Sunday, February 6, 2011

The New Philalethes Magazine

I’ve got some bad news, and some good news. I have some unpleasant things to say about an American Masonic institution, and I have some high praise for that same institution. What I have to say here will doubtless step on some toes, and may bruise some egos. However, the current generation of Freemasons needs to know about a resource that it should embrace with all its heart.

Even before I became a Freemason, I had heard of the Philalethes magazine. The Philalethes Society was established in 1928 by leading Masonic scholars “who felt that the great mass of Freemasons in the United States should have more information on the fundamentals of Freemasonry,” in the words of its founding president. In my studies on Freemasonry—something I began in earnest in the early 1980s—I often came upon references to articles published in the Philalethes. And no wonder: the Fellows of the Philalethes society have included such giants of Masonic scholarship as Allen E. Roberts, Harold Van Buren Voorhis, Arthur Edward Waite, and J. S. M. Ward. (In our day, these Fellows include such contemporary masters of Masonic scholarship as Robert G. Davis, John Mauk Hilliard, Jay M. Kinney, S. Brent Morris, and Leon Zeldis.) The Society published the first issue of the Philalethes magazine in 1946, and, as the Society’s website truly claims, the Philalethes magazine “has long served as the de facto magazine for North American Freemasonry.”

Imagine my dismay, then, when I began to subscribe to the Philalethes some years ago, and found that it had fallen very far from the standard set in earlier days. I found many of the articles to be amateurishly written, the articles themselves to be uninspiring, the artwork largely mediocre. In particular, the greatest failing for me was that I did not feel that I was learning much about the inner meaning of Freemasonry through the magazine; there were interesting articles here and there about Masonic history, but my interest—much like the interest of many men entering the Fraternity in the last two decades—is in Freemasonry as a living initiatic tradition, and I found little in the magazine that fed this interest. In the words of a friend of mine, it became clear to me that “the Philalethes was no longer compelling reading” for someone with my interests. So, with regret, I let my subscription lapse.

The editors of recent eras have my sympathies. As another friend of mine put it in relation to a non-Masonic magazine that he edited some years ago, “we can only publish what people submit.” Earlier editors of the Philalethes magazine are to be commended for running articles on national and international issues such as the recognition of Prince Hall Masonry.

However, the fact of the matter is that the appetites of many Masonic readers has developed in certain directions over the last thirty years or so. Interest in what we might call the esoteric side of Freemasonry—the idea of Masonry as a truly initiatic experience that conveys timeless wisdom to today’s man—has become a very strong focus of interest for today’s Mason. Unless the mainstream Masonic press pays attention to this matter, unless knowledgeable Masonic writers help Masonic readers to take a more informed stance on these issues, then we abandon the field to the sensationalists, to poor historians, even to the paranoid fringe. Some years ago, I sorrowfully concluded that the magazine had indeed abandoned the field in just this way, and that, for Masonic light on the inner meanings of Masonry, I would need to search somewhere else.

That was then. This is now—and now is a truly wonderful place to be.

We have just seen the completion of the first six issues of the new Philalethes magazine under the editorship of brother and Editor Shawn Eyer, P.M., and I am extremely impressed with the results. I would now recommend the Philalethes magazine to any and every Freemason who is deeply interested in the inner meanings of our Masonic symbolism and initiatory experience.

First of all, the magazine itself is physically stunning: it has had a contemporary redesign that puts it on a par, visually, with the finest general interest magazines now being published. (And you are hearing this from a subscriber to The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and a raft of literary magazines, including Agni, Boulevard, n+1, and Tin House.) The artwork is inspiring, and even thought-provoking, as a perusal of the most recent six covers would suggest, such as the covers reproduced above (from the Summer 2010 and Winter 2011 issues). I only wish I could show you some of the interior art. Heck, the cover paper itself is even of higher quality than the magazine used to have.

But the real joy of the magazine is its content. I don’t know what the new editor is doing, but he has found a way to have people who have thought very deeply about Masonic symbolism and philosophy submit some great articles to him, specifically for the sections on Masonic education. For example, I am thinking of Ed Halpaus’s article, “Truth: A Masonic Meditation, and Erastus Allen’s piece, “Knowing, and Still More to Know,” both from the Fall 2009 issue. Beginning with the Winter 2010 issue a year ago, each issue typically has one article each on Masonic education specifically tailored for the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason. (What a godsend for Masonic education at one’s Stated Communications!) The new magazine features almost 20% more content, specifically to accommodate the need for better Masonic education.

The feature articles are a special delight. Readers over the past six issues have enjoyed such treasures as “The Function of Secrecy in the Work of Freemasonry” by Michael Pearce (Chair of the Art Department at California Lutheran University); the man references Iamblichus, Mircea Eliade, and Georg Simmel, for heaven’s sake—I’m in scholar heaven—but makes it all understandable to the general Masonic reader. Robert G. Davis’s article on William Preston finally clarified in my mind what this “architect of the American Craft ritual” was all about.

Editor Eyer himself has contributed some of the articles that I found most interesting. He treated with scholarship and clarity such subjects as the Mosaic pavement, the symbol of the Beehive, and the inner meaning of the symbols of the Fellow Craft’s wages (the latter article being available for free on the website).

Of especial interest to the budding Masonic scholar is a paper by Editor Eyer that is also made available for free on the Society’s website: “Writing a Masonic Paper.” Every lodge that requires its initiates to deliver papers in lodge should make this paper available to its initiates. Every Masonic lodge of research should make reference to it in an editorial.

I could go on. And on. I haven’t even touched upon most of the fascinating historical articles—the one on Thomas Paine, by Shai Afsai, was a favorite—nor the book reviews, alas. But my point should be clear: The new Philalethes is now as compelling a collection of Masonic reading as any I have ever seen. The magazine focuses on the deeper aspects of symbolism and history while avoiding both the Scylla of sensationalism and the Charybdis of superficiality. The articles are on-point, well-researched, well-written, accessible to the general Masonic reader, and serve as well-prepared food for the soul.

Could I pick nits? Sure I could. Someone left off the page numbers in the Spring 2010 issue, for example. And Editor Eyer might reconsider some of his own article titles. For example, “The Transvaluation of Status in the First Degree” (Summer 2010) is technically correct as a title for what is actually a very clear and accessible article—one which I highly recommend—about how the First Degree encourages a change in a new Mason’s personal values, but putting “transvaluation” in the title makes it sound like a poster from the Modern Language Association convention, Incomprehensible Division. This is unfortunate, because the article itself is a model of clarity, and very valuable for Masonic education.

But these are minor peccadillos. As far as I am concerned, the Philalethes is at the center of the target when it comes to reading intelligent, accessible literature about the real meaning and current relevance of our symbolism and tradition.

Let me put it this way: I had the privilege of being in charge of Masonic education in my mother lodge for eight months, until I relocated from Winter Park, Florida to New York City. I would have agreed to do outdoor door-to-door sales for a day in the August Florida heat, if that was the ordeal required to have had six issues of the new Philalethes to base my Masonic education on. The magazine is simply that valuable.

To the editor of this new Philalethes: ad multos annos, and long may you wield your editor’s pen.

You can learn more about the Philalethes Society and the Philalethes magazine on their (similarly revamped) website, which has what must be the easiest-to-remember URL in all of Masonry: .

[Disclosure: I have published in the Philalethes in its earlier incarnation, and I hope someday to publish there again. Take a look at the magazine yourself and see whether I am biased in my estimation of its current status and value.]

Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

[The images are of the covers of the Summer 2010 and Winter 2011 issues of the new Philalethes magazine; they were obtained from the Philalethes Society website.]

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