Freedom is regarded, in our century, as a precious and absolute right. That is as it should be. And, in an earlier century, the American Declaration of Independence tells us how highly freedom was prized then. ‘We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness … The founding fathers of the American republic certainly understood that liberty, freedom in an individual and in a social sense, was vital and essential. Those who have freed themselves from political, religious or military oppression have an appreciation of the value of freedom that we, living our comfortable middle-class existence in the twenty-first century, may never be able to grasp.
So let us try to examine what freedom means in a Masonic context. Whenever and wherever freedom is mentioned, there it has an immediate consonance with Freemasonry. In what dimension do we speak of Freemasonry and freedom in the same breath? Which aspects of freedom are most immediately identifiable with the pursuit of self-knowledge and moral improvement? In the process of gaining inner light, what role does freedom play? ‘Are you a free man, and of the full age of eighteen years?’ This was the first question we were asked on being admitted to the temple for initiation. At first sight this question seems incongruous. After all, we had just given up freedom. We had just been blindfolded, and we were unable to steer our course properly. We were led here and there, with no means of exercising our own freedom to determine our course. But when we answered ‘I am’, we did so in the knowledge that we were exercising the ultimate freedom, the freedom to say ‘I place myself unconditionally in the hands of the Divinity, that presence of God that I understand to underpin all Masonic pursuits. I entrust myself, not to a dogma or a creed, but to the purest Divine beneficence’. What a sense of freedom that can give us! The pursuit of moral improvement requires that, in a Masonic context, we make ourselves free of any social, career or ideological baggage we might have been carrying around, as such would impede our progress. The real question posed by the first degree is, to what extent I will allow myself to be shaped by my own selfish impulses, and to what extent shaped by the new life offered through Freemasonry. When I am able to say ‘my impulse is to go this way, but I am being asked to give up selfish impulses, so I will go that way instead’, then that offers a real freedom, a freedom from selfish indulgence.