the collateral legends would be, were in great danger of perversion because the truth could only be ascertained by those persons who were incrusted with the secret of their interpretation. And if the symbols were of doubtful character and carried a double meaning, as many of the Egyptian Hieroglyphies of a Subsequent age actually did, the legends which then embodied might sustain very considerable alteration in sixteen or seventeen hundred years, although passing through very few hands. Maimonides (More Nevochim, chapter lXXi assigns a similar reason for the ulnas written preservation of the Oral Law. He says:

This was the perfection of wisdom in our land and by this means those evils were avoided into which it fell in succeeding times, namely the variety and perplexity of sentiments and opinions and the doubts which so commonly arise from written doctrines contained in books, besides the errors shield are easily committed by writers and copyists whence, afterwards, spring up controversies, schisms, and confusion of parties.

A second reason that may be assigned for the unwritten ritual of Freemasonry is, that by compelling the Craftsman who desires to make any progress in his profession, to commit its doctrines to memory there is a greater probability of their being thoroughly studied and understood In confirmation of this Opinion. it will, Doctor Mackey believed, be readily acknowledged by anyone whose experience is at all extensive that, as a general rule, those skillful Brethren who are technically called Bright Masons, are better acquainted with the esoteric and unwritten portion of the lectures, which they were compelled to acquire under a competent instructor, and by oral information than with that which is published in the Monitors. and, therefore, always at hand to be read.

Caesar (Belli Gallae vi, 14) thought that this was the cause of the custom among the Druids, for, after mentioning that they did not suffer their doctrines to he committed to writing, he adds: "They seem to me to have adopted this method for two reasons: that their mysteries might be hidden from the common people, and to exercise the memory of their disciples, which would be neglected if they had books on which they might rely, as, we find, is often the case."

A third reason for this unwritten doctrine of Freemasonry, and one, perhaps, most familiar to the Craft, is also alluded to by Caesar in the case of the Druids, "because they did not wish their doctrines to be divulged to the common people." Maimonides, in the conclusion of the passage which we have already quoted, makes a similar remark with respect to the oral law of the Jews. "But if," says he, "so much care was exercised that the oral law should not he written in a book and laid open to all persons, lest, peradventure, it should become corrupted and depraved, how much more caution was required that the secret interpretations of that law should not be divulged to every person, and pearls be thus thrown to swine." "Wherefore," he adds, "they were entrusted to certain private persons, and by them were transmitted to other educated men of excellent and extraordinary gifts." For this regulation he quotes the Rabbis, who say that the secrets of the law are not delivered to any person except a man of prudence and wisdom.

It is, then, for these excellent reasons--to avoid idle controversies and endless disputes; to preserve the secrets of our Order from decay; and, by increasing the difficulties by which they are to be obtained, to diminish the probability of their being forgotten; and finally, to secure them from the unhallowed gaze of the profane--that the oral instruction of Freemasonry was first instituted, and still continues to be religiously observed. Its secret doctrines are the precious jewels of the Order, and the memories of Freemasons are the well-guarded caskets in which those jewels are to be preserved with unsullied purity. Hence it is appropriately said in our instructions that "the attentive ear receives the sound from the instructive tongue, and the secrets of Freemasonry are safely lodged in the Depository of faithful breasts."

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